The centaur stood looking out at the dark night. Even the cold lights of the stars in the sky seemed to be mocking him. But he was used to that. He'd spent a lifetime dealing with torment and tyranny, abuse and grief. And he'd survived, but it had all left him scarred, with a bitter, angry shroud around his heart. But on this night, that heart was breaking. The one spark in his life, the one bright, shining light that still penetrated his anguish and gave him a shred of happiness, was about to flit out of his reach forever. And Nemis just couldn't let that happen. He entered his cave, approaching the shrine he had built to honor the great goddess.
"Oh, glorious Hera," he began solemnly. "I must possess the beautiful Penelope. Please, send me some sign. I will do anything to win her." The centaur threw back his head and raised his arms up in total supplication, unable to keep the desperation from his voice. "Anything."
Nemis staggered backward as his altar erupted in a shower of flame and sparks. He was momentarily blinded, but he thought he had seen two baleful eyes glowing within the firestorm. It was all gone as quickly as it had come, and as the centaur approached his shrine, he spied a huge club resting there, still sporting a few residual licks of fire. It was a massive weapon, and obviously very lethal; heavy and covered in sharp metal spikes. Nemis cautiously picked it up, extinguishing the flames. The club seemed to vibrate with energy, and the goddess' meaning was instantly clear.
"Thank you, great Hera," he murmured, a cruel smile stretching over his lips. He had promised her anything, and what she had in mind was a small price to pay for winning his beloved. Chances were, he would even enjoy it. "Now you must show me...who must I kill?"
As Hercules walked along, enjoying the beauty of the warm, sunny day, he was a bit surprised to realize that he felt... happy. It had been happening more and more lately, as he gradually worked through his grief over the loss of his family and realized that they would want him to get on with his life and continue helping those in need, which he did, in their honor. He'd been finding it easier to face each new day, and while he knew he'd never stop loving and missing his wife and children who were taken far too soon, Hercules was starting to accept the fact that he could hold them in his heart and make them proud until the day they were all together again.
When the invitation to the wedding in Nespa had found him, at first the demigod had been shocked that the bride, who he still remembered as a little girl, was even old enough to get married. He remembered the sweet child fondly, and decided it was the least he could do to go and pay tribute to his old friend. Myceum never would have forgiven him if he failed to attend the wedding of his little sister. And Hercules found he was looking forward to the event. Weddings were times of celebration, and the demigod was ready for a good party. It would be a nice break from beating up thugs and battling monsters.
He came over the top of the hill and saw a lone man on the road ahead, struggling with a heavy load. The demigod's keen eyes immediately spotted the signs that indicated the man was a soldier. He'd always had a profound respect for the brave men who fought in battle, especially since he'd stood side by side with them, more times than he cared to remember. So Hercules automatically decided to give the guy a hand with his burden, if they were going to be walking in the same direction for awhile. He sprinted down the hill, calling out to get the man's attention.
"Soldier! Where are you headed?"
"Nespa." The word was laced with weariness.
"I'm going there, myself. To a wedding. Let me give you a hand," the demigod offered. He reached down to help shoulder the load, and found a sword at his throat. "I'm not trying to steal your armor."
"Don't touch it!"
"I'm just trying to help," Hercules placated him, a bit offended.
"I don't want your help," the man told him, sounding on the verge of tears. The demigod took another look at the metal that the soldier was dragging behind him, and everything became clear.
"Two sets of armor," he said gently. "Your comrade's?"
"He died because... I was a coward," the man confessed, lowering the sword. "I'm taking his armor back to his family."
"You still have a long ways to go," Hercules pointed out, still extending the offer of help.
"It's the least I can do."
"I understand." He truly did, and respected the soldier's wish to bear his burden alone. "Good luck, my friend." The demigod continued on his way, his mood a bit sobered as he remembered too many comrades, and too many sets of armor that he'd had to bear home to grieving families. Including that of his old friend, Myceum.
"Ha ha!" The centaur laughed triumphantly. "Beat that."
"Dead center," the girl called out as she pulled the arrow from the hanging fruit. She had been matter of fact, but as she readied the target again, she gave the next shooter a special smile. "Ok, go!"
Deric aimed carefully, drawing back his bow. The arrow sailed straight and true and rivaled his companion's shot, which quickly turned his boasting into sulking.
"Huh! Why do we bother practicing?" he griped. "Even if we win an event, the groom gets the money."
"I take pride in knowing I'm as good as any of them," Deric replied with dignity.
"Then why aren't you sitting at the main table, instead of quarantined half-way to the woods?" Craesus challenged him.
"Still," Deric reasoned. "Not many people would dare invite a centaur to a wedding."
"Ten years we worked for the bride's father. And this is the thanks we get? A table between the children and where they tether their beasts?"
"Aww," Lyla exclaimed, coming up to nudge the centaur. "Are you denying the beast in you?"
"You watch your tongue," he snapped, not amused.
"Craesus is right, Lyla," Deric told her in resignation, putting an arm around her. "You'd probably be a bridesmaid if you didn't hang around with us."
"I choose my own friends," she declared, the smile leaving her face as she unconsciously moved further into his embrace.
"Lyla!" Nemis' shout startled the three of them as he threw a waterskin to the girl. "Fill it with wine. And when the time is right, add this!" He tossed another vial to her. "Hera has given me the power to win the hand of Penelope."
"Penelope?" Craesus laughed skeptically. "She's the bride!"
"Now I can show her the error of her judgment," Nemis informed them. "And with this, I will avenge my brother's death! It's a club like you've never seen." The centaur took his new weapon, whirling it dramatically in the air before using it to shatter a mighty boulder, sending a shower of rubble raining down on his three companions. "This club will kill Hercules," he promised ominously.
"Hercules? Hey, Hercules! Wait up!"
The demigod glanced behind him, immediately realizing that his peaceful walk had just come to an end.
"Not again," he muttered under his breath.
"Hercules!" The eager salesmen caught up to him, clapping him companionably on the back. "I thought it was you!"
"Salmoneus," Hercules greeted him, trying his best to sound sincere and not quite making it. "Good to see you."
"Wooo!" the salesman panted, trotting along beside him. "You got quite a stride, there."
"You should take better care of yourself," the demigod advised, putting a hand on his shoulder and well remembering when he had last parted ways with the man. "You're looking a little worn down since the last time I saw you."
"Yeah," Salmoneus chuckled. "Hey, that's not funny, my friend. It might be easy for a god to entertain fifty nubile maidens. It almost killed me."
"Almost, huh?" Hercules inquired, amused in spite of himself. "Still selling togas?"
"Nah, I got out of that racket. Style change every year," the salesman enthused. "Real estate! That's where the future is. They're not making any more land, you know? Which reminds me... Hey!" He put a hand on his companion's arm to stop him and pulled out a parchment. "Take a look at this. Isn't that beautiful? I got a great deal on some swampland in Macedonia."
"Not interested," Hercules told him firmly.
"No, I don't mean for you to buy," Salmoneus explained excitedly. "You could be my partner, huh? With your knack for moving mountains and diverting rivers, we could make a killing just subdividing by twenty extra lots."
