Authors: Sherrilyn Kenyon
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“How do they look?”
The daeve demon, Caleb Malphas, turned away from the sparring soldiers at the delicate, emotionless voice of the goddess he served. As was her wont, she'd appeared silently and suddenly behind himâsomething that was always disconcerting to a warrior who didn't like anyone or anything at his back.
With long, dark brown hair, flawless skin, and vivid greenish-gold eyes, Bathymaas was exquisitely beautiful, but as cold-blooded as any creature he'd ever known. The embodiment of justice, she wasn't supposed to have any type of emotion or feeling.â¦
And she didn't. However, she was as kind as she was ruthless, and fair beyond his comprehension.
Malphas glanced back at the four soldiers who were training in the large arena in front of him. “Not bad. They might actually survive a few battles.”
His dark humor was lost on a goddess who had no understanding of it. Luckily, she didn't get sarcasm, either, therefore she never took offense to his. It made serving her a lot less painful for him, and it was the primary reason he'd agreed to help her assemble her team of elite protectors who would be charged with keeping her peoples safe.
She brushed a stray piece of hair back from her face. “We still need two more to represent the Atlanteans. Have you any suggestions?”
“There's an Atlantean champion who's been making a name for himself during games and festivals. Galenus of Didimosia. I was planning to test and then invite him to join our merry crew later today.”
“Have you seen him fight?”
Malphas nodded. “Two days ago. He beat back six larger opponents at one time, during an exhibition match. He is impressive, and given the way he savored the fight and victory, he should make a good addition to our group.”
“May I go with you?”
“Of course, my lady. I would be highly honored.”
Inclining her head to him, she walked away with a grace that would rival his own beloved Lilliana's. That comparison made him involuntarily flinch as vivid memories surged to stab him with painful regrets. Unwilling to go there with his thoughts, Malphas returned to the men he was training to protect this fragile world from the very kind of tragedy he, himself, had gone through.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
You should have
been there, brother. It was incredible! They came at me like giant mountainous beasts, wanting only my blood and bones to eat, and I beat them back, single-handedly. When I won the fightÂ â¦ this incredible shout went up through the amphitheater like raucous thunder.” Cupping his hands around his mouth, Galenus demonstrated the sound.
Aricles smiled at his twin's exuberance while Galenus went on to illustrate his expert sword skills that had won his tournament two days ago. “You know what would really impress me, Galen?”
His brother froze with a frown in the middle of his mock sword stroke. “What?”
“Help with laying down the fertilizer in my field.”
Galenus scoffed indignantly as he climbed up on the fence and grimaced. “How can you stand it here? I hate farming and tending animals and fields.â¦ You should come with me next time and participate in the games. Together we'd be invincibleÂ â¦ and win enough money to make the king himself look like a pauper.”
Aricles paused to wipe the sweat from his brow with his forearm before he cut the cord on a fresh batch of manure. Unlike his brother, who was dressed in noble finery to rival a prince's chiton and chlamys, he was shirtless with only a short brown breechcloth and worn leather shoes to cover him while he worked. Even so, sweat rolled down his back and plastered his short, reddish-brown hair to his head. “It's not so bad here. Father needs the help.”
“Bah! He has plenty of servants for that. Why work us like dogs in the heat of summer? We were born to be better than this.”
Disagreeing completely, Aricles hoisted the barrel up on his shoulder to carry it to where he'd left off covering the plants. “There's nothing wrong or undignified about a good day's labor. You should try it sometime.”
“Says the man covered in cow shit.”
Aricles threw a handful of it at his brother. It landed in the middle of his chest, staining his stark white chiton.
“Ugh! That's disgusting, Ari! I can't believe you did that.”
Laughing, Aricles began spreading it around the sprouting plants. He'd never understand his brother's love of or need for war. Personally, he hated conflict and fighting. He'd much rather create and build than kill and destroy. Conquest and battle games didn't appeal to him in the slightest way. The only reason a man should ever pick up a sword was to protect those he loved, not to willfully take the life of someone else's beloved.
Still sputtering in fury, Galenus stormed off.
“One day, Galen,” Aricles called after him, “you're going to learn to love farming. I promise you!”
“Should that day ever come, I hope Misos spears my idiot head to the wall!” he shouted back as he went to wash, and change clothes.
“It never ceases to amaze me how the two of you can look so much alike and be so different in disposition and manner. It's as if you're night and day to each other.”
