“My love,” came the soft, urgent whisper. “I want you!”
Kratos, the God of War, stirred, moaned, and reached out. The beloved name Lysandra formed on his lips. He sat up and looked about the small, firelit chamber. The scent of burning elder wood permeated the room. A fleecy soft lamb’s-wool blanket had been spread, two goblets of wine nearby. It was perfect for a romantic moment with his wife.
“Lysandra,” he said, louder. “Where are you?”
“Here, my love. You have come home from battle to me. I have missed you so!”
“And I have missed you,” he said, somehow not moving yet crossing the room and taking her into his arms. He held her close, feeling her vitality, the warmth of her body, aroused by the way she moved sensuously against his muscular frame.
“Promise you will never leave me again. I cannot bear to lose you, even for a brief moment.”
Kratos sucked in his breath. His wife’s scent dilated his nostrils and sent his heart to hammering. Her silken hair floated like a cloud, brushing his cheek, soothing the wounds on his face with the lightest touch. But he tried to push her away. Something was wrong. She resisted, her strength greater than his.
Her body turned cold where once it had been alive.
“Lysandra, what is wrong?”
“Nothing can be wrong with our love.”
Using his full strength, he succeeded in pushing her from him. Her face was twisted into one of stark terror.
“Don’t let me go, Kratos. Don’t hurt me!”
“Hurt you? I would have killed hundreds to protect you. I would die for you!”
He lifted his hand. A sword dripping with blood thrust forward. His hand circled the hilt, slippery with the life fluids of his enemies, but it was not his will directing the thrust. The coppery scent of blood, the sudden gleam of reflected firelight from the blade, the perfect balance and the keen edge and . . .
. . . and Kratos screamed in agony as he thrust forward, gutting his wife. Lysandra gripped the sword where it penetrated her belly, cutting her fingers on the edge. The blood of his wife mixed with that of warriors he had slain. She looked from the blade spitting her to his shocked face, reached for him, injured fingers red with her own blood. Anguish flooded his senses when he realized what he had done.
Then the screams of rage and fear were snuffed out. The only sound to be heard was the dripping of his wife’s blood to the floor. He jerked away and the sword pulled free from its fleshy berth, sending a gory arc of her blood and organs outward. A bit was flung into the fire, where it sizzled and popped. And then came total silence, except for a singular voice.
The voice of a small girl.
“Papa, what have you done?”
“Calliope,” he called to his young daughter.
“She’s dead. You murdered her! How could you?” Small fists hammered at his armor. He was clad in full battle gear, and Calliope attacked with the full fury of a frightened, angered child.
He swung the sword. His muscles bunched as he tried to stay the blow. He could not. The pommel struck his daughter in the temple, knocking her down.
“I did not mean this!” Kratos stepped forward, greaves clanking and his body armor grating. The reflection from his sword, the Blades of Chaos attached to the bone of his forearms with cruel chain links, filled his vision and then blinded him.
Rage exploded when he heard a mocking voice.
“Ares!” He shrieked and sought to kill the god with the very blades he had been given to do Ares’ bidding.
The swords, one in each hand, slashed out, but it was Calliope and not Ares who died. The little girl perished in a welter of blood and sobs damning him, crying out for her mother now dead also by his hand. And the rage and loss exploded within his brain so that he spun about and saw . . .
. . . a dark figure.
“Ares? You forced me to kill my own wife and daughter! I will kill you!”
But it was not Ares he faced but a nebulous, black, misty thing.
“Fight me! Fight me, you craven!” Kratos dismissed the Blades of Chaos and clutched the Blades of Athena, more powerful than any mortal could ever wield. But he was not a mortal now. He had destroyed Ares and was now the God of War.
“I didn’t know I was killing them. I loved them.
“Lysandra, come back to me, I didn’t mean to slay you,” Kratos said, seeking to stop the nocturnal torment the only way he knew, but he swung his blades at emptiness. He again stood on a barren plain that stretched flat in all directions. The more he tried to fight, the heavier the swords became, and when his muscles no longer responded, he sank to his knees and bowed his head. Kratos wept.
And in the distance he heard soft whispers of concern.
“He cries in his sleep.”
“How is this possible? He is God of War!”
