At Kratos's acquiescence, the tournament was begun. Testing their might against the most savage of beasts, and most unyielding of opponents from across the known world and beneath it, competitors came from the four winds for glory, for victory, and the prize: one favor from Hades, Lord of the Dead.
But Kratos cared little for glory or favor. He wished only to prove himself. To Hades, to Olympus, to Sparta, and to himself, that he was still the great and noble warrior he had once been. And to Artemis, who had recently caught his eye. Her spirit was wild and cunning, her mothods tactful and precise. Her beauty was not a frail one, but a powerful, fearsome one. He admired her in so many ways, and it made her infinitely appealing. Her teases had been both annoying and intriguing, and Kratos could not keep himself away.
But first and foremost, Kratos was a warrior, a leader. And he would hone his skills so that he may lead Sparta to greater heights as its patron god. With his newfound pride in his warrior spirit, he no longer felt bound by the politics of Olympus, and he allowed himself to revel in the combat.
His blades split the air as he eviscerated another hellhound, one of many that had quickly multiplied from the original beast. He kicked another one, sending it crashing into several of its fellow clumsy spawn. The original, who had now grown to the size of three bulls, leaped at him. Throwing his blades though the air, he impaled the beast between its three heads. The creature landed at his feet, hemorraging blood. Using his godly strength, he whipped the creature through the air like a morning-star, crushing all of the pups to a bloody paste. And as the creature lay dazed, he stepped over to it and thrust the blades further into its body, making it howl between gouts of blood. He climbed over the creature on to its back, as if to saddle it. But with his strength, he pulled the chains of his blades and watched as the weapons cleaved the creature into thirds. And like the other creatures of Hades's domain, it vanished it a cloud of black smoke as it died.
Kratos hung his blades upon his back, where their magic helped them remain suspsended. “Is this all you have, Hades?” Kratos sneered under his breath. But he knew that this was scarcely a taste of what was in store for him. The tournament had only been underway for a few days. And as disappointed as he had felt with this challenge, he had barely slept. He was invigorated, his every sense ablaze. It had done him good to return to the fight. He had spent little time in his chambers, though. At least the meeting with Zeus no longer loomed before him, and that meant he would no longer have to suffer visits from Hermes.
A floating rock platform descended from above. Kratos stepped upon it and it lifted him out of the arena, which quickly bathed itself in flame to expel any gore or blood from the previous battles. As he reached the viewing steps, he saw the only watcher: Artemis. He stepped toward her, a slight smirk on his face. “Come to see the show, Huntress?”
She scoffed playfully. “Hardly a show, God of War. If such entertainment truly impressed me, I would have watched your exploits in Pandora's temple more thoroughly.” She stood, placing one foot on the next step up. Kratos thought it little more than an attempt to showcase her armor, or lackthereof. Her bracers and combat skirt were made of dark leather, edged with fur, and the calf straps of her sandals rode nearly to the back of her knees. The only metal to be seen was on her breastplate and tiara, both simple and inornate with a cold, bright shine even in the light of the fire below.
“Your tactics are quick and brutal,” she said coldly, calculating. “You rarely strategize and often take the head-on approach, wildly swinging your blades.”
Kratos had learned to keep his cool to the goddess's comments. Anger only seemed to fuel her. Instead, he smirked. “Any game is chaos to those who know it not.”
Her eyes and her smile narrowed, as if choosing which piece of his statement to pick apart. He had baited her well. “I know the game quite intimately, God of War. Perhaps we should each agree to battle unarmed and unmagicked from now on.” Kratos's blood heated at the thought of their wrestling on Serpent Isle. “Or perhaps that will be ample reward for if you defeat me...” she teased dryly.
With that, she stepped past Kratos and on to the platform. The arena below had been cleansed, and the flames receded. “When!” Kratos shouted to the descending huntress. She turned back toward him, quirking a brow beneath her tiara. “When I defeat you” he said.
In the time it took her to flash a glaring smirk, she had pulled her bow and fired an arrow from the quiver on her back. He reached up, using what Olympian speed he had gained. The arrow seemed to whisper in his ear as it flew past him, the steel embedding in the rising stone steps behind him and leaving him with naught but a closed fist. Artemis smirked and turned back to the arena as the platform met with it. She stepped down to face a pair of chimeras.
