The night was quiet and peaceful, but the scents of blood and death lay heavy in the air. Iolaus glanced around at all the still figures illuminated by the moonlight and the still burning torches and looked over at his friend.
"Guess weíre too late to stop the battle," he murmured regretfully.
Hercules nodded soberly, taking in all the fallen men and feeling a deep sadness settle over him for the massive waste of life.
"Letís spread out," he suggested. "See if there are any survivors."
At first, there didnít appear to be. But as the demigod moved among the fallen soldiers, he heard a low moan. Following the sound, he found a man who was still alive, but gravely wounded.
"If youíve come to kill me," he said, finding the strength for one final show of defiance. "Do it now."
"Iím not your enemy," Hercules assured him, kneeling beside him and checking his wound. The injury was far beyond even the best healer, and the demigod knew there was nothing he could do but offer comfort in the manís final moments. "Rest easy, soldier."
"Who are you?" he asked, plainly seeing that the large man before him was not part of either army that had fought that night.
"They say youíre a good man," the soldier began, not having any time to be either impressed or skeptical.
"I try to be," the demigod said, looking away as he felt the guilt well up inside. He should have been able to prevent this battle, if he had only heard about it in time.
"Then grant a man his dying wish?"
"It would be an honor," Hercules told him as Iolaus approached to stand behind him.
"My name is Gregor," the soldier explained, glancing briefly at the stranger and realizing that he was with the demigod. "I have a wife and son in Fallia. Janista and Titus. Give them these, and my love." He handed Hercules a piece of parchment, and Iolaus reached down to take the sword from his shaking hand. "And tell my son," Gregor gasped out. "The art of the warrior is not to kill... but to fight against the forces of evil."
The soldier took in one last breath and lost his struggle to hold on, his body sagging back against the tree he was leaning on as he died.
"Iíll do that, Gregor," Hercules vowed, tucking the parchment inside his shirt. He reached out a hand and gently closed the eyes of the fallen soldier. "I promise you." He stood up and sighed as he faced his friend. "I guess Iím off to Fallia."
"Iíll go with you," Iolaus volunteered.
"You donít have to..." the demigod began, but the hunter cut him off.
"I want to," he insisted. "We couldnít stop this, but at least we can honor a brave soldierís last wish."
"Ok," Hercules agreed, grateful for the company. "Letís go back to the village. We can make sure these men will get a proper burial, and then weíll head for Fallia in the morning."
"Iím right here," the boy answered.
"Good," Janista replied, glancing down at her son from her precarious position on the roof. "I need some more mud."
"Iíve already got it," he told her proudly.
"Youíre all right," she grinned, moving down a few rungs on the ladder to take the heavy bucket. "You know that?"
"Youíd better say that," he grinned back. "Youíre my mother."
"Hey, Titus!" The boy turned around to see his friend, Ximenos, approaching with his bow in hand. "Iím going hunting. Do you want to come?"
"Canít," he answered with a shrug. "Iíve got to help Mom."
Janista smiled at her sonís cheerful reply. He had been helping her without complaint all day, and he certainly had earned the rest of the afternoon off.
"Go on," she told him fondly. "Itís all right. Weíre about done here today, anyway."
He knew it was a lie, for they were never "done" with the endless amount of work that the house and yard required. But he also wasnít about to decline his temporary reprieve.
"Thanks, Mom," he said appreciatively, waving as he began trotting after his friend.
"Oh, see if you can bring home some dinner," Janista called after him before she heaved the heavy bucket of mud up to the roof to finish her repairs.
The two boys scampered off into the woods, and it was not long before they lost themselves in dreams of the action and adventure that awaited them outside of Fallia.
"One day, Titus, weíre going to be warriors," Ximenos promised, glancing at his rough hewn bow and arrows. "Weíll fight with real weapons."
"Yeah," the smaller boy agreed enthusiastically. "And we wonít be just hunting rabbits. Weíll be stalking our enemy. Showing no mercy."
"Iím going to be a centaur."
"Yeah?" Titus responding, rising to the game. "Iím going to be a centurion."
"Iím going to be Ares, god of war himself," Ximenos boasted.
Unable to top that, Titus just chuckled. But he immediately sobered as he spotted a large deer emerge from the trees ahead of them.
"Shh. Ximenos, look," he whispered. He readied his spear as his friend fitted an arrow to his bow. They both aimed and shot, heaving simultaneous groans of disappointment as the doe darted off, unharmed. "Oh, itís gone," Titus lamented, thinking of how many meals they could have gotten from the animal and how happy his mother would have been with such a catch.
"I canít believe I missed," Ximenos grumbled in frustration.
"It wasnít your fault." Both boys jumped at the sudden voice as a young man stepped into view before them. "It was your weapons. Theyíre not true."
"Are you a soldier?" Titus asked, taking in his armor and helmet.
"Ever since the Trojan War," came the proud response. "And you two?"
"Weíre too young," Ximenos explained, almost in shame.
"No oneís too young if you have the warrior spirit. Let me show you." The man turned and produced two large clubs from the bushes, handing one to each boy. "Feels good to have something like that in your hands, doesnít it? Gives you a sense of worth. Of power."
A cold wind swept down from the tree tops, blasting over the boys and chilling them to their very souls as a deep, harsh laugh echoed through the air.
"But youíve got to prove you deserve that power," the soldier continued ominously. "I want you to kill each other."
The cold lingered deep inside of Titus, wrapping around his heart and filling it with anger and hatred, and an overwhelming desire to explode in a violent rage. He glanced over at Ximenos, suddenly feeling that killing his best friend sounded like a good idea. It was something he wanted, needed, to do, and he swung the club hard at the taller boy, who met it with his own. They struggled for a moment, then Ximenos lashed out at Titus and broke the stalemate. Both boys fought well, but Ximenos was bigger and stronger and eventually disarmed Titus and sent him sprawling to the ground. Something snapped in the smaller boy, and he shook his head to clear it as his friend loomed over him, club raised high.
"What are you doing?!" he cried.
"Ridding the world of you," Ximenos told him coldly, sneering down at him.
"No, donít!" Titus begged, not understanding why Ximenos would want to kill him, although he remembered feeling the same way moments before. "Weíre friends!"
"No cowardís a friend of mine."
As Ximenos prepared to brain him, Titus kicked out, throwing him off balance, and then he was up and running for his life through the trees.
"Let him go," the soldier commanded as Ximenos prepared to follow him. "I know who the winner is. My name is Aurelius." He put a strong, companionable arm around the boy. "Come with me. I have something I want to show you."
As Hercules and Iolaus arrived in Fallia, they stopped in the marketplace and inquired as to where they might find Janista. They were pointed in the right direction, but when they found the house a pretty woman came out of the door before they had a chance to knock. She looked at them expectantly, curious but not suspicious or afraid.
"Are you Janista?" the demigod asked.
"I am," she replied.
"We have a message for you."
She saw the parchment and the sword in his hand and knew immediately what that message was.
"Itís about my husband, isnít it?"
"Yes," Hercules told her. "We found him dying on a battlefield near Chaldea. His final thoughts were of you and your son. He wanted you to have these."
"Thank you," she whispered, taking the sword and tucking the parchment away.
"Arenít you going to read it?" Iolaus asked.
"My husbandís been off fighting one war after another for nearly ten years. I donít want to open things up that have already been closed," she explained sadly.
"I understand," the hunter murmured.
