Synopsis: A vicious war has broken out in Tantalus and someone-or something-is stealing the bodies of their dead soldiers. Hercules intervenes in the conflict between King Daulin and his sister Poena, and learns he must end a bloody civil war engineered by Ares merely to feed, Graegus, the monstrous Dog of War.
The thick canopy of overarching trees blocked out whatever light that might have been had from the stars, and the nearly full moon, but the forest was neither dark nor quiet in the deep of the night. The fires of fallen torches cast harsh, flickering light into the stygian blackness, creating eerie shadows that staggered and shoved, clashed and stumbled around the base of the trees and the narrow gaps between. Heavily armoured men in full battle gear cursed and swore as they cut and slashed at one another with sword and spear, grunting when crimson spurted from wounds to splash in fountains of sticky droplets or roll in rivers of red down struggling bodies to soak into the rich loam of the earth. One by one, the weakened and the dead fell as soldiers died or triumphed to turn to face a new enemy. Men fought for victory, for their lives, some with valiant purpose, others with desperate fear, some with a weary workmanlike purpose and skill…fought and died, until the orange glow of the fires danced over silent, still corpses thickly littering the floor, small mounds of clay that lay in mute testament to the dangers and costs of war.
As one side faltered, the other surged stronger, swarming over the remaining combatants, taking some in the back while the victim faced yet more enemies. Knives were drawn out and plunged deeply into flesh, bringing sudden death…men, collapsing like unstrung puppets, crumpled in untidy heaps. One side, overwhelmed, began to fall back, grateful when the call finally came to, “Retreat!!”
But the victors’ taste for blood had not yet been quenched and pursuit was given as voices of command lifted over the melee. “Quickly! Don’t let them escape!”
The raucous sound of battle moved on and away, the noise of determined and desperate effort dying into the distance until there was only the thud of the victors’ feet as they raced after those that fled back to the safety of their camp, carrying their wounded and dead with them. But, in the confusion, some bodies were left behind, the attention of the living on those who still breathed and might yet be saved.
Even that sound faded, and the flames of the torches burned down into embers until complete and utter darkness cloaked the forest floor once more.
There was a snuffling, and then an unearthly, hungry howl split the night, vicious and eager. A massive, four-legged hunter stalked through the dark forest, cloaked in shadows as it sought its prize.
“Next! Next!” a rich, base voice called out encouragement, well pleased with the night’s hunt. “There you go!”
One of the bodies was dragged away from the rest, disappearing into the undergrowth, lost to the sight of men.
A ragged fork of sharp and sudden lightning split the night as thunder cracked, an explosion of sound that then rumbled into the distance. The brief but nearly blinding light illuminated a cottage on the edge of a town; a small but well-maintained thatched hovel, with the dim, flickering light of candles within glowing through the small window.
Inside, collapsed in a chair by the table, a woman wept uncontrollably. Garbed in rough homespun, her long hair, lank and dishevelled, cascaded past her shoulders, only held back from her face by a rolled band of cloth. With trembling desperation and denial, she gripped the hands of the youth who sat across from her. The thin, flickering candles on either end of the table dripped wax, even as they cast light upon her ravaged, tear-streaked face.
“No. No. No. Nooooo! He can’t be dead!” she sobbed inconsolably as she clenched his fingers. Then, she let loose his hands, almost flinging them away as she rose to stagger unsteadily to the window, where she stood staring with hopeless dread into the rain lashed night.
“But, Mother,” Krytus said wearily, as he strove to help her understand and accept the terrible truth, “one of the soldiers told me that Aelon had been killed during the battle.”
“Then why can’t you find his body?” she wailed as she spun to face him, wanting to cling to hope, afraid it was futile, sick with her grief over the loss of her eldest born.
“I don’t know,” her younger son, Krytus, sighed with sorrow. “I’ll keep looking. I promise you.”
Thunder cracked and thundered heavily as shards of lightning split the night, the darkness taking on an unearthly blue glow as the door to the humble cottage crashed open and wind whipped inside, flaying them with rain. The entry was filled by the pale shadow of a man, slumped and haggard, his face ghastly pale in the uncertain light.
“Ah, Son!” she exclaimed, with a blaze of joy flaring in her breast.
“Aelon!” Krytus eagerly cried out to his brother, but his eyes widened, first in confusion and then with a kind of disbelieving horror.
“My heart told me you were still alive!” their mother sobbed, but then she too realized what she was seeing and the shock was too great. She gasped, a low moan of overwhelming despair and terror as she fainted and fell to the earthen floor.
Aelon stood there, his face ravaged by death, seeming at first to be mute as he gazed at Krytus with desperate need. “Help me, Krytus,” he begged, his voice hollow and lost. “Please.”
Krytus could not answer-could not move. Could only blink with shock at the insubstantial shade of his brother’s ghost.
They stared into one another’s eyes for a long, silent moment and then Aelon backed away into the darkness and the door slammed shut.
Thunder rumbled and lightning flared as the storm continued unabated.
The small farm was situated in the hollow of the forested hills, surrounded meadowlands that were a bright emerald green carpet dotted by austere cypress under the clear azure sky, and fields in the process of being tilled and seeded, the earth rich and dark, ready for the planting. Workers pushed wooden ploughs through the earth, hard, back-breaking work, while others followed behind with bags of seed, and still others followed them, covering the fresh seed with earth. Some, with empty bags trudged along the narrow red dirt road that wound past the fields toward the cluster of wooden and thatched buildings ringed by a rickety wooden fence-a cottage, barn, sheds and outhouse. Fragrant, pungent smoke rose from the outdoor hearth as the noon meal was prepared for those that toiled in the fields. The baa of sheep, and the lowing of cattle mingled with the good-natured calls and shouts of the men and women passing along word that they could take a break and attend to their hunger.
Men and women in the plain, rough garb of peasants ambled easily across the hard-packed earth of the farmyard, careful of the chickens that clucked and fussed around their feet. Hercules and Iolaus found sturdy wicker wood chairs by a barrel beside the barn and wearily sank down, grateful for the mugs of cool water that were brought to them. With nods of gratitude, they wordlessly drank the pewter vessels dry, tilting back their heads to get the last drops to replace the moisture burned from their bodies by the sun and hard labour, the sweat now cooling on their faces and bodies.
“Boy,” Iolaus sighed, and even his lank blond curls looked tired, “tilling fields all day is not my idea of fun.”
Hercules bestowed an indulgent grin upon his best friend as he reminded Iolaus, “Armus is a warrior who grew old. He needed our help.”
Shaking his head, rolling his eyes, Iolaus grinned as he replied, “Well, I wish he’d ask us to, I don’t know-slay a monster or something. That’s my idea of a good deed.”
“I’ll try to remember that, Iolaus,” Hercules chuckled softly as he patted his friend’s shoulder, his gesture a mixture of commiseration and consolation.
Iolaus snickered wryly, as he replied with good-humour, “Thank you very much.”
The low but constant cacophony of the voices of the other workers and the barnyard animal sounds that swirled around them, comfortable and unnoticed, was suddenly cut by a strident cry that caught their attention. “Hercules! Hercules!”
The demigod stood, Iolaus rising to stand beside them, as a dark-haired youth made his way toward them, having been directed by one of the other workers who’d come to help Armus. The adolescent was tall and lanky though obviously not yet fully a man, his clothing dishevelled and his expression desperate.
“What’s the trouble?” Hercules asked with a frown of concern as the youth drew closer.
“My brother,” Krytus panted, having run to seek the aid of the famous hero, and then he blurted, “He’s dead.”
Not recognizing the young man, discomfited by the sad if impersonal news, Hercules replied a little awkwardly, “You have my sympathy.”
Nodding as he exchanged a quick look of mystification with Hercules, Iolaus added, “Yeah, mine, too.”
But their condolences were brushed aside. “No, no,” Krytus exclaimed, “We just saw him-my mother and I. Well, he’s…”
“He’s what?” Hercules demanded, his hands coming to rest on his hips as he tried to make sense of the garbled and confusing message.
Krytus looked up at the demigod, despair and horror in his eyes as he replied, “He’s a ghost.”
As the other workers headed back to their tasks in the fields, Hercules and Iolaus settled Krytus on a bale of hay to rest from his journey and catch his breath before plying him with questions. There was a chance that the youth was deluded, but they needed to hear his story before they could judge its truth. Anxious to tell his tale, it was only moments before the lifelong friends were listening intently to the youth. Hercules leaned one shoulder against the barn, his arms crossed and an expression of focused concentration on his face, while Iolaus paced slowly, his head down and nodding to signal he was pondering the information as it was given to them.
“Aelon was a great soldier,” Krytus assured them, speaking as calmly and clearly as he could now that he’d caught his breath and found the hero who could help him. “He always told me that he fought twice as hard-so that I wouldn’t have to join up.”
When Hercules only nodded encouragingly, and Iolaus looked up when Krytus paused, the young man understood their silence as a signal to continue with his tale. “My job was to take care of our mother. When the other soldiers returned from the battle and said he’d been killed,” Krytus paused as his voice caught, cracking in memory, and he had to take a steadying voice before continuing. “I searched all day, but I couldn’t find his body-until that night. I was with our mother, trying to console her, to help her accept he was gone, when the thunder crashed and the door to our cottage burst open and…”
Krytus’ voice died away and he paled in memory as he shook his head, still struggling with what he’d seen.
“And what? His spirit-walked in the door?” Iolaus prompted, not yet sure whether to credit this strange story as the truth.
Helplessly, Krytus shrugged and nodded weakly, knowing he must sound mad. He lifted his hands and let them fall away as he struggled to find the words to describe what had happened. “I don’t know what else to call it. My hand went right through him. It was like…he was there…except he wasn’t…”
“Did he speak to you?” Iolaus asked, with a quick, sceptical look at Hercules. But as Krytus answered him, Iolaus rubbed his neck thoughtfully as he paced, a scowl of concentration on his face, while Hercules watched silently, studying the youth, weighing his words and manner for veracity.
“Just a few words,” Krytus replied, his gaze distant as he remembered. “His voice sounded so-far away, like from another world. But it’s not just Aelon,” he told them then, increasing their concern. “Other soldiers are missing, too. Someone is stealing the bodies of the dead.”
“And their honour as well,” Hercules asserted grimly as he stood away from the wall and cast a look at Iolaus who had leaned against another bale of hay. The demigod had heard enough and he believed the youth. Something terrible was happening and he needed to find out what. Men who gave their lives to defend the freedom and safety of their communities deserved better than to have their bodies stolen and hidden away. They deserved to be laid to rest in peace, honoured and remembered by those they’d left behind.
Krytus stood, hopeful that he’d be given the help he and his mother needed, that other families needed, to find the bodies of their fallen warriors. “Does that mean you’ll come back to Tantalus with me?” he asked as he gazed up at the tall demigod.
“Yes, it does,” Hercules confirmed as he reached to briefly grip the youth’s shoulder reassuringly. “Sounds like I’ve been gone too long.” The demigod turned to his best friend as he asked, “Iolaus-care to join us?”
Iolaus scrunched up his face as if giving the invitation serious thought, weighing it against the attractions of his current obligations. “Well, you know, if I gotta choose between ghosts and-tilling a field?” he hedged briefly, while Hercules just quirked a brow at him and then turned Krytus to head on their way. Catching the indulgent look in the demigod’s eyes, the youth grinned at Iolaus’ feigned hesitation.
Seeing that they were leaving without him, the blond warrior pushed away from the bale of hay with alacrity as he rendered his decision, “Ghosts are good.”