With Artemis occupied, Kratos opened his hand. In it, was a single feather from the end of the arrow. He was getting there. By the time the tournament came to an end, he would be ready for the Goddess of the Hunt.
Rather than take a seat and watch the battle, as she had undoubtedly done with him, he followed the rising steps to the top. He followed one of many pathways at the top of the circular arena that led out into the open air of the Underworld. The path continued forward, toward a glowing portal. At either side of the path were statues of Hades in his various forms, covered at their bases in vines and leaves of darkest black. Was it true that even in the Underworld, life survived? Or was it, like hope, an illusion of Hades's?
As Kratos passed through the portal, he thought of his hall. Upon passing through the light, Kratos found himself there. Instantly, he felt relieved. Not only did Hades's domain itself give off an aura of dismay, but Kratos had at last come to think of his hall as a home. He had decorated the walls with traditional Spartan drapery; deep crimson with golden trimming. He had remade the torches and the arms of his throne to resemble rams, his chosen agalma. Like him, they found their homes atop the treacherous mountain peaks.
He stepped up to his prayer well and twitched. Days ago, he had brought some of the water to Morpheus for his personal use. The former god of dreams had sent him away, claiming he would contact him when his next whim came to mind. Kratos did not enjoy thoughts of the conniver, but the water in his well now did not quite meet the edges as it once had, and it irked him.
But with a concentration of will, Kratos looked into the water to see the Spartan soldier from the night of the Sphinx. The soldier was training, matching against a fellow warrior in the glow of torchlight. Kratos merely watched for several moments as the boy disabled his comrade. He had potential, Kratos thought. “Boy,” he called through the waters.
The soldier looked toward the sky, and seeminly up to Kratos. “My lord? It has been many days. I am glad to hear of you.”
“How do your wounds fair?” Kratos asked.
The soldier rolled his shoulders and brandished his weapons, as if stretching for another session. “I am well again. The Sphinx left naught but a few scars. You impressed many people that night, my lord.”
Kratos gave himself a bitter smile. “The King was not among them, I assume.”
“No,” the soldier looked down. “No, he is not an easy sort to sway. But he has done us well. And I believe you can do us well, God of War.”
“Good. I will call upon you again soon.”
The soldier saluted and bowed, and the image in the water dissipated. The day had been long, and Kratos took refuge in his throne. The combat had been good for him. He felt fulfilled for the first time in months. He felt as if he could pass away peacefully into sleep. But Sparta worried him. He wondered if he could sway the king, and the kingdom. What could he do to earn their trust as a leader, or their respect as a god?
And of course, there were his nightmares. He had hoped Morpheus would makes haste with his demands so that he might be rid of the visions.
As he sat there, pondering, the doors of his hall swept open. Between them came Athena. She was as beautiful as ever in a fine green gown and her usual golden tiara. Though her walk and the chill in her eyes informed him that this was not merely a social calling. Though he was no less glad to see her. “Athena!” he called happily. “Come in. I only just returned, myself.”
Despite her eyes, she smiled softly. “Yes, it is good to see you again, too. We have had such little time together as of late...”
“My apologies. I have been busy.” Kratos said, standing and stepping toward her.
“It is not your fault. You are a new god, and you have many affairs to attend to.” The cold mask of business began to crack as Kratos approached her. Her cheeks pinkened as her mouth curled into a small smile. He could not help but smile with her.
But she blinked and shook her head slightly, as if reminding herself. “But I must speak with you on an important matter.” She tented her hands in front of her, walking past him. When she turned back, the cold had returned. “As I said, I know you are a new god. And I am glad that you have managed to shed your woes and begun exploring the possibilities now open to you. I really am.” Kratos's brows furrowed, and one rose. Athena had never acted this way. What was her intention?
“However,” she continued, approaching the red banner at his wall, “we must discuss your activities of late.” She sighed as she turned back toward him, eyes rising from the ground. “I know of your foray with Artemis.”
Kratos froze. How could she know? How much did she know? “Athena, I...”
She held up a hand, her eyes closed. “Please, allow me to finish. I know not the details of your quest beyond the defeat of the gorgon Stheno. I remember her. She was a cruel woman, and I fear the curse and her years of imprisonment at her sisters' hands did little for her temperament. You did well to destroy her.” Kratos's face evened, though her tone implied that there was more going on. “I saw the sack, Kratos.” He stiffened. The sack from Achilles's tomb. She had seen it. Worry rolled over him, but he tried not let it show.
