A/N: As a disclaimer, reader, I should let you know that I will not be posting another chapter until the first of June, at the earliest. I have a deadline to meet on another large assignment. I hope this chapter will hold you over until then. As always, constructive criticism, questions, and suggestions are always appreciated. Thanks for reading!
The posessed amazon wasted no more words. Her sword flashed before him, faster than he would have thought. Caught off-balance, he could only retreat backward a few steps, avoiding another slash, and another, both aimed at his throat. But he quickly gathered his will and acquired her timing, parrying her next attack. The amazon sword sang sorrowfully against the godly blade, and now it was Kratos who was on the attack. He made his own slashing motion, sending his blade flying through the air toward his opponent.
However, it seemed that the possession had enhanced Aerim's already impressive skills. She avoided the strike, leaping into the air. As he had predicted, she had placed herself into a vulnerable position. Again calling upon his godly powers, Kratos launched himself into the air toward his target. There was no time for this madness, and the only way he could end this would be to get a hold of her. Part of him hoped that perhaps he could still knock some sense into her, and expel the ghost of Patroklos. But yet another piece of him wanted to feel her break in his hands.
But with inhuman speed, she managed to evade his grasp. It was as if she were gliding on an unearthly wind. She leaped spider-like to the wall of the tomb, and hurled herself back at him, catching him around his waist. The pair crashed into the opposite wall at terrible speed.
But before she could release him, he grabbed her by the arms and pummeled her stomach with his knees. As she recovered her wind, she began to beat at his kidneys; a coward's tactic. He tried and failed to get a grip on her short hair, but as she struggled to pull away from him, he was able to get her neck under his arm. With a mighty swing, he thrashed her against the wall beside him. And with her now in shock from the blow, he used his knee to drive into her stomach, crushing her spine against the wall and wrenching her neck. After several satisfying cracks, he released her, letting her fall to the ground.
He breathed deeply, letting the combat heat drain from inside him. But before he could turn, he saw the amazon stir. Her broken back cracked horribly as she lifted herself into a sitting position, and her head rolled bonelessly back atop her torso. An expression of raw agony lay frozen on her face, but her pale eyes were locked toward him. She released a terrible scream akin to what he had received upon entering the tomb.
"You fight not only the amazon, God of War, but Patroklos as well" came the ethereal voice of Achilles. Kratos looked to the bag on his belt, the skull bulging within it. "You must burn his bones, and remove his hold on this world."
Of course. It was Patroklos's undead will that was pushing Aerim's body, if not her mind. Grabbing one of the torches from the wall, he hurried over to the coffin, kicking the lid off with his godly strength. He led the torch along the length of the body, igniting the fine clothes it was draped in. And as the body burned, Kratos could hear the voice of Patroklos scream from Aerim's throat. "If I can't have my body, then yours will do just as well!" There was a burst of smoke in Kratos's eyes, and he could see no longer.
He felt his body numb and his mind go fuzzy. The tomb had disappeared, and the world around it as well. The great gorgon hunt, the challenging eyes of Artemis, the row with Hades, and the affections of Athena now lay in distant memory. Kratos stood within a great smokey fog, laid bare down to his natural tanned skin. And though he lacked weapons, clothes, or armor, it was the shifting shadows in the smoke that made him chill.
"The mind is full of weapons," came the voice of Patroklos. "The one thing any warrior worth their blade learns is that the mind is the most powerful tool in battle. It matters not the size of your army, the sharpness of your sword, or the weight of your hammer; you must have the knowledge to use it to its fullest potential." At first Kratos attempted to turn and face his opponent, but quickly saw the foolishness of chasing shadows in the dark. "But the mind itself is an armory. Every guilt, every worry, or fear, or memory, is a weapon you shape against yourself. Weapons that do damage no blade of the enemy could ever do. And you, Kratos of Sparta, have quite the armory."
Suddenly, from out of the smoke came two long, serpentine chains. Each one wrapped itself along his arms, pulling them outward and leaving him helpless. "You made your deal with Ares: your soul in return for the destruction of your enemies. And in doing so, you claimed the fate of so many innocent lives." The chains seemed to sharpen and grow barbs, digging into his flesh.
But at last, Kratos found the will to speak. "Ares was a monster, and bid me destroy so much more than my enemies, Patroklos. And in the end, my bond with him was broken."