As he hastened to catch up with them, Iolaus grinned to himself, well pleased, even relieved as he grabbed up the pack of their supplies from the barn and slung it over his shoulder as he followed in the demigod’s wake. It wasn’t much, just a few herbs to aid healing wounds or scrapes, some rags for bandages, dried fruits and nuts to munch on when they didn’t have time to stop to hunt for food, pieces of flint, some fish hooks and line, a couple of thin blankets for the cooler nights…just the basics. But he tried to keep it stocked and always handy, because one never knew when a hero’s help would be needed and there wouldn’t be time to dash home to pick up supplies…just like now.
When Hercules had, some months ago, first headed off after his family had been murdered, it had been hard, very hard, waiting and worrying while Hercules traveled on his own, knowing that Hercules would turn down no request for help and was facing untold dangers alone. Though Iolaus had confidence in his younger friend’s skills and good sense, he still worried that he wasn’t where he should be; wasn’t watching Hercules’ back. But Herc had promised to come home, and he finally had…blinded by poison and needing care. Hercules had seemed easy in his manner, glad to be home, but Iolaus wasn’t fooled. He could see the dark shadows of sorrow haunting his best friend’s gaze, and though the deep lines of grief had muted, they were still there, around the demigod’s mouth and eyes. But, where there was sorrow, there was also the warm glow of genuine friendship and relief in the kind blue eyes when Iolaus lifted his gaze when he’d met Hercules on the road, to escort him the rest of the way home. Iolaus had smiled at the look and knew it for what it was-relief to know he was there and to be back within the sphere of his sure and steadfast friendship. That was the moment when Iolaus had decided, whatever Hercules had to say about it, his buddy would not be leaving alone the next time he set off on one adventure or another.
Since then, Iolaus had provided Hercules with back up on a number of occasions, when trouble arose in the area of Thebes, other times when Iolaus had simply followed along, and then again on their way back from a couple of festivals, one for Dionysus and the other in Thrace. Iolaus grinned to himself as he recalled his own adventure on the way to Thrace when he and Hercules had split up over a stupid argument.
They’d been home again now for about a week after having shut down some illegal gladiatorial games where so-called prisoners had been held as slaves and forced to fight. Most of the bruises and wounds from beatings and whip-lashings had healed, and the whole experience was fast becoming just a bad memory. Last evening, they’d spent an evening of quiet companionship by the hearth in his cottage, recalling the misadventures of their youth, laughing with easy familiarity late into the night until Hercules decided it was time to head back to his mother’s place. It was as Hercules was leaving that Iolaus had reminded him about the planting on the morrow, the whole community pitching in to help Armus, a former soldier made old before his time by injuries earned in honest battle, who had returned to his family’s farm across the valley. Hercules had said he’d come by early the next morning, that they might walk over together to lend their own strong backs and hands to the labour.
Farming held no satisfaction for him, and the work in the forge, while hard and demanding, even at times creative, was also unfulfilling. Iolaus knew, as he’d known for most of his life, where his path lay-his place was by Hercules’ side, his destiny to aid the demigod any way he could in the protection of the innocent and defenceless…to guard his best friend’s back. He’d only been putting in time, waiting, respecting Hercules’ need for a certain solitude. Iolaus had determined, to the extent that Hercules would accept his help, that he would never again be left behind. So, he’d made up a pack for traveling just in case a call came for assistance while they were helping with the harvest. It seemed he’d been right to plan ahead, he thought with a cocky grin.
With long, steady strides, they soon left the farm far behind as they followed an old path up a long hill into the forest. Their direction took them past a shining silver fall of water that sprang out of the rocky cliffs above, and then along the shoreline of a serene lake, the large span of still and deep blue water cooling air heated by the sun. The narrow path they followed crested a hill and gave them a breathtaking vista of land humped into low mountains lushly garbed in green, and narrow, shadowed valleys, as far as the eye could see. But they scarcely glanced at the view, feeling the urgency to get to Tantalus, continuing on their journey with deceptively easy but ground-eating strides, on down across a wide plain of grasslands and clumps of trees and low growing shrubbery. Able now to walk abreast rather than single file, Iolaus, who had been walking behind Krytus, moved up to talk with the youth while Hercules continued to lead the way to the Kingdom he’d defended in his lonely travels the first year of Iolaus’ marriage.
“So, Krytus, you’ve been taking care of your mother…” Iolaus ventured to draw the youth out, wanting to learn more about this kid who’d ventured alone far from home in a quest to aid his brother’s restless spirit.
The young man shrugged diffidently as he offered, “I wanted to be a scholar. My dad was one. But now, with Aelon gone, I know I should take my place in the defence of our home and way of life.”
“Not everyone is destined to be a warrior, Krytus,” Iolaus counselled quietly with a compassionate look at the youth. Though taller than himself, there was an innocent wistfulness about the lad that mingled with the sorrow of his loss, giving the kid an air of vulnerability. “We each have our own role to fill…”
Gazing into the distance, Krytus mused, “I’ve never felt a desire to be a soldier, never felt I’d ever be a hero that others would tell stories about, like they do about Hercules.” Turning to Iolaus, the ingenuous youth asked, “Are you a hero, too?”
Caught off-guard by the unexpected question, Iolaus stammered with unconscious self-deprecation, “Ah-well…you know, uh…some people like to…think so.”
Listening, hearing his best friend’s awkward honesty, Hercules looked back with a fond smile. But, he too, wanted to learn more from Krytus, so he called out, “Sounds like a good place to interrupt. Krytus…tell me-how long has there been trouble in Tantalus?” Hercules paused briefly, allowing the youth to catch up and walk by his side as he listened to the response.
“Ever since King Memnos died,” Krytus told him earnestly.
Startled, Hercules blinked and looked down at the youth. This was news he’d not yet heard and was sincerely sorry to learn now. “The King died?” he repeated with a frown. “When?”
“About three months ago,” he was told.
Shaking his head, Hercules sighed. “That’s a shame. He was a good man,” he murmured and then continued to explain how he’d come to know the deceased King. “I helped him defend your valley against the Macedonians. Must have been a dozen or more years ago. You’re probably too young to remember.”
“Yes, but I’ve heard the tale many times,” Krytus told him, awestruck. “Aelon said that when their army stormed the city, you held a hundred soldiers at bay by yourself!”
The demigod cast a chagrined look of embarrassment at Iolaus, who smirked and shook his head. “Well,” Hercules qualified modestly as he turned his gaze back on Krytus, “it was more like, fifty.”
Undeterred in his hero worship, whether fifty or a hundred, it was still amazing, and Krytus continued on enthusiastically, “But you did save the King-and you broke a catapult in two with your bare hands!”
Chuckling, Iolaus caught up to lay a comradely arm around the youth’s shoulders as he teasingly reminded the lad, “Krytus, I thought you said heroics didn’t interest you.”
“Well, they don’t,” the lad agreed with a nod, and then added with innocent candour, “But this is Hercules.”
The two lifelong friends shared a look of understanding-Hercules bemused and Iolaus laughing silently at the demigod’s discomfiture as the mortal warrior dropped back and let Krytus enjoy this time with his childhood hero. Iolaus knew how the kid felt.
Hercules was his hero, too.
By the time they reached Tantalus, night had long fallen. On the edge of the city, Krytus begged their leave and returned to his mother’s cottage, to tell her he’d brought Hercules and the hero would help them-help them discover what had happened to Aelon and why his brother’s spirit could not rest.
Hercules and Iolaus continued on to the palace, an imposing many-storied structure of stone with even taller watchtowers. At the gate, Hercules identified himself and his companion to the armed and alert guards. Wary, the men studied them and then one nodded, turning to wave to a soldier within the courtyard to escort the visitors to the King.
They moved through long halls lit by torches held in wrought iron wall brackets, and finally, their escort paused at the entrance to what could only be a war room. A large map was spread out on a central table and the young King was instructing his senior officers as he pointed from one place to another. For a moment, Hercules paused in the shadow of the portal, studying the man he’d last known as an eager, open and trusting child. The young Prince Daulin had grown into a strong, handsome man. Watching him, it occurred to Hercules that the King looked as Hades must have looked in his youth: solemn and sincere, but with an air of power and instinctive command. The royal’s short light brown hair was bare as he wore no crown, but his clothing was subtly rich, reflecting his role and authority-a short-sleeved, soft green silk shirt covered by a brown linen tunic spun with gold, girdled by a wide leather belt around his hips, and a chain of office hanging easily around his neck. Speaking with unconscious confidence, Daulin was every inch a king, acting with resolution and evidently comfortably bearing the weight of command on his young shoulders.
“Our left flank was weak yesterday. We were lucky to hold her back,” King Daulin stated to his men as he concluded his analysis of their defensive actions to date, unaware of the silent scrutiny from the shadows. “Now I don’t think she can mount another major offensive for several days, but sooner or later, she’ll try again. Make sure we’re ready.”
“Yes, sir,” one of the men replied, bowing his head briefly in deference and promise before turning to leave with the other soldiers, brushing by the silent men in the doorway.
Yes, Daulin was clearly in command. Still, it was hard for Hercules to reconcile this imposing young man with the child in his mind…and heart.
“This can’t be the same Daulin…” Hercules observed with a warm smile as he moved forward into the light cast by the torches in the wall brackets and the candles placed on shelves that lined the walls and upon the table that held the large map.
Startled, Daulin looked up from his grim study of the map. For a moment, he seemed puzzled, trying to remember the tall, muscular, somehow familiar stranger advancing toward him, and then the confusion cleared, in its place a broad smile as he moved to greet the demigod. “Hercules!” he exclaimed as he moved quickly forward to clasp Hercules’ arm and grip his shoulder in sincere and enthusiastic welcome. “What in the world…?”
The demigod grinned broadly, gripping Daulin’s arm as he studied the young man. “It’s good to see you, Daulin,” he said warmly. “You look great-not to mention-tall.”
Chuckling, the King replied with the easy familiarity of his childhood, “You’re actually looking a bit short. From the tales we hear, you should be twenty feet high by now.”
Hercules laughed as he cast a look back at Iolaus who was standing a half step behind him. But then the demigod’s countenance sobered as he turned back to Daulin. “I was sorry to hear about your father,” Hercules said sadly. “You know how much I thought of him.”
The smile faded from Daulin’s face as the young King swallowed and stiffened his jaw, appreciative of the respect and the courtesy. “Thanks,” he replied, his voice tight and strained with grief. He paused a moment, looking away for a moment, then turned his attention back upon the demigod. “What brings you back to Tantalus?”
“I heard there was trouble,” Hercules replied as he turned to briefly touch Iolaus’ shoulder and include him in the conversation. “My friend, Iolaus, and I thought we could help.”
Turning to the blond stranger, Daulin held out his hand as he said with sincere welcome, “If Hercules calls you a friend, then so do I.”
Iolaus reached to grasp the King’s hand, as he replied, “Likewise.”
Daulin nodded and then as their grips loosened, he turned away to pace back around the table, unconsciously touching the map as he told them starkly, “There’s more than just trouble here. I’m in the middle of an all-out war.”
Concerned, Hercules asked after the other bright and winsome child he remembered, Daulin’s sister. “How’s Poena? I hope she’s all right.”
Looking up at the demigod, a dark expression of bitter anger mingled with sorrow on his face, Daulin informed them grimly, “Hercules, it’s Poena I’m fighting. My own sister is trying to overthrow me.”
Astonished, Hercules gaped at Daulin and then threw a hurried look at Iolaus whose expression mirrored his own dismay at those words. Unable to believe it, Hercules turned back to Daulin and blurted, “This is a joke, right? You two always used to pull those pranks on me.”