"Not interested," the demigod repeated with a slight grin, turning and continuing on his journey. Even though he had no desire to get involved with the salesman's schemes, he still had to admire his drive and determination.
"Think about it," Salmoneus pressed him. "You don't have to decide now. Hey, Hercules, where are you going?"
"You're going to Nespa, too?" Hercules asked, getting a sinking feeling as he realized the salesman was following him.
"Yeah!" he confirmed. "There's a wedding going on there. I figure that newlyweds always need to get off on the right foot. Buy a home, a little land. See, you got your southern exposure, three kinds of... "
Hercules shook his head as the incessant babbling continued, resigning himself to the fact that it was going to be a long walk to Nespa.
"Happy?" Marcus asked his beautiful bride to be.
"Mmmmm," she replied, coming into his arms for a passionate kiss. "And you?"
"Mmmmm, very," he told her, making her giggle. His mood sobered abruptly and he moved away. "But I still think it was a mistake inviting Lyla and the centaurs."
"Marcus, we've been over this," Penelope reminded him patiently, hugging him from behind. "Lyla is one of my oldest friends. And Craesus and Deric have worked my father's farm for years. It'd be an insult not to invite them."
"Even at the risk of destroying the wedding ceremony?" he demanded, turning to face her.
"They'll be fine," she assured him, giving him a smile. "At least as long as they stay away from the wine."
"And who's going to keep them away?"
Marcus walked off and Penelope watched him go. She couldn't be annoyed with his stubbornness, for she knew that he just wanted things to be perfect for her. And the centaurs did have a reputation for being a rowdy bunch, which was not completely untrue. But she had worked long and hard to make sure that their wedding would go off as planned, and she was convinced that everything was going to go off without a hitch. She just wished she could convince her future husband of that.
Salmoneus was still pitching his proposal as they entered Nespa and made their way to the wedding site.
"Location, location, location. That's what it's all about!," he declared, slapping the parchment for emphasis. "See, I've got some Thracian hills here with views to die for."
"Not interested," Hercules said in exasperation for what felt like the hundredth time.
"No, you don't realize the potential..." the salesman trailed off as he caught sight of all the possible customers milling about the grounds. "Whoa! Look at all these prospects! Ah...guests," he corrected quickly as the demigod glared at him.
"I can't believe your ability to turn anything into a profit-making venture."
"It's a gift," Salmoneus informed him, taking the criticism as a compliment.
"Do me a favor?" Hercules pleaded. "Keep the hustling and selling to a minimum? They may be dressed for a wedding, but these are not rich people."
"You hurt me," the salesman said quietly.
"Don't tell me I've actually wounded your pride?" the demigod asked in disbelief.
"What pride?" Salmoneus scoffed. "You're cutting off my source of revenue. I'm trying to earn a living here!"
"Hercules!" Penelope cried out, running to greet him as she caught sight of him.
"Penelope!" The demigod laughed as she jumped into his arms, and he hugged her tightly, lifting her off the ground. "Oh, Penelope, look..." Hercules set her down, taking her hands as he took in the sight of the lovely young lady before him. "Look at you. You're all grown up."
"I couldn't stay twelve forever, not even for you," she teased. "I'm so happy to see you. I wasn't sure you'd come."
"What, miss the wedding of Myceum's sister?" he questioned, as if it were unthinkable.
"I wish he were here to see it," Penelope murmured with a trace of sadness.
"I know," the demigod told her, squeezing her hands. "Me too." He stepped back and reached out a hand to his companion. "This is a friend of mine, Salmoneus."
"Congratulations," the salesman greeted her, seizing the opportunity before him. "I'd like to talk to you about your future."
"Do you listen to a word I say?" Hercules demanded in aggravation.
"Which word is that?" Salmoneus inquired innocently, getting a heavy sigh from the demigod in response.
"Come," Penelope chuckled, taking Hercules by the arm. "You must be starving after your journey."
She led him off, and the intrepid salesman decided there was no time like the present to introduce himself to his first round of victims, so he scurried off to mingle with the crowds as Penelope entreated the demigod to tell her all about his latest adventures.
Later, after his hunger had been sated and Penelope excused herself to oversee some of the wedding preparations, Hercules found himself wandering the grounds, once more in the company of Salmoneus. They came upon an unofficial javelin throwing contest, where some of the guests were practicing in preparation for the competitive events to be held after the wedding. Hercules watched as a centaur galloped forward, launching his spear and sending it sailing far beyond the distance anyone else had obtained, two hundred and four paces. The demigod was impressed, glancing at his companion who was staring open mouthed at the feat. They moved in closer, and as he scanned the crowd, Hercules' attentions were caught by a beautiful woman who also had her eye on him.
"Ever seen anyone throw that far?"
The demigod's gaze left the woman and turned to the centaur, who had approached him.
"Only once," he replied.
"Oh. How about that far, with accuracy?" Craesus challenged him.
"Pick your target," Hercules accepted with a grin. Normally he didn't feel he had to prove his strength, but he was more than willing to take on a worthy adversary in a friendly contest.
"The far stump," the centaur decreed, to the astonishment of the crowd.
"OK!" Salmoneus cried out, turning to the gathered crowd. "I've got Hercules for twenty dinars! Twenty dinars! Who'll take the centaur? Twenty dinars!"
"Bet against Hercules?" one of the guests sneered. "Are you crazy?"
"I'll give two-to-one odds," the salesman negotiated. "Three-to-one. Five?" At that, he had a few takers and he quickly sorted out the bets as Hercules and Craesus took their javelins.
"Be my guest," the demigod told the centaur, allowing him to go first.
Craesus took a running start, releasing the javelin with a grunt. It flew through the air, embedding itself directly into the stump as the crowd gasped in amazement. The centaur returned to Hercules proudly, with a smug grin on his face.
"That'll be hard to beat."
"Very hard," the demigod acknowledged, getting the feel of his spear and ignoring Salmoneus, who was stroking his beard nervously. "It's a little light. Makes it harder to gauge the distance."
"Well, perhaps you'd rather... " The centaur trailed off as Hercules began sprinting forward, launching the javelin with a mighty thrust. It flew with incredible force, splitting the centaur's spear in two and splintering the tree trunk, dead on target. The crowd erupted with cheers, none louder than Salmoneus, who was rejoicing in his newfound good fortune.
"Lucky shot," the demigod said modestly as he walked past the centaur. Craesus tossed his head in irritation, but he kept his anger under control. His revenge would be coming soon enough.
"Hey, Hercules!" Salmoneus called out, running after the departing demigod. "You ever thought about getting an agent?"
"What's an agent?"
"You know," the salesman explained. "Someone to find you work. Make sure you get paid for all your toil and trouble?"
"It's not work to me, Salmoneus," the demigod told him, patting him on the shoulder. "I enjoy helping people. And besides, payment is never part of the deal."
"See, that's why you need me," he protested eagerly. "I could get you a contract for big dinars!"
"Not interested," Hercules declared.
"I'm just thinking of your future. Suppose you want to get out of the hero business," Salmoneus continued as Hercules stopped and gave him his best demigod stare with his hands on his hips. "You know, open up a souvenir shop, have... I know, not interested."