“She closed her eyes again and rested her hands together over her lower body. “I'll not ask why or how it came into your posession. It is no longer my place to command you or cast judgement.” Her eyes opened again, brows knitted in a pleading, sympathetic fashion. “But you are among the gods now, Kratos. Your power comes not only from the magic of Olympus, but from the belief and respect of those below, and those around you. Should you let that slip from you... I fear you will never know peace. Eternity is a very long time to live, Kratos.” Once again, she looked down and turned away.
Kratos felt ashamed. Could she know of what happened in the rock face of Leuke? He had never intended to hurt her. Artemis was... something. But whatever she was, she was not what Athena was to him. He approached her, clenching and unclenching his hands, absently rubbing his bald head. “What is it that you ask of me, Athena?”
“She turned back to him, once again confident, but her chill had faded. “I want you to stop this foolishness. Stop looking below for your next quest. I have heard of Hades's tournament. But you are not a mere warrior anymore, you are a god! We are the shapers of the world, and thus we carry our responsibility amongst one another. If Sparta is where your heart lies, then speak to Demeter and bless their crops. Gain Poseidon's favor and let their warships sail uninhibited. You cannot hide from Olympus in petty distractions and games. If you do, they will forever hate you and call you pariah. Maybe even one day turn on you as they did Ares.”
Athena's words stabbed at him. He knew that Artemis's campaign had been less than he was worth. He knew that the gods would see it, and likely disapprove. And he knew that without the rest of Olympus, he would lead an eternity worse than death. He knew these things. “I wish I could change as the wind changes,” he growled, mostly to himself. He turned his back to her, putting his head down. “I wish that I could accept this way of life. But it is hard.”
He stepped over to his throne, looking over it and thinking on what it represented. “I was a soldier. A Spartan. From birth, I was trained to follow commands and concieve of strategy. To best an opponent. He looked at the throne, and up into the high ceiling above him. “But where is my opponent now? You say I have no need to fight, but I know how to do little else.” He turned back to her, and looked into her emerald eyes. “I agree. I have much to do before I am a proper god. But as the God of War, I am looked to for strength, and the guidance to use it. As a general, I fought many battles and claimed many victories. But here? I feel as a child would, wandering a maze. I must learn to guide myself before I may guide others.”
He stepped closer to Athena. At first he wished to hold her hands, but could only raise his own in gesture, hoping she would understand. “The tournament is not a distraction. It is an affirmation to myself. That I can still think as a leader. And to prove -to Sparta and to myself- that I am more than the monsters I have slain.” He looked down between them and closed his eyes, ashamed.
But as he felt her soft hands slip into his, his gaze lifted and eyes brightened. “You are, Kratos. You are so much more.” She stepped toward him, raising a hand to his cheek. Her breathing fluttered, while her cheeks flushed pink. Could this be the moment? She was so close. Could he lean in and kiss her?
Their eyes locked and he saw into her emerald pools. In them he saw the universe. And he saw her reluctance before her eyes could flutter and pull away. She turned away from him, and her statue-esque composure returned. “You are a good man, Kratos. Had I not seen it, I would not have made you a god. You can be a good Olympian, a true God of War. I know you will. And I will allow you to do it in your own way, and in your own time. But do not forget the odds and time that is against you. And do not forget that I am here to be your...” Athena's voice wavered for a moment. “To help you.”
Kratos stiffened, trying to match her once-again businesslike tone. “I will not forget. Thank you, Athena.” She nodded.
“Then I wish you good evening” she said lowly. At her will, the doors of his hall cracked open enough to allow her leave. And with her passing, the door closed, leaving Kratos to stand alone in his hall once again. With his body weary and his wits at an end, he retired to his bed, hoping for rest.
Fool of a goddess! She cursed to herself as she closed and locked the doors of her hall behind her. Her tears flowed as she was finally safe in her chambers from prying eyes.
How could she have been so dull? He had nearly kissed her and she'd backed away! Stupid! What better timing could there have been than that?! She wept into her sheets, cursing her indecision.
She heard the flutter of wings and the clicking of talons on ivory. She opened her reddened eyes to see Bubo watching her from his perch beside her bed, a concerned chirp from his beak. “Oh, Bubo” she said, attemping to calm herself. “Why must love be so hard? How can I be laid low by such a simple emotion?” Athena sat up on her bed, looking out to the sky in her walls. “It frustrates me so. I want to tell him, but I cannot. Why? I have the clearest mind on all Olympus, but I cannot parse through this human emotion? It ties my words and splits my intentions so.”