"I know youíve traveled a long way." Janista looked the two men over. They didnít appear to be soldiers, but they definitely had the look of warriors. Kind ones, at that, and she was very grateful that they had respectfully honored her husbandís last request. "The least I can do is offer you something to eat and a place to rest."
"Weíd appreciate that," the demigod told her, knowing his insatiable friend wouldnít turn down a home cooked meal.
"I was hoping to have fresh meat for dinner," she said, leading them inside. "My son went out hunting with his friend, Ximenos, but they havenít returned yet. But please come in and make yourselves comfortable." She turned to face them with a shy smile. "You know, I havenít even asked your names. I hope you donít think Iím always this rude."
"Donít apologize," the hunter was quick to respond. "Iím Iolaus, and this is Hercules."
She started visibly at the name of the legendary hero, then quickly glanced around the room, silently berating herself for the chores she had been neglecting.
"If I had known the son of Zeus was going to be in my house..." she began, a bit flustered as she tried to tidy up.
"It looks fine to me," Hercules assured her sincerely. The small home was in need of some work, but it was clean and bright and cosy, especially for someone who spent the majority of his nights around a campfire.
"Even with only half a roof?" Janista gave him an embarrassed grin as she glanced up at the gaping hole in her ceiling.
"I thought that was something to enjoy the stars by," Iolaus joked.
"I wish it was," she answered. "This place is always falling apart. Titus and I can barely keep up, and we can only do the best we can with what we have. But I guess weíre no worse than the rest of the town. With all the men gone to war, thereís too many jobs, and not enough people."
"Then let us give you a hand before we go," Hercules urged.
"You know you donít have to," Janista told him, not wanting to impose upon the legendary hero but unable to keep the joy from her face as she thought about having a good solid roof over her sonís head.
"Weíd be glad to help," Iolaus announced.
"Itís the least we can do to repay your hospitality," the demigod agreed. "In fact, weíll go up and take a look at it now."
The two warriors climbed up to the roof and surveyed the damage. Janista had done an admirable job at trying to patch the hole, but they were of the same mind that they could do much better and leave her with a sturdy, dependable roof that the heaviest of storms wouldnít be able to penetrate.
"Why donít you see what you can find in the way of materials?" Hercules suggested as he started down the ladder. "Iíll see if I can find a blacksmith and get some nails."
The demigod started through town, not oblivious to the admiring looks he was getting from the mostly female population. He stopped to ask for directions, and amid a fit of giggling, a young woman steered him toward the blacksmith. Dodging some more women as he bid them a friendly hello, Hercules entered the forge, blinking a bit as he collided with a wall of heat and steam.
"Hello?" he called out. "Is anyone home?"
He followed the voice, stepping further into the forge but stopping dead in his tracks as a woman came forward. She was gorgeous, her tanned, muscular body barely clothed and glistening with sweat from the heat of the fire.
"Hi," Hercules stammered. "I, um...Uh, oh, uh...I need some nails. I thought Iíd find the blacksmith here."
"You did," she informed him with a toss of her blond head.
"But youíre a woman," he blurted out without thinking.
"And youíre a man," she scoffed, used to such sexist attitudes and well aware of how to deal with them. She walked around him in an almost predatory fashion, running a hand along his arm and squeezing his muscles. "Which I couldíve figured out even if you didnít have your foot in your mouth."
"Well, itís, uh... No offense. It was... It was the steam; it got in my eyes," the demigod babbled, trying to recover from his faux pas.
"They call me Atalanta," she told him, placated and obviously liking what she saw as she looked him up and down. "Whatís your name?"
"Well, youíre big," she chuckled, removing her apron. "And you look fit. But thereís only one way to tell for sure." She took his hand and led him to a table in the corner of the forge, moving to the other side and taking a seat. "Letís arm wrestle. That will prove it."
Atalanta place her elbow on the table and waved encouragingly at him. "Come on, letís go. I havenít got all day."
"Is this really necessary?" the demigod sighed, sitting down and taking up his position.
"No oneís ever been able to beat me, so I figure it would take a guy like Hercules. So, shut up and say, ĎOne, two, three.í Come on, just say it."
"One, two, three," Hercules muttered in resignation, clearly thinking it was an utter waste of time. But he got a surprise as the woman almost pinned his hand to the table. He admired her strength, but she was no match for the son of a god, and he barely had to try as he began inching her hand toward the other side of the table. She struggled, fighting him all the way, and the demigod grinned at her determination, even if it was utterly futile. Atalanta shifted her position, rising up as she tried to get a better grip. Suddenly confronted with her magnificent cleavage in his face, a dumbstruck Hercules lost all tension in his arm and his hand crashed down to the table.
"Whatís the matter, Herc?" she teased, chucking him under the chin. "More steam in your eyes? You just proved youíre as much of a man as you are a god." Atalanta took his hand in hers, admiring his strong fingers. "So, what brings Hercules to Fallia? And, more importantly, how long are you planning on staying?"
"Uh, long enough to do some repairs on Janista and Titusí house," he replied, discreetly reclaiming his hand. "Oh yeah, Iím going to need those nails."
"Slipped your mind, did they?" She laughed as she rose and strutted over to her counter. Hercules was momentarily transfixed by her brazen rear view, but as she glanced back at him he quickly averted his eyes. "Damn that Ximenos!" Atalanta sighed, finding that she was lacking in supplies. "He doesnít show up for work, doesnít refill the nail box."
"Ximenos," Hercules said, a slight frown creasing his forehead. "Isnít he friends with Titus?"
"Yeah," she told him. "Heís kind of like the kid brother I never had. His father was killed a few years ago in battle and I guess I kind of mentor him now. He does odd jobs for me around here. Usually heís a big help but he let me down today."
"Never mind the nails for now," the demigod muttered, getting to his feet.
"You got something else in mind?" Atalanta asked coyly.
"Yeah," Hercules answered. He wasnít sure why, but he had begun to get an uneasy feeling that the two kids were in trouble. And as Janista had just lost her husband, the demigod felt that he owed it to her to make sure her son was all right. "Do you know where I can find those boys?"
It was not the activity she was expecting heíd be interested in, but she obligingly directed him to the woods where the boys liked to hunt. After all, it wasnít like Ximenos to just disappear without any word, and as Atalanta returned to work she hoped that Hercules would find the kids, safe and unharmed.
"This is my headquarters, Ximenos," Aurelius announced, leading the boy into a deserted camp. "And, this is the army I told you about."
"But, thereís nobody here," he protested.
"Thatís where youíre wrong." Flocks of boys began emerging from the surrounding woods, all armed and seething with aggression.
"Look at them, Ximenos, all primed to kill. We may be small in number, but with Aresí help, we grow stronger every day. Soon, weíll be known throughout the land. Known, and feared. Are you ready to join the warriors of Ares, Ximenos? Are you ready to become our brother?"
"I am," he replied confidently.
"Good," Aurelius said as his army began chanting Aresí name. "But first, you must burn."
Ximenos tried to pull away in fear as the soldier came at him with a white hot brand, but he found himself held tightly by some of the other boys. As the metal seared his flesh, he couldnít help the scream that leapt from his throat as he wondered if heíd just made a huge mistake. But it was over quickly, and he was left with the mark of Ares on his arm as the rest of the boys all cheered, patting him on the back and welcoming him into their army. And the pain rapidly faded away, the burn soothed by the coldness that seeped out from his heart.