"I bet I know what interests you."
"And, what's that?" the demigod inquired of the lovely young woman he'd seen in the crowd who had snuck up behind them.
"Pretty things?" Her tone was pure innocence, but her sultry gaze told a different story. She eased around Hercules and took his hands without so much as a glance toward Salmoneus. "Come, I'll show you the best view in all of Nespa. Well, come on," she insisted when he didn't move. "I won't bite."
The demigod reluctantly allowed himself to be led away, figuring that a "not interested" was going to work with her about as well as it did with the salesman. He knew he should just decline politely, but he didn't want to be rude or hurt her feelings. So he followed her with a muted sigh, realizing that Iolaus just might have been on to something when he complained about him having problems saying 'no'.
She took him to a large house, leading him out to a terrace that overlooked the lush, green rolling hills of Nespa. Hercules gazed out at the scenery as Lyla pressed herself up against him.
"Did I lie?"
"No. It must be wonderful to wake up every morning and..." he trailed off, startled as she ran a hand along his chest. "See this," he concluded.
"I have never seen a man throw a javelin so far," she murmured, reaching inside his shirt to caress his warm flesh.
"Well, all it takes is a...little practice," the demigod said, a bit flustered.
"What else have you practiced?" she hinted broadly, her hand creeping further down, pushing under his belt.
"Can we slow this down?" Hercules asked uncomfortably, trying to untangle himself from her embrace.
"Well, don't tell me you like to fall in love with someone before you go to bed with them," she demurred, but he didn't respond. "I'm not a virgin, you know?" Lyla informed him, leaning in to kiss his chest.
"That's not the point." The demigod gently pushed her away, his thoughts full of Deianeira. It was just too soon to even consider being with another woman, but Hercules didn't feel like explaining the whole tragic situation to a stranger, so he blurted out the first thing that came to mind. "I just don't want to go through life leaving a string of fatherless children behind."
"Are you always so noble?" Lyla asked, her eyes narrowing. She wasn't used to having her advances rejected, and she wasn't sure how to take it.
"I try to be." The demigod looked out over the landscape, swallowing hard. He had to be, to honor the ones who had been taken from him. Because of him. Lyla walked over to the small table on the terrace and poured two goblets of wine as he pushed his hair back and took a deep breath. She returned, handing him one of the goblets.
"Well, a toast. To Hercules and nobility."
"And to Lyla," the demigod added, hoping to undo any offense he might have caused. "And beauty." He clicked his glass with hers and drank his wine, not noticing that she raised the goblet to her lips but did not drink.
"Are you sure I can't convince you otherwise?" Lyla persisted, taking his arm as he turned to go.
"I'm sorry," Hercules answered, setting his goblet down on the table.
"No?" She stood up on tiptoe, capturing his mouth in a long, deep kiss. Lyla thought she had him, but after a moment he stopped her.
"Look, I can't do this," the demigod said simply, overcome with memories of his beloved Deianeira. Her beauty, her warm laughter, the scent of her hair and the feel of her skin against his.
"Well, you can't expect me to make it easy for you." Lyla traced a finger along his bottom lip. "No offense."
"None taken," he told her. "Excuse me."
Hercules quickly took his leave, suddenly no longer in the mood for company. Lyla sauntered over to the table, dumping the contents of her goblet into a pot of flowers and setting her glass down. She went back to the railing to look out over the valley as the plants began to wither and die.
When the demigod woke in the morning, he didn't give much thought to the gloom of the small room where he'd spent the night. At least, not until he went outside and the dimness persisted, even thought the sun was high in the sky. Squinting as he looked around, he was confused, and more than a little worried, to discover that the outlines of objects lacked definition and were all sort of blurring together. It made him nervous enough to seek out Salmoneus for a second opinion. As the salesman joined him and they strolled through the grounds, he tried his best to sound casual.
"Tell me, Salmoneus, do I look all right to you?"
"Uh, sure, I think you're very attractive," he replied. "I mean, I don't find you particularly attractive, but I'm sure women do. I mean, I don't find you unattractive. In fact, I consider you quite handsome." The salesman quickly became flustered and decided to make things perfectly clear. "I don't want you to get the wrong idea! I'm not interested in you that way."
"What I meant was," Hercules clarified. "Do I look like there's anything wrong with me?"
Salmoneus looked him up and down, taking in the sculpted physique that defined perfection.
"Come again?" he asked, confused.
"I just don't feel right," the demigod confessed softly, turning away. "It's my eyes. Does the day seem a bit overcast to you?"
"Not at all," the salesman replied, glancing around at the bright, sunny day. "Why do you ask?"
"Just... curious," Hercules answered, moving on ahead and leaving his companion to look after him in concern.
But the demigod was soon distracted from his own problems as he watched with growing amusement as a centaur intentionally acted every bit the animal he'd been labeled by a very rude, prejudiced wedding guest.
"Funny," Deric remarked, prancing up to Hercules after he'd thoroughly horrified the arrogant women. "I thought the chicken was delicious. You think it's the company?"
"It's possible," the demigod agreed, trying to hold back a grin. "You see, assigned seating can be a problem."
"Yes," the centaur laughed. "I've noticed the centaurs have been exiled to the far tables." His tone had been light, but the underlying bitterness was audible, even though he tried to hide it.
"Well, some would claim that they offer a better view of the ceremonies," Hercules reasoned.
"Well, in that case, perhaps you'd care to eat with us?"
"I'd love to," the demigod replied, catching Deric by surprise. "It's been years since I've broken bread with a centaur."
"It's rumored you were taught by one," the centaur said thoughtfully.
"No rumor," Hercules assured him. "Almost everything I know, I learned from a centaur named Cheiron."
"Including athletic skills?" Deric asked eagerly.
"Perhaps you ought to test a student?" he suggested. "See how well he's learned."
"Done," the demigod told him, looking forward to another friendly challenge with a worthy adversary.
This time archery was the game, and again, Hercules let his opponent go first. Deric had apparently learned very well, firing off a shot that hit the bulls-eye of the target just two fingers left of center, earning him the admiration of the crowd. The demigod stepped up, raising his own bow and taking aim. He squinted at the target, which disturbingly had begun to blur in and out of focus. Desperately, he tried to concentrate on the target, but it was no use. He lowered the bow, glancing over to where Lyla was watching with a sort of cold indifference. Sighing, he blinked rapidly, raising his bow and drawing the arrow back as he willed his eyes to focus. Hercules let the arrow go, and the judge decreed he had hit two fingers right of center, tying the centaur. They both received a small token prize, and the demigod nodded in acknowledgment at his rival before quickly moving off. Salmoneus followed him, babbling about how he'd had the idea to set up competitions where the demigod hung back to get the odds down so they could make a killing when he unleashed his full strength, but he just never dreamed that the noble Hercules would go along with it.
"I'm not laying back," the demigod insisted. "Something is wrong with my eyes."
"Yeah, right!" the salesman laughingly scoffed. "You hit a bull's-eye two hundred paces away. You must be going blind, huh?"
"Salmoneus, I'm telling you, I can't..."
