PROLOGUE. They would be coming for him.



They would be coming for him.

Cratus stood on top of the highest point of Olympus, staring out at the beautiful setting sun. Ribbons of warm color split the darkening sky, reminding him of a brilliant fire opal glistening and twinkling. Nowhere else was it more breathtaking than here, and he wanted to watch it set one last time before he submitted himself for his well-deserved punishment.

He wouldn't ask for clemency. There was no need. He knew better than anyone the wrath of Zeus. For centuries, he'd been the Olympian god's hammer, carrying out his justice.

Now that justice would come for him.

"Run and I will run with you."

He glanced down at the small form of his sister Nike. Where his wings were black, hers were a pure white. Her dark curly hair was wrapped with a white ribbon that matched her gown. The personification of victory, she'd been his accomplice throughout his entire life.

They, along with their brother and sister, had been the sentinels of Zeus. Beloved guardians, they had been treasured by the father of the gods even above Zeus's own children. Until Cratus had committed an unforgivable sinhe'd spared a life he should have taken. It wasn't his place to question his master, only to do his bidding. He still couldn't understand why he'd done it. The gods knew compassion was an alien emotion to him.

Yet here he was . . .

Time to die.

Cratus sighed wearily. "I can't ask that of you, akri-bos. You still have Zeus's favor. Don't jeopardize that for me. Besides, no one can run from Olympian justice. You know that as well as I do. No matter where I hide, they will find me."

Nike took his hand and held it to her cheek. "I know why you did it and I respect you for it."

And that changed nothing.

What was done was done. Now there was nothing left except the punishment.

He glanced away from the sun to see her there by his side, her beautiful face still tucked into the palm of his numb hand. In all eternity, she was the only one he'd ever really trusted. His sister with the haunting pale blue eyes, whose courage and loyalty was without equal. For her, he would do anything.

But he would not sacrifice her for his stupidity.

"Stay here where it's safe."

She tightened her grip. "I would rather be with you, brother. To the end as always."

He stroked her cheek tenderly before he dropped his hand away and looked down to where the gods' temples were nestled like jeweled eggs among the evergreen foliage. "Stay here, Nike . . . please."

She nodded, but he saw the reluctance in her eyes. "For you only."

Giving Nike his golden helm to keep as a memento of their battles together, Cratus kissed her brow before he headed down the mountain toward the hall of the gods. His embossed shield as heavy as his conscience, he leaned on his thick spear to keep him steady on his path.

As promised, Nike stayed behind, but he could feel her gaze on him as he walked. Her offer to run haunted him. But it wasn't in his nature to run from or submit to anything. He was a warrior, and it was all he knew. All he lived for.

He would fight to the end.

More than that, he refused to give his enemies the satisfaction of dragging him before Zeus in chains. He'd lived his life standing on his own two feet, and so would he die.

Alone. Without flinching, begging or fear.

It was a fitting end, really. After all the lives he'd callously taken for Zeus, this would be his penance.

He paused before the doors that led to where the gods would be gathered. He'd walked here among them a hundred thousand times.

But today would be his last.

His head held high, he threw open the huge gold doors. As soon as he did, silence rang out in the hall as everyone held their collective breaths, waiting to see how Zeus would punish him.

Zeus froze in place before his throne, his eyes dark and threatening. Cratus's gaze went to the right side of the dais, where his post had been for all these centuries.

It would be his post no more.

Taking a breath for courage, he dropped his shield just inside the door. The hollow, metallic sound echoed loudly in the silence and mimicked the emptiness inside Cratus's heart.

Still, no one moved.

Not even the gowns of the women rustled.

His gaze locked determinedly on Zeus's, he hefted his spear above his shoulder and threw it hard to bury it in the wall right above Zeus's heada last act of defiance that made every god present gasp in shock.

Cratus pulled his sword over his head and tossed it to the feet of Ares. Next he removed his quiver and bow, which he handed to Artemis. With every step he took toward Zeus, he peeled a piece of his armor off and dropped it to the marble floor, where it clanked loudly. First vambraces, then his greaves, his cuirass and finally his armored belt.

By the time he reached Zeus, he wore nothing but his brown loincloth. He tucked his wings down and lowered his head in silent submission to the king of the gods.

Zeus's curse rang out before he pulled a lightning bolt out of his glowing quiver and used it to slash across Cratus's face.

Cratus tasted blood as his eye and cheek erupted with throbbing pain. Covering his face with his hand, he felt the warm blood from his wound pouring between his fingers.

"How dare you come here after what you've done! No one defies me!"

The next blow knocked Cratus off his feet and sent him skittering across the floor. The cold marble peeled at his skin and bruised his muscles.

He came to rest at the feet of Apollo. Looking down in repugnance, the god sneered at him before he moved back, out of Zeus's line of fire.

Cratus wiped at the blood on his cheek, which dripped from his face to the floor, before he pushed himself up.

He didn't get far.

Zeus planted his foot on his spine and held him down on his stomach. "You have disobeyed me. I want you to grovel for my mercy."

Cratus shook his head in denial. "I beg for noth-ing.

Zeus kicked him over and drove a lightning bolt through his shoulder, pinning him to the floor. Cratus screamed out at the piercing agony that pulsed with every beat of his heart.

"You insolent dog. You dare defy me even now?"

"I will not" His words broke off in a growl as Zeus planted another lightning bolt in his side and then in his other shoulder.

Curling his lip, Zeus stepped back. He swept an imperious glare around the gathered gods. "Is there one among you who will speak up in defense of this defiant maggot?"

With his one undamaged eye, Cratus looked to his brethren.

One by one, they turned away. Hera, Aphrodite, Apollo, Athena, Artemis, Ares, Hephaestus, Poseidon, Demeter, Helios, Hermes, Eros, Hypnos . . . et cetera. But the ones who really stung were his mother and his brother Zelos and sister Bia.

They stepped back and looked away, shame-faced.

So be it.

In his heart, he knew Nike would have spoken up for him. But she had done as he asked and stayed behind.

Zeus pierced him with another lightning bolt that would have probably hurt, too, had his body been capable of feeling any more pain. "It appears no one here cares for you."

Big surprise there. Cratus laughed, spitting up blood, as he remembered the day he'd forced Hephaestus to chain Prometheus to a rock for his eternal punishment. The god had been reluctant to carry out the orders and had called Cratus pitiless for his insistence that they obey Zeus's heartless command.

Cratus in turn had mocked Hephaestus's weak-kneed compassion. He'd told the god it was better to be the punisher than the victim.

Now it was his turn to suffer. No wonder no one would speak up for him.

He deserved no better.

Zeus pulled him up from the floor by his throat. His entire body numb from the pulsating lightning bolts that still pierced his flesh, Cratus could do nothing but stare at the father god.

"Will you pick up your arms and fight for me?"

Cratus shook his head. He would never again serve as a mindless dog obeying his master's every whim.

"Then you will suffer for all eternity and you will beg me every day for my mercy."



: 2015-09-13; : 4;

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