The moon teased her behind the thin veil of clouds, and Queen Camilla blinked hard to clear the haze of the night from her eyes. She gave up attempting to see the room clearly and just sighed as she stared at the ceiling. Something wasn't right, but she couldn't figure out what. The festival was approaching, but she really had days before she could really work herself up to full-blown worry. A sudden movement from the corner instantly caught her attention. But as she reached for Iphicles beside her, the frenzied creatures swirled around their bed until the leader plunged the knife into her husband's chest. Camilla sat up screaming, eyes shut to the terror before her. When a hand reached for her, she shrieked even louder and tried to pull away.
"Camilla! Camilla! What's wrong? What is it?" King Iphicles pleaded as he tried to take her in his arms. "Come, dear. Whatever frightened you was just a dream. Wake up, my love."
Queen Camilla drew in a deep breath. She was shaking so hard that she wasn't particularly sure that she could speak. Finally reaching for her courage, she grabbed onto her husband. Taking comfort in his arms, she finally looked to him and begged.
"You must cancel the festival! Something isn't right. I saw your death. Please! You must cancel or you'll die!"
"Camilla, calm down. It was just a dream; I know you must get anxious every year at this time, but we must trust the gods. Go back to sleep, my Queen. Think of the new wine and the honor bestowed upon us by Dionysus," he reassured her. After kissing her cheek, he hugged her, and promptly went back to sleep himself. Camilla, on the other hand, couldn't stop trembling. She crept out of bed and found her youngest son in the kitchen.
"Mother, is something wrong?" Nestor asked.
"Son, I need you to do something for me," she whispered softly.
Hercules mumbled as he stood outside the tavern. "Come on, Iolaus. You said you'd be here by sundown. What could have kept you? You said you'd already harvested what crops came in." After the third time he'd kicked at the side of the building, the owner popped his head out the door and invited him in.
"Come in before my roof comes down. You know, you can wait for Iolaus inside. That way, you can wait in a little comfort, get a little supper, a little nightcap, and I get to keep a little of my walls intact," grumped the owner.
Hercules ducked his head sheepishly and agreed. Once inside, Hercules at once noticed something strange happening with a satyr and an old man.
"But that's all the money I had. There's just no way I could beat you. You had to have cheated some way."
"Listen, Old Man, no one calls me a cheater and gets to still have his heart beating. A challenge is a challenge. Besides, you shoulda thought of all that before you made the bid. Now pay up, or I'll take it out of your hide!" the satyr bellowed as he grabbed the old man's neck and started to squeeze.
"Let him go. Why don't you pick on someone your own size?" Hercules said as he grabbed the wrist of the satyr.
He narrowed his eyes and looked Hercules up and down. "Okay, fine," he said as he released the old man.
Hercules felt his muscles tense in preparation for the melee that would surely come. The satyr narowed his eyes and growled his best as he leaned forward on the table. Drawing back suddenly, the satyr reached behind him. Hercules immediately jumped into a defensive posture. The satyr laughed wickedly as he slammed two empty mugs on the table in front of the hero. "Okay, everyone heard the son of Zeus challenge me to a drinking contest, right?" Murmurs flooded through the tavern. "Right then, you heard them Hercules. You challenged and I accepted," he clarified.
"That's not what I meant," the hero tried to argue.
"Great, just great. Hercules comes to town, and I have to have my place of business remodeled," mumbled the owner as he tried to move all breakable things from the bar. "This is going to be trouble. I can tell."
"Save your excuses, Hercules. The first one to drop loses," he sneered. The satyr's sick grin revealed a mouthful of rotting teeth.
"As long as it's not your breath that's suppose to put me out, you're on." Turning away, Herc muttered, "Hurry up, Iolaus. I've got a bad feeling about this." The satyr frowned as Hercules started to lift his mug along with him. "No, we'll take turns. That way, I'll make sure you don't cheat."
As on agreement, each one took turns downing a mug of the tavern's finest ale. While Hercules downed his second mug, something peculiar began. His focus was on the mug and the drink inside, but as he was occupied, another identical satyr took the original's place. This continued throughout the evening.
The night wore on as satyr and demigod tested the resolve of the other. Hercules usually didn't drink this much, and it was starting to definitely affect him. The old man who made the original wager witnessed the switch and gasped, "That's how they did it!"
The bleary-eyed contestant turned toward the old man and sneered, "Snitch! I'll kill you!" He rose unsteadily and advanced on the man.
Hercules stood up equally wobbly and slurred, "You know," he belched, "excuse me. I'm... I'm not normally much... of a drinker. I feel like I've had twice as many as you."
The semi-soused satyr turned his attention back to Hercules, "Huh! Gotta hand it to ya. Ya hung in longer than anyone we've ever faced."
"We?" questioned the wired warrior.
"Um, Me. I meant me," the rascal said with a grin recovering lost ground. Unfortunately for the deceptive duo, the other wandered in to help out his twin.
Hercules said, "Oh. Wait a minute. Wait a minute. There are two of you."
The twins looked at each other and said in unison, "Nah...you're just drunk. That's all. Double vision. There's only one of us."
"Only one of you?" Herc asked.
"Double Vision?"He slurred.
"Yeah, yeah," the satyrs insisted.
Hercules giggled, "Oh. Well...in that case...I better putcha back together again." He grabbed both of them and tried to slam them back together. They groaned when They managed to pull away and head for the door.
"Let's get outta here!" One of them called. That was of course the smarter of the two.
"See ya later, sucker!"
After pushing another reveler and starting a chain reaction of pushing, punching, and spilling, they headed out the door. The satyrs brushed passed Iolaus, nearly knocking him down. The hunter brushed himself off and entered. Ducking a thrown chair, a tossed mug, and a flying plate of what once looked like really tasty venison, Iolaus finally made it over to Hercules. His friend had just finished off one last particularly grouchy patron when he turned toward him.
"Hi there Happy Hunter!" he said with a sloppy grin.
"Whew! Smells like you finished off more than a brawling behemoth. How much did you have to drink, buddy?" Iolaus asked as he tried to avoid the serious case of mead mouth his friend acquired.
"Just a couple. Speaking of a couple, I'm still seeing double. That is unless you have a twin. Do you have a twin, little buddy? You know, do you have anyone that looks identical to you? Coz, I gotta tell ya, I'm seein' him now," Herc said while closing one eye.
"Now, you know, Herc. There's no one who looks like me. I'm an original," Iolaus grinned as he guided him to the single unbroken chair in the tavern. Hercules moaned as he laid his head on the table. "That's it buddy, just go to sleep."
The poor owner passed by shaking his head and groaning, "I knew it! I knew it!" he sighed as he tried to calculate how much this was going to cost. "He does carry enough dinars to cover this mess, doesn't he?"
"Sure, sure. I've got a little to throw in too." Iolaus said with a smile. "Hey, Herc, hand over the money so I can pay the nice tavern owner." Without looking up, Hercules handed over his sack of money. Iolaus laughed softly and threw the money To the owner. "That should do it, and here's a little of mine. You can use the extra To put up a plaque…'Hercules Slept it Off Here' That's a laugh isn't it, buddy?!"