“He sheds no tears for those he has slain in battle. Perhaps he—”
Kratos came awake with a start. It took him long seconds to realize he clutched a lovely woman by the throat. Her slender fingers trying to free herself were no match for his powerful grip. Without realizing he was doing so, he had started to crush the life from her body.
“Please. Lord Kratos, do not kill her,” came the impassioned plea from the other side of his large bed. “She seeks only to serve you, not offend!”
Kratos released the death grip. The woman he had almost killed fell across his bare legs as she gasped for breath. He sat up and stared at her twitching body. She wore a thin garment of pale green silk that revealed her voluptuous curves. Struggling, she rolled off his legs, clutching her throat. The fiery red marks stood out in bold relief where his fingers had crushed into alabaster skin. Despite the nearness of death, the woman showed no fear of meeting Hades. Kratos read something different there, another emotion that infuriated him.
Let her be afraid. He was God of War. His enemies cowered before him!
But she showed pity for him. For him! The Ghost of Sparta!
“The dreams again, my lord? They still torture you? How may I ease your burden?” She moved to push away the sheets covering his midsection.
Her hot breath touched his belly and lower. Then there were two. The other concubine, the one who had begged for him to release the death grip, sought to give him pleasure, also.
“Away,” he roared. “Get away from me!”
“We seek only your comfort, Lord Kratos. We want to do whatever we can to soothe your troubles—and to replace them with delight. Let us do Aphrodite’s bidding and—”
Kratos swung his brawny forearm and sent both women tumbling away. They muttered to themselves. He stood, thin vestiges of his dream fading quickly until he found it difficult to remember exactly what had happened. A black plain. A cave that became a mountain and then something else. His head threatened to explode from trying to remember that encounter.
But he had no trouble remembering the feel of his sword driving into Lysandra’s body or the terror and loathing on his own sweet Calliope’s face as he killed her, also. The nightmares were as permanent as the sky and earth and the Olympian throne on which Zeus sat.
“You promised to obliterate my nightmares if I did your bidding,” Kratos said, shaking his fist at the open sky above his sleeping chamber. “You lied, Zeus. You lied!”
“Master, please. We seek only to do your bidding. Tell us how!” The two women threw themselves at his feet. He kicked them away, went to the table where his armor was laid out with his simple clothing, clothing befitting a warrior, and quickly dressed. When the women came to aid him in his toilet, he drove them back with a dark glare. They huddled together, watching him.
He felt pity radiating from them like heat from the sun itself. He hated them for that. He hated himself all the more for ever believing Zeus. With a final jerk, he strapped on his armor and settled two swords in an X pattern across his back.
Kratos stormed from his sleeping chamber.
Massive shoulders rippling under his chased-gold armor, nicked in places from terrible battles fought and won, he used both hands to throw open the fifty-foot-tall doors leading from his chambers. The huge stone doors sent echoes reverberating throughout Olympus. As he strode along he never noticed the fine vases, the tapestries on the marble walls, the myriad tributes collected by the gods of Olympus from their mortal worshippers; instead he plotted and planned. These serene halls with clouds floating under terraces opening to the side were not for him.
He was a warrior.
He ran his fingers over the bone-white of his skin. His wife Lysandra’s and daughter Calliope’s ashes had been cast over him, forever making his flesh an unforgettable symbol of how Ares had betrayed him, tricked him, and led him to murder those he loved above all else. Even the bright red tattoo in memory of his brother Deimos and proclaiming him a soldier of Sparta seemed a mockery.
Kratos’ hand flashed to the hilts of the blades at his back when Hermes ran down the corridor, dancing about like some gaudy butterfly. The Messenger of the Gods visibly paled and darted away. Such it was whenever another saw Kratos. Stride lengthening, he passed where other gods gathered in small groups of twos and threes. They turned their backs to him.
He heard Zeus’ sister Hestia sniff in contempt and say to Demeter in a voice just loud enough for him to overhear, “Has your crop been ruined by his endless war?”
“My worshippers starve because of him and those terrible, brutish Spartans,” Demeter said. She glanced sideways at Kratos, then turned quickly and took Hestia by the arm to guide her away, going in the direction already taken by Hermes.
Kratos’ hands slid from the handles, and a sneer curled his lip, twisting his face into pure contempt. What did he need their approval for when he was greater than the lot?
