"Do you need…" Valerius had choked on the last of the sentence. He had wanted to help Zarek up, but knew they would both be punished if anyone saw him do such a thing.
"What are you doing?"
His father’s angry voice caused him to jump. "I-I-Iwas l-l-looking at his back," he answered honestly.
His father had narrowed his eyes on him. "Why?"
"I was c-c-curious." Valerius hated how he always stuttered around his father.
"Why? Do you think it hurts him?"
Valerius had been too afraid to answer. His father had had that dead look that often came into his eyes. A look that meant the kind, loving father he knew was gone and the brutal military commander was there instead.
As much as he loved his father, he feared the military commander, who was capable of most any act of coldblooded ruthlessness, even against his own sons.
"Answer me, boy. Do you think it hurts him?"
"Do you care if it hurts him?"
Valerius had blinked back his tears before they betrayed him. The truth was he did care, but he knew his father would fly into a rage if he ever dared breathe that aloud. "N-n-no. I don’t c-c-care."
"Then prove it."
Valerius blinked, suddenly afraid of what that meant. "Prove it?"
His father had retrieved the whip from the stand and handed it to him. "Give him ten more lashes, or I will see you given twenty."
Heartsick and with his hand shaking, Valerius had taken the whip and delivered the lashes.
Unused to wielding a whip, he had missed Zarek’s back entirely. His lashes landed on Zarek’s unscarred arms and legs. Virgin flesh that had never been beaten before.
For the first time Zarek had hissed and recoiled from the lashes. So much so that the last lash ended up cutting across Zarek’s face, right below his brow.
Zarek had screamed, cupping his eye as blood poured from between his dirty fingers.
Valerius had wanted to vomit as he heard his father praise him for blinding the slave’s eye.
His father had actually patted him on the back. "That’s it, my son. Always strike where they’re most vulnerable. You’ll make a fine general one day."
Zarek had looked up at him then and the emptiness was gone. The right side of his face had been covered in blood, but with his left eye, Zarek had conveyed all the pain and anguish he felt. All the hatred that was directed both inward and out.
That look was seared inside Valerius to this day.
His father had beaten Zarek again for the insolence of that glare.
No wonder Zarek hated them all. The man was entitled to it. More so now that Valerius knew the truth of Zarek’s parentage.
He wondered when Zarek had learned the truth. Why no one had ever told him.
Angry, Valerius gripped the stone bust of their father.
"Why?" he demanded, knowing he’d never have an answer now.
And right then he hated his father more than ever. Hated the blood that flowed through his veins.
But at the end of the day, he was Roman.
It was his heritage.
Right or wrong, he couldn’t deny it.
Lifting his head high, he retreated from the foyer to his bedroom upstairs.
But as he ascended the steps, he lashed out one last time.
Turning around, he kicked his leg out, catching the pedestal.
The bust of his father toppled against the stone marble floor and shattered.
NEW ORLEANS, THAT AFTERNOON
Zarek leaned back as the helicopter took off. He was going home.
No doubt he would die there.
If Artemis didn’t kill him, he was sure Dionysus would. Dionysus’s threat rang in his ears. For Sunshine’s happiness, he had crossed a god who was sure to make him suffer even worse horrors than those in his past.
Zarek still didn’t know why he’d done it, other than the fact that pissing people off was the only thing that truly gave him pleasure.
His gaze fell to his backpack.
Before he knew what he was doing, he took the handmade bowl out and held it in his hands.
He ran his hands over the intricate designs that Sunshine had carved. She had probably spent hours on this bowl.
Caressed it with loving hands…
"They waste their time over a rag doll and it becomes very important to them; and if anybody takes it away from them, they cry…"
The passage from The Little Prince ran through his mind. Sunshine had wasted much of her time on this and given him her work. She probably had no idea just how much her simple gift had touched him.
"You really are pathetic," he breathed, clutching the bowl in his hand as he curled his lip in repugnance. "It meant nothing to her and for a worthless piece of clay you just consigned yourself to death."
Closing his eyes, he swallowed. It was true.
One more time, he was going to die for nothing.
Let him die. Maybe then he would find some kind of solace.
Angered at his own stupidity, Zarek splintered the bowl with his thoughts. Pulling out his MP3 player, he scrolled to Nazareth’s Hair of the Dog, put his headphones on, and waited for Mike to lighten the windows of the helicopter and let the lethal sunlight in on him.
It was, after all, what Dionysus had paid the Squire to do.
Screams surrounded Styxx, piercing the blackness. He tried his best to see something and saw only the strange pinpoint ghost-lights of eyes that were desperate to be of use.
This place was cold. Icy. He felt his way along a craggy rock only to learn he was encased in a small, six-by-six-foot cell. There wasn’t even enough room for him to lie down comfortably.
Suddenly, a light appeared beside him. It faded to form a young, beautiful woman with dark red hair, fair skin, and the green, swirling eyes of a goddess. He knew her instantly.
She was Mnimi, the goddess of memory. He’d seen her likeness countless times in temples and on scrolls.
She held an old-fashioned oil lamp in her hand as she studied him closely.
"Where am I?" Styxx asked.
Her voice was faint and gentle, like a breeze whispering through crystal leaves. "You are in Tartarus."
Styxx swallowed his outrage. When he had died aeons ago in ancient Greece, he had been placed in the paradise of the Elysian Fields.
Tartarus was where Hades banished the evil souls he wished to torture.
"I don’t belong here."
"Where do you belong?" she asked.
"I belong with my family."
Her eyes were tinged by sadness as she regarded him. "They have all been reborn. The only family you have left now is the brother you hate."