All could be heard was soft snoring from the table. "Ick, you are gonna hate yourself in the morning. Hey, bartender, what's the best thing for cleaning up demigod drool?"
Four hours later, Iolaus stretched from his small bed in the inn, and decided to go downstairs to check on his friend. "Hey, friend, do you serve breakfast here or only the hair of the dog…"
"Well, if I could find the pot this morning, I do make a mean gruel and cheese."
Iolaus shuddered, "Um…thank goodness for lost pots, and ever notice how some words go together. I mean can you have gruel without it being mean? Nah, I'll have a little cheese and bread, though. Did Sleeping Beauticles stir at all last night? Maybe he'd like the gruel. Oh, this is going to be so much fun. Still, the sooner he wakes up, the sooner he'll get over this. Who am I kidding, the sooner I'll get to rib him about this." Iolaus smiled and gently tapped his friend on the jaw with his open hand.
Hercules tried to sink back down into oblivion, but someone kept punching him in the face. Hercules did not, as a rule, enjoy getting punched in the face. "Stop the pummeling, and I might let you live," he croaked. "Iolaus, remember what we did with that hydra?"
"I'm thinking I would feel better if someone would just do that to me now. I'm never...drinking...again." Hercules shuddered and tried to get to his feet. "Whoa! And my mouth….I feel like I've been lapping up the River Styx. What is that odor?"
"Here's your gruel, Hercules," the owner said with a smile as he placed it in front of the green hero.
"Oh gods, Iolaus, make it go away!"
"I don't understand, Hercules. Your friend said you'd like some this morning. The missus went all to all that extra work to fix her own recipe," the owner frowned.
Hercules narrowed his bloodshot eyes at his friend and said, "No, no, it'll be fine. I'm sure my friend would like to join me as well. Wouldn't you, Iolaus?" The owner walked back to the bar to get another bowl.
Iolaus raised his eyebrows and said, "Now, Herc. Don't be gruel."
"Please, no jokes while I'm trying to pass on to the Underworld. Hey, what kept you?"
"Ah, you know, trying to get the rest of the harvest in. I don't know why I'm still doing the farming thing. If I could just catch a break a season or two, I'd be able to buy that new forge. Then I could just give up farming all together. Besides, I'm thinking of turning my land into a rabbit sanctuary." the hunter said as he pulled off a little bread and handed it to Hercules.
"I figured what with the farm, they're the only ones eating the fruit of my labor. Of course then I could probably also develop a taste for rabbit stew. What do you think?" He asked with a grin.
"I think..I think…I think I'm going to be sick. Be back," the demigod stumbled as quickly as he could outside while Iolaus dipped his finger into the gray mush that was Hercules' breakfast.
"Hmm, actually, Herc, add a little bacon fat, and it tastes just like Ania's," he sighed.
Hercules made it back in time to see a bittersweet look wash over his friend's face. The demigod took a deep breath and was determined to make this little fishing trip the best they'd had in years. That is, if he could stop Terpsichore from doing the Baccanae Ballyhoo in his brain. He slowly lowered himself onto the chair he recently vacated. Carefully looking down at it and the table. "Huh, did Samicles get new furniture?"
"Yeah, you could say it was a gift from the gods, or demigod, actually."
Suddenly, a young man burst through the door and shouted, ""Hercules! I have to find Hercules. I was told he was here. Hercules?"
Hercules pushed the gruel away and laid his head back down. "Oh no. Yeah, I'm Hercules."
Nestor said, "Look, I need to talk-- "
"Shh, okay? Just not so loud. I'm feeling a little out of it right now."
"Oh, wait, I know something that will help. Does your innkeeper have a pot?" Nestor asked.
"You don't know a recipe for gruel do you?" Hercules grimaced.
"Well, yeah, doesn't everybody? But that's not it. I promise this will help," and Nestor sped off to the kitchen.
"Well, at least we know the people we're helping this time a energetic," Iolaus grinned. Hercules groaned as once again their fishing trip was postponed.
A little later, the lad returned carrying two steaming mugs. He proudly set it before the two. Hercules gripped his mug with both hands and sipped cautiously. He tried desperately to keep a straight face.
"So, um, what is this stuff, anyway?" he asked tightly.
Nestor replied, "It's called coffee. My father just started importing it from the East? We're the only kingdom in all the land that has it."
The demigod shook his head and muttered, "No offense, but this isn't somethin' to brag about."
"I don't know, Herc. Add a little honey, a little milk, stir it up so it froths a little like this, and hey it's pretty good. Come on. Taste it, Hercules." he urged.
"I think I've had enough of your epicurean urgings today. No thanks," he said as he took another sip. Oddly enough, it was helping his headache.
"Well, I think my new friend here and I can go into a side business. What do you say? Your coffee, my milk , honey, and great business sense, I'll ignore that snort, Hercules, Come on." Iolaus wriggled his eyebrows again and stood up. "We'll have one on every corner in Greece. We'll call it Asterhind. What do you think?" Iolaus was fairly bouncing with excitement. Hercules rolled his painfully bloodshot eyes again and put his head down. "What?"
Hercules raised his head and answered, "What, what? Oh, well Asterhind, Iolaus? What kind of name is that?"
"Well, you know this coffee stuff is out of this world. Heavenly, so..we reach for the stars, hence, aster."
"Okay, I get the whole star thing, but hind? Come on, doesn't that sound a little too, feminine? I just don't see any of our warrior friends picking up some of this stuff before they go to the outpost at a place called Asterhinds. Mind you, I don't see anyone drinking this stuff regularly," Hercules said with mild disgust.
"Oh, and what would you call it? Starhinds, oh forgot, not manly enough. How about Asterbucks. Oh wait! I've got it Starbu…" Iolaus continued while drinking his frothy concoction.
"Um, guys, we really need your help," Nestor interrupted.
Hercules turned back to the young man and asked, "What's your problem, exactly."
"Well," the young man stuttered, "I don't know... exactly."
Iolaus stepped in, "Well, then what's your problem, vaguely?"
Nestor blushed a little and confessed, "Mmm, I don't know that, either. My mother didn't say. She only told me to invite you to the festival of Dionysus? And well, not to take, 'No' for an answer."
Hercules turned slightly green at this information and sighed, "Look. The truth is, I'm not real big on celebrating the gods, especially the god of wine right now."
Nestor looked confused then informed him, "But, it's a royal invitation. My mother is Queen Camilla."
Hercules looked closer at the young man. "That's funny. I never would've guessed you're a prince. You're Queen Camilla and King Iphicles' son? Well, all the same, I... I have to decline."
Nestor grabbed Hercules' arm and begged, "You don't understand. I think somethin' is gonna happen at the festival... somethin' bad. Please, Hercules. It's the first time my mother has ever asked me to do anything. I can't let her down."
Iolaus looked to his friend and could feel him wavering. "Oh well, who needs a vacation anyway. This might not be too bad, what with it being for Dionysus and all," he thought. The hunter turned to his friend and tipped the scales a bit, "A festival for Dionysus, huh? Come on, Herc. I guess that old lush isn't as bad as most of the gods. Besides, maybe someone there will have advice on your hangover. What do you say?"