Daulin shook his head as he paced slowly to the window and leaned upon the stone embrasure, hating the words even as he said them, cut to his soul by the hurt of her betrayal. “I’d give anything to have those days back,” he sighed, before continuing heavily, “but they’re gone. After I assumed the throne, my sister went mad with jealousy. She spread lies throughout the town, called for revolution-wound up turning half of Tantalus against me.”
Shaking his head, the demigod murmured with reluctant credulity, “That’s-hard to believe.”
Acknowledging the grudging sentiment, Daulin nodded wearily. “It’s as painful as my father’s death-maybe worse,” he ground out as he stared sightlessly into the night. Suddenly wheeling from the window, turning to face the demigod and pace back toward Hercules, the broken-hearted young man who also happened to be a King blurted out with raw hurt, “Hercules, if I knew Poena had wanted the Kingdom, I would have given it to her, but before I could do anything-she started this war.” Bitterly, he twisted away as he continued, “She somehow managed to convince Jarton. He’s running her army for her.”
“Jarton,” Hercules sighed heavily. He looked up and catching Iolaus’ questioning glance, the demigod explained briefly, “The two of us fought side-by-side for Daulin’s father. We were good friends.” Turning back to the young King, Hercules asked, “But the bodies, Daulin. We’ve heard stories of your dead disappearing.”
Sickened, Daulin turned away as he admitted hoarsely, “That’s the worst part of this nightmare. Poena’s men steal our dead. Only the gods know why.”
Hercules and Iolaus took their leave of the King and found their way outside to a sheltered courtyard.
“Iolaus,” Hercules confided as they paced under the stars, “I’ve had some bad feelings over the years, but the one I’ve got right now beats ‘em all.”
Nodding, Iolaus commiserated sombrely, “Yeah, I know what you mean. Hey-if I die someday on a battlefield, you better make sure you bury me properly.”
The demigod understood the fervent note in his friend’s voice, but he shook his head, “No, it’s more than that. I mean, this whole thing is wrong,” he insisted. “This isn’t the legacy King Memnos deserves-his two children trying to kill each other! War is senseless enough, but-when it tears apart a family…”
“No one can win,” Iolaus grunted when Hercules’ voice died away.
“Exactly,” the demigod sighed as he sank down on the stone bench behind him, grateful his friend understood though not surprised. Almost wistfully, grief aching in his voice, he added, “If you had seen Daulin and Poena as kids-they were wonderful and inseparable. One of the main reasons I fought for Memnos was to make sure they got to grow up.”
Iolaus studied his best friend, reading the grief there, the deep pain at seeing children Hercules had once known and evidently loved grown now into bitter enemies-understanding his best friend was grieving for more than these two lost children. Taking a seat beside Hercules, Iolaus observed with quiet kindness, “Makes you think of your own kids, too-doesn’t it?”
“Yeah,” Hercules sighed, his throat tight. He felt almost numb, overwhelmed by the tragedy they had discovered here in Tantalus. His voice husky with sorrow, he looked away as he confided, “If my children had grown up to wage war on each other…I don’t know what I’d do.”
Iolaus studied his friend, concerned by the grief in Hercules’ bearing and voice and by his apparent confusion about what he could do to help resolve the senseless and heartbreaking conflict. With no hesitation, Iolaus told his friend confidently, “You’d stop them.” When Hercules cut him a questioning look, Iolaus continued flatly, “Any way you could-or die trying.”
Looking away, the demigod nodded and then stood as he thought about Iolaus’ words and the confident assertion the older man had just made. The words had wept away the numb confusion in Hercules’ mind and galvanized him. He knew what he had to do. Turning back to Iolaus who was still sitting quietly on the bench, watching him, Hercules said with brisk determination, “I’m going to Poena’s camp and see if I can talk some sense into her. I want you to keep an eye on things here. If Daulin does anything foolish-let me know right away.”
“You know I will,” Iolaus assured him.
“I know,” Hercules warmly acknowledged both the words and the unspoken message of unconditional support before he turned away to lope into the night. He could trust Iolaus to do what was needed. Of that, he’d never had any doubt.
As Hercules moved with quick resolution through the thick forest growth, his attention was caught when he heard the hushed but sharp quarrel of two men.
“Listen, crush-bucket,” one asserted disparagingly. “We fight with King Daulin! He’s got more money!”
“Poena will pay better!” the other evident mercenary countered. Sometimes desperation outweighed the wealth of a full treasury, the challenger throwing all they had into a bid for domination. This looked like one of those times.
“We play for it,” the first voice came again, offering a peaceful way of settling their disagreement. “Two out of three!”
As he drew closer, the demigod heard them say together, “One! Two! Three!” One chuckled as he crowed, “Parchment covers rock!” Again they chanted, “One! Two! Three!” The second voice laughed, “Bite me! Dagger cuts parchment!” Once more, their rough voices harmonized as they counted, “One! Two! Three!” The first voice came again, triumphant, “Ha-ha! Rock smashes dagger! Fight for Daulin!”
Both men chimed, now united in their decision, “Daulin!” just as Hercules moved from the shadows into the uncertain light of their small fire. He found two seasoned warriors, their hard leather and metal studded armour worn and well used. One was tall, almost gaunt, fair skin reddened by the sun, with a long face made longer by fringe of a thin goatee on his chin, large eyes and a shock of blond hair; the other was shorter and stocky with a leathery, tan complexion and a grizzled beard, his hair covered by a battered leather helmet.
“Good evening,” the demigod offered mildly.
Startled, they leapt to their feet, alarmed and wary of danger.
“Hey! Who do you think you are? Sneakin’ up on us like that!” the shorter of the two demanded, bristling like a terrier.
His companion smacked his arm, recognizing who had invaded their camp so unexpectedly, and bent to hiss to his companion with awed and urgent assurance, “It’s Hercules!”
“Well, wouldja look at that?” the short man exclaimed, as he gazed with astonishment at the famous hero.
Ever on the alert for profitable opportunity, the tall, gaunt man asked hopefully, “Not in the market for some mercen’ries-are you?”
Hercules shook his head as he smiled disarmingly. “Uh-afraid not,” he replied, “I’m on my way to see Poena.”
“Is that right?” the grizzled one observed.
“It’s what he said, ya half-blind moron,” his taller and evidently long-time partner asserted disgustedly as the blond clipped his shorter friend across the back of his head.
Affronted and riled by the insult, the smaller man puffed like a popinjay as he snapped back, punching a stiff finger into his companion’s chest to underline his point, “At least I don’t have last night’s dinner stuck in my chin hair!”
Mildly amused by their easy bantering insults, but in a hurry nonetheless, Hercules cut in, “You haven’t seen anything strange out here tonight, have you?”
Jerking a thumb toward his tall companion, the grizzled man pointed out in response, “Hey, Hercules-I travel with that.”
“Oh,” Hercules replied, lifting a quizzical brow, but then his expression settled once more into one of determination as he brushed past them, once again intent upon his mission, offering a warning as he went, “Well-be careful, anyway.”
“Hey,” the little bantam asserted, offended, “we ain’t afraid ’a nothin’!”
But his taller friend was pondering the information they’d just received. “You know?” he mused, “If Hercules is going over to Poena’s side…”
“…and us fighting for Daulin, isn’t exactly written in stone…” his friend interjected, catching his drift.
Both men looked at one another and exclaimed in unison, “Poena!” They laughed heartily, secure in the belief that they now knew which would be the winning side. It was an important consideration for two experienced mercenaries-too often, losers also lost the capacity to pay for their services.
Hercules continued his journey through the night, wading across a wide but shallow river as he made his way toward Poena’s camp. In due course, a sentry accosted him on the perimeter-a boy scarcely in his teens whose voice had not even yet changed. Holding his hands out in a calming gesture of peace, the demigod asserted he’d come as a friend and allowed the lad to herd him, a nervous spear pointed at his back, into the war camp.
“Go on! Keep going!” ordered the young soldier, jabbing his spear aggressively when Hercules looked back over his shoulder at the command. The demigod cast a doubtful glance at the spear, but didn’t say anything, just continued walking with slow purpose through the camp, skirting fires and clusters of men as he made his way toward an unprepossessing wooden cabin. The lad stayed at his back as he moved inside, and then announced, “I caught this one down by the river.”
A tall, heavily muscled warrior with an air of quiet and sure confidence turned to face them. His voice was stern as he challenged the intruder, “Invading our territory-you must not know what we do to spies.”
Hercules had moved forward until he was within arms’ length of the warrior before replying dryly, “What? Give ‘em a big kiss?”
The warrior’s look of grim challenge melted into a broad, delighted smile as the two men gripped one another’s shoulders in the fond greeting of old and valued comrades. “Hercules, my friend,” he exclaimed. “It’s good to see you.”
With a warm smile of friendship, Hercules replied sincerely, “It’s good to see you. It’s been too long, Jarton.”
“It has,” Jarton agreed.
Poena stepped forward out of the shadows as she moved from behind a curtain that cordoned off the room. “Hercules,” she greeted the hero with more reserve than her brother had done, but still her smile of welcome was spontaneous and warm.
Turning to the beautiful princess with the wild raven mane of curls, noting her armoured garb served to accentuate the fact that the cheerful girl child had grown to womanhood in the years since he’d last seen her, Hercules replied, “Hello, Poena.”
“What brings you here?” she asked, wanting to welcome him but feeling the need to be wary.
“I keep hearing about trouble,” Hercules told her candidly. “I came to help.”
Hope lit in her eyes as she asked guardedly, “You willing to fight with us?”
But it faded and her gaze hardened as Hercules replied, carefully keeping his voice modulated and non-threatening, “No, not fight-help. Daulin told me what’s been going on between you two.”
Exasperated, she protested, “You haven’t even spoken to me, and you’ve already sided with him.”
However, Hercules was determined to find common ground and a way to end the bloodshed and conflict between these two previously loving and inseparable siblings, so he refused to rise to her anger. “Hold on, I’m not on anybody’s side,” he told her calmly but firmly. “But he says you’ve been trying to take his throne ever since your father died.”
Her voice hardened bitterly as she replied coldly, “I don’t suppose Daulin told you that he killed our father!” Moving past him, she stared into the shadows, her jaw tight to contain her emotion.
“What?” Hercules exclaimed, stunned.
“It’s true, Hercules,” Jarton asserted, his voice even as he explained. “Daulin poisoned the King. That’s how he got the throne. All we want now is justice.”
by fans for the enjoyment of other fans. *For information on reprinting text and/or artwork (including privately owned photos, photConfused, appalled, Hercules looked from Jarton to Poena’s stiff and angry back, “But the way that he tells it…” he began only to be cut off by Poena’s hard words.
“He’s lying,” she stated flatly, wheeling around to face him. “The person you knew as Daulin was a lie. In truth, he’s nothing more than a murdering demon, and he does not deserve to wear my father’s crown.” Looking away with disgust, she added, “A man who steals the dead…”
Startled, Hercules paced toward her as he confirmed with a sharp challenging tone, “Your dead are being taken, too?”
She nodded, equally sharply. “And it’s destroying their families, not being able to bury them,” she told him with harsh candour.
“Your dead,” Hercules said, looking from her to Jarton and back again. “Daulin’s dead-there’s nothing I’d like better than to stop this,” he told her grimly. “Excuse me,” he said then as he turned away to move back into the night.
Poena watched him go, surprised by his abrupt departure and worried by it. “Keep an eye on him,” she ordered Jarton. “Make sure he’s here for the reason he says he is.”
