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By Alana Church
Artwork by Moira Nelligar
Copyright 2017 Alana Church
~~ All characters in this book are over 18. ~~
Greece; April 1941
“High Priestess! The Germans are coming!”
Elysia rose from her kneeling position in the temple. She pulled her eyes away from the holy flame and smiled sadly at the young maiden who came pelting down the nave towards her.
“Yes, Callista. I know.” Indeed, the low growl of tank treads had been growing louder for the past hour, along with sporadic rifle fire. But the army had fled south, trying to find a place to make a stand. The first attack by the Italians, the previous autumn, had been thrown back by their valiant but outnumbered troops. But when the Germans invaded from the north a few months later, the Kingdom of Greece had been helpless to stop the crushing tide.
The girl tugged at her arm. “You must flee!”
The older woman shook her head. “And where would I go, child? Where can I hide? He is coming for me. There is no place in this wide green world where I would be safe from him.” Her eyes were grave. “He finally has the war he wants. The world will burn, and he will laugh as it does.
“But come.” Her voice grew brisk. “We have no time to waste. We must protect our lady. With our lives, if necessary.”
Taking Callista by the hand, she led her through the maze of the temple to her private rooms, given over to the high priestess. As she did, she grieved. She had hoped the Nazis would overlook the small town. Aphrodissia had no importance, aside from the ancient temple where generations beyond count had worshiped the goddess of sexual desire. But the spite of Ares knew no bounds. His howling need for vengeance had driven the Germans to their very door.
“Here,” she said, opening the door to her bedchamber and striding across the room. On a marble plinth beside her bed, a bronze statue stood. Not much longer than her forearm, it was a gorgeous representation of their lady, the goddess Aphrodite. Fully nude, she stood gazing at them with a combination of tenderness and desire.
“She feared this day would come. So we prepared. We are fortunate that my daughter is not yet of age. Nerine is a lovely child, but I do not think she has the strength for what we must do.”
“What must we do?” The young voice shook with fear, and Elysia spared a moment to pity the child. It was a hard fate to come of age in such a terrible time.
“Give me your hand,” she replied, more gently. Taking Callista's trembling fingers in her own, she set her other hand on the head of the statue.
Grant me strength.
It was not a spell, but an act of will. Without Callista's strength and the aid of the Goddess, she would have had no chance of succeeding. But with a wrenching scream, she felt the holy presence of Aphrodite leave her, now bound to the statue.
She sagged in pain and weariness. For the first time since she was seventeen years old, she was alone. Tears dripped down her cheeks as she sobbed.
From down the hall came the harsh sound of jackboots, their hobnailed soles striking the clean marble of the temple floors in terrible unison.
Well, she thought bleakly. At least my time for grieving will be short. She looked into Callista's eyes, finding a mirror to her own terror.
“Elysia,” the young girl whispered. “Will you bless me before...before they come?”
“Gladly,” she replied. She brushed the acolyte's cheek with a shaking finger. “Be strong,” she whispered. “You are beloved of our lady, and will be reunited with her in glory.” Bending her head, she caught the younger woman's mouth in a warm lover's kiss. With a moan that was half a sob, Callista's arms wrapped around her head, the way a drowning man's would around a piece of flotsam.
“Filthy degenerates,” snarled a hateful voice. A German officer strode into the room, his face sick with loathing. On his peaked cap, a silver skull and crossbones, the symbol of the Totenkopf, leered at her. A squad of riflemen stood at his back.
She turned to face him, protecting Callista with her body. “So, Ares' dog is here. Do you even know why you are come to profane this place, hound?”
“I came to kill. You and all your kind.” He spat on the marble floor, his contemptuous gaze taking in the heavy curtains, the costly furnishings, the opulent bed. “Your time is over, bitch. The time of the warrior is here. You and your weakling goddess will be no more. Forever.”
He raised a pistol to her face. She gazed at it unflinchingly. Never, she swore, would she reveal that the spirit of the goddess had left her body and was beyond his reach.
The gun barked once. Paused, then twice more. Two forms slumped to the floor, their blood mingling.
A death's-head grin crossed the harsh face as he spied the figurine. “Ah. A token.” He tossed the statue to a soldier, who caught it instinctively. “Send that to Berlin. Our fuhrer has an eye for art. I think this might...amuse him.”
The men marched away.
None of them could hear the sound of a goddess screaming in rage and loss.
St. Louis, Missouri; February.
“Wake up, Nicky.”
“Come on.” She shook her adopted son's solid young shoulder. “It's time to get up.”
“No.” He rolled over, snuggling deeper into the embrace of his down comforter, pulling it firmly up over his head.
Phaedra sighed and gave the back of his head a firm poke. “It's nearly eight. You promised you'd help me today at the museum.”
Curly, jet-black hair appeared, followed by a dark eye, framed by long lashes, as he lowered the blanket. So like his mother. “Why would I say something dumb like that?”
She tried to keep the smile off her face, but one lip twitched. “Probably because the museum promised to pay you for helping. And you need money if you're going to take Taylor out for Valentine's Day.”