Hercules closed his eyes, nodded, and asked, "So, what goes on at this festival?"
Nestor's grin alone would light up the room as he spoke with pride, "Basically, we pray to Dionysus to bless the new wine; then everyone drinks! You don't have to drink, Hercules. Only the virgins have to drink."
Iolaus perked up, "Virgins, did you say virgins?"
"Looks like we're going to your festival, Nestor. Lead the way, but slowly please," Hercules made his request as he steadied himself against the table.
The morning light spilled into the virgins' wing of the palace. At the end of each festival, new maidens were chosen to live in the palace and prepare for the next. The girls had every luxury afforded them, and yet they each took on this task with a measure of reverence and sobriety. Pentheus always thought this a joke, seeing to whom their reverence was due. Now, he stood in the entranceway listening to the priest give his last measure of instruction.
The priest looked intently at the girls and spoke, "For over a thousand years, Dionysus has watched over Meliad. And each year, we have celebrated with this holy festival. Now, you have been selected-- to play its most sacred role. Tonight, when the moon reaches its full height-- the new wine will flow over your lips-- and with it-- Dionysus himself. Then, you will know his will-- either to confirm King Iphicles' reign, or-- to end it." The maiden's looked attentively to the priest and then at each other. It was an honor, and yet they wondered if they could actually kill the kindly king. The priest noticed their hesitation and continued, "If you must _spill_ the king's blood, don't think-- "
Pentheus pushed himself away from the wall and strolled in with a smug look on his face. The prince interrupted, "All right, good priest. There's no point in scaring these pretty girls. Let them go and enjoy their preparations."
The old priest started to protest, "I-I-I-I'm telling them the law!"
Pentheus replied, "Yes, we all know. But, there's no doubt, this festival will only confirm my father for another year. Go-- be bathed--be oiled and perfumed. Let my servants fuss and fawn over you while you prepare for tonight." The young women hurried out of his presence. None of them could stand his leering gaze for long.
One particularly lovely lady was reluctant to approach him, but she was worried. Marissa asked softly, "Pentheus, have you seen Nestor? I thought he was supposed to be here."
The crown prince replied, "Well, you know my brother-- he's rarely _where_ he's supposed to be when he's supposed to be there. I wouldn't worry."
While he lecherously watched her leave, his captain of the guard approached him.
Goudrin whispered, "I need a word with you, my lord. I saw that runt brother of yours leaving the city last night."
Pentheus grinned smugly, "Hmm-- well, that's Nestor's loss, isn't it? He's gonna miss quite a festival. Hmm."
Hercules, Iolaus, and Nestor made their way through the countryside a little quicker than the demigod thought possible. Iolaus discreetly avoided snickering at the hero worship flowing freely from Nestor.
Nestor eagerly asked, "Tell me about your adventures, Hercules and Iolaus. Danger around every corner? Death up every tree?"
Iolaus cast a sideways glance at his friend and answered, "Sometimes-- not usually up a tree, though."
"I've always wanted to be a hero-- killing monsters-- fighting all sorts of battles. A hydra… I want to kill a hydra! That would be so cool!"
Hercules spoke somberly, "Well, believe me-- battles and killing make better stories than they do memories. Besides, your time will come. It's Prince Nestor, now. Someday, it'll be 'King Nestor.'"
Nestor grinned sheepishly, "Me? Nawww. That's for my older brother, Pentheus. _He's_ the heir to the throne."
Iolaus said, "Ah, well, that's just as well. You know what they say about power."
Nestor frowned, "No-- what?"
Hercules took a deep breath, "Trust me, my whole family is into the power thing, and it isn't a pretty picture. Well, power corrupts-- makes men into demons."
Nestor bowed up, "Not in Meliad, it doesn't. My father's a great man. He's ruled for twenty-five years. He abolished slavery. No one goes hungry. He put an end to all the wars. You'd have to look pretty hard to even find a sword left in our city."
Hercules patted the young man on the shoulder, "Well, then I hope the people in Meliad know how lucky they are to have him."
"They do." Nestor backed down. He realized that he must have sounded pretty defensive. "Besides, that can't be true of your whole family. Surely the Lady Alcmene isn't like that."
"He's got you there, buddy. Hey, you know Alcmene?" Iolaus asked.
"No, but my mother has told me many times of her great courage, compassion, and honesty," Nestor continued. "She said her beauty was astonishing, but her inner peace in the face of everything was legendary."
Hercules blushed at the honor given his mother. His smile, though, spoke volumes. There were times he felt ashamed for being the son of Zeus, but he always felt extreme pride in being Alcmene's son. Hercules turned to Iolaus, "Mother and Queen Camilla have been friends since they were girls. King Iphicles and Amphitryon fought in many wars together before Nestor's father became king. It was only natural that the four of them became great friends. In fact, my brother was named after King Iphicles. Unfortunately, I don't think he's nearly as noble as your father, Nestor."
Iolaus only nodded. He'd always known Iphicles as the wild one, but the hunter was reluctant to judge him too harshly. He'd seen his own future heading that way had he not gone to the Academy. He shook himself out of those dark thoughts and decided to lighten up the conversation. "So, about these virgins…"
Pentheus walked through the door, "Long live the king."
Iphicles smile as he laid the crown back on the table and turned to his first-born. "Ah-ha-ha! There you are! How's the festival?"
"Just getting underway. Uh-- your subjects," Pentheus continued raising his eyebrows, "certainly don't need much encouragement to start celebrating."
The king just chuckled and remarked, "Good, good, good. As long as you're here, there is something I want to talk to you about. With each festival comes the chance that-- my reign might end. When the sun rises on Meliad tomorrow, you may be the new king."
Inwardly, Pentheus fairly glowed with contempt as his father radiated with both concern and pride. "Didn't know you had seer blood in you," he thought. Straightening himself up, the heir to the throne contradicted the man, "Father, please. We go through this every year. You're as morbid as that old priest of yours."
Iphicles shook his head, "You may not want to here it,. still, I want you to listen to what I have to say-- it's important. It's not that difficult being a good king. Just--rule with your heart. Govern with kindness, kindness. Never, never, never with anger. Our kingdom deserves nothing less."
"I'll remember that. And many, many years from now, when the time finally comes-- I'll put it to use."
The old king smiled, grasped his son's shoulders gently, and said, "Then, my son, you will honor my memory." He released him with a pat and continued to prepare for the night.
As Pentheus left the room, he grinned a sick little grin and whispered, "But of course."
Hercules, Iolaus, and Nestor pushed through the crowded street. Everywhere they looked people were laughing, drinking, dancing, and generally having a good time. All this just slightly after midday, Hercules wondered what the streets would look like tomorrow.
Sighing, the demigod remarked, "So, this is your festival, huh?"
Nestor was extremely pleased with all the happiness surrounding them. He turned to Hercules and nodded, "Part of it. The real fun doesn't start until tonight."
Iolaus caught a whirling young lady and then spun her back to her dancing partner. He asked with a smile, "What are we supposed to do until then?"