The chains fell slack to the ground, unraveling from his arms. "Tis true, I see. You broke your bond and your word. And so, you were punished!" Each link of the chain seemed to shake of it's own accord, shattering into pieces. And with their new freedom from each other, the pieces rose into the air like a deadly, edged mist. And all at once, each piece drove itself deeply into his skin. Though he clenched his jaw shut, and no blood ran from his body, his scream of agony echoed in the mindfog as he sank down to his knees. "Your honor was levied against you by the Furies," Patroklos continued.
"And the Furies," Kratos interjected through his clenched teeth, "met their end as well." At his words, each of the metal shards fell from his body, dissolving into sand upon the ground. All except one, which remained lodged deeply within his side.
"Ah yes, but at the cost of a good man's life. A man who helped you escape your fate. Orkos who, while abandoned by Ares, became a greater man than anyone would have guessed." The metal shard glowed orange and hot, becoming a shard of enchanted amber.
"Yes," Kratos said. "And I will carry his sacrifice to my dying day." The wound closed around the shard, and it disappeared beneath his skin.
"You are indeed a strong one," Patroklos continued. "But there are burdens you carry still that are SO much more potent!" Suddenly a great rushing force, like a battering ram, came charging from the mists. Kratos was crushed to the ground with the force of it, and within the smokey shape, he could see lightning flashing amongst the clouds, illuminating memories. Memories of his family. "You murdered them. Drunk on the power you had foolishly traded your soul for, you slaughtered your own family.
Kratos struggled beneath the heavy weight. "But I did not mean..."
"No, of course you didn't," the shade interrupted. "The paths beside the River Styx are paved with the intentions of the righteous."
Kratos could feel the weight pressing into him, molding to his body and holding him against the ground. Soon, he could feel it choking him. "And it is their deaths that I carry with me, to drive me forward, ghost! It is for their forgiveness that I fight on, through any obstacle!" Like the shards before, the weight seemed to dissolve into sand and smoke. And as he rose to his feet, Kratos found himself again covered in the ashes that won him the name of Ghost of Sparta. But with the ashes came his familiar torn combat toga and his sandals. "You run the length of your weapons, Patroklos!" Kratos challenged.
The mists were clearing now, Kratos could see. The monstrous form that Patroklos had been reduced to now took scarcely any refuge, and Kratos could see his movements. A ghastly hiss emanated from the clinging mist. "Perhaps, but there is yet one weapon that even you have hidden from, Ghost of Sparta!" With a growl of effort, an enormous ax flew from the mist. Kratos was able to step away from it, but it landed before him; the flats of the enormous blades shone brightly like a mirror to him. And from the mirrors mist came a great form wreathed in flame and chained armor. Kratos took half a step back as he came face-to-face with Ares once more.
"You pathetic mortal. You were always a monster, from the day you were born. You were destined for naught but a lifetime of death, destruction, and betrayal. Your calmest and clearest thoughts lay in battle! And oh, how you wished to be rid of any trace of a normal life. To live one battleground to the next; that was what you longed for, what you craved. I merely freed you from the chains of mortal law, to do as you truly wanted, in your deepest heart of hearts!"
Suddenly, Ares's face became blurred. "It is not my image you fear, Kratos, but your own!" The face beneath the fiery mane, and atop the blood-soaked armor became his own, and Kratos gasped. The voice became a horrific mix of his own and that of his former master. "When you looked up to me, you wanted only to be as powerful as I was. A monster I may have been. But who is more damned: the beast, or the man who wishes to be the beast?"
Kratos stepped froward and beat his hands against the mirror edges of the ax. "You fear still, not what you were, but what you will become! You cannot escape your fate!" While all of Ares's words had made him weak under their truth, the creature's final statement had sparked a fire within him. A fire that rose up from the pits of his belly, through his chest and into his fist. With another crushing blow, he cracked the ax, splitting the single image into many. But the flame of his anger and will urged him on. The ax cracked again and again under his blows, until finally the weapon fell to pieces on the ground before him. The blades lay shattered, and the handle crumbled to dust.