Early the next morning, Iolaus sat on the steps of the palace munching on grapes as he watched the King’s soldiers rush back and forth, ensuring the defence and security of the town while at the same time preparing for the upcoming battle. ‘Civil wars,’ he thought bleakly with a slow shake of his head. Fathers against sons, brother against brother, friends in arms against one another. Nobody ever wins a civil war…there was only pain often for generations into the future.
Across the square, the blond warrior was surprised to see Krytus making his way purposefully toward him, a long spear in the youth’s hand, finally stopping to stand before him with a look of stony determination…
Sitting up straighter, Iolaus asked, “Hey, Krytus! What’s goin’ on?”
“Where’s Hercules?” the youth demanded, resolute.
“He’s, uh, not around right now,” Iolaus shrugged with casual evasion, and then coming to his feet, he ambled down the steps as he gestured toward the weapon in the lad’s hand. “Why d’ya have that spear?”
Grimly, Krytus told him, “To avenge Aelon. I’m joining up.”
Iolaus paused as he studied the youth, and then he looked away briefly, fond indulgence warring with a look of sorrow flitting across his face. Lifting his clear blue gaze to the earnest youth’s eyes, the warrior reminded Krytus of his words during the journey the day before, “But you hate war. You wanna be a scholar.”
Swallowing with the sincere courage of callow youth, Krytus declared, “Well, sometimes, a man has to do something heroic-like you and Hercules. And if he’s not here, you can teach me how to fight.”
Sighing, Iolaus protested the youth’s decision. “Now, hold on,” he cautioned, slinging an arm around the adolescent’s shoulders, “all that hero talk you’ve heard all your life was just-talk. Nobody ever said you should go into battle. You could get killed!”
Stubbornly, Krytus asserted, “I’m going anyway. Now, you gonna teach me or not?”
Blowing out a long breath, Iolaus shook his head and seemed about to argue further, but he could read in Krytus’ eyes that the kid was going to go into battle whether he had any idea of what he was doing or not, like a lamb to the slaughter. With weary resignation, Iolaus threw up his hands, and set about teaching the lad how he might go about staying alive in the midst of chaos.
Determined to find out the truth about what was going on in Tantalus, Hercules went to investigate at the sight of the last battle. He found wagons overturned and ragged banners, the tattered flags of war hanging limply from the lances stuck crookedly into the ground, lifting weakly like ghostly tokens of life in the slight breeze. The clearing on the edge of the forest stank of blood and death, the sickly-sweet, foetid odours mingling with the smoky remains of the dying embers of fire, the miasma an invisible fog that hovered over the earth. Searching for something, anything, to give him a clue of where to begin in ending the tragedy before more bloodshed could occur, Hercules spotted an abandoned leather shoulder pad.
Picking it up, he murmured aloud, “Where’s the man who wore you?” Setting the mute bit of armour aside, Hercules continued to prowl the battleground until his attention was caught by large prints deeply sunken in the mud. Kneeling, he examined the tracks of a monstrous animal, a wolf or a dog… “Oh, no,” he muttered with sudden understanding, sickened by what he’d discovered. Hearing a heavy rustling nearby, the demigod’s features hardened as he growled, “It’s over for you, Graegus.” Rising to his feet, Hercules lunged forward through the intervening shrubbery, screaming, “Graegusss!” But it was not the vicious pet of Ares that he found rummaging in the field of death, but an old man who turned and cried out in terrible fear at the spectacle of an enraged Hercules charging out of the trees toward him. The demigod skidded to a stop, barely in time to avoid running the old man down, and caught the terrified man by the arms to steady and reassure him. “I’m sorry,” Hercules gasped. “I-I didn’t mean to frighten you.”
“You called me Graegus,” the man stammered as he gaped up at the demigod. His white hair was uncombed and his left cheek was sunken and scarred from an old injury, one eyelid drooping as he studied the tall muscular man who had very nearly assaulted him. “Why?”
“Do you know who he is?” Hercules demanded.
“Of course! I know!” the old man chuckled wryly, deciding he was in no danger after all. Turning, he finished lashing a rope to the corpse sprawled at his feet on the bottom edge of a two-wheeled wooden cart. Looking back up at Hercules, the man paused in his grim task as he explained, “I’m an undertaker! He’s the dog of war and Ares is his master.” Moving back along his cart, the undertaker took hold of the winch, pausing as he added, “But I have no idea who you are, sir.”
“Hercules,” the demigod introduced himself.
Laughing, the good-natured old ogre nodded as he began to turn the winch to haul the body onto his cart. “That makes sense if Graegus is near. I should’ve known it was him,” he reflected.
Frowning in confusion, Hercules demanded, “Who did you think was taking the bodies?”
Shrugging, the old man replied with an easy if macabre humour, “Ha-the competition! Ha.”
In the palace courtyard, Iolaus continued to work with Krytus. Only too well aware of the limited time available to him, knowing this youth would soon face real enemies, the warrior tried to quickly impart some basic skills that might help the young one stay alive, but the kid knew nothing of weapons. As Krytus again ineptly practiced lunging with the spear, Iolaus watched his form with a frown. He then moved in despairingly as he gripped Krytus’ outstretched arms with two strong hands.
“No, no, no, no,” the blond warrior protested, exasperated as he again made the same point he’d already made a half dozen times, “when you lunge, you gotta keep your elbows in. And this should be…”
Iolaus finished positioning the boy’s arms and weapon, standing back as he tried again to get the youth to see reason. “But kid, real battles get messy-fast. It takes years to perfect these moves. There’s no way you…”
But Krytus, intent upon learning to be a hero, interrupted as he again lunged forward with single-minded determination as he asked, “When I advance, where do I keep my weight?”
Impatient, Iolaus lightly kicked Krytus’ boot with his own as he replied, “On your front foot. Otherwise you’ll fall flat on your butt.” Returning to his plea that Krytus stop this mad determination to be a soldier, he continued with increasingly desperate despair, “But listen to me, Krytus-you’re just a boy. You should be home, looking after your mom. If Hercules was here, he’d say the exact same thing.”
Ignoring him, Krytus merely asked, “How do I fight a guy with a sword?”
Having had enough of the insanity, knowing far better than the boy did that he’d last less than five minutes before his life would be forfeit in battle, Iolaus grabbed the spear away from the kid as he raged, “You don’t! You get yourself home and hide under your bed till this damn thing is over!”
But the warrior’s tirade was cut short when the Captain of the Palace Guard jerked the spear from Iolaus’ hand and informed him, “King Daulin wants to see you-now.”
Wordlessly, Iolaus took the spear and handed it back to its young owner, before turning to follow the Guard up the stone steps into the palace.
When he reached the King who was again surrounded by military men in the dark, torch-lit war room, Daulin wasted no time on small talk. Furious, hiding his hurt, the King rasped with an accusatory tone, “Hercules left last night. One of my scouts saw him going over to Poena’s side.”
Iolaus replied with deliberate calm, “He went to talk to her-to try and put an end to this madness.”
Disgusted, feeling bitter and betrayed, Daulin seethed, “Why should I believe you? You’re a stranger!”
Undeterred, irked by the young King’s too ready willingness to believe ill of the demigod, the blond warrior exclaimed loudly, “But Hercules isn’t!” Visibly grabbing hold of his patience, Iolaus continued more quietly, “He was a friend to your father-and to you.” When Daulin continued to look unconvinced, Iolaus asserted forcefully, his voice rising in exasperation as he said, “He would sooner scale Mt. Olympus and kiss Hera on the lips than betray a friend!”
“True.” Daulin concurred grudgingly but with no further questions as he wheeled away. Pacing back around the map table, he added, “But I can’t take chances with the security of my people. They’ve been betrayed enough. We’re through waiting for Poena to strike. We attack tonight!”
One of the senior soldiers responded immediately to the command in the King’s words and tone, as he directed the others, “You heard him! Let’s go! Ready the troops! Prepare for the attack!”
Iolaus was dismayed and knew this boded nothing good, but held his protests back. Daulin had made his decision. It was time for the warrior to join Hercules and tell him what was going on…and that they were running out of time if they hoped to find out the truth before there was more senseless carnage.
On his way out of the palace, one of many warriors streaming outside to rush to their posts, Iolaus saw Krytus showing off his spear-lunging skills to a handful of soldiers. The Captain of the Guard nodded and clapped the kid on the shoulder to lead him away, saying, “Okay, kid-come on. We’ll make a soldier out of you yet.”
Sighing, shaking his head, Iolaus looked pained with worry for the lad but there was nothing he could do. As he continued down the steps, he heard the raucous shouts of soldiers calling to one another, “Over here!” “Let’s go.”
Glancing warily around to ensure his own movements were unnoticed, Iolaus headed out on his own mission.
The mercenaries made their way toward the meadow used by Poena’s soldiers as a practice field, the tall, gaunt blond lecturing his shorter comrade as they stroke briskly forward, “Remember, birdbrain-we don’t settle for less than ten dinars a day.”
They were close now; close enough to hear the shouts of the drill sergeant over the clash of arms, “Lunge! Twist! Reset! Lunge! Twist! Reset!”
The feisty older warrior protested, “Ten? We worked the last job for ten! This time, we hold out for twelve!” As they came upon a soldier cleaning his blade, the short mercenary broke off his tirade to ask, “Hey, buddy-who’s in charge, here?”
Wordlessly, the soldier jerked a thumb over his shoulder before turning away to again focus his attention on his weapon as the drill continued unabated in the field, “Lunge! That’s it! Keep practicing! A great warrior fights fearlessly! Lunge! Twist! Reset!”
The senior officer in charge, garbed in black mail, stood with his back to them as he watched the practice drills, apparently assessing the readiness of his impromptu rebel army.
The tall mercenary approached, his comrade a half step behind, and tapped the officer on the shoulder to get his attention. His voice cajoling and hopeful, the gaunt man asked to be taken on side, “Uh, good afternoon, captain, we were wondering if you could use two battle-savvy fighting men? We own our weapons; we have excellent references, and…”
But he paused in consternation as the senior officer turned in response to his entreaty, to face them. The tall, gaunt mercenary’s eyes widened in disbelief and then fell away as he gulped and paled. Suddenly grabbing his companion by the arm, he backed away as he stammered, “Forget it.” Turning, he hustled his friend away, urging as if he were afraid, “Let’s get outta here.”
Confused, shocked to be so unceremoniously hauled away from a paying gig, the short mercenary exclaimed, “What?”
But his taller companion was not about waste time with explanations. The faster they put distance between themselves and the tall and intimidating senior officer the better. “Come on! We’re leaving!”
Still protesting, wanting an explanation, the shorter man kept challenging as they disappeared into the distance, “I thought we were…!”
Behind them, the peasants and craftsmen playing at being soldiers, continued to drill. “Lunge! Twist! Reset!”
Quietly, Hercules entered the rebel headquarters and was relieved to find the princess in the small wooden cottage. “Poena, can I have a word with you?”
She turned at the sound of his voice, asking, “What is it, Hercules?”
Studying her, Hercules asked, “Do you remember when I was here years ago-and Daulin always pestered me to tell him stories?”
Nodding, Poena smiled unconsciously as she recalled those happy and carefree days. “He used to follow you like a puppy. Always saying, ‘Please, Hercules, just one more-just one more.’” She hesitated and then admitted, “I never liked to show it, but-I always listened to you, too.”
“Then you remember the story of Graegus,” Hercules specified to be certain that she did.