Atalanta sighed, wiping the sweat from her forehead as she picked up her hammer and began tapping at the metal cooling on her anvil. A blacksmithís work was never done, but she was ready to call it a day after she finished the plow blade she was working on. But the slamming of the door startled her, and she looked up as a howling wind swept through the forge. It swirled around the room, blocking out the heat of the fire with itís cold chill as it settled over her. Shivering slightly, Atalanta looked up, tossing away the plow blade in disgust. With a rapid fury, she began to make swords, heating the metal and pounding it fiercely into sharp blades, cooling them in water and adding them to an ever growing pile. Without knowing why, she pressed on without hesitation, driving by an all consuming need to fulfill an order she wasnít even aware of. As she turned to pump the bellows, her arm brushed against hot metal, searing her skin. She gasped, clamping a hand over her arm as the pain washed through her.
"Whatís happening to me?" she whispered in confusion, shaking a little as she realized what she had been doing. Her eyes darted to the pile of swords sheíd created, finding that they were gone. For a moment, Atalanta thought she was losing her mind. But the burn on her arm was proof that she hadnít dreamed the incident, even if sheíd had no control. Unsettled, to say the least, she decided to call it quits at the forge for the night as she treated her injury and bandaged the burn. Her thoughts suddenly went to Hercules, for he took on gods and monsters and dealt with strange occurrences every day, and he was rumored to have dedicated his life to helping people. And she needed help, so Atalanta decided she would talk to Hercules in the morning and see if he could make sense of what had happened.
"She did it," Ximenos exclaimed as he rushed into the camp, followed closely by his comrades, all bearing the swords Atalanta had crafted. "Just like you said she would."
"Now we have real weapons!" Aurelius declared, hoisting a sword high in the air. "Now, weíre ready to kill!"
The boys all went into a frenzy, procuring weapons for themselves and calling out the name of the mighty god of war.
Iolaus glanced up from the wood he was sanding to make a roofing tile to see Janista in front of the door, looking off down the road. Running his fingers over the surface, he decided it would suffice and added it to the pile heíd already crafted. Rising, he stretched briefly and went over to stand beside the woman.
"Iím sure heís all right," he said softly.
"But heís never been gone this long before," Janista protested. "Heís never stayed out all night like this. Iím so afraid somethingís happened to him."
"Donít worry. Hercules will find him," the hunter assured her, putting a comforting arm around her shoulders. "In all the years Iíve known him, heís never failed. Theyíll be back any minute now, youíll see."
"Thank you, Iolaus," she sighed, leaning into his embrace briefly before turning back toward the house. "Let me fix you some breakfast before you get started on the roof. Are you hungry?"
"Iím always hungry," he replied with a grin, following her back inside the house.
"Ximenos! Where are you?" Titus called out, looking around carefully for any traces of his friend but finding none. He wasnít sure what had happened to them when they had attacked each other, but he knew that something very strange was going on. And as much as he wanted to return to the safety of home, he just couldnít leave without making sure his friend was all right. "Ximenos!"
The boy jumped as the big man emerged from the bushes.
"Who are you?" he demanded. "How did you know my name?"
"Iíve been looking for you," the demigod told him. "Iím Hercules."
"Youíre kidding," Titus squeaked, unable to believe that the legendary hero himself was standing before him in the flesh.
"No," Hercules replied with weary amusement. "Iím not."
"Did my Mom send you out to look for me?"
"I came on my own," the demigod answered. "But she is pretty worried about you."
"I knew she would be," Titus said regretfully. "But my friendís still missing and I canít come home until I find him."
"Well, maybe weíll have better luck finding him if we look together," Hercules suggested. "What do you say?"
"The last time I saw Ximenos he was headed down into this valley," Titus revealed, pointing to the location.
"Well, then, thatís where weíll look." Hercules put a hand on the boyís shoulder as they began walking down the narrow path to the valley below. "What happened out here? Did you two have a fight?"
"Sort of," the boy confessed, not sure how to explain what had happened. "And then Ximenos went this way with another guy. Ximenos!" he shouted out. "You down here? Ximenos!"
"What is this place?" the demigod asked as they entered a silent grove.
"I donít know," the boy shrugged. "Iíve never been here before."
"Well someone was," Hercules observed, feeling the warmth that still radiated from a recent campfire. "And not too long ago." He stood up, looking around carefully. "But nobodyís here now. So what do you say we go home?"
"What about Ximenos?" Titus protested.
"Oh, Iím sure heís home by now," Hercules reassured him, assuming that the boys had gotten into an argument and Ximenos had gone off with another friend, leaving Titus behind. "Letís get you back so your mother can see that youíre all right, and then if heís not at home, we can come back out and look for Ximenos."
Janista ran her hand gently over the sword that was resting on the mantlepiece above the fireplace, pausing to look hard at the parchment that sheíd placed with it. She fingered it for a moment, then turned away and sat down at the table, determined not to grieve for what sheíd lost long ago.
"Janista," Iolaus called, sticking his head through the door. "Thereís someone here to see you."
Hercules entered the house, followed closely by her son.
"Titus!" she exclaimed, running to greet him and pulling him into a hug. "Are you all right?"
"Iím fine, Mom," he told her, hugging her back. "Hercules told me about what happened to Dad. Are you ok?"
"I will be," she replied softly, ruffling his hair. "I just wish youíd known your father better. He was a good man."
"Iím going to be a good man, too," he vowed.
"Well, not if youíre always running off," she scolded gently before looking up at the demigod. "Whereíd you find him?"
"In the woods," Hercules replied vaguely. "He was looking for his friend."
"Ximenos is a tough kid," Janista rationalized. "Iím sure heíll be fine. But you," she admonished her son. "You kept Hercules from working on our roof. Poor Iolaus has had to do everything by himself."
"Yeah," the hunter chimed in with a grin. "Poor Iolaus, left doing all the work."
"Donít worry," the demigod chuckled. "Iíll start doing my share. Just let me run and get those nails from the blacksmith."
"I already did it for you," Janista informed him, picking up the bundle on the table and tossing it to him.
"Sheís very... thoughtful," Hercules muttered to his friend.
"Isnít she, though?" Iolaus replied, following the demigod back outside.
Titus trailed after them, watching as they climbed the ladder to the roof. But he was quickly distracted by someone whispering his name, and he turned to find his friend hiding around the side of the house.
"Come here," the boy whispered, motioning for him to follow.
"I thought something terrible had happened to you out there," Titus told him as they walked into a secluded alley.
"It was great," Ximenos enthused. "The guy we met, his nameís Aurelius."
"He wanted us to kill each other," Titus reminded him indignantly.
"That was just a game. Youíd have found out if you hadnít run away."
"Are you sure?" he questioned the taller boy. "It felt like I was fighting for real. Like it wasnít even me."
"That just means you have the warrior in you," Ximenos explained. "Aurelius said all good soldiers do. Heís got a whole army, and theyíre just like us, Titus."
"Youíre not gonna join, are you?"
"I already have," he confirmed, displaying the brand on his arm. "And you can too. Itíll be great, just like we always talked about."
"I donít know, Ximenos," Titus protested. But as he tried to walk away, he was halted by a firm hand on his arm.
"Uh-uh, Titus. A soldier doesnít walk away from his comrades. When I go back, youíre going with me. Come on."
Hercules and Iolaus efficiently nailed the wooden tiles the hunter had made into place, covering the hole in the roof with a tight seal. Then they began the task of covering that with thatch for insulation. The demigod worked the hay and mud mixture over the wood, blending it with the patch of roof that was still intact, then he climbed down the ladder with his empty bucket for his friend to refill. He was trying his best to ignore the excited chatter behind them from the crowd of female onlookers that had gathered to watch the two muscled men laboring shirtless in the late morning sun, but Iolaus was less tactful and was sporting a huge grin at all the attention.