But now, the tiny mirrors reflected not Ares's face nor his own. But those of every Spartan that had died for him, and those that he had left behind, along with each of the gods of Olympus. Their hundreds of eyes stared up and into him, each reflection burning him. The voice of the monstrous Patroklos returned. "Ah, but for all your struggling, and all of your will, you are still hated and feared by all of those you have served. Your own people think you a betrayer and a murderer. The gods above, who now surround you, see you as little more than a monster to be controlled. A rabid dog that must be kept tightly leashed."
Kratos fell once again to his knees, and began sifting through the shards of broken glass. Each edge cut him deeply, staining them with blood. The glass dug into his legs and arms as deeply as the chains had. But he took solace in the fact that unlike the heavy, deep pain of the chains, these shards were light. Though their edges were sharp and cut deep, they were thin. And each one was forgotten in favor of the next. The solace he took from this drove him on, pushing through each shard until he found the one for which he had searched.
The emerald eyes of Athena shone up at him, and he held the shard in both hands. Those green eyes held no hate or distrust, but hope. Deep in his heart, Kratos knew that Athena had faith in him. Even if he could have no faith in himself. Her smile shone even more brightly up at him, and he smiled, for the first time in what felt like a lifetime. And in his hand, the mirror transformed. What once had been the broken edge of an ax became the gilded edges of one of the blades Athena had crafted for him, to replace those of Ares. And with this blade, Kratos felt like himself again. He felt whole. The second blade grew from the edges of the first, and Kratos took each one in hand as these chains coiled around his arms as familiar friends. The other shards lay strewn upon the ground, but he paid them no mind.
"Your time in my mind has ended, shade," Kratos barked. The mist was but a thin wisp now, and Patroklos lay bare within it. "Now I will show you what weapons a mind can wield!" And with a great swing of both blades, Kratos swept up the mist in a cyclone, shredding the ghostly form and revealing the landscape of his mind as to what felt natural. At his feet still lay the broken glass, and at all sides he found walls. He was in a pit, painted with his pains and his failures. They spun, like the blades of Hades on his climb up from the River Styx. And just as he had done then, he sheathed his blades and gripped the walls. And slowly, he climbed between the thorns and across the cylinder. And guiding his ascent, he could see three forms shaded against bright light. The forms of his wife Lysandra, his daughter Calliope, and himself, fading calmly into obscurity
Kratos once again found himself in the dark tomb of Achilles. The bag with the old warrior's skull hung from his belt, and his blades hung with a comfortable weight from his arms. The smoke that was the ghost of Patroklos had now retreated back to the broken form of Aerim, who had by now flown from this earth. The horrible body twisted and wrenched itself into a standing position, preparing to attack again with the remainder of its strength. "You will not have my Achilles!" it said. "None shall!"
Kratos thought to hismelf. "So you need a body, do you?" he asked of the ghost, who responded with a shriek. "You'll have no sway over me, spirit. And Achilles has his own bones." With a flick of his wrist, Kratos summoned his blades to his hands. And with another flick he threw them, enchaining the undead creature. Before, Aerim had been a living breathing warrior, and subject to his new attempt at mercy. But now, only an undead wretch stood before him. Those, he knew quite well how to deal with.
Kratos was swift with his judgement, and Achilles quickly led him to the secret exit from the tomb. Once he returned to the jungle, he let the leaves relieve him of all the blood. He met with the amazon scouts, and told them of a secret path to Apollo's temple. And upon informing the battalion, Kratos set off again across the jungle. Here and there he was beset by gorgons, and each one fell to his blades.
He felt crass now, hardened. He had tried to make Aerim see reason. He had tried to show her mercy. A good man wields violence like a heavy sword: infrequently, but with great precision and strength. But Kratos's blades still flew too easily and too frequently. They would not help him slay his inner demons. However, they served him well against Patroklos, and for that he felt a great warming pride. But they killed gorgons just as efficiently. He would consider his inner matters when the hunt was over, and enough monsters lay dead.
As Achilles led him along the jungle to Apollo's temple, he felt the earth shake beneath him. At first he could scarcely feel it, but the second tremor was twice the strength of the first, and he could hear the leaves shake in the trees. "Does this cursed island quake as well?" he asked aloud.
"No," came Achilles from his skull. "It is the gorgon queen. She has awoken."
