"Beautiful Charonte," he said in her native tongue, his voice so deep it resonated through her bones. "Tell me why you’ve come on behalf of your mistress when you know I don’t barter for the gods?"
Xiamara let her wings flutter back and open in a sign of trust-even if she kept them clenched to her body, Jaden would still be able to rip them off if he so chose. "Because I love Apollymi and I’m here not as her representative, but to make a bargain with you for me."
He arched a brow at her words. "How so?"
"I know you can’t take her life or bargain with her. So I come to you as an unbound demon . . . on my own and of my own free will to bargain with you for what she wants."
He leaned against the tree with one knee cocked forward and folded his arms over his chest. "What do you offer me, demon?"
"My soul. My life. Whatever it takes for you to unite Apollymi with her son . . . at least so long as it’s not the life or freedom of one of my own children."
His eyes narrowed as he considered her offer. "You’re bonded to Apollymi."
Yes and no. "I’m bonded in friendship and in love, not by slavery. We have been together since childhood and it was before my kind were enslaved to hers."
Jaden let out a long breath. "And what of your Simi? Do you not fear for her without her mother here to protect her?"
Xiamara blinked away her tears at the thought of her youngest growing up without her. "I know Apollymi will see that she has all the best in this world. I have raised two simis to adulthood. Apollymi only has one child. No mother should be without her simi-not even a goddess. I would give her the one thing she wants most."
Jaden jumped down from the tree to land gracefully before her. He was so tall that she had to crane her neck slightly to look up at him. "Do you know how rare it is to be asked for so altruistic a bargain, especially in the name of friendship and not kinship?"
He trailed one icy cold finger down the side of her face. "Are you truly willing to die to give your friend five minutes with her son?"
"If that is what you ask, yes."
He dropped his hand. His soulless eyes betrayed no emotion or any indication of his mood. "I’ll have to fully consider this. Give me until tomorrow night to decide. You’ll have my answer then."
She sank to one knee before him. "Thank you, akri. Xiamara will await your decision."
He faded into the wind.
Xiamara rose and returned to Apollymi to let her know that Jaden was contemplating the bargain. What she would never tell her were the exact terms they were negotiating.
Acheron tipped his goblet back, drained it, then cursed before he threw it against the wall. He’d drunk enough that he should be blind from intoxication. Yet he was stone sober. Not even his drugs would work on him.
His entire being had been altered.
Damn it all!
He felt the air stirring over his skin. Frowning, he watched as Artemis materialized in front of him.
Acheron lifted a brow in surprise. "I wasn’t expecting to see you . . . ever again."
A small smile played at the edges of her lips as she looked at him shyly. "I know. I wanted to apologize for what I said to you earlier. I was wrong."
Every sense in his body went on alert. "You’re apologizing to me?"
She nodded as she approached his bed, then climbed on it to rest beside him. "I’ve even brought you a peace offering."
"A peace offering?"
She handed him a small covered bowl.
Scowling even more, he opened it to find a yellow sticky fruit substance. Never had he seen anything like it. "What’s this?"
"Ambrosia. Food of the gods."
He lifted the bowl to smell it. It was sharp and tangy with something else that was invitingly delectable. "Why would you bring this to me?"
"You’re a god now. You should eat as we do." Her expression tender, she stroked his thigh and looked up at him from underneath her lashes. "Even I eat it-it’s delicious."
Compelled by something he couldn’t explain or deny, he picked a portion of it up and sampled it. It was much sweeter than it had smelled. Artemis was right. He’d never tasted anything better.
At least that was his thought until the room started to spin. His eyelids were suddenly heavy and his muscles weak, his breathing labored. In an instant he recognized the biological effects. Rage set fire to his blood as all the years of being drugged against his will rushed to the forefront of his mind.
"You drugged me!"
She bolted from the bed. "Forgive me, Acheron."
Of all the things she’d done to him . . . this betrayal sliced him most fiercely. "What have you done?"
Artemis didn’t speak as she watched him turn from human to blue and back again.
He tried to reach her, but she made sure to keep her distance until he’d passed out. There was no telling what he would have done to her had he seized her. As he collapsed on the floor, she finally let out a breath in relief.
Leave it to Hypnos to make the one concoction that not even gods were immune to. She’d been terrified that it wouldn’t work on Acheron.
Thank Zeus that it had.
Her hand shaking, she pulled the dagger from its concealed sheath on her thigh. Hephaestus had forged it on Olympus and like the drug, it too would work on a god. She’d even coated the blade with Titan blood just to be sure. One slice and Acheron would be dead.
Biting her lip, she stood over his perfect, nak*d body that was sprawled sideways and watched as he breathed ever so slightly. His blond hair fell over the handsome features of his face, making him look almost boyish and harmless in his repose.
She remembered the times those full lips had pleasured her. The flash of happiness in his silver eyes when he looked at her. But that was when he’d been human. Now he was a threat not only to her, but to every god on Olympus.
One cut . . .
His throat was exposed, just waiting for her. But as she moved to severe his carotid, an image of him laughing with her went through her mind.
"I love you, Artie."
No one had ever loved her. Not like him. Acheron had never hurt her. He didn’t demand. He only asked.
And he gave freely of himself . . .
Kill him, damn you! Do it!
Artemis gripped the knife tightly. She lifted it with every intention of stabbing him. But she couldn’t. Over and over, images of him played through her mind.
Acheron loved her and she loved him.
Sobbing, she dropped the knife and placed her head on his chest. As a man, he’d exposed her and threatened her in a way no one else ever had. As a god, he threatened the very existence of her pantheon. She needed to be rid of him.
But she couldn’t.
Furious over her own weakness, she put him back in bed. She traced the line of his jaw and wanted to weep. She would have to do something.