"You must be thirsty, Hercules," a lovely young woman stammered as she got up the courage to approach him. "I brought you something to drink."
"Thanks," he replied. "But, Iím fine for now."
"But all that work," a second woman purred, trying her luck with the hunter. "You must be starved."
"Well, now that you mention it..." Iolaus began as he studied the tray of food she was offering.
"Sorry, we had a big breakfast," Hercules intervened, yanking his friend away with a look that told him to keep his mind on his work. He turned, confronted by yet another woman holding a cool towel out to him. "No thanks, really."
The demigod sighed as he started up the ladder, not wanting to take advantage of a group of lonely women. But he was starting to lose patience and decided to make things absolutely clear as a female voice called out his name and took his arm.
"Ladies, please..." he began, but stopped short as he turned to find Atalanta. A high pitched squeak made him glance over at Iolaus, finding the hunter had dropped his trowel and was standing there staring at the buff blacksmith with his mouth hanging open.
"I need to talk to you," Atalanta told him. "Will you come to the forge with me? Itís important."
Hercules picked up the urgency in her voice and the nervousness in her manner and knew that something serious had happened.
"All right," he agreed, setting down his bucket and grabbing his shirt.
"Um, Herc?" Iolaus called out, struggling for some semblance of coherence.
"Iíll be back in a little while," the demigod said over his shoulder as he followed Atalanta. "Just take a break for a few minutes, ok?"
The hunter shook himself, realizing that his friend had a lot of explaining to do for holding out on him. But he recovered quickly, in part due to the bevy of lovely ladies that were still swarming around him.
"Well, you heard the man," he announced with a wicked grin as he helped himself to the plate of bread held out temptingly in front of him. "Itís break time."
In the forge, Atalanta told Hercules what had happened the previous night, and he could tell from the sound of her voice and the way she paced restlessly around the room that the experience had really upset her.
"I donít know," she tried to explain desperately. "Itís as if something came over me. I mean, the one minute, Iím shaping plow blades, and the next minute, Iím hammering out swords. And I knew what I was doing, but I didnít know why. Who knows how long I wouldíve kept it up if I hadnít burnt myself?"
"Whereíre all the swords now?" the demigod asked.
"Thatís just it," she answered in frustration. "I donít know."
"Have other strange things been happening around here?"
"Not in this village. But in Styra, three families of farmers have been killed. And in Lixus, thereís been rumors about roving bands of wild boys."
"Does Hera have a shrine or a temple near here?" Hercules was beginning to get a definite sense of godly intervention, and his evil stepmother was the most logical place to begin.
"You think Heraís behind all this?" Atalanta inquired, realizing that would account for a lot.
"Well," he replied thoughtfully. "Thereís only one way to find out."
"So whatís the deal with you and Atalanta?" Iolaus prodded, trying his best to get his tight lipped friend to give him the details.
"Iíve told you," Hercules repeated. "There is no deal. I just met her yesterday when I went to get the nails. End of story."
"Seemed like there was more to it than that, at least from her end," the hunter argued. "And what was all that she was saying about steam in your eyes?"
"Letís just forget about it," the demigod advised. "And concentrate on the task at hand."
"So what do you think Hera would want with a pile of swords?" Iolaus wondered as they came up on the quiet temple.
"We wonít know that until we find them," Hercules said absently. "This is it. You ready?"
"Mmm hmm," the hunter answered, drawing his own sword and holding it loosely. "After you."
The demigod burst through the door of the temple, looking around him in surprise as his friend quickly followed suit.
"No guards, Hera. You must be slipping," he muttered.
"Doesnít look like anyoneís been here for some time," Iolaus observed, taking in all the dust and cobwebs. "Sheís not real popular anymore, I guess."
"But it looks like somebody made a sacrifice here," Hercules announced as he approached the altar. He fingered the small emblem of two crossed swords that was hanging from a cord.
"The sign of war. But why in Heraís temple?" the hunter asked, sliding his sword back into its sheath.
The demigod touched the red liquid pooled over the altar, rubbing his fingers together gingerly.
"Blood offering," he murmured quietly. "And itís fresh. Which means only one thing." He turned to look at his friend and they both said the name simultaneously.
Aurelius surveyed his army as they returned to the camp, celebrating their latest victory with unbridled glee.
"Quiet! Pay attention!" he ordered. "You did a good job today! The great god Ares would be proud. But that was just the beginning. There is far greater glory ahead of us!"
"Youíre late, Ximenos," he told the boy entering the camp. "A true warrior doesnít miss a battle."
"You fought somebody?" Ximenos asked in disappointment.
"They were no match for us," Aurelius said of the helpless family his army had slaughtered. "Just ask your brothers-in-arms. Unless youíd rather hang back with the women and children with your friend, here."
"Titus isnít hanging back," Ximenos insisted, glancing at the boy beside him. "He wants to join us. I talked him into it."
"You did?" The soldier approached the boy. "Is he telling the truth, Titus? Do you really want to be a warrior of Ares? Do you have the spine for it?"
"Say, ĎYes,í" Ximenos urged his friend.
"You want to be a servant of Ares, donít you?" Aurelius pressed.
"I canít," Titus replied nervously. "Iíve got to get back and help Hercules and Iolaus fix the roof. Iím sorry, Ximenos."
As he ran off to shouts of "coward", Aurelius turned and entered the small cave at the head of the camp, bowing down before the great fountain inside.
"Mighty Ares, god of war, make yourself present."
Blood began to boil up in the basin of the fountain, and an evil laugh announced the arrival of the god.
"Hercules is in town," Aurelius reported.
"Hercules," came the disembodied voice. "So, thatís why youíve crawled to me in fear."
"I just came to you for guidance, thatís all," the soldier protested, knowing all too well how much Ares despised cowardice. "Who better to map a strategy against Hercules than the god of war himself?
The blood boiled more rapidly as Aurelius received his orders.
"Use the boy."
"See if you can find Titus," Hercules instructed as they returned to the village. "I get the feeling he knows a little more about whatís been going on here than heís telling us."
"What are you going to do?" the hunter asked.
"Iím going to have a quick look around the village and see if I canít track down those swords, or at least find someone who knows where they went."
Iolaus nodded and entered the house as the demigod set off down the street.
"Janista, have you seen...?" He trailed off as he found the woman wiping away her tears, the parchment Gregor had sent in her hand.
"You were going to read it sooner or later," he said knowingly.
"I guess part of me was still hoping that heíd walk through the door someday," she cried, unable to choke back her sobs.
"Come here," Iolaus whispered, drawing her into his arms, stroking her hair as he comforted her. "Itís all right. Itís all right. I know what youíre feeling."
Titus paused in the doorway, seeing his mother in the arms of the hunter. At first he was shocked, then angry, as he turned away and trudged dejectedly toward the marketplace.
"What are you doing here?" the boy asked as the soldier appeared, falling into step beside him.
"I came to apologize. Must have seemed pretty strange out there today. But every man in my army wants to be your friend, Titus. So do I."
The soldier put his arm around the boy, and Titus shrugged it off.
"I donít think so."
"Listen to me, Titus!" Aurelius insisted, grabbing his arm. "I have something very important to tell you."
"There are two strangers in the village."
"Itís just Hercules and his friend, Iolaus" Titus explained. "They came to tell us my dad got killed in the war."
