July 20, 12,252 BC
“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 him——something 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. . . .
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.
“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 fight . . . 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. . . . You should come with me next time and participate in the games. Together we’d be invincible . . . 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. . . .”
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 Charonte——one 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.”
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 ‘Chthonian’?”
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.”
“And unfortunately, they got crossed up and have been going at each other’s throats for almost a year now.”
The goddess nodded. “There is no one who can protect their peoples while they war, and certain groups are taking advantage of their lax attention to prey on innocents. That is why I’m assembling a team that can temporarily take over their protection duties until the Chthonians come to their senses.”
Aricles narrowed his eyes as he understood why they were here. “You want me to fight for you?”
Aricles laughed at the very idea. “No, thank you. I’m not a soldier. I’m a farmer.”
Malphas snorted. “Then why were you in an arena fight two days ago?”
“I wasn’t. You saw my brother.”
“That was your brother?” Malphas asked suspiciously.
“Yes. Galenus. I am Aricles.”
Malphas looked even more confused. “But you’re the one who fought off the demons just now.”
He shrugged. “Galen and I learned and practiced together. But he’s the one who loves the xiphos, not me.”
Malphas smiled at the goddess. “I think we found our last two.”
Aricles shook his head. “No, you haven’t.”
Malphas stepped forward, but the goddess stopped him.
“Go find this Galenus and ask him to join us. I want to speak to Aricles alone.”
“Yes, my goddess.” Malphas vanished without question.
Aricles left the stream and dried himself with the towel he’d left on the bank. “If you think you can change my mind, my lady . . . you can’t. I want nothing to do with war.”
“Do you know who I am?”
“Diafonia, Apollymi, Symfora . . .” He named all the warring goddesses of the Atlantean pantheon. “None of it matters to me.”
“I am Bathymaas, the embodiment of all justice. My role in this world is simple——to maintain the balance between right and wrong. To hold it sacred and make sure that neither side squashes the other. I’m sure you can respect that.”
“Then fight for me.”
Shaking his head, he started past her.
She placed a gentle hand on his arm to stop him. “Please, Aricles. The gods have given you an amazing gift and skill. Who better to wield a xiphos for me than a man who takes no love or glory of war? Unlike others, you won’t fight for the sake of it, but for the right reasons.”
He wanted to say no to her. But as he looked into those green-tinged, golden eyes and felt the warmth of her hand on his flesh, he lost himself to her wiles. The saddest part? She wasn’t even using them on him.
And still he wanted to bury his face against her hair and inhale the sweet scent of her. He’d never been so drawn to any woman. Not even Claudia.
She’s not a woman.
No, she was a goddess.
And he was nothing more than a simple, backwoods farmer.
“So what say you, good Aricles? Will you represent your people and be a champion for me for the good of all?”
He wanted to say no. Desperately. But his heart locked down his common sense as a desire to make the goddess smile answered for him. “Who am I to fight the will of the gods?”
“Aricles! You’ll never guess what . . .” Galen’s words faded as he broke through the trees to see Bathymaas with him. He arched a curious brow.
Bathymaas turned toward Galen, but didn’t react physically. “You’re twins.”
Aricles gave her a wry grin. “Since birth.”
Malphas laughed, but Bathymaas’s expression didn’t change at all. “You’ll have to forgive the goddess. She doesn’t understand humor, or any emotion, for that matter.”
Those words shocked him. “Truly?”
Bathymaas nodded. “Now, if you’ll collect your things, we will take you to your new home.”
Galen let out a jubilant shout while Aricles cringed. His father wouldn’t be happy with this, he knew it, and when they returned to the small stone cottage where they’d been born, he was proven right.
“I won’t have it!” their father snarled while they packed their meager belongings. “I need at least one of you here.”
“Father,” Galen breathed. “You don’t understand what an honor this is. We were hand-selected by the goddess herself. We have to honor the gods and their will, is that not what you’ve always taught us?”
Their father turned tormented blue eyes to Aricles, imploring him to stay.
“I can keep Galen safe so long as I’m with him. I’ll make sure he comes home to you in one piece.”