Swinging about, sandals making slapping sounds on the travertine floor, he went to a huge vaulted atrium dominated by a circular aperture. Within the confines of the circle roiled a thin fog turned the color of blood. Distant sounds of battle heartened Kratos. The clash of sword against sword, shields deflecting blows and knives driving into exposed midriffs, the battle cries of the victorious and the lamentations of the vanquished. Men strove in his name. Armies swept across the face of Greece and laid waste to all they encountered.
The God of War favored Sparta and incited the warriors to destroy all armies, all cities, every man, woman, and child not of the city of his birth who refused to be subjugated. He had been called the Ghost of Sparta. Now he was God of War with a mighty sword-wielding army sweeping across the world.
The shrieks of dying men rose higher; music to his ears. For these were not Spartans dying but other, weaker men. The fog billowed higher and parted to give him a clear view of the battlefield below. A harbor. A city burning. Soldiers driving swords through leather armor into bellies and hearts. Spartan soldiers, invincible because of dedication and training—and his favor. “ . . . Kratos, how could you kill me? . . .”
The whisper from deep within his nightmares was drowned out as he bellowed his approval when a Spartan unit marched forward, swords clanking against bronze shields. Their feet hit the ground in a marching rhythm that sent tremors of fear through the enemy.
“Allow no escape. Give no quarter!” His words filled the air and echoed throughout Olympus and to the world below. The Spartans dulled their blades on the shields and necks, the greaves and arms, of the enemy until the din of battle suffocated any voice in Kratos’ mind. He continued to direct the carnage, approving of his army’s fighting prowess.
Far below a young Spartan stepped from the fray and thrust his sword high in the air, toward Olympus where Kratos watched.
“My lord Kratos!” The words were caught on the din of battle and carried to his ears. “Another city is ready to fall! Soon all shall know the glory of Sparta!”
Kratos’ hands clenched into tight fists, and cords stood out on his forearms and in his neck as he tensed. Victory! He did not need Hermes to bring such glorious news when he could watch his armies from this lofty perch. But Kratos was never one to watch. The sight of skilled warriors battling the ever-weakening defenders of the harbor city of Rhodes pledged to Apollo told him he would have to hurry if he wanted to share in the blood and glory of victory.
A soft tread on the stone floor behind caused him to straighten. His quick intake of breath filled his nostrils with the aromatic spikenard. Slowly turning, he faced Athena. The goddess looked up at him with a curious mixture of anger and pleading. Her sepia-tattooed lips parted, but she did not speak immediately. The intricate, swirling designs on her face seemed to take on a life of their own, as if those tattoos might possess her. But Kratos knew better. Of the gods, Athena was the most in control of herself. Her schemes were clever and subtle and had brought him to Olympus as a god.
Her elaborately engraved armor creaked slightly as she reached out and placed a hand on his shoulder. He jerked free. His anger built anew.
“Enough, Kratos. The wrath of Olympus grows. Even I will no longer be able to protect you.” The delicate golden bands of her head decoration caught sunlight and made her look even more godlike. She wore battle armor, not as a fashion statement like so many other gods but because she was a warrior. He appreciated this and that she had worn the bronze-and-leather panoply to show how different she was from so many others who refused to even speak with him, much less confront him. But she was not his ally. She always took the side of Zeus and prattled about what was best for Olympus, as if he should care, too.
Kratos growled deep in his throat and pushed savagely past the goddess.
“I need no protection.”
“You forget that it was I who made you a god, Kratos. Do not turn your back on me!”
“I owe you nothing.”
“Then you leave me no choice.”
He ignored her, his stride long, sure, and directed toward a precipice ahead. The marble floor simply ended to give a dizzying view of the earth far below. Kratos paused a moment, the sounds of battle reaching him even at this great height. He drew in a deep breath and smelled the sharp tang of spilled blood. The battle would be over quickly. He wanted to be there to cheer on the Spartan soldiers—and to relish the victory over yet another city’s patron god, whoever that might be. Kratos neither knew nor cared. He stepped forward, fell rigidly at attention, and aimed his head toward the far ground. The wind caught at him as he arrowed downward.
“Kratos, no!” came Athena’s faint warning.
Copyright © 2013 by Robert E. Vardeman. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.