"You know, whatever you're doing, keep it up!" the salesman interrupted exuberantly. "If this keeps going, I get the odds down to three, maybe even two, to one!" He chuckled merrily, slapping his companion on the back as he dashed off to drum up more wagers for the demigod's next event, leaving Hercules alone to worriedly contemplate his unpredictable vision.
Deric watched him from the buffet table, stunned that the demigod was still mobile, let alone able to tie him in archery.
"You gave him the drink?"
"Just like Nemis said," Lyla replied, helping herself to a goblet of wine.
"All of it?" the centaur clarified.
"What do you think I am, stupid?" she snapped defensively.
"Anybody else would've been completely incapacitated," Deric observed, a decided note of admiration for the demigod's strength in his voice.
"Nemis is too crazy to care," Lyla shrugged.
"Huh! You'd be crazy too, if Hercules killed your twin," Craesus told her.
"Nemis' twin tried to rape Hercules' wife," she reminded him. "He deserved to die."
"Too bad you wound up on the same side as Nemis, huh?" the centaur sneered. "And the rest of us outcasts."
"Watch your mouth, Craesus!" Deric commanded sharply.
But Lyla didn't need his protection, well able to give back as good as she got. And then some.
"Cheris makes a beautiful maid of honor, doesn't she?" Lyla purred, looking over to where the young woman was getting ready for the ceremony. "Pity she's spoken for."
Craesus followed her gaze, a lecherous smile coming over his face as he stared at the pretty girl, his grunt telling them just what he thought of her being "spoken for".
Penelope came to check on Hercules to ensure he was having a good time, startling him when he failed to see her approach. He voiced his concerns to her, but like Salmoneus, she didn't appear to think there was anything wrong with a man who hit a bulls-eye, just because he didn't do it dead center. The demigod took her arm and as they began to walk back to the ceremony site from the gaming fields, he started to wonder if perhaps the trouble with his eyes was just all in his head. It was a lot easier to convince himself that he was just having an off day with the bow rather than to think there was something seriously wrong with him.
"Maybe I am losing my touch," he said, not sounding like he really believed it.
"Oh, but you didn't have any problems yesterday," she reminded him teasingly.
"Penelope?" he asked, unable to shake the feeling that something was going on. It was another of those half-god things.
"How well do you know Lyla?"
"Oh! The lovely Lyla!" she sang out. "We used to be best friends. When we were younger, we were inseperable. She had a real crush on my brother before he died at the siege of Corinth. And then she changed. She got...wilder. Started hanging around with centaurs."
"Well, it's not a crime," Hercules pointed out.
"Oh, it is to some people around here." Penelope tapped him gently on the chest with her finger. "You might have lost a few fans when you befriended Deric earlier."
"I didn't befriend him," the demigod protested. "I was just being civil."
"Yeah, I try to be the same way," she sighed. "Centaurs are like everyone else. Some are good; some are bad. Oh, no. Speaking of bad."
Hercules followed her gaze and caught sight of the centaur entering the wedding site, pushing guests out of his way. The demigod's expression went cold, his eyesight still good enough to identify the twin of the centaur who tried to force himself on Deianeira.
"You know him?" Penelope asked.
"His twin brother tried to abduct someone very dear to me," Hercules muttered. "I was forced to kill him. What's he doing here?"
"I suppose he invited himself. He used to work our farm," she explained. "We even played together when I was younger. Then my father threw him off when he started getting too familiar."
"Your father had the right idea," Marcus declared, coming up behind them.
"Marcus, don't," Penelope pleaded, taking his arm.
"I don't want him here. He wasn't invited," the groom to be said angrily.
"Please? Don't make a scene," she begged, not wanting any ugliness on her wedding day.
"Everyone ready?" Nemis demanded as he joined his comrades by the tables.
"Nemis, are you sure you want to go through with this?" Deric asked, having second thoughts but not wanting to go against the older centaur.
"Have you chosen your prize?" Nemis inquired of Craesus, ignoring Deric completely.
"Oh, yes," Craesus replied, leering at the lovely Cheris. "I have."
Nemis glanced back at Penelope, his breath catching as he watched the beautiful girl try to restrain her future husband and reassure her bridal party that everything would be fine. His heart ached for her, and he couldn't let her throw her life away on such a pathetic little pipsqueak. He was doing this for her.
"Some day, Penelope will thank me for this," he murmured.
"Hey, look! It's Tyron!"
Taros' brothers quickly gathered around the soldier as he dropped the heavy armor he carried and they demanded to know what had become of the man who'd worn it.
"He died in battle, at my side," the soldier told them. "It was my fault."
"Tyron!" Cheris cried, catching sight of her beloved. "Tyron, you're back!" She flew to him, flinging herself into his arms, shocked when he pushed her away.
"Please, Cheris. I don't deserve you," he said flatly. "Not anymore."
"Tell us how our brother died, war-hero!"
Tyron glanced at the angry man and turned away, guilt heavy in his voice.
"It was in the marshes at Tiryns. We were attacked by a larger force. I fell. I was about to be killed. Taros turned his back to help. He died saving me."
"Did you avenge his death?" one of the brothers demanded.
"I tried," he answered. "But the command to retreat was sounded."
"So you ran?"
"I withdrew!" Tyron replied hotly. "A soldier follows orders! Taros was already dead. There was nothing I could do."
"Then I'll avenge my brother," the man growled menacingly. "And you shall join him!"
"No!" Cheris screamed, throwing herself in front of the man she loved. But she was quickly pushed aside as the brothers began attacking Tyron, channeling their grief through the blows they rained upon him.
The commotion got Hercules' attention, and he sprinted toward the melee, squinting as he tried to make out what was going on. As he neared, he recognized the soldier he'd met on the road and was able to guess more or less what had happened. Salmoneus quickly filled in the details, and the demigod intervened just as one of the brothers raised a long, sharp knife.
"Hold on!" he ordered, grabbing the man's hand. "Hold on."
"It's not your business, Hercules," one of the brothers informed him.
"Killing him won't bring your brother back," the demigod told him authoritatively.
"But it'll make us feel better."
"Why?" Hercules questioned. "Tyron has acted with honor. He's carried your brother's armor from the battlefield to your doorstep."
"So, we'll return the favor," the man promised. "We will deliver his armor to his family!"
"Then you'll have to go through me."
The demigod's easy confidence was immediately blown as a fist came barreling through his hazy vision to connect with his jaw. He staggered a bit, but recovered quickly, at least until a large group of guys piled on top of them. Hercules sent them all sailing off, but was horrified as he looked around and saw the world fading in and out of his sight. He took another punch, then lashed out, giving a little back to his assailants. Two of them managed to get his arms and send him flying across the buffet table. The demigod sprang to his feet, all patience gone, and he made short work of the men as they came after him one by one.
"Not a bad payday," Salmoneus told him, startling him as he appeared at his side and pressed a towel into his hands. "I'm surprised that first guy caught you with a sucker-punch."
"You could've warned me."
"I thought you saw it coming," the salesman shrugged, counting his winnings.
"I'm not seeing much of anything lately, Salmoneus," the demigod said, trying to keep calm.
"The guy was as big as a house," Salmoneus scoffed. "I mean, how could you miss him?"