“He’s a feared warrior, isn’t he?” she replied a little uncertainly.
“Graegus is no warrior,” Hercules replied with disgust, his lip curling in a grimace as he told her, “He’s a dog-a huge beast, belonging to Ares, the God of War. Graegus feeds on dead soldiers. He grows more powerful with every soul he consumes.”
Confused, Poena could see no use in recalling old tales of her childhood. “Why does this matter now?”
Hercules took a step toward her as he replied, his voice hoarse with emotion, “Because Graegus is here, now-which means Ares is, too. He’s behind this war, manipulating it, because the blood Graegus craves most is family blood.”
Not persuaded, Poena raised her voice to argue as she turned away from him, “Don’t make excuses for Daulin. This war is about the murder of my father!”
Desperate that she believe him, knowing he was running out of time to stop a bloody and tragic war, Hercules loomed over her, one hand gripping her arm as he turned her back to face him as he insisted harshly, “It’s about supplying blood for Graegus. And without proper burial, the human souls he takes can’t pass to the other side. Don’t you see? You, your brother, your armies, you’re all being used.”
But she still wasn’t convinced, “Hercules-you don’t know how evil Daulin’s become.”
He had to persuade her. Brother and sister were on the brink of destroying one another. Passionately, he pleaded with her to listen and believe him, “The evil is Ares. Stop this war before one more family’s torn apart.” He paused to swallow, the pain in his eyes lending haunting meaning to his hoarse words, “Believe me, once you’ve lost the people you love-you don’t get them back.”
Her eyes fell away as she gulped…and considered his words.
Blood washed the face of the full moon, leaving the shadow of a skull in its wake. Below, the mercenaries built a hasty camp for the night, one pulling supplies from their packs while the other lit a small fire, chipping flint stones together to raise a spark.
As the shorter man blew on the small flames, he resumed their quarrel about leaving the practice field so abruptly. “‘Get outta here!’” he quoted his companion disparagingly. “What got into you? You just walked away from a sweet deal!”
Trembling, the tall mercenary began to explain, his words hurried and hushed as he nervously gulped from their wineskin, “It was that guy back there. I’ve seen him before. I fought against him.”
Exasperated, the feisty, grizzled man protested in disbelief, “So what? That’s the nature of the job! Fight against them one battle; fight with them the next!”
Pausing, his taller companion turned to face him as he revealed what had happened in that previous battle, blurting out the words, fear echoing in his tone, “But that guy shouldn’t have a ‘next’. A couple of months back, I was in a battle in Thrace. I was sneaking through a trench. It was pitch dark, raining. I got the jump on that guy-that very same guy.”
Frowning in confusion, the shorter man asked, “What do you mean?”
“He never saw me coming!” the blond mercenary told him then. “I rammed my spear right through his heart! I killed him.”
Well, that just didn’t make any sense, nor was it possible. The guy was back there overseeing the arms practice, was very much alive. Shaking his head, the smaller man denied what he was being told. “No-must’ve been some other guy.”
So intent had they been on their own conversation, the two mercenaries didn’t hear the dark warrior tracking them. He was tall and well built, garbed in gleaming black-leather, a silver earring fashioned as a skull dangled from his ear and his handsome features were made dramatic by a well-groomed black beard. Heavy brows quirked over cold eyes glittering with hard cruelty and grim amusement and his sculpted lips twisted in a ruthless smile as he drew a wicked, curved blade before advancing relentlessly toward the two hapless men.
Too late, they heard heavy footsteps and looked up, realizing who was stalking them. Their eyes widened in horror…and they only had time to scream….
Their executioner stepped away, well satisfied as he raised a horn to his lips to summon his pet. The great beast growled and then prowled into the camp to claim the kill.
In the rebel camp, Hercules and others heard the unearthly, terrified screams. The demigod bolted out into the darkness, but when he found the camp, and only the traces of the fresh-pooled blood that remained, he knew he was too late.
Returning to the rebel camp, Hercules spotted his old comrade coming out of the command cottage and called out, “Jarton, I need to talk to you.”
Moving forward to meet him, the seasoned warrior replied, his voice impatient with irritation, “And I need to talk with you. What’s all this you’ve been telling Poena? Myths of dogs that eat the dead? It’s nonsense.”
Conscious of others around them, not wishing to cause a panic, Hercules lowered his voice as he answered, “I wish it was.”
Sighing, Jarton looped an arm around the demigod’s shoulder, drawing them close as they walked together. His tone now more reasonable and conciliatory, Jarton said, “Right now is not the time to weaken her resolve-not right before a battle. A soldier can’t afford that!”
Hercules stopped to face his own friend as he asked, “What if there doesn’t have to be a battle?”
“You’re dreaming!” Jarton protested, having no time for this. There was a battle to ready for, a war to fight.
But Hercules insisted that he be heard, “That’s exactly what Ares wants you to think. He’s the one who’s causing all this. He’s playing both sides like puppets.”
Trying to placate the demigod, with slightly mocking humour, Jarton contended, “Still the same Hercules. First sign of evil, you start pointing your finger at gods and monsters.” But his tone lowered and became more serious as he added, “Truth is, my friend-when power’s at stake-men can be just as ruthless as gods-and as vicious as monsters. Daulin’s proof of that.” With that, Jarton turned to walk back toward the cottage.
“You sound like you want this war to happen,” Hercules observed tightly, frustrated and running out of patience with the seemingly unshakeable desire that Jarton, and Poena, had to fight rather than give him time to prove his claims.
The older man turned back in response to the challenge in the demigod’s voice. With grim sincerity, Jarton justified his action. “I was sworn to King Memnos. It is my duty to avenge his death. Anything happens beyond that-it’s out of my control.”
Hercules sighed and shook his head. Lifting his hands to his hips, he frowned as he wondered what he should or could do next to avert the coming tragedy.
Though he’d slipped away from the King’s men, Iolaus knew they were tracking him as he moved as quickly as he could through the dark forest. As pursuit got closer, he flattened himself against the trunk of a broad tree, listening to the crackling of small branches and leaves as they passed by behind him.
Relieved, he checked to ensure they were gone and then whirled quickly to continue on his way to the river that formed a natural boundary between the two contending forces. But in turning, he came abruptly face to face with a tall, silent warrior who had appeared without warning, apparently having been stealthy enough to sneak up on the great hunter.
“Who are you?” Iolaus demanded, startled, but he was careful to keep his voice low and to remain alert to the sounds of continued pursuit.
The tall man, a stranger to him but evidently a seasoned, solid warrior, demanded huskily, “You’re here with Hercules, aren’t you?”
Iolaus peered through the darkness as he looked up at the taller man, puffing a little from his hasty leave-taking from Daulin’s men. “Yeah, when I can find him,” he replied faint brittleness in his voice. But then he was back on the offensive, “Wait a minute. What about answering my question?”
But before the stranger could reply, Iolaus was distracted by a shout, very close, and he whirled to check on the men pursuing him.
“Great,” he muttered over his shoulder, “are they looking for you…”
But he cut off his remark in surprise when he turned back to find the stranger had disappeared and he was again alone. Nearby voices told him his pursuers had backtracked and were too close for comfort. He pressed his back against the tree, listening, knowing they were but a few feet away. Gingerly, he sank down to pick up a stone and then flung it distantly, in the direction opposite to the one in which he’d be going.
As they rushed off to investigate the sudden sound of the stone crashing through distant undergrowth, he grinned, muttering, “What a bunch of amateurs.”
Satisfied, he turned-to confront three sharp spears uncomfortably close to his face. A soldier drawled sarcastically, “Amateurs, huh?”
Bemused, Iolaus jerked a thumb over his shoulder toward those who could still be heard heading in the distant direction. Swallowing, he clarified with what he hoped was charming and convincing bravado, “Uh, I meant them guys-not you.”
The Captain of the Guard strode briskly into the King’s busy war room to deliver his unwelcome news, “Sir, Iolaus is gone.”
Turning from his contemplation of strategy, Daulin asked sharply, “What do you mean, ‘gone’? Where?”
The senior officer replied with a carefully neutral tone, ashamed of his men’s inability to keep track of the stranger. “I don’t know. He just disappeared-same as Hercules.”
Daulin’s jaw tightened. He didn’t want to believe the hero and friend of his father’s, his own hero when he’d been a child, had betrayed him. Didn’t want to believe that Hercules’ friend had played him for a fool. Looking away from the soldier who’d brought such unwelcome tidings, he strode around the map table and looked up, recognizing the young man in the armour with a conical helmet, standing with his spear at silent attention against the wall.
Moving toward the youth, Daulin asked, “Krytus-you travelled with him. You know Iolaus better than any of us. Do you think he’s abandoned us for Poena?”
Krytus was nervous at being spoken to by the King, the more so for being asked advice on such a crucial matter. But he answered as best he knew, “Sir-Iolaus isn’t any more of a traitor than Hercules is.”
Biting his lip, his eyes narrowed in thought, Daulin murmured, “I’m afraid I can’t be as sure of that as you are.”
Turning away, moving with grim resolution, the King raised his voice as he gave the orders to the warriors around him, “Assemble the troops. Prepare to attack!”
Iolaus wasn’t well pleased about having his wrists bound and being herded along by sword point, protesting with evident frustration as they entered the rebel camp, “Are you guys deaf or just plain dumb? I told you, I’m a friend of Hercules.”
But the soldiers remained unimpressed as they prodded him along and one of them ordered, “Keep moving!”
Shaking his head, throwing his hands into the air, Iolaus complained, “I can’t believe this. I’m one of the good guys!”
Hercules and Jarton noticed them arrive and moved to meet them as Hercules called out, “It’s all right. He’s a friend.”
When Jarton waved a hand, the soldiers stood down, bringing their spears up to ‘parade ground rest’.
Exasperated, Iolaus continued to natter, “Oh-oh-oh, sure. Don’t take my word for it.” Turning to lecture the soldiers over his shoulder, he continued with a mildly sarcastic edge to his voice, “You know? I think we could all use a lesson in that little word called, ‘trust’.” Turning back, really noticing Jarton for the first time, he added bitterly, “And as for you-thanks for abandoning me down by the river.”
Surprised, Jarton questioned, “Me?”
Disgusted, Iolaus wasn’t about to put up with the expression of confused innocence, “Yeah, you. One minute you’re there, then as soon as trouble comes along-poof! You’re gone! Just like that! Thanks a lot.”
Jarton shook his head and then turned his attention to the guards who had brought Iolaus into the camp. “One of you guys hit him on the head?” he asked.
They shook their heads as one answered for all, “Uh-uh.”
Hercules and Jarton exchanged a look of confusion, and then the demigod ambled closer to his friend with an easy smile of welcome. But he murmured, “Hmm,” when he caught Iolaus’ look of impatience when Jarton asked if he’d been hit on the head.
“Here, let me get your hands,” Hercules offered, borrowing a knife from a nearby soldier and cutting the bindings free. Handing back the knife, he looped an arm around Iolaus’ shoulder as he moved them casually away from the soldiers. “Maybe a walk’ll help clear your head.”
“I don’t need to clear my head,” Iolaus protested indignantly.
“Yeah, ya do,” Hercules insisted, though his tone remained low and easy.
“I do?” Iolaus queried curiously with a look of speculation up at his best friend.
“Mm-hmm,” Hercules confirmed as they moved further into the darkness.
As soon as they were clear of the camp and deep into the shadows of the forest, Hercules asked, “What did you mean about seeing Jarton down by the river?”
Iolaus replied matter-of-factly, “Well, I meant I saw Jarton down by the river-about five minutes ago.”