"Go mingle," answered the prince.
Hercules frowned slightly as he avoided a stumbling drunk, "Mingle?"
"We can mingle. Yep, mingle with the best of them," Iolaus said as another young lady winked at him.
Nestor grabbed Hercules by the arm and drew him aside, "Yeah. Oh, but keep a low profile-- 'cause my mother doesn't want anyone to know you're here. So, whatever you do, don't do anything _you'd_ do-- you know-- if you were you. See ya." With that, Nestor hurried off to the palace.
Hercules looked at Iolaus and asked him, "Did you understand that?"
"Sure, see ya later Hercules. I'm going to be friendly. Hey, don't forget…mingle," Iolaus said as he patted his back.
The demigod sighed and walked off down the street mumbling to himself, "Go-- mingle." This time the drunk didn't miss, and Hercules nearly ran into the city wall. Merchants, musicians, and general mayhem surged around him as he simply nodded and continued on his way.
Nestor was hurrying back to the palace to tell his mother that he'd been successful in his task. Suddenly, he found himself grabbed by the sleeve by his older brother.
Pentheus asked, "Nestor-- where have you been? We missed you at the gathering of the virgins."
Nestor giggled nervously and answered, " Well, hi, Pentheus. Uh-- I've been around." He started to move on when Pentheus blocked his way.
The crown prince narrowed his gaze and remarked, "Really? I dropped by your room last night, and you weren't there."
Nestor struggled with telling him the truth. After all Pentheus was his brother, and would someday rule the kingdom. Surely he should know if there was a threat approaching. Somehow, though, Nestor had an urgency to keep his secret to himself. His mother did entrust her worries to him and him alone. So, Nestor just looked to his brother and answered, "Oh-- well-- uh-- well, I couldn't sleep-- so I took a little walk."
Pentheus continued his line of questioning, "A _little_ walk. Goudrin said he saw you leaving the city."
Nestor squirmed, "He did? Oh-- well-- I-- uh-- hey, did you get a haircut? It looks good." Just then, he saw his love leaning from the palace window.
Marissa smiled and called down, "Nestor! Nestor, up here! Guess what? I've been chosen to lead the maidens."
Nestor beamed with pride, "Well, that's great!"
Pentheus said, "You must be very proud. After all, Mother was lead maiden twenty-five years ago." He knew she wouldn't miss the meaning of his words.
Nestor seemingly oblivious to the threat, told her, "I'll see ya after the ceremony."
Marissa sighed as she left, "I'll think about you every minute until then."
Pentheus chuckled as he slung his arm around his brother's shoulders, "Funny, isn't it? Things go bad for Father, and I become king-- your girlfriend becomes my bride."
Nestor turned to him and asked, "What are you sayin'?"
Pentheus slapped his back and said, "Oh, nothing, Nestor. Relax. Everything's gonna be all right."
Hercules nudged his way into a crowded tavern and leaned heavily on the bar. He fought hard to remember why he was in a tavern in the first place just considering a short time ago he swore he'd never drink again. While trying to figure out where he told Iolaus to meet him, he overheard some lout boasting at the other end of the bar.
Phegus had a bit too much of the old wine and started bragging, "Sure, I took on Hercules."
His drinking buddy shook his head and said, "Phegus, you're lyin'. You never defeated Hercules."
Phegus grunted, "I sure did. Why, I wiped the _streets_ with him. I had him beggin' for mercy! Hey-- he had more mama's blood in him than Zeus!"
An old man in a blue cloak spoke up, "Your friend's right, Mister. Hercules would mop the floor with you."
The demigod poke softly to himself, "Keep a low profile."
Phegus grabbed the old man and proceeded to demonstrate, "First, I got Hercules' attention. Then-- I introduced myself. And then I said, 'Nighty-night, he-man.' Buddy-- you've just bought yourself a whole heap of trouble!" He yelled as Hercules grabbed his hand that was about to deliver a severe blow to the old man.
Hercules simply said, "No trouble at all." And then punched his lights out. The drunk hit his friends and they all went down. "When they wake up-- tell them they're lucky I wasn't Hercules. Come on, friend-- let's get you some fresh air."
Goudrin swallowed down the last of his mead, wiped his mouth, and muttered, "Hmm."
Hercules led the old man out into the streets to find a better atmosphere. He was worried that he'd be shaken up a bit. "Are you OK?" He inquired.
Iolaus, "Sure, buddy. Thanks for keeping a low profile." Iolaus giggled and threw off the cloak.
Hercules shook his head, "I can't believe this. You could have taken that man and his buddies on your own. What's with the helpless old man act?"
Iolaus laughed, "Well, I was in disguise, and I wanted to see how long you'd take having your name besmirched before acting."
Hercules sighed, "Look, it wasn't because they were dragging my name through the dirt, they were going to hurt what I thought was an old man. An old man that, I might add could have done his own damage. Now, why were you really passing yourself off as an old geezer, which, by the way, was totally believable. You really must be getting old."
Iolaus snorted and stretched, "Yeah, gotta say being an old guy just cramped my style a little, but after I heard what was happening, I thought I'd better do a little information gathering. Man, Herc, you have no idea how bad this is gonna be. See, I ran into this little weird seer guy. He looked, well he didn't look 'coz he was blind, see. Anyway, he turns right to me, says a few curse words, and lays into me about why Hercules has to ruin all of the fun. He said that without the bloodshed, this festival is going to be flat thanks to you, and then says that he's outta here. Wonder what that was all about, huh? "
Hercules shrugged. "Who knows with seers?" Suddenly, what Iolaus said brought him back to the present, "Bloodshed-- what bloodshed?"
Iolaus said, "Well, that's where this little religious festival gets a little hinky. He said that there would be doom at the festival, but that with you there, he knew it was too good to be true. Hey, what's with the guy? I mean, I thought seers were supposed to be, you know, full of wonder. He wanted to dance in the blood."
Hercules frowned as they walked through the streets, "Doom? I thought this-- festival was just a celebration. They bless the new wine. Everyone gets drunk. No big deal."
Iolaus said, " Well, according to the seer and a few of the locals, it is if Dionysus wants the king to rule for another year."
"And, if he doesn't?"
Iolaus squirmed through another group of revelers, and then answered, "Wellll, then-- the festival becomes pretty wild. The old guy said normally it's his kind of festival. The new wine drives the maidens into a murderous frenzy, and they slaughter the king! Of course, it's not all doom for everyone involved because if that happens, it works out pretty fantastic for Nestor's brother. When the king dies, the maidens crown a new king with a night of um, what did he say? Oh yeah, unbridled passion! I gotta tell ya Herc, That guy is a pretty sick puppy. He said that girls, murder, and mayhem was his kind of festival."
Hercules grimaced, "All I've heard is what a great king Iphicles is. If that's true-- there shouldn't be anything to worry about--right? But then why would the seer be here in the first place if everything was going well?"
Nestor rushed up and bumped into the two, "Oops. Hi. My mother wants to see you. Come on. I'll lead the way."