"That's what I'm trying to tell you," Hercules murmured, the fear gripping him as he was no longer able to deny what had become so abundantly clear. "I think I'm going blind."
Before the salesman could process this bit of information, the centaurs launched their attack. Nemis smashed the banquet table with his lethal club and went after Penelope as Craesus and Deric took care of anyone who tried to interfere. Which didn't leave them with much to do, as the majority of the guests were too intent on saving their own necks, creating a bigger chaos as they all tried to flee.
"Salmoneus, what's going on?" the demigod demanded.
"The centaurs smashed the banquet table, and they're beating up the guests!" the salesman answered in disbelief.
Despite Penelope's best efforts to get away, Nemis caught her, slinging her over his shoulder as Marcus screamed her name, too far away to be of any help as the centaur started galloping off with his prize.
"Hey! They grabbed the bride," Salmoneus relayed. "And they're heading this way!"
He started to run, glancing behind him and seeing the demigod standing there, looking blankly ahead. The salesmen went back and grabbed his arm to pull him out of the path of danger, but Hercules shook him off, Penelope's frightened calls for help ringing in his ears.
"All I can see are shadows," he whispered desperately, straining his eyes with all his might but unable to make anything out of the swirling images that lacked any sort of definition.
"Watch out!" Salmoneus warned him as Nemis loomed above the demigod, wielding the club that Hera had given him. Just in time, Hercules ducked and rolled, feeling the air rush over him from the force of the centaur's swing. Nemis let him go and took off, quickly disappearing out of sight among the trees.
Craesus was not about to leave without his reward, and he quickly tracked down Cheris, scooping the girl up in his arms. He reared up as the demigod blundered into his path, bringing his front hooves down hard on Hercules' chest, sending him crashing down to the ground. Lyla leapt upon Deric's broad back, and the two centaurs galloped for the trees, following their departing leader. Salmoneus ran to where the demigod lay sprawled, unmoving, in the grass.
"Hercules?" he murmured fearfully, gently touching his friend's chin, his heart stopping as the demigod's head lolled back and he remained unresponsive.
"Is he all right?" Marcus called out, running up to them.
"I don't know," the salesman fretted. "He's out cold. Go get some water, would you?"
The young man dashed off to grab a pitcher off one of the tables that hadn't been overturned by the centaurs or by panicked guests.
"Is he dead?" Tyron asked, joining Salmoneus next to the still demigod.
"He's not dead," the salesman snapped. "He's breathing." Marcus returned, pouring out the contents of the pitcher over Hercules's head. "Don't drown him!"
"What happened," the demigod groaned as he came to, pressing a hand against his aching chest.
"Oh, thank the gods," Salmoneus murmured as he and Tyron helped Hercules to a sitting position. "The centaurs are gone, but they took Penelope and Cheris with them."
"Please, Hercules," Marcus begged desperately. "You have to go after Nemis. There's no telling what he'll do to Penelope."
The demigod buried his face in his hands for a moment, then raised his head, reaching out to put a hand on the salesman's shoulder.
"Salmoneus," he whispered helplessly. "I need you to do something for me."
"Here." The salesman picked up the demigod's hand and placed a mug in it.
"Thanks," Hercules told him, taking a sip of water. "Any luck?"
"Yes," Salmoneus replied. "I found a runner to take a message to your friend. He's already on his way to Thebes. But I have to tell you, Marcus and Tyron are talking about going after the girls themselves. They don't want to wait."
"I can't blame them," the demigod murmured, knowing that no man would be content to sit around while the woman he loved had been abducted.
"But the two of them are no match for the centaurs," the salesman argued. He was a master of odds calculations, and definitely did not give much weight to their chances.
"They might be if I go with them."
"Are you crazy?" Salmoneus demanded, waving a hand in front of the demigod's eyes. "You can't even see a hand in front of your face."
"Maybe not," Hercules said, reaching out and catching the salesman's hand. "But I still have other senses I can rely on. Go tell Marcus and Tyron that I'll need them to lead the way."
"All right," the salesman sighed as the demigod released him. "But I still think this whole idea is insane."
"So, then I'm guessing you don't want to come along?" The tone had been light and casual, but Salmoneus could hear the need underneath.
"Hercules," he reminded his friend. "You know I'm not much of a warrior."
"I would never ask you to battle the centaurs or put yourself at risk," the demigod told him. "But other senses aside, I'm going to need some help. Salmoneus, I need you to be my eyes."
"All right," the salesman agreed, a bit hesitantly, but he couldn't refuse the empty gaze that was looking right through him. "Count me in."
The four of them quickly set off, with Tyron leading the way, Marcus bringing up the rear, and Salmoneus guiding the sightless demigod.
"Lower your head," he instructed as they passed a low hanging tree branch. Hercules reached out to feel the object, ducking as he went under it. Then he found himself being yanked down to the ground as the sounds of an arrow whining through the air and splintering wood filled his ears.
"Did you see who it was?" the demigod demanded.
"Uh, I couldn't tell," Tyron replied, straining to see through the trees.
"Let's move deeper into the bush," Hercules instructed. "We'll be all right if we don't give them a clear shot."
They all began veering off toward thicker cover. The demigod knew it would be harder for him to navigate through and might slow them down a bit, but the need to avoid the centaurs' arrows was greater than his own comfort. And he trusted Salmoneus, who had indeed swallowed his fear and devoted himself to becoming Hercules' eyes.
"Lyla!" Nemis barked as they entered the cave. "Some food for our guests."
She reluctantly pried herself away from Deric and went to the fire, ladling out bowls of the stew that was bubbling over the flames.
"Don't do this, Nemis," Penelope begged as he chained her to the wall. "It can only end badly for you."
"It'll end badly, all right," the centaur agreed. "But for Hercules, not me."
"He's done nothing to you," Penelope protested.
"He killed my brother!" Nemis roared, grabbing her roughly. "And a day doesn't pass that I don't dream of revenge!" He calmed himself, gentling his tone. "Maybe... Maybe when he's dead by my hand, you'll see me in a different light."
"You're fooling yourself," she told him, unable to hold back the tears. "I could never care for you. Not that way."
"You loved me once," he murmured quietly, stroking her cheek. "Long ago."
"You mistake a child's affection for something else," Penelope whispered.
"You're the one that's mistaken," he growled, his hands tightly gripping her face. "And the dead carcass of Hercules will prove it to you! Craesus."
"We'll have our fun later," Craesus promised Cheris as he finished chaining her next to Penelope.
"Never," she spat, jerking her head away from his touch. "Pig!"
"Horse, my dear," he reminded her, grabbing her hair and yanking her close. "Horse!" He inhaled the sweet fragrance of the curls before he let her go and followed Nemis and Deric, laughing sinisterly.
"Lyla, how can you be a part of this?" Penelope asked. "You were my friend."
"Right," she sneered bitterly, turning away from the fire. "Such a good friend that I'm not even part of the bridal party."
"I didn't think you cared," the captive woman said in disbelief. "You haven't spoken to me in two years."
"So?" The brunette shrugged. "I've made new friends."
"And I don't begrudge you that," Penelope told her earnestly, giving Lyla something to think about. "But old friends still talk."