His father cradled the back of Aricles’s head in his hand and pulled him into his embrace. “My sons are all I have in this world. I could not bear to live if I lost one of you.”
“We will be careful. Even if I have to hogtie Galen.”
His father kissed each of his cheeks then moved to do the same with his brother. “I always knew I’d lose you to Misos, but I’d hoped to have more years with you before you left for war. A score of years just isn’t enough. Take care of your brother, Galen. Let no harm befall him or you.”
“I will, Papsi.” His eyes gleaming with joy and eagerness, Galen grabbed his sword and pack, and headed for the door.
Aricles sighed as he swept his gaze around the room he’d shared with Galen and Perseus, who was off with his Julia. At ten-and-six, his baby brother was as much a slave to his heart as Galen was to his libido. He hated that he wouldn’t have a chance to say good-bye to him. “Tell Perseus I will miss him and to not dawdle with his lessons.”
His father smiled. “Take care, m’gios.”
“And you, Papsi.” Aricles hugged him one last time before he followed Galen to where the goddess and her servant waited for them.
“You look like you haven’t had a bowel movement in a month,” Malphas said as soon as he saw him.
Scowling, Aricles wasn’t sure what to make of the man who would be their trainer and commander.
Galen snorted. “He always looks that way. He was born constipated.” His brother reached for him. “Come, Ari, be young for once in your life.”
“I tried your recklessness once and found it exhausting. Melancholy suits me just fine.”
Malphas laughed. “So where’s your xiphos?”
“I don’t have one.”
“He always uses a piece of wood to spar with me.”
Grunting his displeasure, Malphas inclined his head to his goddess. “I guess we’re ready.”
One moment they were out in the woods, and in the next, they were inside a temple the likes of which Aricles had never seen. Made of solid gold, it glistened all around him. Bright-colored images and geometric designs were painted all over the gold.
“Where are we?” he asked.
The goddess folded her hands in front of her. “Thebes, in Egypt. This is my main temple. My father’s is next door.”
Aricles’s eyes widened. While he knew few gods outside of his native Atlantean pantheon, Set was one everyone knew. Said to be the most ferocious god in existence, the god of chaos even terrified his own family. “I didn’t think he could have children.”
“I wasn’t born to him. I was created for him.”
“I don’t understand.”
Malphas snorted. “After Set had a little emotional breakdown that cost several gods their body parts and lives, the primal Source decided they needed to give him something else to focus on and make him happy.” He gestured to Bathymaas. “What better than a beautiful, emotionless daughter to watch over?”
Galen flashed a grin to Aricles. “What better, indeed?”
Malphas passed a look of warning to Galen. “Put it back in your loincloth, punkin’. Our goddess is a virgin and is to remain so. She wouldn’t even know what to do with a kiss so don’t try for one unless you want to meet the bad end of my sword and her father’s fury.”
Galen grimaced. “Pity, and noted.”
Malphas led them to a room where four other men were lounging about. “Welcome to the Eperon We have two warriors from each mortal race.” He jerked his chin to the two men who were dicing. One was a mountainous beast who made a mockery of the brothers’ six-foot-six stature. For that matter, one of his beefy arms was easily the same diameter as Bathymaas’s waist. He wore his long golden-blond hair braided down his back. The other was well muscled, too, and probably stood two to three inches taller than the brothers. His white-blond hair was cropped short and he had a full beard. “Representing the Apollite race we have Haides.” He was the larger of the two. “And Hector.”
They exchanged pleasantries as Malphas indicated the man on his bed, who was reading a scroll. He had black hair and eyes and a full shaggy beard that was the same length as his hair. “Our humans are the philosophical Monokles, and,” he gestured to the one who was sharpening his sword, “Phelix.” He had bright red hair that fell just past his ears.
Malphas clapped Galen on his shoulder. “Warriors, meet our Atlanteans. Galen and Aricles.”
Haides narrowed his eyes on them. “How do we tell them apart?”
Galen grinned. “I’m the one who’s actually alive and likes to partake of fun activities. Aricles seldom smiles and will most likely be discussing philosophy with Monokles.”
Aricles kept his features blank. “And I’ll be the one spanking Galen’s ass during training.”