Hercules and Iolaus followed. All the time, the demigod wondered about all Iolaus had told him, and he just resigned himself to finding out about this all shortly. Down a back ally, Nestor handed them two dark cloaks. Nestor looked all around them and then whispered, "Here-- we're goin' into the palace. We can't have anyone seeing you in there."
Hercules groaned, "Nestor-- you're driving me crazy with all this mystery. I need to know what's going on. I hate this disguise thing. What are you laughing at Iolaus?"
Iolaus shrugged and said, "Be grateful he didn't hand us a couple of dresses."
In the private baths of the virgins, each maiden took time to ceremonially become primed for the evening. Whether bathing, anointing with oils and perfumes, or just relaxing, each girl did what was necessary to prepare for the festivities.
Marissa lounged on one of the massage couches and sighed at the sensual feeling the rosebud made as it caressed her bare back. "Oh, Nestor, you naughty boy," she moaned.
Pentheus hissed, "Surprise. My brother said you liked roses."
Marissa quickly covered herself and sat up away from him. "Thank you. It's lovely."
Pentheus slithered around the table and tried to sit next to her. He reached out to touch her shoulder. "Nestor's lucky to have a girl like you. How come you and I have never taken the time to get to know each other better?"
Marissa shrugged his hand off and rose. He made her strangely uncomfortable with his presence. Looking away, she softly said, "Pentheus, I don't think you should be in here."
Pentheus smirked, "Don't worry. We won't get in any trouble. It's one of the benefits of bein' a prince. I pretty much have run of the palace-- the whole kingdom, for that matter. Although-there are some-- secret places I haven't been." He started to slide his hand back over her skin when she slapped his face and ran away. He laughed outright and remarked, "Ya got fire, too. I bet Nestor has no idea."
-In another part of the palace, the queen paced around the room while trying to collect her thoughts. "First of all," she began, "I want to thank you and Iolaus for taking my quest seriously. Alcmene has kept me updated on your lives, and I must say, that she's quite proud of you both. I'm sorry, Hercules. I wish I had more to tell. But at least, now you understand why there had to be so much secrecy. If anyone in the kingdom knew that I had called you here, they would think that I was trying to deny Dionysus' will, and I'd never do that. If it truly is my husband's time to go, then I must abide by that-- but it just can't be. He is the finest king that Meliad ever had. It's not his time to die. Nightmares-- feelings of gloom-- huh! Maybe, there's nothing wrong at all. Maybe, I'm just being silly."
Hercules cleared his throat, "No-- you're not being silly. Iolaus ran into a seer a little while ago, but if he was here there's a good chance trouble's here, too. They're usually not attracted to happy, peaceful events."
Pentheus slipped into the room he'd kept secret to nearly everyone in the palace. Only his captain knew of its existence. The room was decorated in death and destruction. Yes, it was a fitting tribute to Ares, god of war. On the cold stone floor, he knelt, this temple's only supplicant. His head bowed, the postulant prayed, "Almighty Ares, god of war, all my life, I've watched my father's feeble rule squander Meliad's power; our once-mighty armies, dismantled; our weapons, corroded by neglect-- all in the name of peace, and the wine idol, Dionysus. But tonight-- with your help, by your plan, everything will change. Tomorrow, I will be Meliad's new king, and you, Ares, will be her god. A new era will begin; nations conquered; peoples enslaved-- "
Goudrin swaggered in and interrupted, "Real warriors will rule again."
Pentheus was annoyed at his captain's arrogance. It had its place in the presence of others, but not in his private altar. He asked without even turning around, "What are you doing here? You know not to interrupt my prayers."
Goudrin bowed and apologized, "I'm sorry, my lord. There's a stranger in our city. I think he could be a problem."
Pentheus answered simply, "Then find him and solve it."
"Just what I wanted to hear."
Iolaus walked around the crowded city. It was nearly dusk, and the festivities would begin soon. He'd wished he hadn't let Hercules talk him into splitting up. He had a weird feeling all day after speaking with that seer. But then, seers always left him feeling uneasy. He was certainly glad that the gods hadn't blessed him with that particular family gift, for they usually added a little curse. Iolaus could still remember the hushed tones in which his family would discuss Crazy great, great, Grandmother Cecilia . Still, it would have helped in this case. Then, at least he'd know what to look for. "Something unusual, Herc said. Yeah, right, buddy. What is not unusual when we go on these little journeys?!"
In the palace, Hercules and Nestor made their way to the living quarters of the virgins. It was eerily empty and quiet. Nestor spoke up, "I don't understand. She should be here-- they all should. It's really not quite time to head to the place of dedication."
Hercules looked around and remarked, "Doesn't look like they've been gone for very long."
"Well-- where are they now, Hercules?"
Suddenly, Goudrin and three other warriors walked into the quarters. He sneered as he walked down the stairs and said, "Hercules, huh? So, that's who you are. Welcome to the festival. Too bad you won't live to see any of it."
Nestor rushed up to the captain, "Oh, it's Okay, Goudrin. Hercules was invited here. I know-- "
Goudrin growled as he grabbed the prince by his throat and pushed him aside, "You know nothing, runt!"
Hercules tipped over the caldron of hot water for the baths, splashing the Goudron's feet. Goudrin screamed out for his men to get Hercules while he limped back to higher ground. The men rushed at him with their spears poised to take him down. Blocking the thrusts, the demigod managed to get in a few punches as he jumped to avoid the sharp weapons. Nestor grabbed a copper platter filled with oranges and hurled them at the men attacking his new friend. Unfortunately, that now drew the attention of the bad guys to him, and he found himself fighting for his life with only a copper platter as a shield.
Hercules shouted disbelievingly, "Nestor! Do you have any idea what you're doing?!"
Nestor yelled back with a shrug, "None, whatsoever!"
"Great," the hero muttered. Hercules fought on, using his strength to toss the two soldiers like rag dolls. Tossing one in the perfumed bath and the other against the shelf of perfumed oils, so that he could now focus on the one who was brutally beating Nestor. " I don't think you're showin' the prince the proper respect." That drew the sadistic guard away from the prince. He foolishly tried to fight Hercules one-on-one, which was no contest until the oiled soldier grabbed him from behind. Held somewhat in place, the hero was not losing the fight, but he was definitely hindered. Finally, he was able to throw them both off, and then he faced Goudrin while he and Nestor climbed the stairs. "You stand back while your men fight? I call that--gutless."
Goudrin replied smugly, "Yeah? I call that smart. After all, you are Hercules."
"If you really are smart, you'll tell me what I want to know." He was so focused on the captain that he neglected to notice where he was standing. He felt the pit of his stomach fall as he watched Goudrin quickly hit a large disk against the wall. Instantly he felt the rest of him fall. Quickly, Hercules grabbed the rope hanging over the pit, and held on while Nestor, screaming, started to fall. Nestor fought pure panic and managed to hang on to Hercules' ankle. Hercules leaned down and offered his free hand to the prince.
"Nestor! Hang on! Here! Give me your hand!" he called out.
Goudrin stepped up with his sword and lashed out at Hercules "As long as you're givin' out hands-- how 'bout one for me?" Rather than get dismembered, Hercules released the rope. He and Nestor fell quickly into the foul water below.