As they waited for Marcus and Tyron to get back from scouting, Salmoneus approached Hercules and had a seat beside him.
"Is your vision any better?"
"I can barely distinguish between dark and light," the demigod replied dejectedly.
"And you still think you're capable of going after Nemis?" the salesman asked.
"I went up against Ares once when I was temporarily blinded," Hercules told him. "Back when I was a kid. Cheiron, the centaur who taught me, trained me to use my other senses and not just rely on my sight."
"How did you do?" Salmoneus asked, not able to comprehend anyone beating the great god of war, let alone a blind kid, even if he was a demigod.
"I won," Hercules answered with a grin, which faded quickly. "But I also had Iolaus with me then, to act as my eyes." The demigod sighed heavily. "I hate going into this without him. He's always had my back, and I could really use that right about now."
"Maybe you should wait until he gets here," the salesman suggested. "Or at least until your vision comes back."
"What if it doesn't?" The demigod sighed again, running a hand over his brow. "I've dedicated my life to helping people. I can't do that if I'm the one who needs help. I don't think I could live like that. All my strength... useless. Depending on other people for the simplest things. Becoming a burden to my family, and having to spend each day knowing that the gods are just laughing themselves sick because I'm powerless to stand up to them."
"Don't lose hope yet," Salmoneus urged. "I mean, you're sure that Lyla slipped you something that caused this, right?"
"Well, if she poisoned you, chances are there's an antidote."
"And if there isn't?"
"Well, then maybe it's time to hang up the old sandals," the salesman told him softly, giving him a pat on the arm. "You've done a lot of good deeds and have helped a lot of people, Hercules. Besides, your strength wouldn't be useless. You might not be able to go about it the same way, but there would still be ways you could help people. But, maybe it's time to slow down and smell the roses. You only go around once, you know? Well, maybe if you're immortal, you get a chance to go around and around."
"I am NOT immortal," he insisted. "At least, I don't think so."
"I guess you'll find out sooner or later."
Hercules leapt to his feet as he heard footsteps rapidly approaching.
"It's Marcus," Salmoneus reassured him.
"What did you find?" the demigod asked the young man.
"They've rejoined forces," Marcus explained. "Headed toward higher ground."
"No attempt to cover their tracks?"
"None," he answered. "It's like they want us to find them."
"Hercules! Over here!"
The demigod put his hand on Salmoneus' shoulder and the salesman led him to where Tyron was waiting.
"The centaurs," the soldier relayed. "They're out in the open, two hundred paces up the hill, by the caves."
"The caves," Hercules muttered, taking a step forward. "What are they up to?"
"We seem to be just out of their range," Marcus commented as a flock of arrows landed a few paces in front of them.
"Not mine," the demigod declared, hefting his bow. "Salmoneus! I'll need your help."
"What if they get lucky?" the salesman asked nervously, holding out a quiver of arrows.
"Stay behind me," Hercules ordered, taking an arrow and fitting it to his bow. "How far?"
"Two hundred and twenty paces," Salmoneus estimated, cowering well behind the larger man.
"Is my direction right?"
The salesman took his arm, turning him slightly and guiding the demigod's aim into the right position. Hercules pulled back on the bow with his semidivine strength and let the arrow fly.
"How did we do?"
"Uh, ten paces to the left, and they've moved ten paces to the right."
The demigod grabbed another arrow and adjusted his aim, hitting the ground at the centaurs' hooves as Nemis whirled his club in the air and used it to remove the supports holding back a very large rock.
"Ah, Hercules! We better get out of here!" Salmoneus urged. "They're about to dislodge a boulder the size of Mt. Olympus!"
"Tell me how close my last arrow was, then run for the woods," the demigod commanded, fitting another arrow to his bow.
"It's heading straight for us!" the salesman shouted in a panic.
"How close?!" Hercules yelled impatiently.
"Three paces left!" Salmoneus called out as he started sprinting toward the trees. Marcus followed him, but stumbled and went down as one of Deric's arrows found his leg. Hercules let his arrow fly, striking Craesus in the chest. The centaur collapsed, which angered Nemis and horrified Deric.
"Marcus, look out!" Tyron called, pushing the injured man out of the path of the boulder. But tragically, he could not get himself out of the way in time. Hercules made his way toward the shouting, discovering the crushed body lying in the grass.
"Tyron," Salmoneus reported sadly. "He saved Marcus' life."
"And mine," the demigod said with quiet respect.
"Over here," the salesman told him, taking his arm. "Marcus was hit."
Hercules knelt down beside the injured man, gently feeling the arrow shaft protruding from his leg. He jumped up suddenly, hearing the sounds of hoofbeats rapidly fading away.
"One's dead," Salmoneus told him, his gaze searching the hilltop. "And the others are gone."
"Well, at least that cuts the odds," the demigod announced, going for optimism that he didn't quite feel. "Marcus, you can't do any good here. Salmoneus'll have to take you back."
"And leave you?" the young man asked incredulously. "You can't fight them alone!"
"It will be dark in a few hours," Hercules rationalized. "Then we'll be on equal ground."
"It's suicide if you stay here," Salmoneus argued. "Come back with us and wait for your friend to get here. Then you both can go after Nemis."
"No." The demigod shook his head slightly. "I should've realized it before. This is between Nemis and me."
"Hercules, you can't," Marcus protested.
"This is my fight," the demigod insisted. "And I'm not going to let anyone else get hurt over it. I'm going after Nemis once and for all. Alone. But first, I must give a brave soldier a proper burial."
Although he wanted to get as far away from the centaurs as he could, Salmoneus couldn't help feeling like he was deserting his friend as he tended to Marcus' wound and started back to Nespa with the young man, leaving Hercules behind. He could only hope that the demigod's strength and his other senses would be enough against a crazed centaur. Otherwise he was going to have a lot to answer for once that friend of his showed up.
"This isn't right," Lyla whispered.
"No, it's not," Deric agreed, looking down at the bow in his hands. "I can't kill a man in cold blood. Especially one that's blind and helpless. There's no honor in that."
"What are we going to do?" she asked. "You know Nemis won't hesitate to kill in cold blood, especially if he thinks you betrayed him."
"I can't go against Nemis," the centaur sighed. "I owe him too much." He glanced at the beautiful woman beside him. "I'd rather be a coward than an animal," he said softly. "Let's just run, Lyla. I have a little money saved up. Enough to get us to Athens. I've heard they're tolerant there. We could start over, make a good life for ourselves."
"I don't think you're a coward," she murmured, taking his hand. "I think it's the bravest thing you've ever done."
"Let's go now, before we're missed," Deric suggested. "But first we have to make a stop. We can't make up for what we've done, but we can at least warn Hercules. We owe him that much."
Hercules worked diligently, wanting to do right by the noble man who had given his life for another. He'd had Salmoneus pick a good location before he left, then he'd moved the body and covered the fallen soldier with rocks he hauled from a nearby quarry. When he finally finished, he took Tyron's sword and mounted it at the head of the grave.