That's because Aricles had purposely shouldered responsibility very early in his life so that Galen wouldn't have to.
Aricles straightened as his father joined him and offered him a cup of water. Grateful, he drank it down in one gulp. “Galen's not so bad, Father. He's a good man, with a great heart.”
“He needs that wildness inside him tamed before it leads to his utter destruction. Out of my three sons, he is the one who keeps me up at night with worry. As well as the fact that Perseus idolizes him so. I fear one day, he will follow his older brother to war and I'll lose the two of them.”
“I wouldn't have that fear. Perseus would never leave his beloved Julia for war.”
His father smiled and patted him on his bare shoulder. “I never thought of that, and you're right. He'd sooner die than leave her. Thank you for setting my mind at ease.” His father took the cup from him. “Now if I could only get my eldest son interested in a woman.â¦”
Aricles didn't comment as he went back to fertilizing the plants. Though his father didn't know it, he'd been in love, too, at Perseus's age. And his heart had been crushed when he'd stumbled upon her in the woods, having sex with another man. Even though the two of them had been privately courting for several months, he hadn't stolen so much as a single kiss for fear of dishonoring her. He'd thought her perfection, and she'd laughed in his face at his courtesy.
I need a man's love, not a fool's.
Since then, he hadn't gone near another woman. He left them to his twin, who held as much regard for their hearts and feelings as Claudia had held for his. If he wanted to be mocked and ridiculed, he had brothers for that. He didn't need a woman to do it, too.
He looked up at Gideon's alarmed cry to see a band of seven demons flying toward the servant and his father. Ari's heart pounding, he glanced about for Galen. But his brother was still off washing and had no clue they were under attack.
Aricles dashed to the fence to grab a long wooden stake and his brother's xiphos. Using the stake as a javelin, he threw it at the demon closest to reaching his father who was running back toward him while the demon flapped its massive wings and licked its black lips. The stake struck the demon in the center of its chest. The demon fell to the ground with an echoing shriek as it died.
As fast as he could, he crossed the field to fight back the remaining six. By the looks of them, they were Charonteâone of the fiercest of the demon breeds. And unfortunately, humans and Atlanteans were their food of choice.
Aricles dodged their foul claws and managed to avoid their fangs as he fought them with everything he had. Sad for the demons that he shared his brother's fighting prowess. He might not enjoy swordplay and killing, but he was damn good at it. Within a handful of minutes, he had the demons lying in pieces on the ground.
The sight of their remains sickened him, as did the blood on his hands and body.
His father embraced him. “Thank the gods you were here.”
“Thank Galen for leaving his xiphos behind while he went to wash.” Aricles grimaced in distaste. “And speaking of, I'll be back to help with their carcasses as soon as I clean up.”
Repulsed by the needless waste, he headed for the stream that ran through the middle of their property.
He'd just begun washing himself when a bright light flashed in front of him. Grabbing Galen's sword, he hesitated as he saw a beautiful woman in a long white peplos, and a man dressed in black.
“Rest easy.” The man held his hands out to show that he wasn't here to battle. “We just wanted to talk to you for a few minutes.”
Aricles lowered the sword, but kept it in his hand. “About?”
“I would like to recruit you.” The woman's voice was soft and melodic. Soothing. A perfect match for her tall, ethereal beauty.
The man laughed. “You're not one to waste words, are you?”
“Malphas,” the woman chided. “You're not helping.”
“Forgive me, goddess.”
Now her beauty made total sense. But what would one of them want with a simple farmer? He couldn't fathom it.
Bathymaas studied the man in the stream. Tall and well muscled, he looked as fierce washing as he had fighting Malphas's demons. His reddish-brown hair was cropped short in back and longer in front. And while he was very handsome, it was his intelligent blue eyes that were searing. “Are you aware of the war that has broken out, Atlantean?”
He frowned. “What war?”
Malphas crossed his arms over his chest. “Are you familiar with the term âChthonian'?”
Aricles shook his head.
It was the goddess who explained. “They are a handful of humans, Atlanteans, or Apollites who are born with the powers of a god so that they can protect their people from the gods who would abuse or take advantage of them. Each is endowed with the ability to slay a god and not upset the order of the universe or destroy it. But for every god they kill, they lose a degree of their own power. If they slay too many gods, they die.”