Maybe she could find one of the other gods to kill him . . .
Acheron heard someone scream out. The sound was horrifying and gut wrenching. It echoed through his room. Rolling over in bed, he tried to get up, but couldn’t. The drug Artemis had given him was still pressing down on him. He had no control over his body at all.
Then he heard Apollodorus crying.
"Theo! Appie need theo! Mama! Mama come to Appie. Mama!"
Acheron wanted to go to the baby, but he couldn’t. His head was swimming viciously and even the subtlest movement made him queasy.
"I’ll be there tomorrow, akribos," he whispered to his nephew before he passed out again.
And still the screams echoed in his drugged stupor.
June 25, 9527 BC
Acheron came awake to the sound of ultimate grief. Someone was wailing as if their heart was splintered. Blinking open his eyes, he found the sun bright, streaming through his open windows.
His head pounding in agony, he pushed himself up in bed, but almost fell as his stomach lurched sharply. He hadn’t awakened this sick since he’d left Estes’s home. It felt as if he’d overdosed on something.
There in the blinding light, he remembered her "gift." More than that, he remembered her holding a knife over him as she debated whether or not she should kill him.
"You f**king bitch," he snarled.
An instant later, his doors were thrown open. The sound echoed so sharply in his head that it made him flinch and made his head pound even more. "Not so loud," he whispered.
The next thing he knew, Styxx had him by the throat. He shoved him back on the bed to straddle him. "Are you drunk?"
Acheron shook his head.
Styxx backhanded him. He pulled the arc of herbs from the table next to the bed and flung it into Acheron’s face. "You worthless whore. You lie in here on your drugs and drink while my sister was murdered!" Styxx punched him again and again.
Acheron tried to block the hits, but his muscles and reactions were still sluggish from Artemis’s drugs. It took a full minute for those words to permeate the fog in his mind. "What did you say?"
"Ryssa’s dead, you bastard!"
No! The denial echoed in his head. It wasn’t right. Styxx was being an ass.
Surely not even the gods who hated him would do this to him.
Shoving Styxx away, Acheron forced himself out of bed and staggered down the hallway to Ryssa’s rooms. Oblivious to the fact he was nak*d, he walked in to find the king holding Ryssa in his arms. She looked like a doll. Her face was blue, and her body . . .
He choked on what he saw. She’d been ripped to pieces. Her face and body ravaged by something that looked like large claws. There was blood all over the bed and floor. Falling to his knees, Acheron couldn’t breathe or even think past the agony of what he saw.
Ryssa was dead.
And it was then, there on the floor before him that he saw Apollodorus and the nurse. Both bloody. Both dead.
Acheron banged his head against the stone floor, trying his best to clear the fog in his mind. To feel something other than the shattering of his heart.
"I heard them . . ." he whispered as the reality of last night slammed into him with fists more powerful than any that had hit him before.
Damn you, Artemis! He had the powers of a god, but not the power to come and save the only two people who’d ever loved him. And why? Because that whore had drugged him!
He screamed out in anguish.
At that instant, in his mind, he saw the entire event unfold. Saw the ones who’d come into the room from the windows and slaughtered them. He heard Ryssa screaming out for his help.
Heard Apollodorus again begging for his uncle . . .
Suddenly, something slammed into his ribs. The force of the blow knocked him to his side. Looking up, he saw Styxx’s furious face as he kicked him in the stomach. Then his twin was on the ground, slamming his head against the stone floor over and over again.
"Why wasn’t it you, you worthless maggot!"
Acheron couldn’t even think to protect himself. In that moment, he wanted to die too. There was no reason for him to live. Ryssa and Apollodorus were gone.
Even Artemis had tried to kill him.
Impotent rage roiled through him. Roaring from the force of it, he shoved Styxx away from him, but before he could regain his feet a bright light exploded through the room. Acheron lifted his arm to shield his eyes as Apollo manifested.
There was complete silence as the god looked slowly around the room taking in every detail. Even the king had stopped crying in expectation of the god’s reaction.
Apollo didn’t speak as he saw Ryssa lying dead in her father’s arms and his son’s lifeless body still in the arms of his savaged nurse.
"Who did this?" Apollo demanded through clenched teeth.
Styxx pointed to Acheron. "He let them die."
Before Acheron could think to deny those words, Apollo spun on him and hit him with his fist so hard that it lifted him from the ground and slammed him into the wall ten feet above the floor.
Acheron fell to the ground, his body aching. Apollo grabbed him by the hair and wrenched his head. Acheron tried to push him away, but his muscles were still too weak.
The god backhanded him. Blood and pain exploded as his nose was broken and his lips split. The god set on him with such fury that Acheron couldn’t even recover from one blow before two more were delivered to him.
"Artemis!" Acheron shouted, needing her to help calm her brother.
"Don’t you dare say my sister’s name, you filthy whore!" Apollo grabbed a dagger from his waist and snatched at Acheron’s tongue. He sliced it off.
Acheron choked on the blood that poured through his mouth. Unimaginable pain throbbed to the point all he could think was to try and crawl away from Apollo.
But Apollo grabbed him by the throat in a grip so searing it burned the god’s handprint into his skin.
"Akri! Ni!" Xiamara’s cries filled the room as she appeared above him and dove for Apollo. She knocked the god back from him and put herself between them.
"Out of my way, demon," Apollo demanded.
Her response was to launch herself at the god. The two of them tangled in a flurry of light and feathers as they pounded each other.
Tears filled Acheron’s eyes as he fought against the pain that was trying to drag him into unconsciousness. His only thought to kill Apollo, he crawled to where the god’s knife had fallen. His own blood coated the blade. With a fury born of grief and all the years where he’d been abused, Acheron seized it and spun on the combatants.