"Rest easy, Tyron," he eulogized. "You were never a coward." But he quickly yanked the sword back out as he heard the sounds of hoofbeats and a bowstring being pulled. The demigod turned around, holding Tyron's sword out defensively in front of him. "I know you're there, Nemis!" he called out. "What are you waiting for?" When he got no response, Hercules tightened his grip on the sword. "Show yourself, Nemis. Or are you afraid?"
"I'm not afraid," Deric announced. "Nor am I Nemis."
"So," Hercules said in disgust. "He sent you to do his dirty work."
"Yes. But I'm refusing." The centaur lowered his bow.
"Why would you do that?"
"You're not my enemy," Deric explained. "Even if you were, I wouldn't take advantage of your blindness."
"How do you know I'm blind?" the demigod demanded.
"I told him," Lyla piped up. "You'll be glad to know it's a temporary condition. Providing, of course, you can make it through the next few days."
"You won't fight against me. Will you fight with me?" Hercules asked, lowering Tyron's sword.
"Not against Nemis," the centaur replied. "He raised me."
"I respect that. And your refusal to take sides. But will Nemis?"
"It doesn't matter," Lyla told him. "We're leaving this land. Maybe the Athenians will be more hospitable."
"Hide, Hercules," Deric urged. "Until your sight returns. You're no match for him now."
"I'm afraid there're two women who wouldn't appreciate the wait," the demigod said.
"Forget them, and worry about yourself. Hera has given Nemis a special club."
"Hera," Hercules spat, angry at himself for not suspecting she had something to do with all this. "I should've guessed." A sound grabbed his attention, and he turned to face the familiar noise. "The sounds of the bats. They're from the cave."
"You're very perceptive," Deric observed. "They'll return an hour before dawn." He started to leave, but turned back. "Hercules? I'm sorry one of you has to die. Nemis wasn't always bad. Life...death... wore him down."
The demigod nodded as the centaur departed. Alone once more, he sat down to wait for the sun to set and began thinking about his life. He realized that his choice to help people had become his destiny, and it really had little to do with him. All of his problems and cares and tragedies came second to those that needed him. He couldn't control or change the things that had happened to him, but he could make sure that the same fates didn't befall other innocent people. Grief had been clouding his mind, but at that moment, Hercules hit upon a newfound resolve. If he won his battle with the centaur and regained his sight, he would make it his duty to use his power to help people, no matter what. With his new motivation, once he was sure that darkness had blanketed the land, he rose and headed for the caves, moving cautiously but quickly as he heard Penelope's weary, frightened voice.
"Nemis? Please? Let us go. And I promise, no harm will come to you."
"Sweet Penelope," the centaur said with a smirk. "I think I'm the only one here in position to make promises. And I promise you by the end of the day, Hercules will be dead. And you?" He took a sip from the ladle in his hands. "Mmm, will start learning to like my stew."
Groping on the ground, Hercules found a fist sized rock and hurled it off in the opposite direction, hearing it crash into the underbrush. Nemis heard it as well and stepped out of the mouth of the cave, straining to see through the dark night. The demigod stood motionless, willing the centaur to go and investigate, but he seemed a little leery to venture very far. Then they both heard more noise in the distance, and Hercules was relieved to hear Nemis move away from the cave. As quietly as he could, he made his way to the cave entrance, letting the walls guide him inside.
Salmoneus stumbled again, unable to see anything in the dark.
"What am I doing here?" he muttered to himself, thinking that he must have had a temporary bout of insanity when he decided to return. An arrow struck the tree behind him, grazing his shoulder and coming much too close for comfort to his head. The salesman swallowed a terrified yelp, reaching under his tunic and touching his fingers to his burning flesh. Trying not to panic as he saw the blood from his wound, he slowly moved away from the tree, just in time to avoid a second arrow which would not have left a mere grazing wound.
"Hercules?" Penelope cried out softly as the demigod approached her.
"Penelope, show me where you're tied."
"What's wrong?" she asked, confused. "Can't you see?"
"No," he said impatiently. "Hurry! There's no time to waste!"
"Uh, the key," Penelope murmured. "It's on the beam, by Cheris. Um, six, maybe seven paces to the right."
The demigod began feeling his way to the right of the captive woman.
"Here," Cheris called. "Above my head."
Reaching up, he found the key and unlocked the chains around Cheris' wrists.
"Hurry, please!" Penelope urged him desperately.
"Leaving so soon?"
Hercules whirled around at the sound of the centaur's voice. He pressed the key in Cheris' hand, leaving her to finish freeing herself, and took up Tyron's sword, advancing slowly.
"Let the women go, Nemis," he ordered. "It's me you want."
"Wrong! I want you and Penelope."
The demigod turned at his words, trying to follow the sound of his voice. Cheris rushed to Penelope, who had begun to hysterically hyperventilate, and began releasing her from her chains.
"And I'm in no hurry," Nemis continued, whirling his heavy club in the air. "I want both pleasures to be slow and gratifying."
Easing around what he could sense to be a pot bubbling over a fire, Hercules decided a little taunting was in order to instigate the centaur into an attack.
"What is that stench? Dog meat?"
"Why doesn't anyone like my cooking?!" Nemis roared, swinging the club but missing the demigod and slamming it into the wall. The entire cave shook with his force and bits of debris tumbled down from the ceiling.
Backing up, Hercules narrowly escaped the fire pit, ducking as Nemis unleashed another wild swing, again shaking the cave with the force of his blow. The demigod swung around, lashing out blindly with his sword. As he attempted to skirt around the fire pit a second time, he tripped over a pot and went sprawling to the ground. His ears took in the sounds of Nemis' hooves coming closer, the club whooshing through the air, and the metal lid to the pot rolling on the ground beside him. As Penelope screamed a warning, Hercules reached out and grabbed the lid, using it as a shield to block the club. Nemis struggled to remove the metal from the spikes of the club as the demigod rolled to the side and got to his feet. He met the next swing with his sword, and they sparred fiercely for several minutes, until once again Hercules heard the sounds of a pot bubbling over the fire. With a quick lash of the sword, he severed the chains holding the pot, hearing the rewarding hiss of extinguishing flame.
"No fire, no light," he said smugly, tossing the sword away. "Now you have the same problem I do."
"Except your darkness is about to become permanent." Nemis swung the club once more, but Hercules caught it with his hands before it struck them. Both of them strained with all they were worth, each one trying desperately to get the upper hand.
"Leave me!" Penelope sobbed when the manacle holding her ankle couldn't be opened. "Save yourself!"
"I'm not leaving without you!" Cheris told her, huddling by her side.
They heard the sounds of the struggle cease, but could not see anything in the darkness.
"Hercules?" Penelope called out. "Nemis!"
The centaur fell heavily to the ground, pulling the club from his chest and gazing in disbelief at the gaping wounds it had left.
"You killed me," he whispered. "Just like my brother."
The demigod didn't have time to debate the fact that Nemis had brought it upon himself, for he heard the distinct sounds of a timber cracking, made weak by the vicious blows the mighty club had inflicted upon the cave. Following the noise, Hercules got underneath it and pressed up on the broken ends, holding it up as a shower of dirt and rock rained over him. But he knew he couldn't hold it for long, for the tremors through the beam told him the whole place was about to come down. The demigod heard Nemis struggle to his feet and approach, but was completely surprised when the centaur reached up and took the burden from him.