"It wasnít the war that killed your father, Titus," Aurelius told him. "It was Hercules. And now that heís dead, Iolaus is here to take advantage of your mother. But I can help you. I can help you avenge your fatherís death. But only if you join us." Titus felt the cold wind rush over him once more, penetrating his skin and filling his heart with anger. The only thing greater than his desire to punish the ones that had killed his father and were after his mother was his desire to join forces with the great Ares, and become a servant to the great god of war.
The demigod wandered through the village, not seeing anything amiss but knowing that something was definitely wrong. He could feel it all around him, the threat of the gods weighing heavily in the air, and he made a silent vow to stop it before anyone else was hurt.
"Hercules, come quick!"
"Titus, where have you been?" he demanded as the boy ran up to him.
"Come on," he urged, ignoring the question and pulling at the demigodís arm. "Iíve got to show you something."
"Those swords that got stolen from Atalanta? I know whoís got them," he impatiently explained. "Itís a gang of kids. Theyíre hurting people, Hercules!"
"Wait a minute, wait," the demigod commanded, his suspicions growing. "How would you know about the stolen swords?" The boy looked up at him, cold, naked hate in his eyes. Hercules glanced down at his arm, his heart sinking as he saw the mark of Ares branded in his skin. "Whereíd this come from?"
As a rush of wind swept over them, Titus turned and fled. Hercules went after him, but quickly lost him in the village streets.
"Titus! Where are you?" the demigod called out. "Come back here!"
Suddenly he found himself surrounded by a group of masked assailants with swords. They attacked, and Hercules went into action, tossing them away as quickly as they came at him. When he faced down the last one, he knocked the sword from his hand and ripped the feathered mask off him as he pulled back a fist to punch. But he quickly halted, startled to find that it was a young boy threatening him.
"Youíre just a kid," he muttered in disbelief, pushing him aside.
The boy, quickly joined by his friends, began advancing. Hercules backed up slowly, trying to think of some way to handle the situation, for he certainly couldnít fight a bunch of children.
"Now!" said a voice above his head.
The demigod looked up just in time to see an avalanche of rocks come crashing down upon him, knocking him to the ground and burying him under a mountain of stone.
"They both have to be around here somewhere," Iolaus reasoned as he and Janista made their way through the village.
"Look, thereís Atalanta," she pointed out, hurrying to catch up with the blacksmith as the hunter followed. "Have you seen Titus or Hercules?"
"No, I havenít seen Titus," Atalanta replied. "And if I knew where Hercules was, I sure wouldnít be out here."
"I kind of thought he might be with you," Iolaus suggested, only half kidding. "Itís where Iíd be, thatís for sure."
"No, I havenít seen him since this morning when you two left for Heraís temple," she replied.
"Iolaus," Janista said quietly. "Look."
The hunter followed her gaze as they turned the corner, his heart constricting in fear as he saw the familiar gauntlet poking through a mound of rocks down a narrow alley.
"Hercules!" he called, running full speed to the pile of stone. "Herc, can you hear me?" Iolaus began digging his friend out, frantically rolling the heavy rocks aside as the two women arrived to help. "Come on, Herc," the hunter begged desperately. "Answer me."
The demigod groaned loudly as he was uncovered, much to the relief of the three working to free him. Iolaus helped him as he struggled to get up, and he leaned heavily on his friend as they climbed out of the rocks to the street.
"Thank the gods," Janista whispered.
"Are you all right, Herc?" the hunter asked in concern, gently feeling the knot on the back of his friendís head.
"Yeah," the demigod grunted, rubbing a hand over his throbbing shoulder. "Whereís Titus?"
"Heís not under there, is he?" Janista gasped.
"Heís the one who led me into this trap," Hercules replied, wincing as his friend continued probing his injuries, making sure none of them were serious.
"What are you talking about?" she demanded. "Titus wouldnít do something like that!"
"Maybe he wouldnít before," the demigod acknowledged. "But Ares has hold of him now."
Janista hesitated, not wanting to believe him at first. But there were too many things that didnít add up, and she instinctively knew that he wouldnít lie about such a grave matter.
"Iíve got to find him," she said, turning and sprinting down the street.
"Wait! Iíll go with..." Hercules started to follow her but stumbled, catching himself on a nearby wall as a wave of dizziness washed over him. Iolaus was instantly beside him, supporting him as he tried to get his bearings.
"Itís all right," he reassured his friend. "Iíll go with her. Weíll find Titus." The hunter glanced over at the blacksmith. "Atalanta, take care of him, would you?"
"Sure," she promised, coming forward to take his place, putting a strong arm around the demigod.
"I should go with them," he protested as Iolaus took off after Janista.
"Youíre not going anywhere, but with me, Hercules," Atalanta told him firmly.
"No Ďbutsí about it, Herc," the blacksmith insisted, leading him off toward her forge.
Janista stood in the doorway, watching her son slice through the air with his fatherís sword, greatly disturbed not only by what he had done but by the look of malicious delight on his face as he carved up invisible enemies.
"What about me, Titus?" she demanded, entering the house. "You going to try killing me, too?"
"Warriors of Ares donít kill women," he informed her coldly.
"Oh, just men?"
"When they stand in Aresí way."
"And what about Hercules?" Iolaus asked quietly from the doorway. "What did he deserve?"
"To die!" the boy spat.
"But why?" Janista cried, horrified at the way her son was behaving.
"He killed my father!" Titus insisted. "Ares said so!"
"Hercules didnít kill anyone," Iolaus told him. "And especially not your father. He tried to help him."
"Like Iíd listen to you," the boy sneered. "Youíre probably glad heís dead. Makes it easier for you to take advantage of my mother."
"What are you talking about?"
"I saw how he had his hands all over you last night," Titus confessed to her.
"You donít know what youíre saying," Janista tried to reason with him. "Now, please, give that back to me."
"No!" the boy replied, tightening his grip on the sword. "Iím a soldier now. This belongs to me."
"Well, if you wonít give it to me, then you can give it to Hercules," she concluded, hoping that the demigod would be able to stop him before he hurt himself.
"Dead men donít need swords," Titus told her proudly.
"Well, lucky for you, he isnít dead," Iolaus informed him, growing annoyed. He tried to remind himself that he was dealing with a child, and one under Aresí influence. But it was hard to keep his compassion when the kid was gloating over the assumed death of his best friend. "Itís going to take a lot more than a few rocks to kill Hercules."
"No, heís not," Janista confirmed. Titus looked back and forth from her to Iolaus, then he turned and bolted out of the door. "Titus, come back here!"
"Itís all right," Iolaus comforted her, squeezing her hand. "Iíll go after him."
"Please, donít hurt him," she begged. "Heís all I have."
"Donít worry," the hunter reassured her. "Heíll be all right. Hercules and I will put a stop to Ares, and then weíll bring Titus home. Everything will be fine, I promise."
"Be careful," Janista told him as he left the house. She sat down wearily at the table, gazing up at the ceiling as she prayed that they would be able to help her son and bring him back home safely. Because what good was a roof if it covered an empty house?
"There," Atalanta said softly as she finished with the abrasion on the demigodís neck. "That should do it."
"Thanks," Hercules told her. "I didnít think youíd have such a gentle touch."
"Come back when you donít need repairs, and Iíll treat you even better," she purred in his ear.
"Sorry," he grinned, realizing how heíd walked right into that one. "But, Iíve got to go find those kids."
"Fine," she agreed amicably. "Letís get moving."
"This is not your fight, Atalanta," he told her. "This is between Ares and me."