“All right, all right.” He threw back the comforter and sheets, rising into a sitting position. His feet hit the cold apartment floor, and he hissed, pulling them back up. The blanket covered his lap as he yawned, his face cradled in his hands. “I'm up. See, mana mou?”
She cocked her head, ignoring the sight of his athletic young body. “You only call me that when you want something.” She folded her arms across her chest, cocking her head. “What is it?”
He blushed, his dark Greek skin turning even darker. “I was wondering if...if you could think about pushing out my curfew a bit the next time Taylor and I go out. I mean...ten o'clock is pretty early. Especially for a date.”
“I'll think about it,” she said noncommittally. She raised her eyebrows. “Exactly whatwere you planning to do with all that extra time?”
“Do you really want to know, Aunt Phaedra?” His black eyes danced.
“Now that you mention it, no.” She beat a hasty retreat for the hallway. “I've already showered, so the bathroom's free. You've got thirty minutes before I leave for the museum.”
“So what are we doing today, anyway?” Nick asked as she guided the car through the cold, rainy streets of St. Louis. A warm front had moved in over the night, and the snow that had fallen the previous week was retreating into sodden lumps under the leafless trees. This early on a weekend morning, the downtown area was all but deserted. Only a few hurrying figures, their heads bent against the cold gusts of wind, trudged along the sidewalks.
She pulled her Pontiac into the parking lot of the St. Louis Art Museum. “Old Archibald Miller finally died last week. He willed his art collection to the museum. They called me in to do an evaluation of the Hellenistic pieces to see what was worth keeping and what was junk.”
He nodded in understanding as they climbed out of the car. Dr. Phaedra Laskaris was recognized as one of the foremost authorities on Greek antiquities in America. When her professorial duties at St. Louis University permitted it, she was often consulted on the provenance and value of works of ancient art. One word from her was enough to make or break the value of a collection.
“Athena's Teeth! That's cold,” she swore, as a blast of wintry wind flung rain and sleet into their faces.
He raised the umbrella over their heads, protecting her from the weather as she rooted in the trunk for her laptop bag. Together they approached the front doors of the museum, framed in Greek-style columns that gave it an imposing appearance. He instinctively slowed down, matching his long strides to her own limping pace.
We're two sides of the same scarred coin, he thought, more than a little bitterly. Their two families had known each other for generations, emigrating to America together after the Second World War. Settling in Greektown on the south side of St. Louis, the Laskaris and the Antonopoulos clans had lived in the same neighborhood for decades.
But then the fire came. Tearing through the house where they lived, it had almost destroyed Phaedra's entire family when she was a small child. Her parents, grandfather, two older brothers, and younger sister had all died. She had barely survived, terrible burns marking her face and left side, from foot to shoulder. The only other person who had escaped was her grandmother.
The two traumatized survivors had been taken in by Nick's family, though he had not been born yet. Phaedra and his mother had been inseparable through their teenage years, and Phaedra had been the maid of honor at Sophia's wedding.
But then tragedy struck again. When he was four years old, a car crash had taken the lives of his parents and younger sister, the vehicle spinning out of control during an ice storm one cold March night. Striking a utility pole, his family had perished instantly. He had been found hours later, asleep in his safety seat, with not a mark on his body. The news media had immediately dubbed him the “miracle baby,” and people from miles around had exclaimed how God had saved him from certain death.
If God wanted to save me, he could have done it without killing Mom and Dad and Anna, he scowled.
Unmarried, childless Phaedra had taken in parentless Nikki, returning the gift she had been given nearly twenty years before. Some event before Nikki's birth had estranged Sophia from the rest of her family, but Phaedra had remained true to her best friend. After a few years, she had formalized the adoption, and they had lived contentedly in her apartment. Nick had been accepted into St. Louis University himself only a few months ago, though he had little interest in his step-mother's passion for Hellenistic culture. He was going to attend the School of Business, and had dreams of being an executive for a professional sports team.
Maybe even the Cardinals, he thought, looking to the east. The light towers of Busch Stadium were just visible in the murk. I couldn't do any worse than those jokers they have running the place now.
Bypassing the front doors, which were already drawing a sparse crowd, they went around the side of the building to a plain metal door adorned with the words, 'Staff Only.' Nick tried the knob, but it was locked. Swearing softly under his breath, he hit the door with the heel of his hand several times, making a low, booming sound.
The door finally opened, a scowling, wizened face looking through the narrow opening. “Go around to the front,” he snapped. “Can't you people read?”
Nick shoved his foot into the opening before the door could slam shut. “We can read just fine,” he said. He tilted his head at his step-mother. “This is Dr. Laskaris. She's here to examine some artwork for the museum. Unless you'd rather we go away and then tell the Antiquities Department that you guys wouldn't let her in?”
The security guard looked them up and down, then grudgingly swung the door open. “I'll need to see some ID,” he said, stumping back to a low desk that blocked the hall. A metal detector like those used in airports took up the remaining space.
“Here,” said Phaedra, holding out her driver's license and her staff ID card from SLU.