"He is not my brother. He was never my brother."
She cocked her head as if listening to something far away from them. "Strange. Acheron never felt that way about you. No matter the times you were cruel to him, he never hated you."
"I don’t care what he feels."
"True," she said as if she knew his innermost thoughts, as if she knew him better than he knew himself.
"Honestly, I don’t understand you, Styxx. For centuries, you were given the Vanishing Isle as your home. You had friends and every luxury known. It was as peaceful and beautiful there as the Elysian Fields, and yet all you did was plot more vengeance against Acheron. I gave you memories of your beautiful home and family, of your peaceful and happy childhood to comfort you and instead of gaining pleasure from them you used them to fuel your hatred."
"Do you blame me? He stole everything from me. Everything I ever hoped for or loved. Because of him my family is dead, my kingdom gone. Even my life ended because of him."
"No," she said softly. "You can lie to yourself, Styxx, but not to me. It was you who betrayed your brother. You and your father. You let your fear of him blind you. It was your own actions that condemned not only him, but yourself as well."
"What do you know of it? Acheron is evil. Unclean. He defiles everything he touches."
She danced her fingers through the lamp’s flame, making it flicker eerily in the darkness of the small cell. All the while her eyes burned him with their intensity. "That is the beauty of memory, isn’t it? Our reality is always clouded by our perceptions of truth. You remember events one way and so you judge your brother without knowledge of how things were to him."
Mnimi placed a hand on his shoulder. The heat of it seared his skin and when she spoke her low tone sounded evil, insidious. "I am about to give you the most precious of gifts, Styxx. At long last, you will have understanding."
Styxx tried to run, but couldn’t.
Mnimi’s fiery touch held him immobile.
His head spun as he rushed back in time.
He saw his beautiful mother lying on her gilded bed, her body covered in sweat, her face ashen, as an attendant brushed her damp, blond hair from her pale blue eyes. He’d never known his mother to appear more joy-filled than she did that day.
The room was crowded with court officials and his father, the king, stood to the side of the bed with his heads of state. The long, stained-glass windows were open, letting the fresh sea air offer relief to the heat of the late summer day.
"It is another beautiful boy," the midwife happily proclaimed, wrapping the newborn infant in a blanket.
"By sweet Apollymi’s hand, Aara, you’ve done me proud!" his father said as a loud jubilant shout echoed through the room. "Twin boys to rule over our twin isles!"
Laughing, his mother watched as the midwife cleaned the firstborn.
It was then Styxx learned the true horror of Acheron’s birth, learned the dark secret his father had hidden from him.
Acheron was the firstborn son. Not him.
Styxx, who was now in Acheron’s infant body, struggled to breathe through his newborn lungs. He had finally taken a deep, clear breath when he heard a cry of alarm.
"Zeus have mercy, the eldest is malformed, Majesties."
His mother looked up, her brow creased by worry. "How so?"
The midwife carried him over to his mother, who held the second-born babe to her breast.
Scared, the baby wanted only to be comforted. He reached for the brother who had shared the womb with him these past months. If he could just touch his brother, all would be right. He knew it.
Instead, his mother pulled his brother away, out of his sight and reach. "It cannot be," his mother sobbed. "He is blind."
"Not blind, Majesty," the eldest wisewoman said as she stepped forward, through the crowd. Her white robes were heavily embroidered with gold threads, and she wore an ornate gold wreath over her faded gray hair. "He was sent to you by the gods."
The king narrowed his eyes angrily at the queen. "You were unfaithful?" he accused Aara.
"Then how is it he came from your loins? All of us here witnessed it."
The room as a whole looked to the wisewoman, who stared blankly at the tiny, helpless baby crying for someone to hold him and offer him solace. Warmth.
"He will be a destroyer, this child," she said, her ancient voice loud and ringing so that all could hear her proclamation. "His touch will bring death to many. Not even the gods themselves will be safe from his wrath."
"Then kill him now." The king ordered his guard to draw his sword and slay the baby.
"Nay!" the wisewoman said, halting the guard before he could carry out the king’s will. "Kill this infant and your son dies as well, Majesty. Their life forces are combined. ‘Tis the will of the gods that you should raise him to manhood."
The baby sobbed, not understanding the fear he sensed from those around him. All he wanted was to be held as his brother was being held. For someone to cuddle him and tell him that all would be fine.
"I will not raise a monster," the king said.
"You have no choice." The wisewoman took the baby from the midwife and offered it to the queen. "He was born of your body, Majesty. He is your son."
The baby squalled even louder, reaching again for his mother. She cringed away from him, clutching her second-born even tighter than before. "I will not suckle it. I will not touch it. Get it away from my sight."
The wisewoman took the child to his father. "And what of you, Majesty? Will you not acknowledge him?"
"Never. That child is no son of mine."
The wisewoman took a deep breath and presented the infant to the room. Her grip was loose, with no love or compassion evident in her touch.
"Then he will be called Acheron for the river of woe. Like the river of the underworld, his journey shall be dark, long, and enduring. He will be able to give life and to take it. He will walk through his life alone and abandoned-ever seeking kindness and ever finding cruelty."
The wisewoman looked down at the infant in her hands and uttered the simple truth that would haunt the boy for the rest of his existence. "May the gods have mercy on you, little one. No one else ever will."
As Ash approached Artemis’s sacred temple, he opened the oversized double doors with his thoughts.
With his head held high, he gripped the padded strap of his black suede backpack and forced himself to walk through the ornate, gilded doorway into Artemis’s throne room where she sat listening to one of her women play a lute and sing.
Nine pairs of feminine eyes turned to stare at him curiously.