"Look, Ximenos might be out there," she reasoned, taking a coiled whip down off the wall. "That makes it my fight."
"I understand your concern," he began, but she wasnít about to hear him out.
"Yeah, yeah. You donít think I can handle myself? You think Iím weak?"
"No, I would never call you weak," he protested. "But this is too dangerous."
"Well, thatís why I have this," she argued, tapping him on the chest with the whip. "And if you still want to argue about it, we can always arm-wrestle."
Hercules inadvertently glanced down at her chest, then looked away quickly.
"It was magnificent, Ares," Aurelius gushed as he bowed before the fountain. "People will be talking about our triumph until the end of time. Of course, Hercules didnít fall until I delivered the killing blow."
"Fool!" The voice rumbled angrily as the fountain boiled. "Hercules isnít dead!"
"No! I still feel him."
"My troops wonít fail you a second time," Aurelius vowed. "I promise."
"Not your troops," the god thundered. "You!"
"How?" the soldier asked.
"Use the blood."
Red, viscous liquid began to drip from the eye sockets of the skull at the top of the fountain. Grabbing a vial, Aurelius held it up to collect the precious blood that flowed. The blood of the magical golden hinds, beautiful creatures whose life blood meant death to any god. And certain death for Hercules.
"Iíve always been ashamed that Ares and I share the same father, but this is as low as heís ever sunk," the demigod grumbled.
"Using boys to kill for his sick amusement."
"Well, canít Zeus do something to stop him?" Atalanta asked as she followed him through the woods.
"Why would he?" Iolaus snorted, bringing up the rear.
"Yeah, itís only human life," Hercules agreed bitterly. "That means nothing to him."
The blacksmith stopped suddenly, bending forward and clasping a hand to her arm as she shivered violently.
"Atalanta, are you all right?" Iolaus asked, causing the demigod to turn around to see what was going on.
She looked up, her eyes colder than ice as a cruel smile crossed her lips. The bandage on her arm fell away, revealing the brand of Ares.
"Iím fine," she replied, but it was not her voice that answered.
"Not you, too," the demigod sighed.
Atalanta cracked her whip, uncoiling the braided leather in one fluid motion. Her next stroke caught Hercules around the neck, the end of the whip constricting tightly around his throat. He managed to free himself, having to quickly dodge as it lashed out at him again. The blacksmith caught a branch, tearing it loose from its tree, and the demigod used it to catch her next thrust, jerking the whip away from her. Undaunted, she threw herself at him in a fury.
"No, Iolaus, stay back," he ordered, reeling a bit from a hard right she landed on him before he captured her arms. "I donít want to hurt her."
The hunter halted his advance but kept his sword ready, wincing as Atalanta hit his friend with a series of knee thrusts and a wicked head butt.
"Are you sure?"
"I can handle her," Hercules panted, getting a firm grip on her from behind as she twisted around.
"Fighting in a womanís body? Youíre a coward, Ares!" Iolaus yelled as the blacksmith flipped the demigod over her shoulders and delivered a hard kick. "Whatís the matter? Canít you fight your own battles?"
She rushed Hercules again as he got to his feet, but this time he was ready for her and swept her up onto his shoulders. Raising her high, he tossed her unceremoniously into a nearby pool of water.
"Aurelius!" Titus called out, rushing into the camp. "Aurelius! Hercules is still alive!"
"Old news, Titus," the soldier informed the boy.
"Well, whatíre you going to do about it?"
"Iím not going to do anything," Aurelius told him. "You are. Ares wanted you dead when you screwed everything up, but I made him give you one more chance. Hold up your sword." He poured the contents of the vial in his hand over the boyís blade. "This is blood from a golden hind. It has the power to kill a god. One cut, and Hercules is dead."
"Titus is my friend," Ximenos declared, holding out his own sword. "I fight with him."
"Youíd better win with him," Aurelius threatened, but he coated his blade as well.
The blacksmith surfaced, gasping and sputtering as Hercules and Iolaus stood uncertainly by the waterís edge.
"Atalanta, are you all right?" the demigod asked.
"Of course Iím all right," she replied angrily. "Now, get me out of here." They both reached down to help her climb out of the small pond. "What happened?" she demanded, straightening her clothing and wringing out her hair.
"You just tried to whip the hide off me," Hercules told her. "Thatís what happened."
"What are you talking about?" Atalanta muttered, adjusting her cleavage for good measure.
"Ares got into you and you went crazy," Iolaus explained.
"He mustíve been the same reason why I was making those swords last night," she said slowly as realization set in. "I had the same strange feeling come over me."
"Well, warn us the next time you get any strange feelings," Hercules advised. "Come on, letís go teach Ares that itís not nice to take over peopleís minds."
He started forward but quickly stepped back, blinking rapidly as a bright light suddenly filled the path in front of him.
"You know," the god of war drawled sinisterly. "Iím getting just a little tired of your bad mouthing, little brother."
"Ares," the demigod greeted coldly. "You finally decided to face me. I guess you arenít a total coward, after all."
"Hey," he snarled, stepping forward to point a finger in his half brotherís face. "I am NOT a coward." Ares turned to glare at the hunter. "And I do not fight my battles hiding in a womanís body." The god glanced at Atalanta, a lecherous smile creeping across his face. "No matter how beautiful the woman might be."
"What are you trying to say?" Hercules impatiently demanded as the blacksmith rolled her eyes.
"Iím saying that youíre trashing the wrong god," Ares announced, crossing his arms over his leather clad chest. "My warriors are all fighting men with battle in their hearts, and they came to me of their own choosing. I do not force people to fight in my name, and I certainly do NOT possess children to do my bidding."
"Somebodyís sure going to an awful lot of trouble to make it look like it was you," Iolaus pointed out. "If itís another god, why bother?"
"I donít think so, Squirt," the god sneered. "I just came here to get you to lay off me, not solve all your problems for you."
"Ares, youíd better tell me what you know," Hercules threatened.
"Or what?" The god of war gazed at his half brother, a gleam of anticipation flashing in his dark eyes.
"Or youíll have to deal with me!" Atalanta pushed herself between the two.
"And thatís supposed to be a bad thing?" Ares asked her.
"Iíll make a deal with you," the blacksmith bargained. "We arm wrestle. If I can beat you, then you spill your guts."
"You have to be kidding," the god laughed.
"Is it a deal?" Atalanta challenged.
Ares nodded, still chuckling as he followed her over to a flat rock and they both got into position.
"Say, ĎOne, two, three.í"
"Herc," Iolaus whispered to his friend. "Is this really a good idea?"
"She knows what sheís doing," the demigod whispered back. "Trust me, Ares doesnít stand a chance."
Within moments, the god of war was staring dumbfounded at his hand, lying flat against the rock as Atalanta stood up, brushing off her hands in satisfaction. Ares glanced briefly at the blacksmithís chest, then repositioned his arm.
"Two out of three," he negotiated.
"I donít think so," she replied. "And now for your end of the deal?"
"Donít bother," Hercules said as the god grumbled. "I think I can figure out whatís going on here. I was right the first time. Heraís behind the whole thing."
"How do you know?" Atalanta asked.
"We found her temple deserted," he explained. "Obviously no one around here has been keeping up in her worship. And sheís vindictive enough to want to punish the villagers, and vain enough to want to win back their worship at the same time."
"So she concocts this little scheme," Iolaus concluded thoughtfully. "She gets the boys rampaging through the villages and blames it all on Ares, so the people will be forced to call on her for help."
"Thatís pretty elaborate payback just for a couple of small villages," Atalanta said skeptically.