Kratos raced froward. Surely Artemis and her battalion had reached the temple by now. Up the nearest tree he climbed, eager to check his progress. Surely enough, the temple was plainly in few; it lay only a few hundred yards ahead, as they approached from the side. But as the island once again shook beneath him, Kratos saw something emerge from the temple. It was not a gorgon, but the head and body of an enormous snake! Though not as large as the Basilisk had been, it was larger still than any gorgon. It's fangs glowed in the bright moonlight and it's eyes shown red. Its hiss echoed across the trees, and Kratos saw as it made several snatching attacks at the ground near the temple.
There was no more time to waste. With all of the dexterity Kratos could muster, he began leaping from treetop to treetop, hastening his approach until he needed no rest to adjust his footing. Each step became as natural as running across rocky terrain. And within moments, Kratos flew down from the treetops to land in the clearing before the temple. The first amazon battaltion fought the snake bravely, though several had already fallen to its unnatural speed. Hippolyta used the trees, loosing arrow after arrow at the beast. Several had hit their mark, and the beast was already blind in its left eye.
Artemis, however, had taken the more direct approach. With the blade Kratos had returned to her, glowing red and large and sharp, she slashed at the beast's fangs. Each impossibly-fast strike was parried by the goddess, but they came too frequently to allow her to advance. "God of War!" came Hippolyta's cry. "At last, you arrive. But too late! My goddess matches the beast herself!" Kratos looked to the amazon queen. And while he saw pride, he could also see the shadow of worry in the lines on her face. Her battalion had been reduced to nearly half, and so many of the warriors lay injured and covered with blood.
As Kratos thought, examining the field and the players upon it, a scout from his battalion came to his side. "My lord!" she exclaimed. "What will you have us do?" But Kratos had already devised a scheme. "Those with bows will assist the queen. Align your arrows. Do not give rain, but a solid shower to the great beast! Keep it from retreating to the top of the temple. Those with spears and swords will assist Lady Artemis. Create a bramble such that the great snake would only harm itself when attacking." The scout nodded quickly and returned to the treeline, where the rest of the battalion waited.
Kratos rushed forward to Artemis, the amazons following at his back. He took position at the snake's belly, beside Artemis. She smiled wolfishly as she found him there, and parried the beast with renewed ferocity. And with each parry, Kratos threw his own blades to delay further strikes. The creature's dark blood arced across the sky and dotted the temple grounds. Its shrill cries drowned out even those of the battle-hungry amazons and Olympians. And as the army of swords and spears formed around the two gods, the snake struck less forcefully. With each attack, a new wound opened and more blood flowed, and the arrows from above kept it from truly evading their attacks.
"God of War!" came Artemis's voice through the cacophony. Kratos watched as the goddess, still grinning, back away from the front lines. Though confused, he watched and listened still, until she came rushing forth at the incredible speeds she had reach earlier. "Give me purchase on your blades!" she cried. And under raw instinct, Kratos fell to one knee and held his blades in a defensive posture. Artemis leaped from her charge on to the flat of the blades, and Kratos thrust her forward in-time with her jump from them.
The Goddess of the Hunt flew high into the air, her enormous sword raised above her head, and came down with a fearsome slash and an equally fearsome battle cry. The sword plunged into the creature at its neck, and came through the other side near its belly. The head of the giant snake slithered, decapitated from the whole, with a good portion of what would have been its torso. It writhed and snapped momentarily, but soon enough it lay still, soaked in blood. A mighty cheer erupted from the remaining amazons as their goddess came to her feet, brandishing her sword proudly. Artemis cast a glance at Kratos that seemed somewhere between glorious approval and, he thought, wanton lust. And in his own state of pure, unrestrained power, he considered it. Thoughts of bedding the virgin goddess of the hunt, bathed in the moonlight and the blood of their enemies, flashed through his mind.
But their cheers had come too early. For once again, the island shook. Many warriors lost their footing and fell to the ground; the Olympians themselves dropped to one knee. The Temple of Apollo cracked and crumbled before them, forcing the amazons to fall back to the treeline. And from within the pillars of the dark temple, where the moonlight shown not, Kratos saw an enormous pair of red glowing eyes. Memories of his battle with the hydra flashed before him.
