The Ghost knelt at Ares’s feet, where the stench of blood was nearly overpowering. The altar was stained with it, and the bowl at the god’s feet was full from a fresh sacrifice. The power present in this place was undeniable—dark and forbidding, far from the peace and serenity in Sulis’s temples. But he was no longer worthy of Sulis’s blessing. The Ghost drew his dagger, held his left forearm over the sacrificial bowl, and sliced a new cut alongside his numerous scars. As he bled into the bowl, he felt the magic of the place coalesce around him. His blood sizzled as it hit the bowl, and the wound on his arm healed instantly, signaling that The Ghost truly belonged to the Saloynan god.
A door opened behind him, he stood and faced the high priest. Zotico was completely bald and looked no older than he had when The Ghost had first met him ten long years ago. He had small, beady eyes and a typical Saloynan narrow nose. “Pandaros! How wonderful!” the priest beamed, calling The Ghost a name he’d decided he must take up again. He could no longer be either “Ahearn” and “Darhour”; they were both dead. “Rumors said you were no longer among the living. Come in, come in.” Zotico gestured toward the doorway. “I can’t tell you how happy I am to see you.”
Zotico’s enthusiasm seemed excessive even for him. Warily, The Ghost followed Zotico down the corridor to the high priest’s office. It was large, the walls covered with instruments of war—swords, shields, battle axes, and plaques ornamented with what looked suspiciously like human ears. The ears were new. Zotico caught The Ghost looking at them and swept his hand over a plaque that contained five ears nailed side by side. “Do you like the new decor? Sacrifices, all of them. I had them moved from our private sanctuary so I could better remember the devotion demanded by the god I serve.”
Zotico may not appear to age, but his ghoulishness grew with each passing year. The Ghost carefully schooled his features to avoid betraying any sign of revulsion.
In the center of the office was a large desk with one chair behind it and two large, comfortable chairs facing it. Zotico gestured The Ghost into one of the facing chairs. The Ghost sat, and the high priest offered him a glass of oenomel, a sweet mixture of honey and wine. Zotico poured himself a glass from the same pitcher and sat behind the desk. “Pandaros, my friend. Why have you neglected your obligations to Ares?”
The Ghost waited for Zotico to take a sip of his drink, then took one of his own. It was cloying in its sweetness. “I’ve been distracted.”
Zotico smiled sadly. “A true tragedy. There’s no one better with a blade.” The priest mimed drawing a knife across his own throat. “I’ve had acolytes scouring the city more than once looking for you, but I gave up years ago when not the slightest sign of your whereabouts could be found. Tell me, my son, where have you been?”
“Away.” The Ghost had no intention of ever letting Zotico learn anything about Samantha, who was both his daughter and his queen. Because of his careful disguise, Zotico believed The Ghost was a Saloynan.
Zotico laughed. “Long have I wished for the power of Delphi to penetrate your secrets. Is there a person in the world who knows even half of them?” Zotico looked expectantly at him, but The Ghost didn’t answer. “I see my curiosity shall have to be contained. Ares is a harsh master and not attentive to trifles. Still, I can’t tell you how happy I am that you have now returned to his fold. His temple has truly felt your absence.”
The Ghost grunted, “Do you have a job for me?”
Zotico’s eyes gleamed. “Do I ever! I’d nearly despaired of finding a capable assassin, but your fortunate arrival proves that Ares will never fail those who serve his name.”
“Who do you want dead?”
“I think it would be best explained by the one in need of Ares’s assistance, but I assure you it is your sort of kill. May I tell the client you’ll meet?”
The Ghost nodded.
Zotico’s entire body relaxed. “Good, good. The client would prefer not to be seen here. I’ve an arrangement with the high priestess of Aphrodite. The two gods were lovers, after all. Enter the goddess’s temple tomorrow morning and choose the acolyte wearing the pendant of a vulture.” Zotico smiled broadly. “Pandaros, my friend, it is a great day for you to have returned.”
“You are not my friend.” The Ghost left with Zotico’s laughter ringing in his ears.