Hercules tried to keep the splashing at a minimum since he didn't want to swallow any of the murky green water. He turned to Nestor and said, "That's it. No way out but the way we came in. And I can't reach it. You wouldn't-- know of any secret passage, would you?"
"I don't even know where we are. My father never told me about the dungeon."
Pentheus appeared above them and laughed, "That's because he doesn't know about it-- just one of the many improvements I've made around here."
Hercules was amazed at the young prince's naiveté. Nestor sounded relieved when he shouted, "Pentheus! Thank God! Get us outta here! Goudrin's lost his mind! He tried ta-- "
Pentheus smugly replied, "Tried to what?! Kill you?!"
Nestor still didn't get it as he tried to understand, "But-- but why, Pentheus? It doesn't make any sense."
Pentheus just shook his head and called down to Nestor with contempt, "It makes perfect sense. If you were a man of power, you'd know why. I bet Hercules knows-- don't you?"
Hercules frowned. Nestor was getting a front row seat to a lesson in betrayal. He answered, "Remember what I warned you about power, Nestor? Well, there it is. Yeah, Pentheus, you're a power-hungry rat who wants a throne that's not rightfully yours. "
"It is rightfully mine! And tonight, the maidens are gonna do away with my father and crown me to take his place!"
Nestor tried to reason with his brother, "But you can't control the maidens-- only the wine controls them."
"What if I control the wine?"
Herc warned, "That's where I come in. I make sure you don't."
The prince laughed, "From down there? I don't think so. Now if you'll excuse me, as you can imagine, I'm pretty busy. Oh, and Nestor, don't worry about Marissa. I'm sure she'll make a wonderful queen. Goudrin?"
Nestor seemed dazed, "Pentheus! Pentheus! Pentheus! I can't believe it-- my own brother."
Hercules twisted to the loud sound as a gate on their level was open. He felt currents moving where there was once only movement their feet were making. "Yeah well, right now, we've got something even slimier than Pentheus to worry about. Nestor!"
Nestor disappeared into the green pool. Hercules looked frantically all around him calling for the young prince. Suddenly the young man popped out of the water several times only to be taken again. Finally, the young man rose to the surface gasping for air.
"Hercules!" Nestor gasped "I think I killed it!"
"Then-- what're ya doing up there?!"
"Sorry. You see? It pulled me under, and then I started punchin' it, and then it wrapped itself around me, so I just kept on punchin' it, and punchin' it, and pu-- "
"Nestor-- hold that thought, would you?" Hercules suggested as the slimy serpent raised its ugly head again. The teeth quivered in anticipation of two tasty morsels. It was sure this one would be tastier that the little runt it released.
Iolaus watched the priest as he meticulously organized the arrangement of the new wine. Weird contraptions seemed to track the movement of the moon in a precise way. Iolaus thought that was weird in itself because the moon was usually Artemis' gig.
The priest ordered as he dipped his finger in the open keg, "Easy! Easy! The new wine is precious! Subtle, yet capricious. Line the moonbeam-- so that the great god, Dionysus, may enter the wine."
"Hmm," Iolaus thought, "Artemis must be sharing the moon tonight."
Camilla stood in the doorway to the dressing room at the temple quietly watching the young woman destined to play the role she once played. Her heart ached at what might befall them all should they kill her husband. It wasn't that she disliked her eldest son. She just felt like he wasn't quite honest with is praise. No, this young lady belonged with her youngest son. She spoke quietly, "You look beautiful, Marissa."
Marissa spun around to see the beautiful older woman. "Queen Camilla."
Camilla said, "I was in your place, once. That's how I became queen."
Marissa felt uncomfortable and asked, "But, shouldn't you be at the palace? What're you doing here?"
Camilla stepped forward and grabbed her hands. "Don't kill him!" she whispered urgently.
Camilla closed her eyes and continued, "Something's wrong-- 25 years, I've never had such an awful feeling."
Marissa released one of her hands and whispered back, "Aw, everything's gonna be fine, your Highness. You don't have to worry." She patted the arm of her queen reassuringly. "It's starting-- I have to go."
"Please, Marissa-- don't kill my husband."
Marissa turned to look at the queen. She'd never seen such odd behavior before, and it made her shiver.
Hercules final struggle with the serpent ended when he whirled it through the water and flung it up against the wall. Fortunately for them it was impaled on two spikes high on the wall.
"Prince Nestor-- your stairs await."
Priest's Voice echoed through the streets. The crowd looked hungrily at the wine. "The time is drawing near! The moon is almost touching the wine!" Iolaus felt himself being drawn into the energy of the crowd.
"Come on, Hercules. Where are you?"
Hercules and Nestor slipped out of the dungeon and onto the bustling streets. It was harder than he imagined to walk through the writhing mob, and Hercules had to ask Nestor more than once which turn to make.
Suddenly soldiers' voices were all around them, "Hey! That was Hercules!"
"Where'd he go?!"
Iolaus heard the soldiers as they passed him in the mass of people. He looked around frantically until he saw his friends trying to steer clear of the henchmen. He ducked into an ally and slid into an alcove near a tavern. Looking around he he finally got Hercules' attention. "Herc! This way!"
Hercules snagged Nestor's arm and pulled him into the safe haven. He shushed the young man as they still listened to the soldiers searching for them "Thanks, Iolaus. Have you seen anything unusual yet? I've gotta tell you we have. Pentheus is behind all this."
"Huh! But you know, I think someone else is really behind it. I can't quite put my finger on this, but this feels like an even bigger betrayal. It's got the gods written all over it.
"Yeah, but which one?" mumbled Hercules.
"Hey, why does Dionysus come through the moon tonight? I mean isn't that Artemis' realm?" Iolaus asked
"Yeah, well, I seem to remember something about an agreement somewhere, but I never connected it with Dionysus. She grants them each one night a month, you know Harvest moon for Demeter, Lover's moon for Aphrodite, Blood moon for Ares, etc. Oh no, Iolaus, if what I think is happening, "the demigod hesitated, "we've got to hurry!" Suddenly he heard voices he'd never thought he'd hear again. "You two, again."
Another man was caught in the flimflam, "Ah! There! Sixteen!" the drunken man boasted, "Ya gotta drop on this one."
Satyr Twin slurred, "Ah-- I think you're right. I'm feeling' awfully woozy."
Hercules stepped in and asked, "As woozy as your brother is?"
The swindled man shouted, "Two a' ya?! And-- and you! I'm gonna kill _all_ a' ya!" However, instead of doing damage, the man fell over unconscious. Hercules just looked down at him and patted the satyr's shoulder.
One of the twins asked, "How ya doin'-- Hercules?!"
Hercules smiled at him and replied, "Oh, I'm gonna be great, once you two do me a favor."
A soldier yelled, "Check the tavern! Let's let no one escape!"
One of the satyr twins challenged, "We know you're lookin' for Hercules. But guess what? You found us. After you, Cletus."
"No, I insist-- after you."
"Boys?" the twin called out, " Food fight!"
Herc said as he left the tavern, "Thanks."