Frowning in momentary confusion, Hercules protested, “That can’t be. Jarton’s been in that tent for the last hour.”
Shrugging, Iolaus maintained what he’d seen, “Well, then he has a double running around, ‘cause this guy sure looked like him.”
“Where did you see him?” the demigod asked quietly.
“Why?” Iolaus asked, curious. “What’s going on?”
But Hercules had no time for explanations, too aware that time was running out as he insisted, his voice louder, demandingly harsh, “Just tell me where!”
“All right, all right,” Iolaus placated his friend and then proceeded to show Hercules where he’d seen Jarton’s double. “Well, you gotta go past these bushes here-just over the other side…”
Impatient, now having a direction, Hercules took off without a word, loping through the dark thick growth of the forest, leaving Iolaus behind to wonder what in Tartarus was going on. Shrugging, he turned back to Poena’s camp to await Hercules’ return.
Not long after, Iolaus was kneeling by the fire to help himself to a bowl of soup from the camp’s common pot, when Jarton approached Iolaus to ask, “Where’s Hercules?”
Not bothering to turn to face the other man, casually uninformative, Iolaus replied, “Oh, he had to take care of something.” Leaning forward, he sipped from the bowl he’d filled.
“Damn,” Jarton cursed impatiently. “He told me to tell him if I found out anything about those missing bodies.”
Suddenly a lot more interested, Iolaus turned to look over his shoulder at the taller man, as he demanded, “And did you?”
“Yeah,” Jarton confirmed, but hesitated. “We should wait for Hercules, right?”
However, Iolaus was as aware as was the demigod that time was running out on them. If Jarton had a lead, the blond warrior knew he had to follow it up immediately. He could brief Hercules on what he learned once the demigod got back from his own investigation. “No!” he exclaimed as he set down his bowl and stood to face the warrior. “There’s no time to wait!” Iolaus anxiously urged Poena’s closest adviser and military commander, “Tell me.”
Nodding, Jarton placed a hand around the back of Iolaus’ neck as he pointed out past the edge of the camp into the depths of the dark forest. “Maybe I should just show you,” he offered as he guided Iolaus toward what he’d found.
As they loped briskly through the dark forest, Jarton told him, “Some of my men said they’d come upon a cave during their patrol of the perimeter and found some suspicious remains. There were bloody rags, and some bones…”
Iolaus swallowed grimly and shook his head as he paced along easily just behind the taller man. Gods, it was bad enough to steal the bodies of the dead soldiers without desecrating them as well so that they could never be identified and mourned properly. Who would do such a thing to kinsmen? However much the quarrel had divided these people, surely they wouldn’t indulge in such abominations. Something else must be going on here, some other force in play. With a tightening in his gut, Iolaus wondered if it was a monster, or if the gods were somehow involved.
“You have any idea who might have done this?” he asked Jarton as they jogged deeper into the forest. The man ahead of him just shrugged and kept on going.
“Has to be Daulin’s bunch, though why they’d do something like this is beyond me,” Jarton called back briskly over his shoulder.
Finally, a soft glow lightened the darkness ahead, and they slowed as they approached the entrance of a cave, wary and alert to danger. Drawing his sword, Iolaus moved into the lead. “Watch my back,” he murmured, as he moved silently forward. The tunnel soon broadened into a large cavern with other passages leading off, angling deeper into the ground. Torches flickered, and Iolaus was surprised to see them in metal holders bolted into the rock walls. This wasn’t some hasty place to mutilate the dead in private-it was clear that someone had set up a kind of abattoir for their grisly work. The thought sickened him, and he wondered briefly what would drive men to such insane evil.
Cautiously, he moved forward, aware of Jarton moving almost soundlessly at his back. The place was silent and seemed unoccupied, though the stench of death hung heavily in the air. Iolaus paused at the sight of hooks that had been driven into the ceiling, ropes hanging from them…and below the hooks, he saw dried pools of blood. Gods…some of the men had been taken alive and tortured!
Momentarily distracted by his appalled thoughts, Iolaus failed to notice that Jarton had come a step too close. This was Hercules’ old friend, and though he’d acted oddly earlier on the far side of the river, or his double had, Iolaus had no reason to suspect treachery.
No reason to anticipate the rock that crashed heavily upon the back of his head, stunning him badly and driving him to the ground. He rolled away, but Jarton lashed out with a heavy boot, kicking him brutally in his ribs, driving the breath from his body. Gods, but the man was strong! The power and strength behind that kick would have done Hercules proud! Gasping for air, Iolaus rolled again onto his hands and knees, to drive himself up to his feet, but the rock crashed down on his head again, bringing darkness.
When he came to, Iolaus found himself hanging upside down above the rocky floor of the cave, his ankles bound together with thick rope. Despite the pounding in his head, the roil of nausea and the deep, sharp ache in his ribs, he thrashed and twisted, trying to figure out what was going on. The ropes jerked as he was hauled higher, and he finally spotted Jarton in the shadows as the man turned to tie off the rope around an iron loop fastened to the rock with thick bolts.
“What in Tartarus are you doing!” the warrior shouted, trying to make sense of the treachery. Had Jarton changed so much since Hercules had known him? Evidently so-but why would the man be prompting this war? What was in it for him? And why would he be stealing the bodies of the dead?
Taking his time, Jarton finished knotting the rope, and pulled on the line to ensure it was taut and the knot tight. Turning, he looked up at Iolaus, a cruel smile on his face. “Baiting a trap for a demigod,” he drawled. “I don’t need Hercules poking his nose into this war and ruining a good thing. He’s figured out too much and it’s time to stop him.”
“Son of a…” Iolaus snarled, as he watched Jarton disappear down one of the branching tunnels, disappearing into the shadows. Desperately, he clenched the muscles of his abdomen and legs, gritting his teeth against the pain in his ribs as he doubled his body up toward the ceiling, trying to reach the ropes that held him dangling in the air.
But though he could touch the rope, he couldn’t hold the position long enough…and even if he could have, the rope was wound tight. His hand fumbled along his leg as he dropped back down, trying to grab the knife in his boot, but the sheath was empty. Cursing, he spun and dangled, flaying the air as his eyes scanned the cavern, looking for some means of getting loose.
But he was well and truly caught.
And the only thing he could hope was that Hercules would not come looking for him, at least not until Jarton gave up waiting in the shadows. Though Iolaus knew his best friend could take Jarton easily, the warrior wondered who or what might also be lurking down those long tunnels-wondered what demons Jarton had aligned with in this grisly business of fomenting civil war and stealing the helpless dead.
Down by the river, Hercules found himself face to face with Jarton’s ghost. Unconsciously, he rushed forward to embrace his old friend, only to find his arms pass through the wraith of the man he’d once known and trusted. Shocked, he closed his eyes briefly, deeply regretting this sure proof that the man he considered a good friend was dead.
Sighing, he took a step back as he acknowledged, “Jarton. So the worst really is true.”
His voice oddly hollow and distant, the pale apparition confirmed, “I’m afraid so, Hercules. I am but a ghost now.”
“But, how?” Hercules demanded, grief in his voice.
“Last winter,” Jarton explained. “King Memnos sent me to Thrace to fight on behalf of his brother. I was struck down in battle.”
Sick to his heart, Hercules now fully understood that Jarton’s body too must have ‘disappeared’, as he said hoarsely, “And Ares stole your body. Now he’s appearing to everyone in your guise, fooling everyone into trusting him. I’m sorry, my friend. If I had known…”
But Jarton’s ghost cut in. “That’s past,” the apparition abruptly informed the demigod, and then shared the information that Hercules needed to end this bloody civil war that sickened the real Jarton and that he would have done everything in his power to prevent had he still been alive. “The real tragedy is now. Daulin didn’t murder his father. Ares did-to divide their family-and start a war. They’re both trying to kill each other for a wrong neither of them committed.”
Jarton paused, and suddenly he was surrounded by the eerie pale wraiths of other men, soldiers who had died honourably in battle, only to have their bodies stolen away to feed the voracious appetite of a monstrous dog. Speaking for all of them, Jarton told Hercules, “Without our bodies-without ceremony-we can’t cross over into the after world. We’re stuck here in this terrible limbo-between life and death, helpless to stop this tragedy of war.”
Hercules took a deep breath, his gaze drifting over the other miserable ghosts and then back to Jarton’s spirit, vowing, “I’ll set things right-I promise.”
The demigod lifted an unconscious hand to grip his friend’s arm and then remembered that was now impossible-though it seemed Jarton had forgotten as well, as his own arm rose and then froze. They held one another’s gaze for a long moment, and then Hercules turned to lope into the forest, back to Poena’s camp to confront the hateful god that was walking around impersonating the noble and honourable man Jarton had been.
His troops were as ready as they would ever be. It was time to march against his sister and finish this despicable war. The King’s voice rose into the night as he spoke to the men who had chosen to fight for his cause, to stand loyal to him, though fathers, sons, brothers or friends might even now be readying to face and fight them at the river. “Some of those we face-may once have been friends,” the young King acknowledged honestly, raising his voice to reach each and every one of them, bringing the key and shared grief about this hideous war into the light. “Even family. But they are the enemy now.”
He paused a moment to study them and then called out again to rally them, his voice compelling, full of confidence and the sureness of their purpose, assuring them of their coming triumph. “As I look into your faces, I see that you have the strength to defeat Poena’s treachery. You have the power to win!”
Moved by his words, by his emotion and confidence, Daulin’s warriors cheered him loudly. The King honoured them, and their loud cheering for him, by holding fast as he gazed again into the eyes of these loyal men who would die for him.
As he raced back into the rebel camp, Hercules spotted Poena and demanded, “Poena-where’s Jarton?”
“He left with Iolaus,” she told the demigod, “Why?”
Alarmed, Hercules asked, his voice tight with anxiety for his best friend, “Which way’d they go?”
She turned and pointed as she replied, “That way, toward the cave.”
In a flash, Hercules was off and running. Startled, she called after him, “Hercules! What’s wrong?”
But he was already gone.
Hercules raced through the dark forest, pushing past or jumping over the undergrowth that got in his way, feeling an increasing sense of urgent desperation. Ares had gone off with Iolaus! Taken him somewhere… and the demigod was sickly afraid the God of War had taken Iolaus to Graegus.
As he ran, he cried out, shouting, “Iolaus! Iolaus!”
But his shouts went unanswered. Distraught, knowing now that it was Ares who was behind the bloodshed, posing as Jarton to win the trust of Poena, the demigod wondered if his best friend was even still alive…and cursed himself for having invited Iolaus along on this journey.
He continued searching through the forest and finally, the faint glint of light, an orange flickering in the darkness, revealed the hidden entrance to the cave…
Iolaus had heard Hercules’ desperate shouts, and knew his best friend was afraid for him from the tone in the demigod’s voice. He closed his eyes and pressed his lips together. If Herc was worried, he may have found something at the river to make him think Jarton wasn’t still the old friend he remembered.
But no way would the warrior call out and lead his friend into this trap. If Herc never found the cave, then this part of Jarton’s devious plans would be frustrated. Looking down at the pool of blood on the floor below him, Iolaus forced back the bile in his throat.
He didn’t have a lot of doubts about what his future was likely to hold.
Hercules charged into the cave, looked around wildly to find his friend, the demigod was afraid Iolaus might have been lured somewhere else. Not seeing Iolaus, his anxiety again built to tighten in his chest as he called out, “Iolaus! Where are you?”
His voice strained, utterly dismayed that Hercules had found him but knowing he now could only warn his best friend of the danger, Iolaus shouted urgently, “I’m right above you!”