"You donít know Hera," the hunter sighed. "Sheís an evil witch with too much time on her hands."
"If it were anyone else, Ares would be able to deal with it himself," Hercules continued. "Since he obviously canít stand up to whoever is slandering his name, it would have to be Hera. And as for causing all the trouble, mortal life means nothing to her."
"And she does have a history of possessing people to act out her will," Iolaus reminded him, both men unconsciously shuddering as they thought of Gargarencia.
"Well, well," Ares spoke up. "I guess maybe you two arenít as dumb as I thought you were."
"Thatís not saying much," the hunter muttered under his breath, getting a sharp look from the god of war and causing Hercules to subtly inch a little closer to him, just in case an errant fireball should come his way.
"Well, fine," Atalanta said, placing her hands on her hips in exasperation. "So we know itís Hera. Now, where do we find her and those kids?"
"I can guess," the demigod volunteered. "Titus and I found what looked like a camp down in the valley when we were searching for Ximenos. Iíll bet thatís where the boys have been gathering."
"Then what are we waiting for? Letís go!"
"You know," Hercules murmured to his friend as they watched the blacksmith move out ahead of them. "Now I know why you wanted to bring up the rear."
"Hmmm," Iolaus sighed. "I was a little worried there that Atalanta wasnít going to be able to get to the bottom of it all."
"Oh, I knew she would in the end," the demigod said.
"Hey, little brother." They both looked over at Ares, who gave them a wicked grin. "Donít be cheeky."
"Am I going crazy?" Hercules wondered as the god of war disappeared. "Or did Ares and I just share a moment?"
"Maybe the steam got in his eyes," Iolaus suggested with a grin. He slapped his friend lightly on the chest and nodded toward Atalantaís departing figure. "Címon, Herc. We donít want to get behind, now do we?"
"No," the demigod replied, chuckling in spite of himself. "No, we sure donít."
Darkness had blanketed the valley by the time the threesome arrived, but they were guided by the light from a blazing bonfire and the shouts of children praising Aresí name. Silently, they approached the camp, each one feeling sickened at the sight of the boys, doing their best to dress like warriors, dancing around the fire thrusting swords in the air and pledging themselves to the god of war. It was the last straw for the demigod.
"This is where it ends, boys," he insisted, stepping out of the bushes, flanked by Iolaus and Atalanta. "Game is over."
"Thatís what you think," Aurelius told him with an evil grin. "Great god, Ares, show him your power!"
Thick vines sprouted up from the earth at their feet, ensnaring the three of them before they could even react. The heavy plants wound around them, binding them securely, rendering them immobile and helpless as the boys all cheered wildly. Aurelius stepped forward, putting an arm around Titus and Ximenos.
"Heís all yours," he whispered in their ears.
The boys stepped forward, holding their swords out in front of them. As they approached the captive trio, Titus took off his mask.
"I thought you were my friend, Hercules," he announced. "But you murdered my father! And you, Iolaus, you came to take away my mother."
"Weíre going to fix it so you donít hurt anybody anymore," Ximenos added, removing his own mask. "In Aresí name!"
"You two donít even know what youíre saying," Hercules told them in frustration. "It isnít Ares whoís commanding you. Itís Hera. Sheís using you, filling your minds with hate and lies!"
"Shut up!" Ximenos barked.
"Trust me on this," the demigod continued. "Heraís using you all to serve her own desires. She doesnít care anything for you or those you hurt. Sheíll make you kill me, and then your friends. And sheíll probably even make you kill each other, just for her own amusement. What youíre doing... Thereís no honor in it, or glory. Itís not even war. Itís the whim of a cruel, selfish monster. Now is that really what you want to dedicate your lives to?"
"Donít listen to him!" Aurelius shouted.
"Ximenos," Atalanta pleaded. "Hercules hasnít hurt anyone. Heís trying to help you get free from Hera. You have to believe him."
"What are you waiting for?" Aurelius demanded. "Kill him! Kill them all!"
"You must be the leader," the demigod said with contempt. "You look like the kind of puppet Hera would like."
"A puppet couldnít kill you, Hercules," the soldier informed him haughtily. "You fell right into my trap. Iím Aresí general."
"And what kind of general could that be?" Atalanta asked him. "A general nuisance?"
"For that, you die first!" he screamed. "Kill her! Show Hercules whatís in store for him."
The rest of the boys began chanting "kill them" as they thrust their weapons in the air with a demented glee. But Titus and Ximenos glanced at each other, trepidation on both of their young faces.
"Titus, Ximenos, think about it!" Iolaus urged. "You donít want blood on your hands. Thatís not what being a soldier is about. Listen to Hercules! Heís telling you the truth."
"Donít listen to him, Titus," Aurelius warned. "Heís a liar! Hercules killed your father!"
"Donít do it, Ximenos," the blacksmith begged.
"Think about your father, Titus. You too, Ximenos," the demigod commanded. "They fought against the very evil that Hera stands for."
"If you wonít kill the bitch," Aurelius snarled, storming forward. "Iíll do it myself."
Hercules flexed his semidivine muscles and used his strength to break the vines holding him. They cracked and snapped, and he stepped forward to tower menacingly over the children.
"Youíre not killing anybody," he said firmly as Aurelius stopped in his tracks. The demigod looked down at Titus and Ximenos. "Whatís it going to be, boys? Whose side are you on?"
"Yours," the intoned meekly.
"Good choice." Hercules made short work of the rest of the vines, quickly freeing Iolaus and Atalanta.
"Donít listen to him," Aurelius was still screaming. "You want to feel the wrath of Ares?"
"If youíll excuse me," the demigod muttered. "Itís time to teach someone a lesson."
"Good luck," Iolaus snorted. "Looks like this guyís a slow learner."
As Hercules started forward, Aurelius gave the order for his army to attack.
"Great," Atalanta sighed as a wave of small bodies came toward her. "I wanted to fight, but not with dwarves."
"Allow me." The dark night was momentarily illuminated as the god of war materialized in their midst and gave a wave of his hand.
A rush of wind swept over the crowd, and the boys all stopped, gasping slightly as the chill left them. As they glanced at each other in confusion, Atalanta felt a slight tug on her skin and looked down to see the brand on her arm was gone.
"Stand back, Hercules," Aurelius cautioned. "This sword is poisoned with hind blood."
"That just makes it more interesting," the demigod replied with a grin.
"One cut," the soldier continued. "One tiny little nick, and youíre dead!"
"Then you better not slip."
Aurelius attacked and Hercules dodged his advances easily, sending the young man sprawling on the ground, his sword clattering across the earth. The demigod retrieved the weapon, standing over the soldier, daring him to make a move.
A crash of thunder sounded as a bolt of lightening split the night sky. Hercules glanced up, his heart filling with anger as two baleful, iridescent eyes glared hatefully down on him from above.
"So you think Iím a monster, do you?"
"Hera," he spat vehemently, tossing the sword off into the bushes. "I always knew you were afraid to face me yourself. But hiding behind children? Why donít you fight your own battles for a change?"
"I donít need to," her ethereal voice boomed from the sky. "When I have a real monster to do it for me. Goodbye, Hercules."
The eyes faded away as the ground shook and trembled and a blast of fire exploded out of the cave at the head of the camp. A loud roar announced the arrival of Heraís champion.
"What is that thing?" Iolaus asked, advancing to his partnerís side.
"I donít know," the demigod answered slowly. "But it sure is big."