The Satyr Twins just smiled, but barely acknowledged him, "Yeah. Yeah."
Queen Camilla edged nervously toward the bed leaving a wide berth around the table with the daggers. She looked with disgust and muttered, "I hate those dreadful things. Do they really have to be here?"
Iphicles joined her and gently took her in his arms. "My love," he began hesitantly, "if it's the will of Dionysus-- " He tried to see some bit of understanding in her clear eyes. Her attitude had him worried for her. He'd never seen her so worried about their future.
Camilla leaned into his touch as his hand came up to caress her face. "Surely, he can't be blind to everything you've accomplished."
"Then we have nothing to worry about."
"But, what if we do?"
Iphicles sighed patiently and straightened to his full height. "Then, Camilla, my love, we'll go. If it's Pentheus' turn, he'll make a great king. The end for one becomes the beginning for another."
"I know," she conceded.
The king held out her cup, and as she took it, he recited as his father before him had, "Here-- drink the last of the old wine-- and let us face this together." Iphicles guided his wife to their bed and assured her, "Whatever happens, Camilla-- know one thing-- I love you with all my heart." She could only weep softly and nod.
The people grew even more restless as the saw the virgins take their places behind the old priest. Each one looked more lovely and pure than the other, and their presence assured the new wine to be the sweetest yet.
The priest began, "Good people of Meliad! Let me welcome you to the most sacred event in the festival of Dionysus-- the opening of the new wine!" The strange contraptions pulled the power of the moon, and the power of the current god empowering the light, into the wine. The red liquid swirled, taking on a life of it's own. The people ecstatic that the wine was now inhabited by their patron god, cheered as the virgins' goblets were filled to the brim.
"Soon, you shall taste the sweetness of the harvest!" continued the old priest. "But first-- it must be consecrated by the lips of the innocent!"
"Hercules, look!" gasped Iolaus as he pointed to the moon. The image of moon glowed red with the scull symbol of the war god.
Hercules spat out, "Just like I thought. He's hijacked the moon. Ares, you stinking coward. I should've known you'd be behind this."
Nestor looked confused, "But what about Dionysus? Wouldn't he be upset with Ares interference?"
"Do not get me started on Olympian politics. But he wouldn't be allowed unless someone set up an altar and invited him. Three guesses who that would be, Nestor?" Hercules said in disgust. Nestor just gulped and nodded.
The old priest instructed, "Now, maidens, raise your glasses! Give yourselves over to Dionysus!"
The crowd urged the maidens to drink. Chanting louder and louder, the cries of the three men just seemed to blend in.
Hercules shouted, "No, stop! Don't drink that wine! It's been poisoned by Ares! No! Stop! Stop!" But it was too late, the virgins had drunk the wine, and now their eyes glowed blood red.
Nestor groaned as he watched the virgins lifted overhead toward the path to the palace. "Oh, Hercules, what're we gonna do?!"
"Stop! Put them down!" Hercules continued.
"Oh, no! It's too late, Hercules!" yelled Iolaus.
"No, it's not. We know where they're going. You do what you can to stall 'em. I'm heading to the palace. Keep them away from the wine. We'll have blood running in the streets. Nestor, you try and hold back the virgins."
"Great," Iolaus muttered, "I get to hold back a cranky bunch of drunks, and he gets to hold virgins." Grabbing a staff he made his way to the podium and jumped up to the priest's dismay. "All right, bar's closed until further notice."
Hercules dashed the back way to the palace. Each step could determine life or death, not only to the King, but to the honor of the town itself. With Ares as the patron god, Meliad would be destined to be abhorred.
Goudrin and Pentheus looked on from the palace walls. The captain said, "It won't be long now, my lord." Suddenly, they saw Hercules and Nestor winding quickly through the crowd.
Pentheus yelled, "You said Hercules was dead!"
"I thought he was."
"Well, you thought wrong. I didn't come this far to fail now. Find him and kill him!" ordered the future king.
Hercules hurried down the hallway, and ran into the arrogant captain.
"Well, well, well" Goudrin said as he circled him, "look who's still drawing breath."
"Yeah-- I like it that way."
"So do I. Now, I get to hear you scream!" Goudrin lurched toward him with his sword. Hercules easily jumped out of the way and continued engaging him in their dangerous dance. Quickly disarming Goudrin, the hero promptly began throwing him into the walls of the palace. During one particularly brutal bash, the wall gave way to a secret room. Hercules looked in disgust as he saw the evidence of Ares' presence.
"So, Ares. This is where you've been hiding." He began tearing down the Pentheus homage to the war god. Spears, shields, and sculls now laid sprawled around the room. He reached for the altar itself, when he heard Goudrin stirring.
Nestor blocked the virgins as they rounded the last corner toward the palace, "Hold it! All of you!"
Marissa smiled seductively as she approached him, "Nestor, my love-- it's so good to see you." She batted her red-rimmed eyes at him.
"Oh, please, ya have to stop!"
Marissa giggled, "We can't stop, now. We're on our way to kill the king. Now, to the palace." They swirled around and started to enter the palace.
Hercules tossed the man effortlessly away from him and warned, "You really ought to learn when to call it quits!" With these last words, he tossed Goudrin to the floor. This time he didn't get up.
Goudrin laughed and then boasted, "That won't do ya any good. They drank Ares with the wine. He's already inside them-- controlling them. There's nothin' you can do."
"I'll think of something," Hercules said as rushed out the door toward the king's bedchambers.
Iolaus deflected more than one reveler with his staff, and warned them, "Ares tainted the wine. Trust me there's nothing subtle about its taste. One drink and ..BANG…Meliad's toast. Now, back off! Go home and finish up the old wine I know you have stored in your basement. Sheesh! Haven't you guys heard of aging the wine?:
Pentheus wandered through his father's private treasury. Thrusting his hand into the chest of jewels, the young prince closed his eyes as the pearls, diamonds, and rubies tickled his palm. He smoothed out the silken robes that he could only imagine would be his. He took in all that would be his and sighed with a smile.
Hercules burst into the royal chambers waking up the king and queen. Iphicles bounded from the bed and faced the demigod
"What's the-- ?"
Hercules reassured the king that he meant no harm, "Don't be alarmed, your Highness-- I'm Hercules."
"I don't care _who_ you are!" cried the incensed Iphicles. "Get out of here, before you defile this ceremony!"
Queen Camilla tried to reason with the king, but he didn't want to hear any of it. He was so confused as to why Camilla didn't just trust Dionysus to make the right decision. He shook his head as Camilla urged him, "He's here to help us, Iphicles.
"Please Your Highness," Hercules began, "the ceremony has already been defiled-- by the people trying to murder you."
Camilla looked to him beseechingly, "Listen to him."
"No, no, he's the one who should listen. You may not agree with our customs-- but if this is Dionysus' will-- "
Hercules asked, "What if it's not? What if it's Ares' will?"
The Virgins swirled into the room and danced around the table with the daggers in frenzied joy. One by one, they scooped up the dagger, gracefully handling the instrument as a valued dance partner. The macabre dance continued as the maidens circled the king's bed. Their ecstatic movements climaxed with the downward movement into the king resting peacefully in his bed.