Bubo hooted sympathetically, leaning toward her. She reahed out and stroked his golden feathers. His large, brown eyes remained with hers, comforting her. “Yes, of course” she said, wiping her tears. “My mind is my strength. So I must use it.”
She folded her legs and laced her fingers together, setting her elbows on her knees. She closed her eyes and focused. Bubo fluttered into her lap like an ordinary bird into a nest.
“Why couldn't I speak?” She asked aloud. “What held me back?”
Bubo shrieked, flapping his wings as he settled into her lap. “Yes, fear. But fear of what?” She thought harder for a moment, pushing her emotions into rooms and boxes in her head. “Uncertainty? Perhaps Kratos does not see me the same way. Was his advance truly that? Or a trick of my emotions?”
She looked down at her bird, nestled gently in her lap. His eyes were cool now, and the horns of his feathery crown stood straight and unruffled. “Yes, of course. I cannot forget my role as his teacher. It would do no good to chastise him should I express my love.” Athena thought to herself. Even with her discipline, it would be too difficult to be both his tutor and his lover. The conflict of ideals would teach him nothing, and neither of them would be happy. Was his ascendance as a god more important than their love?
She did not need Bubo's aid for the answer. No. A clear mind puts the greatest good for the greatest number at the forefront. If Kratos were to slip in his evolution, or if the secrets of their past somehow came to light, it could be disastrous for the world, and perhaps Olympus. A few more fleeting moments of possible love were not worth that risk.
She knew now what she must do. She would wait. As he said, Kratos needed to learn to guide himself. Revealing her affections for him would be naught but a distraction, and possibly a hindrance. She must remain his teacher, a driving force.
As she breathed a relieved sigh, Bubo fluttered again and left her lap. His great wings carried him back to his ivory perch beside her bed and he hooted approvingly.
However, she thought, it would be best to cover all of the angles. This mortal love was a debilitating thing, enough to rattle her. Her perception of Kratos was skewed, if only just so. She would need an outside perspective to keep tabs on his development as a god, as well as his feelings. Clio's words were comforting, but she was her friend. And as such, her words were skewed as well. She would need someone else. But Kratos affiliated with so few people.
Dionysus. He and Kratos had shared many evenings. His eyes and tongue, while famous for their own journeys, would have to suffice. Standing up, Athena began to disrobe. A quick dip in her pool would calm her mind. And in the morning, she would go to Dionysus. She feared what debauchery might fill his nights. A second thought suggested that she approach him closer to mid-day. And with that thought, she lowered her body into the cool water, letting its magic bring her mind to peace.
The Lord of the Dead watched as his messenger hound carried his writings through the Hyperion Gate to Olympus. From there it would find the hands of a slave, and finally make its way to Earth. Hercules, of all people, had heard of the tournament and demanded an invitation. After much time spent, Hades had managed to secure in writing his utter refusal and disdain for the demigod trash. He had not laughed so heartily in many a year. The legends might paint Zeus's brat as a hero and a good man, but he knew neither to be true.
The sounds of combat drew him to his Prayer Well. Though few mortals dared pray to him, he could watch the deaths of many, and the battles in his arena through the water. This day he was treated to the slaughter of a wave of satyrs by the warrior Ajax. A fool in life, Ajax had learned little in death. His disgrace over losing his right to Achilles's armor had caused him to end his life. Such a strong man with a weak heart and mind.
He thought back to the rounds that had already past. Perseus had lost, and escaped with only his life. Coward. The Fates would deal with him. The would-be amazon, Caenis, had shown little of her worth. But as a woman, and a daughter of the Lapiths, what little could there be to show? Hades chuckled to himself. Watching her face Apollo's other brood, the centaurs, had been quite satisfying. The grief as she slew them did his empty heart well. She would not win. But she would be entertaining.
As he drank deep the wine of his personal vineyard, Hades had considered the possibilities. But they all paled in comparison to his current plan. Kratos was right where he had wanted him for so long. And even his best-laid plans so rarely came to fruition. Should Hercules, or any other warrior, actually win the tournament and face Kratos, it would spoil everything.
No. He would wait. He would carefully tend the thorns of the path Kratos now walked, and watch him fall, bloody, into his trap.