They studied the creature carefully as it lumbered forward. It was massive in size, with horns protruding from itís head and two glowing eyes that burned like the fires of Tartarus. One hand ended in a large claw, and the other was a huge spiked club. Neither warrior had ever seen anything like it before, and they had to admire Heraís ingenuity with her latest creation.
"Stand back, Hercules," Aurelius announced, running toward the beast. "I am protected by Ares, himself. We have a deal."
"Dealís off!" the beast roared, slamming the soldier with itís club. He went flying to collide forcefully with the cave wall, sliding down to lie in a crumpled heap.
"Whoa!" Ares cheered appreciatively. "Nice execution, but Iím going to have to take points away for that landing. It lacked style."
He glanced over to see Atalanta staring at him. "What?" he shrugged. "That pathetic moron still didnít have a clue, even after all this. It was best he was just put out of his misery."
The blacksmith shook her head, pulling in Titus and Ximenos protectively closer to her as she turned her attentions to the battle that was beginning.
"Now, Iolaus!" Hercules called, catching the giant claw in his hands and holding on with all his might. The hunter dashed in, slicing with his sword but the creature was seemingly impervious to his blade. It sent Iolaus sailing through the air with the club and Hercules soon joined him on the ground.
"Itís going well so far, I think," Iolaus panted, trying to suck some air back into his lungs.
"Oh yeah," the demigod agreed wryly. "Weíve got him right where we want him."
They launched a joint attack, with Iolaus still wielding his sword, more for distraction this time than out of hope to do any real damage. Hercules went in punching, but his blows didnít have much more impact than the blade, and they both landed in a heap several feet away.
"Are we having fun yet?" Iolaus groaned.
"Tons," Hercules replied. "Arenít you glad you decided to come along?"
The hunter flashed his friend a grin as he got to his feet.
"Truthfully? I wouldnít have missed it for the world."
"Iím glad youíre here, buddy." The demigod returned the grin and clapped his friend on the shoulder. "Come on."
The two warriors rushed the beast, dashing between its legs. Once behind it, they simultaneously kicked out, each one landing a hard blow to the back of the monsterís legs. It fell heavily to its knees, and they moved around to face it, with the demigod catching hold of the lethal club. Iolaus tried to hack away at the claw, but found himself airborne once again. Hercules momentarily landed beside him.
"Ok, this is getting kind of old," the hunter grimaced, gingerly touching his fingers to the bleeding gashes on his arm.
"Tell me about it," the demigod sniffed, swiping at the blood trickling from his nose with the back of his hand.
"Hercules!" Atalanta called. "Get up! Heís coming!"
With a groan, the demigod got to his feet, extending a hand to help his partner as the creature advanced toward them, laughing maniacally.
"Canít you do something?" the blacksmith demanded, turning toward the god of war.
"Are you serious?" Ares asked in disbelief. "Why would I do something? Iím enjoying this."
"Take your last breath, Hercules," the monster rumbled.
"Here, Hercules," Titus yelled. "Use my fatherís sword!"
The demigod turned and caught the weapon that the boy tossed to him. He stood for a moment, looking at the dark liquid coating the gleaming blade.
"Will hind blood work on that thing?" Iolaus asked.
"Itís of the gods," Hercules reasoned. "What can kill them should kill it, too."
"Only one way to find out," the hunter said, nodding toward the beast that was upon them.
The demigod sprinted forward, leaping off the ground and sailing straight for the monsterís chest. He was surprised to find he passed right through the creature, landing on the other side and quickly rolling and jumping to his feet. With a tremendous crash, the beast fell to the ground where it erupted in a huge blast of fire.
"Next time, Hercules!" Heraís voice echoed through the air as a single peacock feather floated down to land at his feet. "Next time!"
"Iíll be waiting," he vowed.
"Ah, good old Mom," Ares sighed. "She can be a bit dramatic sometimes, but youíve got to love her. So long, little brother." The god turned to Atalanta. "And you... I will be back for a rematch."
"Anytime," she said flippantly as the god of war vanished in a shower of bright sparks.
"Are these the gods you worship?" Hercules demanded, looking around at the crowd of boys. "Take those masks off!" As they did, he saw that they all looked sorry and scared, and he tried to remember that they had been pawns of the gods and werenít entirely responsible for their own actions. "Go home," he ordered them. "Go back to the villages and farms that you came from. And if you have to fight, fight for peace, not for war."
As the boys slowly began to disperse through the bushes, obediently following the demigodís wishes, he approached his group of friends.
"Sorry, Hercules," Titus whispered. "For everything."
"Is it over?" Atalanta asked.
"For this town," Hercules assured her. "For today." He put a hand on Titusí shoulder. "Come on. Letís go home."
Hercules stepped out of the house, looking at the woman beside him fondly.
"The circumstances were all wrong, Janista. But Iím still glad I got the chance to meet you and Titus."
"So am I, Hercules," she replied, giving him a bright smile. "I canít thank you enough for all youíve done. And donít forget, thereís always room for you under our roof. After all, you and Iolaus built it."
"Thank you," he told her, giving her a warm hug before stepping into the yard and facing Titus and Ximenos. "Now, for you two."
"Sorry for all the trouble we caused you, Hercules," Titus said sincerely.
"We wouldnít have done it if weíd known," Ximenos added.
"Well, no hard feelings," the demigod stated. "As long as you promise me it wonít happen again."
"It wonít," they agreed.
"Good." Hercules put an arm around Titus, leading him a few steps away. "The last words your father spoke to me were meant for you, Titus. He wanted you to know that the art of the warrior is not to kill, but to destroy the forces of evil. I hope youíll never forget that."
"Youíve got my word," the boy vowed.
"Good. Then youíll grow up to be the man that your father wanted you to be." The demigod patted him on the back and turned back around. Iolaus hugged the blacksmith and then began to say his goodbyes to Janista and the boys as she sauntered up to Hercules. "Atalanta, what can I say?"
"Just shut up and say, ĎOne, two, three,í" she told him.
"Youíre not going to, like, flip me or anything, are you?" he asked hesitantly.
"Would you just say it?" she grinned.
The demigod took a deep breath and steeled himself for whatever was coming.
"One, two, three."
Atalanta grabbed him and dipped him, holding him firmly in her strong arms as she planted a big, passionate kiss on the stunned demigod.
"Come back and see me, sometime," she purred, giving him a quick, final kiss before letting him go.
"Ah, yeah," he stammered. "Iíll, uh...Iíll save... my strength for you."
Trying to walk straight, he turned and gave a little wave as he and Iolaus started down the road out of Fallia.
"Bye, Hercules," Atalanta called, waving and grinning from ear to ear.
The hunter turned and waved, too, then dissolved into a fit of giggles as he fell into step beside his friend.
"Youíd better save your strength, Herc, if you ever do come back," he merrily advised. "I think youíre going to need it."
"I donít know. I think she might be too much woman for me," the demigod mused. "But for someone with your experience..."
"Nahh," the hunter disagreed. "She only had eyes for you. Besides, my interest in her was strictly professional."
"Yeah, you know," Iolaus said innocently. "As a fellow blacksmith and all."
"Ah, I see," Hercules nodded sagely. "Someone to compare notes with and discuss various techniques, is that it?"
"Exactly. Except there is one question I didnít get a chance to ask her."
"And what was that?" the demigod inquired, arching an eyebrow.
"How she manages to keep the sparks from burning her a..."
"Iolaus, my friend," Hercules quickly interrupted, looping an arm around his shoulders. "Some things are just best left to the mysteries of life."
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