"Go! Help Penelope!," he pleaded. "Help Penelope!"
After a split second of hesitation, Hercules left him and clambered over to where the two women had been chained.
"Hercules, I couldn't undo it!" Cheris exclaimed, guiding him to the chain around Penelope's ankle. "Oh, Hercules, break it!"
He snapped the metal easily, freeing the young woman at last and sent them both running for the entrance to the cave. The demigod followed them, but paused, still wanting to help the centaur even after everything.
"Go, save yourself! Go!" Nemis shouted.
The cave started collapsing all around them, and Hercules went ahead to get the women out safely. They just barely cleared the mouth of the cave when the whole ceiling fell in, and over the din they could hear Nemis calling Penelope's name with his last breath.
"I was worried you wouldn't make it," the salesman told them, coming forward to help the women up.
"Salmoneus?" Hercules asked, getting to his feet and reaching out to grab the man's shoulder to confirm it. Unfortunately it was his wounded shoulder, and the demigod quickly let go as he felt the salesman flinch.
"You were the decoy," he concluded, admiration evident in his voice.
"I'm sending you my tailoring bill," Salmoneus jokingly acknowledged, putting his finger through the hole in his tunic. Then he became serious. "When Marcus wouldn't let me take him back, I thought it was the least I could do. After all, you needed someone to watch your back. And that's what friends do, right?"
"Right," the demigod grinned. "You did well, my friend. Everybody did, even Nemis. He really loved you, Penelope."
"I know," she murmured sadly. "I'm just sorry love took him so far astray."
Wanting to put the incident behind them as quickly as possible, Penelope and Marcus were married the next day. And Hercules was assigned to sit at the very first table, both to honor him for what he'd done and so that he stood a chance of actually seeing the ceremony. He could just make out two blurry shapes sharing their first kiss as husband and wife, but his lack of visual clarity did not hinder his cheering at all.
After the wedding, Hercules returned to the caves. He wanted to take Nemis' body and give it a proper burial, figuring it was the least he could do. The centaur knew he would die, and he certainly could have taken the demigod with him. But he'd found the shred of nobility still buried deep inside him, proof that it was never too late to find the goodness in one's heart. Which made the demigod believe that he deserved to rest in honor. While he was excavating the cave, he'd found Tyron's sword, and he presented it to Cheris before he left Nespa.
"When a soldier dies bravely," he explained to her. "His sword becomes the symbol of his courage. I know he'd want you to have it."
"Thank you," she replied gratefully.
"Thank you, Hercules," Marcus said, reaching out a hand. "For everything."
"It turned out to be a very nice ceremony," the demigod told him, shaking his hand firmly. "I wish you both the best."
"Please come back soon," Penelope requested, leaning in to kiss him goodbye.
"You made out quite well, I understand," Hercules remarked, glancing at the salesman.
"Well, I don't wanna brag," he bragged proudly. "But, I got great odds on you against the centaurs. Nobody had faith in you like I did."
"Hmm. May I see?"
"Um, OK," Salmoneus agreed hesitantly, handing his heavy pouch to the demigod. "But, don't drop anything."
"Did I ever finish explaining about the custom in these parts?" Hercules asked with a wicked gleam in his eye.
"What custom is that?" the salesman stammered nervously, knowing his friend was up to something.
"The bride and groom collect all gambling winnings." The demigod passed the pouch to the delighted couple.
"Come on, Salmoneus." He put an arm around the shocked salesman's shoulders and lead him toward the road.
"That's my money back there!" Salmoneus protested in a shriek.
"Yes, that was very generous of you."
"Generous?! Yeah, but that, but that, but that-- !"
"And smart," the demigod pointed out. "They'll never forget you."
"Really? That's nice!"
The salesman sulked for the remainder of the journey, and he wasn't one to suffer in silence. He whined nonstop, not placated by any of the demigod's rationales, apologies, or threats. But when they arrived at the crossroads, he seemed to forget about the injustice done to him.
"Are you sure you're ok?" he asked, in all seriousness. "I can walk with you for a little ways, if you want."
"No, I'm fine," Hercules told him. "Well, not quite fine yet, but I will be soon. I might not be able to tell what everything is, but at least I can see it well enough not to run into it."
"But what if you run into trouble?" the salesman protested. "And let's face it. Knowing you, that's a rather likely scenario."
"I'll be ok," the demigod assured him. "This is a main road, and it's a straight shot into Thebes. I could walk it blindfolded."
"All right," Salmoneus relented, satisfied that his companion had enough of his sight back that he wouldn't get lost. And if he had fought a centaur while completely blind, running into a few bandits while having double vision probably wouldn't be much of a challenge. "Just don't pick any mushrooms along the way until your eyes get better."
"I'll remember that," Hercules chuckled. He reached out a hand toward the salesman. "Thank you for all of your help, Salmoneus. I couldn't have done it without you."
"Goodbye, my friend." Salmoneus shook the demigod's hand, beaming proudly at the high praise he had earned from Greece's legendary hero. Turning, he began walking down the left fork toward Macedonia, a tune whistling merrily from his lips. Hercules took the right fork, glancing up at the sky as he pondered what to do. The sun was beginning to sink low in the sky, and soon the lengthening shadows would hinder his vision even more. Salmoneus did have a point, in that it would be difficult for him to arrange his own dinner, especially once it started getting dark. He considered walking to the next village and stopping at the inn, but he had given the few dinars he had to Marcus and Penelope. And he loathed using his name and reputation as a bargaining chip to try and get free hospitality. Which left him looking harder at option three, which was to walk through the night and hope there would be a bright, full moon out.
"Iolaus?" he called back, instantly recognizing his friend's voice. He squinted down the road as a shapeless blob bounced into near focus. "What are you doing here?"
"I was just going to ask you the same thing," the hunter told him, waving a scroll in the air. "I got this message to come to Nespa. So what happened? Are you all right?"
"That's a long story," the demigod sighed.
"Well, you know what I always say," Iolaus grinned cheekily. "Long stories are always best told over dinner."
"Lead the way," Hercules commanded, clapping his friend on the back. As he followed the hunter down the road, he was a bit surprised to feel a weight lifted from his shoulders. One he hadn't even been aware he was carrying until it was gone. It was the relief of not being alone anymore. Of knowing that the man he respected and trusted and loved was beside him and watching out for him. Knowing he had Iolaus to help bear any burden that might come his way. It was a warm feeling of safety and security, and he realized how much he'd missed it. The demigod decided that after he'd recovered and his sight was restored, he would ask Iolaus to accompany him when he left Thebes again for his next adventure. And it wouldn't be a hard sell, for the hunter was already complaining that he couldn't let the demigod out of his sight without him landing in a heap of trouble. Hercules refused to answer, content in the easy companionship he shared with his best friend. He finally realized that he could remember the loved ones that had been taken from him without forgetting about the ones still with him.
"What?" the hunter demanded, turning to catch the demigod watching him with a grin.
"Nothing," Hercules told him with a small shake of his head, although his grin got larger. "It's just really good to see you, Iolaus."
*No Centaurs were harmed during the production of this episode.
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