Kratos aided Artemis's escape and, surely enough, the temple erupted from inside. And a gorgon as high as two main ship masts towered above them. The snake they had bested proved to be only one of many that framed its face, and though it had no mouth, the trees shook with her voice. "I AM STHENO! QUEEN OF ALL GORGONS! AND FOR THE DEATH OF MY CHILDREN, YOU SHALL NOW FACE ME!" The gorgon queen unleashed a screech such that many of the warriors fell to their knees, blood pouring from every orifice. Though Kratos could not hear her voice over that of the monster, he could read Artemis's lips, still locked in a crazed grin. 'At last, she appears!'
As Stheno rose to her full height, Kratos saw a second, smaller pair of arms emerge from atop the temple. These began to crush the marble of the temple, and hurl it over the amazons. Many were crushed, but the survivors organized quickly. "Into the trees!" Hippolyta ordered. Kratos locked eyes with Artemis, and the pair looked back to the amazon queen, who nodded to them. They wasted no words. Kratos ran along with Artemis up either side of the temple to the scaly hide of the gorgon queen. The shorter, dumber pair of arms gave them no waylay, and with their godly speed of foot and sharpness of blade, the two Olympians ascended the slimy back of the titanic snake.
As Artemis ran along her spine, Kratos leaped to the elbow of her left arms, using his blades to both hold himself in place, and to dig into the flesh of the creature's arm. Stheno writhed and screeched in pain as arterial blood sprayed across the treetops. And when her arm finally fell, twisted and weak, to her side, she spoke again. "YOU WILL ALL DIE! FEEL MY GAZE, AND DIIIIIIIEEEE!" As her other arm reached in vain for Artemis, Kratos could see the snakes on Stheno's head gather around her eyes. From her face came an enormous beam of sickly green energy, under which Kratos saw the jungle itself turn to stone and crumble. The gorgon queen swept her destructive gaze in a slow arc across the jungle, heading for the retreating amazon legion.
"NO!" came the roar of the Moon Goddess as she reached the back of the gorgon's neck. She swung her blade, leaving great bloody marks in the creature's flesh. But Kratos could not linger and watch. Stheno's good arm swung toward him, hoping to catch and crush him in her grasp. But his godly speed exceeded hers. And with a healthy leap, he cleared the enormous hand below him. As it recoiled, to try and reach up to him, he loosed is blades and swung himself head-over-heels in the air, spinning the blades like a great wheel. And with the ease of cutting any other flesh, Kratos felt his blades cleave through Stheno's arm, removing her hand at the wrist. More blood flowed like a waterfall over the jungle, and sharp bits of bone and chunks of meat rained down as well. The useless hand twitched and clawed the earth.
But as Kratos landed and looked up in triumph, he found Artemis at steeper odds than he had left her. Though Stheno's stoney gaze had stopped, the great gorgon shook her head from side to side, attempting to swing the Moon Goddess loose as her hair of snakes assaulted her.
With an Olympic leap and grip on his blades, Kratos once again ascended the giant monster. Artemis must have seen his ascent, for with a twirl of her wrist, she unleashed a swath of red-hot energy from the blade: a power, he assumed, could only be wielded by the sword's mistress. The blast struck each of the snakes, sending them reeling to the side, exposing the ragged bit of flesh at the middle of Stheno's head, where the first giant snake had been removed.
Artemis egged Kratos on, and he increased his already-amazing speed along the creature's spine. And as he passed her, the goddess gripped his shoulder and mounted his back. With both blades drawn as Kratos reached the top of the gorgon's head, he leaped high into the air, throwing both blades to sink deeply into the ragged stump. And as the two gods, guided by Kratos's chains, swung at incredible speed toward the gorgon queen's face, Artemis raised her sword. And at the end of their swing, she plunged it deep into Stheno's forehead. The sound of Olympian metal grinding against flesh and bone was only just drowned out by the pained scream and death rattle of the gigantic gorgon.
But as the red power of the blade met the green energy leaking from the head of the gorgon queen, the air seemed to be sucked from the world around them. And within seconds, the energies exploded against each other, ripping the gorgon queen's head into chunks, and hurling both Kratos and Artemis high into the air and out over the sea.