In the next room Pentheus heard his mother scream, and a dark red pool seeped under the door. "My father's blood-- at last." Turning at last to his real prize, Pentheus ran his hand over the crown. How many times had he seen it gleaming from his father's head? And now, it would be his.
"Now comes the best part." Pentheus placed it on his head, and laughed in anticipation of what was to come. The door slowly pushed open, and Pentheus felt that soon his lust for power would be satisfied. He spoke out in gleeful confidence,
"Welcome, ladies. Long live the-- ." Instead of the virgins swirling around him, his father walked in and glared at him in disappointment. The prince was shocked. His disbelief could be heard in his voice as he said, "You're dead. You're dead! I saw your blood! I saw the blood. I saw it!" Pentheus ran from the room to the bedchamber ignoring his father calling for him. Tearing through the bedclothes, he came to the realization he'd been tricked with the wine. Suddenly Nestor burst into the room and grabbed him by his collar.
"Bad news, Pentheus," his brother growled, "your little brother's not the weakling you thought he was." And with that, Nestor threw a punch that even surprised him. Pentheus hit the floor hard as his brother ran from the room, not giving him a single thought.
Pentheus pulled himself up using the table with the last of the old wine. Praying to Ares, Pentheus begged, "Ares-- you must help me." Ares entered the old wine just as easily as he had the new, and Pentheus felt the power of the god of war surging through his veins. He looked up with crimson glowing eyes and turned toward his "happy" family.
Hercules dusted off the crown and handed it to his mother's old friend, "Here you go, your Highness. I believe this is yours."
Pentheus plowed through the room again grabbing the crown, "Not if I have anything to say about it." All in the room shivered to hear the deathly tone added to Pentheus' voice. "Ares is in my veins. There's not one of you here who can stand in my way."
Iphicles started toward him, "Pentheus, I command you-- "
Pentheus just shouted over his shoulder, "Shut up, you pathetic old man. If you had been a real king, this wouldn't be necessary. Now-- I want what's rightfully mine."
Hercules grabbed his shoulder and turned him around, "I've got that, right here." The demigod punched him right in the face, and they all gasped when it barely phased Pentheus at all.
The prince laughed and challenged Hercules, "You're gonna have to do a lot better than that."
Iphicles, Camilla, and Nestor stood shocked to see Pentheus trading equal blows with the son of Zeus as the fight raged on. Hercules would toss Pentheus. That in itself was not remarkable, but that Pentheus could in turn toss the demigod shook the foundation of their convictions.
After one particularly vicious blow, Pentheus taunted Hercules,
"You can't stop the god of war."
Hercules spun around and hit Pentheus so hard, the prince flew back hitting the throne with so much force, it traveled back with him. When the throne tipped at the window, Pentheus went with it and flew out the window into the moat below.
Hercules rushed to the secret chapel and managed to pull down the altar. With that Ares decided to cut his losses, leave the kingdom, Pentheus, and his half-brother to deal with another day.
"Okay, have you heard the one about the drunken goat, the traveling salesman, and the tavern keeper's daughter?" Iolaus had stooped to telling old jokes to keep the people at bay.
"Everything's okay! Let them drink the wine!" Hercules shouted. The joyful cry went up, and Hercules was sure the people in the next kingdom could here their merrymaking.
"Whew! Thanks, buddy, I thought I was going to run out of jokes!" Iolaus said as he wiped his brow.
"Why do you think they were cheering?"
"No, it was because they could drink the wine. They liked my jokes, really..Herc!" Iolaus looked stunned until he saw the demigod's eyes crinkle. "Okay, laugh it up wafflepants, I remember the way you looked at the tavern a couple of days ago. Speaking of drinking…I believe I will be. You gonna have any of the new wine, Herc? I've heard it's really smooth… not a kick in it at all."
Hercules just shook his head, "Hmm," Hercules muttered as he rubbed his sore jaw, "I wouldn't be so sure about that. No, I think I'll pass, Iolaus. But you go ahead and have fun. Try and stay out of trouble."
"Me and trouble? Nah, never happen. Hey! Where do you suppose those virgins went off too?" he asked as he walked past Marissa and Nestor holding each other tightly.
The next day, the happy royal family met Iolaus and Hercules at the city gates.
Camilla stepped forward and gave both of them a hug. She said gratefully, "We owe you a great thanks, Hercules and Iolaus. Alcmene has every reason to be proud of you both. You saved my husband. You saved all of Meliad."
We only did what you asked of us," replied Hercules.
Iphicles looked down lovingly at his wife. "You were right all along, Camilla. I should've trusted you." He took her in his arms and held her gently.
"Thank you, Hercules and Iolaus," Nestor said as he clasped their arms in a warrior's farewell.
Iolaus answered, "You're welcome. Maybe we'll drop by in a few years, and see if you need a hand with anything."
Nestor laughed, "Well, Pentheus might. He'll probably still be cleanin' up that dungeon. Hey, Iolaus we can talk about our coffee stores then."
Hercules laughed, "Is that what you did with Pentheus? That's good. Maybe you can put him to work behind the counter at your Asterhind's. Farewell."
They waved as they left the city. Hercules looked down at his cheerful companion.
"Iolaus, how do you do it?" he sighed.
"I know how much you had to drink last night. And yet, you're just as energetic as you always are. How do you do that?" he asked as he frowned.
"Ah Herc, just because you're like a serpent in a tavern…"
"Serpent in a tavern?"
"Yeah, you know serpent in a tavern…you can't hold your liquor," he chuckled. "Gee, I don't know how I do it, Herc. Guess some people can naturally hold their wine. Plus, I never drink as much as you think I do. A lot of the time, that's just plain water in the mug. I just kind of alternate. Helps me see clearer." The hunter laughed at his own words and turned to the demigod. "Hey Herc, you know I have seer blood in me? Yep, my great, great, great, grandmother on my mother's side worked at Delphi. We really don't talk much about it…you know, seers being creepy half the time. Still, sometimes I see bits and pieces of the future. Not full-blown visions, you know. But you really should listen to my hunches. Yep, the mysterious Iolaus sees all," Iolaus said smiling and looking up to the trees.
"Uh yeah, Iolaus. Remember, I've known you all your life. Yeah, right, the future. Hey, you disappeared for a while last night. Want to reveal the mysteries of where you were?" Hercules asked as he nudged his friend.
"Virgins? Iolaus! You didn't…," Hercules gasped.
"Nah, see that's where the vision thing comes in handy," He said baiting the demigod as he walked a little ahead of him.
"Iolaus!" Hercules sounded worried now. He'd had enough of wild maidens, wine, and general contact with the gods. He never wanted his friend to have any "gift" the gods gave to some mortals or the curses that always seemed to accompany it. "You had a vision?" Hercules asked a little unsteadily.
"Yeah, visions of virgins… and their fathers with these really sharp swords," he said as he ducked the swat Hercules aimed for the back of his head. "Oh yeah, I'm getting another vision now… me catching all the fish in the lake, and you having to cook them all."
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