When Hercules looked up to see Iolaus hanging upside down, his feet bound by rope that was tied to a hook in the ceiling high above them, Iolaus continued with a note of desperate entreaty in his voice, urging his friend to go, “Get outta here, Herc!” he cried, his eyes on the shadows. “Jarton’s behind everything!”
When Hercules loped toward him rather than turning to leave, the blond warrior waved him back and away, his thrashings causing him to jerk against the rope holding him, as he shouted again, his voice plaintive and despairing, “Hercules-you gotta get outta here! It’s a trap!”
Looking up at him, Hercules grimaced, replying flatly, as if the suggestion that he abandon Iolaus was mildly insulting, not to mention ridiculous, however well motivated, “I’m not gonna leave you behind.”
A low howl echoed through the tunnels of the cavern and Iolaus ceased his helpless flailing, freezing as he listened intently, and then demanded, “What was that?”
Chagrined, Hercules gave him an odd look as he turned to face what was coming before replying dryly, “You don’t wanna know.”
“But you know, don’t you, Hercules?” the being guised as Jarton asked silkily as he appeared from the shadows.
“That’s right, Ares, I do,” the demigod grated. “Fresh new face, but the same old stench.”
“Ares?” Iolaus exclaimed from above. “I thought he was Jarton!”
“So does everyone else,” Hercules acknowledged bitterly. “That’s how this murdering coward is able to turn brother and sister against each other.”
Morphing from the form of Jarton, Ares assumed his own more debonair, if intimidating, appearance. “Always harping about family, aren’t you?” the God of War drawled sarcastically. He held out his hands as he continued, as if mystified, “I don’t know why. You don’t speak to your father…” But Ares’ voice hardened contemptuously as he went on, “Your step-mother hates your guts! And your wife and children have been turned to ashes!”
Furious, Hercules lashed out, raising an arm in warning as he shouted, “Leave my family out of this, you bastard!”
Unmoved by the anger or the implied threat, chuckling as he shook his head, the God of War had to bite his tongue to resist snapping back, ‘Uh, no, Hercules, that would be you’. Assuming an expression of wounded innocence instead, enjoying the game, he asked soulfully, “Is that any way to talk to your brother?”
“Half-brother,” Hercules snarled. “And it’s a half that doesn’t exist as far as I’m concerned. I knew you were evil, Ares-but to start a war just to feed your dog-you disgust me.”
Apparently finding that disgust vastly amusing, Ares snickered as he observed tauntingly, “Obviously, you’re not a pet-lover.”
“You’ve turned family against each other-innocent lives destroyed,” Hercules growled, his eyes flashing with rage.
“Hey, what can I say?” Ares asked with maddening candour, shrugging as he held his hands up in a gesture of helplessness, “Graegus has a special fondness for blood feuds.”
“Well, this is one feud that is going to end right now,” Hercules vowed, meaning it.
“Always the optimist, aren’t you?” Ares taunted, shaking his head. Lifting a whistle, he shrugged again carelessly as he continued, “Well-here’s the grim reality.” A nearby howl and the scrabbling of claws answered the whistle’s call. Behind Ares, a massive black shadow appeared on the rock wall of the tunnel leading up from the depths of the earth.
Iolaus’ eyes widened as he gazed at the shadow, and then he gulped. “Uh-Hercules-maybe it’s time for me to get down, huh?” he suggested, urgency in his voice, having come to the realization that Hercules was going to face whatever was coming alone…and from his friend’s words, he had a sinking feeling of what to expect.
Ares quirked a brow as he gazed at both of them, a cold smile of cruel satisfaction playing around his lips as he predicted, “Graegus is gonna work up a hell’ve an appetite, tearing you two to shreds.” Morphing back into Jarton’s form, he told them, “I better go stir up a battle to make sure he has something to eat afterwards.”
‘Graegus?’ Iolaus gulped. This was NOT good. Again he thrashed helplessly, frustrated to have been caught so easily-sick to think his actions had put Hercules at such risk.
“Ares!” Hercules shouted as his brother disappeared from the cave, wanting desperately to go after him, to stop the bloody, pointless, carnage of the impending battle. But there was another low growl as the shadow slinked closer, drawing the demigod’s eyes. “I don’t like this,” Hercules muttered under his breath.
Above him, reluctantly reconciled to the fact that he couldn’t persuade Hercules to go, desperately trying to find a bright spot in their current dilemma, ever the optimist, Iolaus offered, “Uh-hey! Uh, maybe it’s not so bad!”
Hercules simply tossed his best friend a sceptical look as he warily watched the approach of the monster. Graegus had cleared the bend in the cave’s tunnel, and was now stalking toward the demigod as each took the measure of the other.
The beast was huge, standing as tall as Hercules at the shoulder. Its black fur was matted with filth and the monster stank rankly of death. The massive jaws parted revealing deadly fangs, and it slobbered as it paced steadily forward, head down, its evil eyes burning red with aggressive threat.
While Hercules and the monster warily circled one another, Iolaus observed hopefully, “If this thing only eats the dead, we should be okay-right?”
Watching the monster as he weighed their options, Hercules replied dryly, “Ares didn’t say it would eat us-only that it would tear us to shreds.” Sparing his buddy a quick glance, he continued ironically, “So as long as that doesn’t bother you…”
Blowing out a breath, Iolaus swallowed as he shook his head. “That’s-not what I wanted to hear.”
Hercules had been casting anxious looks around the cavern, seeking some form of advantage, and suddenly he darted away from Graegus, lunging toward the wall to grab a torch from its bracket, twisting and rolling away even as the monster leapt to bring him down. Just missing the demigod, Graegus crashed into the wall heavily before it dropped to the ground. Maddened, the huge dog scrambled back onto its feet and again paced toward Hercules, lips pulled back to reveal massive fangs as it snarled furiously.
Tossing the torch up to his best friend, Hercules called, “Here! Burn yourself free!”
“Thanks!” Gratefully, Iolaus caught it…but they both noticed that Graegus had followed the trajectory of the torch, and had now noticed Iolaus for the first time, hanging captive above its head. As the monster circled below the bound warrior, Iolaus groaned, “Oh, great-now it wants to fetch.”
Horrified, Hercules saw the massive brute’s muscles bunch as it prepared to spring upward to ravage his helpless friend, while Iolaus watched the beast closely, knowing he’d have only one chance of evading those massive jaws. Snapping out of his moment of disbelieving horror, Hercules bent to haul a huge boulder into his arms, heaving it even as Graegus jumped and Iolaus doubled his body up, jack-knifing in his upside-down position to pull himself away from the brute’s snapping jaws and long, blood-caked claws.
The boulder caught Graegus in mid-jump and knocked the beast flying, off-balance, to skid and sprawl, briefly stunned, on the rough stone of the cavern’s floor.
Iolaus blew out a soft, “Whew-oo-oo-oo”, half whistle, half sigh of relief as the upper half of his body again fell downward, even as the beast climbed heavily to its feet and began to stalk him anew. Knowing there was literally no time to waste, the warrior gritted his teeth. Even Hercules couldn’t hold off the Dog of War forever, not alone-not while trying to protect him at the same time. With all of his strength and the considerable force of his will, he again doubled up his body, wrapping one arm tightly around his legs as he held himself in the impossible position and brought the flame of the torch to the ropes holding him captive.
The god who again appeared in the guise of the loyal Jarton rushed into the rebel camp, to grab Poena’s arm.
“Poena-we have a real problem,” he confided urgently. “You were right. Hercules is a spy.”
Sorrow and the desire to disbelieve his words washed over her face, as she demanded, “Are you sure?”
As if he truly regretted being the bearer of such bad news, Jarton replied, “I wish I wasn’t-but I saw him going over to Daulin’s side along with Iolaus. I should’a listened to you from the beginning. I guess I just wanted to think better of Hercules.”
Devastated, Poena looked away as she sighed, “There’s no one to trust.”
But the old and much trusted family retainer, the Captain of the Guard until the old King had been murdered, gripped her shoulders as he assured her fervently, “You can always trust me.”
Sighing, overwhelmed, confused by mixed messages from Jarton and Hercules, Poena shook her head as she murmured, “I don’t know what to do anymore.”
“We have no choice,” Jarton assured her fervently, making her decision easy. “Daulin and Hercules will slaughter us-if we don’t attack right away.”
She swallowed and then lifted her chin as she straightened her shoulders. Determined to be brave, to avenge what she believed was her father’s murder by her formerly much beloved brother, an expression of resolve came over her features. Raising her voice, she called out in ringing tones, “Sound the call to battle!”
At her command, the horn was blown…
…and the war drums began to beat…
Without hesitation, Hercules placed himself between Iolaus and the beast, bracing for the attack as Graegus lunged at him. The momentum and sheer power of the beast barrelled the demigod over, and he found himself on his back, desperately fending off jaws that strained to rip out his throat. His muscles bunched and his teeth gritted with effort as he gripped the monster’s head and tried to push him back. But Graegus pressed forward, his fangs mere inches from Hercules’ face and vulnerable throat, its foul breath of death nauseating.
Above their struggle on the cave floor, Iolaus grimly held his jack-knifed position, abdominal and back muscles straining, protesting, holding himself doubled up by force of will. His jaw was tight, and he was sweating with the effort as the flames licked at the thick ropes that bound his ankles and held him helpless in the air. The stench of burning hemp and leather filled the cave, and the blond could feel the heat through his boots, blistering his skin, but he did not falter. Finally, the charred rope caught into flames, and frayed, until it finally parted and he fell heavily to the rock below.
Hercules was continuing his desperate struggle against the monster, trying for some kind of leverage to force Graegus off, or to kick or roll the beast away. But the Dog of War was too heavy, too strong and powerful even for Hercules’ unnatural strength to last against it for long, let alone push it back or away. In truth, the demigod wasn’t certain how much longer he could hold the fangs back from his head and throat.
Iolaus rolled, and blinked, getting his bearing-and scrambled for the torch. Without hesitation, he bounded to his feet and shoved the fire against the butt of the beast, the smell of burning fur sickening. With an unearthly howl, Graegus whipped around, forgetting Hercules to viciously attack Iolaus. Bravely, desperately, the golden warrior held the beast off by swinging the torch at its head and gaping fangs as he danced back out of its way, yelling to keep its attention on him and give Hercules the chance to scramble to safety.
Striding out of the small cottage with his weapons, following the Princess who now wore her helmet of battle, Jarton cried out, “To the river!”
Immediately, the men returned the battle cry, swinging to march toward the King’s army. “To the river!” countless voices cried out, adding a rallying cheer, “Fight to defend King Memnos!”
The Captain of the Guard approached his King to whisper quietly, “They’re advancing rapidly, sir.”
Daulin nodded his understanding. Shifting his stance to face his waiting troops, the King cried out, “They’re attacking at full strength! Move to the river!”
And his men, too, chanted, as had Poena’s, “To the river!”
Honest, brave men, all of them, on both sides of this wretched civil war-eager to do their duty, to fight, to the death if need be, to do what they believed was right.
All of them deceived.
All of them victims of Ares’ perfidy.
Hercules rolled to his feet, knowing Iolaus could only hold off the monster for mere seconds and that their situation was dire. Graegus was not a creature that could be killed. Desperately, the demigod’s eyes again raked the cavern for inspiration, and he spotted a length of rope that was tied off against the wall…a rope to hold other captives as Iolaus had been held, squirming treats for Graegus’ amusement.
Giving the rope a hard yank, Hercules pulled it free and quickly fashioned a lasso.
