Lore by Alexandra Bracken
For my Greek family. Σας αγαπώ όλους.
The lord of sky stood bright against the fall
of twilight and spoke: Hear me, blooded heirs
of those proud men who ventured into the
darkness to slay those monsters and kings past.
I call you to a final agon to
win your own lasting glory. Nine gods have
betrayed me and now demand cruel revenge.
For seven days at the turn of seven
years will they walk as mortal so you men,
and all your heirs henceforth, may break your own
fated path and turn your thread of life to
immortal gold. Reveal your strength and skills and
I will reward you with the mantle
and the deathless power of the god whose blood
stains your bold blade. For this chance I ask much.
Gather at the navel of the known world
and begin your hunt when the day is born.
So it shall be until that final day
when one remains who is remade whole.
Zeus at Olympia,
translated by Kreon of the Odysseides
He woke to the feeling of rough ground beneath him and the stench of mortal blood.
His body was slower to recover than his mind. Unwelcome sensations burned through him as his skin tightened like newly fired clay.
The dew of the grass seeped into the back of his thin blue robe, and he felt the dirt splattered on his bare legs and feet. A humiliating shiver passed through him, sweeping from scalp to heel. For the first time in seven years, he caught a chill.
The mortal blood that flowed through him was like sludge compared to the liquid sunlight of the ichor that had burned away all traces of his mortality and released him back into the world. For seven years, he had swept through lands near and far, stoked the vicious hearts of killers, nurtured the embers of conflicts into flames. He had been rage itself.
To feel the boundaries of a body again . . . to be poured back into this weak vessel . . . it was torment enough to make him pity the old gods. They had lived this atrocity two hundred and twelve times over.
He would not. This would be his final taste of mortality.
His senses were dulled, but he recognized the city and its grand park. The smell of mowed grass mingling with faint sewage. The sound of traffic in the near distance. The electric, restless feel of its veins deep beneath the street.
The corners of his mouth stretched up awkwardly, forced to remember how to smile. It had been his city once, in his mortal life; the streets had offered him riches, and the greedy had sold him pieces of power. Manhattan had once knelt before him, and would again.
He rolled, shifting into a crouch. When he was certain of his limbs, he rose slowly to his full height.
Dark blood flowed in rivers around him. A young girl, her mask ripped from her face, stared at him with unseeing eyes from the edge of the crater. A knife was still buried in her throat. A man’s head, severed from his body, bore the mask of a horse. A dagger was balanced in a limp hand that was missing fingers.
There was a faint shuffle of footsteps to his right. He reached for a sword that was no longer at his side. Three figures stepped out from beneath the shadow of the nearby trees. They crossed the paved trail between them, their faces hidden by bronze masks that each bore the visage of a serpent.
His mortal bloodline. The House of Kadmos. They had come to collect him, their new god.
He stretched his neck until it cracked, watching their approach. The hunters were awed, and it pleased him. His predecessor, the last new Ares, had been unworthy to hold the mantle of the god of war. It had been an unspeakable pleasure to kill him and claim his birthright seven years ago.
The tallest of the three hunters stepped forward. Belen. The new god watched, amused, as the young man plucked the arrows from the bodies in a ruthless harvest.
A shame that his only surviving offspring had been born a bastard. He could not be the heir of Aristos Kadmou, the mortal the new god had once been. Still, his lips curved, and he welcomed the glow of pride at the sight of the young man.
Belen lifted his mask and lowered his gaze respectfully. The god reached up, feeling along the lines of his face. The boy’s was so much like his own now. The scarred husk of decades had been peeled away from the god when he had ascended, leaving him young again. In his prime, forever.
“Most honored of us all,” Belen said, kneeling. He offered the new god a rolled bundle from the bag at his hip—a crimson silk tunic to replace the hideous sky-blue one he wore now. “We welcome you and offer the blood of your enemies in tribute to your name, as a sign of our undying loyalty. We are here to protect you with our lives until the time comes for you to be reborn again in power.”
The words were gravel in the new god’s throat. “Beyond that.”
“Yes, my lord,” Belen said.
More hunters approached from behind Belen, all cloaked in a hunter’s black. They dragged a figure also wearing a tunic of sky blue.
“Bring him to me,” he told Belen.
Two black SUVs, their lights off, approached from the nearby street and drove over the grass to reach them. The Kadmides then began their work. They unrolled tarps on Central Park’s grass and rolled the dead hunters onto them. They overturned the soil. Replaced the bloodied grass. Loaded the brutalized carcasses into the trunk of yet another SUV pulling up behind them.
This same ritual, he knew, was being performed by the other bloodlines across the park.
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