Kratos awoke to find himself floating in the water, the marble cliffs of the island not far ahead. He found his blades sheathed loyally against his back, and searched for any sign of the goddess. "Artemis!" he called against the spray of the sea. From his back, he heard a loud whistle over the crashing waved. He saw, within the wall of marble itself, Artemis had found a crevice just above the water's reach. She waved at him, and he made his way to the wall, using the tide to carry him in.
As he reached the wall, he rode atop a wave and used his blades to sink into the marble, climbing up the sheer cliff to the cave where Artemis lay. Crawling inside, he found the Goddess of the Hunt sitting against the back of what he would almost call a cave. He approached slowly, shaking the seawater from his body as he did. "Are you well? The magic seemed sufficient to throw us quite a distance."
He saw Artemis stand and approach him. "I am quite well, God of War." And as she stepped from the shadow of the cave into her own moonlight, Kratos took in her battle-scarred form. Her armor was now reduced to scraps of leather that only just clung to her. The metal breastplate had shattered, and did nothing to hide her heaving chest. One half of her remaining cloth held no purchase on her, save for the belt at her waist that had barely survived. Her sandals had been removed, and he cold see them as a ruined heap at the back of the cave.
Though her armor was near-destroyed, her features remained pristine. Her wide expanse of tan skin over strong, taut muscle lay unscathed. Her short brown hair lay wet against the sides of her face, and with a swift motion, she smoothed it back over the top of her head. As their eyes locked, Kratos could feel that wanton lust again, and see it in her dark eyes. The Huntress's lips curled and she leaped at him. Not with dagger or sword, but with pure angry passion.
He caught her around her waste and embraced her lips as they tore at his. Her left hand scraped down along his muscled spine while her right hand gripped the back of his neck. His left hand did the same, journeying into her dark hair at the back her her head. She threw her head back as he kissed her neck. With his greater strength, he pushed her against the wall of the cave, turning her back to him. He feasted on her neck and squeezed her exposed breast, as hard with muscle and ecstasy as the marble itself.
But with a flick of her arm beneath his, Artemis was in control again. She held him against the same wall, with one hand at his throat and the other on his shoulder, biting into his collar and grinding against his chiseled form. But Kratos was now consumed by the fires within, and would not give up without a fight. He gripped both of her tightly-muscled thighs and lifted her, pressing them both to the ground with he atop her and between her legs.
But Artemis had expected this, and pulled her knees together beneath his stomach. Grabbing each of his shoulders and using her knees to lift, she flung Kratos over her head, where he landed on his back in the cave. As quick as a flash, she sat straddling him, her sword in her hand. But as she began to grind again, she smiled and held the blade, now its original blue color, to his chest. "Do you think a virgin goddess's chastity is so easily won?" She lifted herself from atop him and stepped toward the cave entrance, holding her sword.
Kratos stood up, leaning against the cave wall and grinning at their little game. "What more would you have me do?" he asked, smirking. "Best you in combat?"
She turned back toward him, her wolfish grin now returned. "I will be competing in Hades's tournament. Best me in the final round, and we shall see if you are truly worthy of my garter." Fingering the blade again, Artemis regarded its color and shape. "It seems that it took all of the sword's power to kill Stheno." She turned the sword over in her hand and offered the handle to Kratos. "Here. You've done it once, now do so again. Sharpen the sword and fill it with the blood and power of combat. I will take it back when I have beaten you in the tournament." The Huntress smiled devilishly, and Kratos merely returned the smirk as he took the sword.
Out in the darkness of the sea, Kratos heard a large horn blowing. Artemis turned at the sound and stepped to the end of the cave. "That is Hippolyta's horn. The island is hers, and they are setting sail back to Themiscyra."
Kratos nodded. "Good. It was a successful hunt, then."
"In more ways than one," Artemis remarked. "And by the way," she continued as she turned away from him. "You must tell me what became of Aerim. When you discover how to return to Olympus." Kratos's eyes narrowed at the goddess. But before he could utter a word, she turned back toward him, and the moonlight flashed brightly over her body. When the light had faded, Artemis was gone.
At first Kratos thought to destroy the cave. But his anger quickly subsided into amusement. It had been a good, long hunt. And he had many things to deliberate on. Falling into a sitting position, he found Achilles's skull still within the bag on his belt. Elated, he closed his eyes and folded his legs, laying the sword across his thighs. And as he listened to the waves crash against the marble cliffs, he began to think.