Hector laughed wholeheartedly. “I like them already.” He indicated a vacant chair to his right. “Stow your gear and join us.”
Aricles took Galen’s things. “Go on. I’ll take care of it.”
As always, Galen didn’t hesitate to accept his offer.
While he went to game, Aricles looked at Malphas. “Which beds are ours?”
“The two under the window. Your training will begin an hour after dawn. Have a good night and remember, no bloodshed in the goddess’s temple. Save it for the battlefield.” Malphas left them to get acquainted.
Aricles went to put their personal effects in the chest between their beds. Listening to his brother jest with his two new friends, he pulled out his small knife and the piece of wood he’d started carving four days ago. It was a vague feminine figure. He hadn’t seen the carving’s face clearly.
He’d started it as an offering for one of the goddesses of his homeland, but now . . . Bathymaas would be perfect for it. Seeing her regal grace in the wood, he began reworking the piece.
After a few minutes, Monokles came over to watch him. “You make that look easy. How long have you been a carver?”
“Since the summer I first stayed with my grandfather in Ena. It was something he would do every night, after chores were finished. I was four or five, and he’d hold me in his lap and patiently instruct me.”
“I never knew my grandfathers. One was a Greek hero who died in battle when my father was a boy, and the other was a cavalry officer who perished at war while my mother carried me. What of yours? Was he a retired officer?”
Aricles shook his head. “He was a simple farmer, as his father was before him. By nature, Atlanteans are peaceful . . . with the peculiar exception of my brother, who was corrupted in his youth by a friend who told him too many Greek tales.”
Monokles went rigid. “Is that a swipe at me?”
“Not at all, good Monokles. You have every right to be very proud of your soldier family. As I am of mine who toiled their farms. My insult was directed to my twin, solely. He thinks the rest of his family members are backwoods rubes because we would rather till the soil than make war with our neighbors.”
Those words seemed to puzzle him. “Yet you’re here. Why?”
Aricles shrugged. “Our place is not to question the will of the gods. But rather to do our best to honor them, our ancestors, and ourselves.”
Monokles scowled. “How old are you?”
“Twenty, and you?”
“A decade older, and yet you speak like a sage ancient.”
Galen snorted. “That’s because my brother was born an old man. He came from our mother’s womb spouting wisdom, and with more patience than any mortal man should ever possess. He should have been a priest.”
“Is that true?” Monokles asked. “Would you have preferred priesthood?”
“Probably, but at the time to take vows, I had other obligations.” He’d been in love with Claudia and had planned on marrying her. To pay her father’s bridal price, he’d been working three jobs in addition to his home chores.
But a farmer was the last thing she’d wanted to be tied to.
Now, it was too late to become a priest.
Perhaps it was bitter irony that he’d ended up in the service of a goddess, after all.
“What are you doing?”
Bathymaas looked up from her sfora at Malphas’s question. The small orange ball allowed her to spy on their recruits. “I wanted to make sure that our two newest additions didn’t meet with resistance from the others.”
“Are they mixing well?”
“They seem to be.” She studied Aricles as he continued to masterfully whittle while his brother diced with the others. “Do you think we made a mistake forcing Aricles to leave his farm?”
Caleb gaped at her question. “Is that doubt I hear?”
“I don’t know,” she answered honestly. “Mortal feelings are beyond me. But I know how complicated sensory beings are. I don’t want him to be in pain because of our decision.”
Caleb arched a brow at that. In all the centuries he’d served his goddess, he’d never heard her question a decision before. Stunning, really.
Nor had she ever cared about someone’s feelings. He wasn’t sure what to make of that. Or what it was about Aricles that would cause her to doubt her decisions now.
“Sentient beings adjust . . . in time.”
She met his gaze. “You’ve never adjusted to being without Lilliana.”
He winced at a bitter truth that stung him hard. “I’m a demon and very different from them. Besides, Lil changed me from what I was, and then was violently taken from me. It’s not the same as leaving home to serve a goddess and defend my people.”
Bathymaas pulled back from saying anything else. She knew how much it hurt Caleb to talk about his wife. And for the first time, she felt a strange ache in her chest for him over his loss. She wasn’t sure why.
Yet there was no denying it was there.
If only she knew why.