But as fast as he’d been, it wasn’t fast enough. Graegus had charged past the small, inadequate shield of the torch Iolaus had been desperately wielding. The beast managed to nip onto Iolaus’ pants with his fangs, pulling the mortal off balance. Iolaus lunged back, trying to get away as he cried out, “Hercules! It’s got me!” and then he was hauled off his feet. On his back now, kicking hard, he pushed himself away, but could not stifle an unconscious cry of alarm as the monster swarmed over him, snarling while the drooling, gaping fang-filled maw sought his throat.
Desperate, Iolaus pressed his palms against the beast’s snout, and it took all he had to slow the relentless descent of that ugly deadly head, if only for precious, priceless seconds-there was no way he could stop the monster, he hadn’t the strength and he knew it. Squirming, unable to get away, Iolaus screamed out, “Anytime you’re ready, Hercules!”
Breathless, Hercules heard the desperate plea for help and knew they were out of time as he worked feverishly to loop the heavy rope into the necessary slipknot.
Graegus pressed closer even as Iolaus screamed and the hero tried to press himself into the rock beneath him, squirming his head away from those massive relentless jaws that drooled over his face and chest. He grimaced at stench of the creature’s foul breath and tried to avoid having to look down its gullet. As Graegus shifted its weight, pressing down so close that Iolaus knew he was out of time, the blond cried out again, unconsciously, “Arrgghh!” before shouting with urgent desperation, “Now would be good!”
Hercules swung the improvised lasso up and over his shoulder, whirling it in the air and then casting it out with unerring aim.
Iolaus saw the rope slip onto Graegus’ head, but not around it. Without thought, knowing only that he had to stop this monster, he dared let go his grip on the beast’s snout as he simultaneously grabbed the rope and pulled it down over the monster’s head to its neck. Terrified, he kicked against the rocky floor to push himself along the ground, his head thrown back as he desperately tried to evade being caught in that massive craw before Hercules had time to pull the rope tight, holding the monster off him.
Hercules hauled back hard on the rope, tightening it as quickly as he could, making it taut between him and the monster as Graegus continued to lunge toward Iolaus. The golden warrior kept kicking against the stone floor, skidding on his back as he shoved himself further away from those terrifying fangs.
Finally clear, scrambling to his feet, Iolaus looked quickly around and found the loose end of the rope that had bound him hanging down the wall. Grabbing it, he pulled it free of the hook and fashioned his own lasso. All the while, he taunted the beast, keeping it focused on trying to get him, while Hercules dug in his heels, and leaned back, to keep the monster from closing the distance between itself and Iolaus.
Finally, Iolaus launched his own lasso, capturing the beast’s head.
“Pull tight! We got him trapped!” Hercules urged, and as Iolaus drew his rope taut, they held the monster at bay, between them. Hercules moved quickly to wrap his rope around a boulder, even as he called out, “Iolaus! Tie your end off!”
Iolaus looked around and, keeping the rope taut, moved to another tall up-thrusting column of rock, more stable that a stalagmite, a part of the cavern floor itself, and he had to reach high to loop the rope over it before rapidly tying it off.
Maddened with fury, Graegus fought being held, his strength was enough to cause the cavern to grind and shift, a deep groaning protest of inanimate stone.
“How long is that gonna hold him?” Iolaus gasped, his eyes raking the ceiling, looking for cracks as the beast rocked the very foundation of the cave.
“I have no idea,” Hercules replied, panting. The ground trembled, and small rocks fell with clouds of dust from the ceiling above them, causing them both to flinch defensively as they raised their arms to protect their heads. Suddenly, Hercules turned to Iolaus and gripping his shoulders, called out, “The battle!” before turning to race out of the cavern, into the night.
Iolaus was hard on his heels as they plunged through the darkness, the shadows hiding any trace of a trail. Breathlessly, they ran full out, uncaring of the branches that caught at them, plunging through the growth, dodging around trees on their desperate dash to end a war that never should have been.
The two armies marched toward one another through the darkness, the flicker of their torches the only sign of their constant, resolute advance through the night, while the full moon bled red as a skull appeared on its face to leer down upon them
“Move it, Iolaus!” Hercules cried from ahead.
They both knew they’d run out of time.
As they drew close to the river, Jarton stopped once more to coach Poena and confirm her commitment to a fierce and bloody battle, “No second thoughts!” he lectured her. “They deserve to die. Now-sound the battle call!” She held herself still for one moment more of hesitation and then nodded. The horn was raised and the call to battle echoed through the night. Voices called out, “Start the advance!”
Daulin had brought his own army to a halt, finding himself unwilling to engage against his sister and his own people until there was no other option. But as he heard the horn and saw the flickering torches of the opposing army advance ever closer and faster toward the river that separated the two armies, he raised his arm and waved his own men forward. His subordinate leaders called, “Move out! Steady and slow!”
Sitting along the shoreline, well back from where the battle proper would take place, the ghoulish old undertaker sank down onto the shore, his cart behind him, and rubbed his hands, laughing with gleeful anticipation of the business, and profits, to come…
The heroes heard the call of the horns and the beat of the drums as the two armies marched toward one another. Bloody battle could only be mere moments away.
Panting, keeping up to the driving pace the demigod had set, Iolaus gasped anxiously, “We’re not gonna make it!”
Not slowing, if anything, speeding up further, Hercules cried back, “We have to make it!”
Jarton screamed out, “Atta-a-a-a-ck!”
Warriors from both sides advanced on the run, driving fast through the trees toward the river that divided their forces, drums beating, torches flaring, and voices raising to shout their inarticulate determination and courage to fight to the death…
Scarce moments ahead of the warring factions, the two heroes splashed into the river between the hordes of screaming men who advanced from either side. Hercules yelled as he waded to a position that would be central to both armies, “No! Stop! You’ve been tricked!”
No more than half a step behind him, Iolaus plunged through the water, until he was at Hercules’ back, and he too began screaming, “Stop fighting! Stop fighting!”
But the battling men were too frenzied to pay attention, and kept coming on the run through the forests on either side. “It’s no use” Iolaus called over his shoulder despairingly. “It’s not working.” Though he did not cease shouting to the soldiers to stop their advance.
Hercules could see only too well that his partner was right. They could not stop this carnage alone. Not knowing what else to do, he cried out, “Jarton-where are you? Don’t let this happen!”
“Don’t fight! Iolaus screamed again, unwilling to give up, even as the leading edge of each army plunged out from the shadows and into the shallow edges of the river. His expression revealed his horror and despair at what was happening, that he and Hercules seemed unable to stop a senseless slaughter. This didn’t need to happen. Men did not have to die this night-the civil war had no basis and was an evil manipulation by a bloodthirsty god.
But the blond warrior didn’t know what else to do to stop the madness, except to keep screaming, “Stop! St-o-o-o-o-o-p!”
And, suddenly, the advancing men did stop and even staggered back a few paces. Looking very relieved and then quite pleased, Iolaus observed, “Well-that’s a little more like it.” Crossing his arms, glad their efforts had finally had the necessary effect, Iolaus turned to speak to Hercules and jumped, startled, to see a ghost standing beside him…an army of ghosts standing between the warring factions, silently aligned beside him, and Hercules, in the centre of the river.
One soldier gasped, “I don’t believe it!”
But one young soldier had no difficulty recognizing the apparition that appeared before him. “Aelon!” Krytus called out to his brother’s spirit.
And then an eerie silence settled over the battleground.
Hercules raised his voice, holding their attention with ringing tones as he lectured them with unswerving, unshakeable conviction, “There’s no reason for you to fight! That’s why your loved ones came here to stop you. Only Ares wants you to fight! He needs your blood to feed his dog!”
“But Daulin killed King Memnos,” one young soldier, a lad who would better still be in a schoolroom, called out, confused. “Jarton said so.”
“That was a lie,” Hercules asserted. And then, he announced as he dramatically stepped aside to reveal the apparition behind him, “This is the real Jarton.”
The apparition of the honourable, much trusted leader called out in his hollow, haunting tones, “Hercules tells the truth.” The spectre pointed unerringly at the impostor who had walked among them, appearing in his body, “Ares killed our King.”
More voices broke out as men looked to where the man they’d believed was Jarton had been standing next to the Princess, but he had disappeared into thin air. “Where’d he go?” they murmured, afraid and confused. “He’s gone!”
Taunting, Hercules yelled, “That’s right, Ares-run away! There’ll be no battle tonight!”
“That’s what you think!” Ares voice drawled out, loud and arrogant, as a mighty wind began to blow dust and debris into the faces of the startled armies. It pressed them back, further from the water’s edge, whistling and whipping around them. And then Ares appeared in his personal glory in the river, advancing toward Hercules who stood in the river, backed only by his partner, the wraiths no longer visible. “If only one man dies tonight-it’ll be you,” the god declared venomously.
If ‘one man’ had to die that night by decree of a god, Iolaus was determined it would not be Hercules. With no word or warning, with scarcely even thought but to protect his best friend, the mortal warrior yelled out his defiance as he charged toward the God of War-knowing even as he did, he had no hope of prevailing.
Horrified, Hercules grabbed for his friend to pull him back, but Iolaus was already past his reach, and the demigod screamed, “Iolaus, nooooo!”
Contemptuously, Ares lashed out, his arm pointed toward the courageous and selfless warrior, a bolt of blinding pure power shooting out from his hand like lightning to catch the mortal in the chest. The bolt was so powerful it blew Iolaus high into the air and backwards, flinging him far across the river to the fringe of the forest at its edge. Iolaus had yelled out in agony when the bolt hit, but when he crashed to the ground, he lay silent and still.
Hercules had followed his friend’s trajectory, and now saw Iolaus lie limp and unmoving, sprawled as if dead.
Sick with rage and sudden blinding grief, teeth bared in a grimace of hate, Hercules turned to lunge at Ares, pounding at the god, slugging with all his power into the immortal’s head and body. But Ares stood firm, absorbing the blows, and finally laughing as Hercules fell back, looking at his fists in confusion.
“That’s the spirit, Hercules,” the God of War taunted. When Hercules leaned forward to lunge back at him, the god snarled as he lashed out with a blinding bolt of power that blasted Hercules back off his feet, the demigod yelling unconsciously until he landed with a tremendous splash in the river.
Hurt, but determined, still raging with anger that his best friend had been blasted by that power and might even now be lying dead but a few feet away, Hercules dragged himself to his feet. The demigod was oblivious to the encouraging shouts of the men from both sides of the river that called out, “Hercules! Get up!” “Get up!” “Hercules!”
His only awareness was a raging need to avenge his best friend.
So soon after the loss of his family, the demigod could not endure the loss of another so dear without fighting back with all he had, though it might cost his life. Hercules was unaware that Iolaus had stirred, heaving for breath as he dragged himself back toward consciousness, or that the blond warrior had rolled weakly onto an elbow, shaking his head as he tried to remember what had just happened.
As the demigod charged again toward Ares, the god beat him back with another bolt of power that drove Hercules again into the river. As his memories unscrambled, appalled by the blast of light that meant Hercules was in dire danger, Iolaus lifted his head to see Hercules driving toward Ares, only to be blown back yet again by the mighty force of the power Ares wielded.
The pain was great, and the demigod had to brace himself, one arm across his midsection, as he pushed himself up to lumber forward again…to be blasted back relentlessly.
Iolaus was horrified as he watched his best friend standing alone against the god, being battered, thrown about like a child. Panting, fighting the blinding pain in his own body from the abuse he’d suffered, he pushed himself up, halfway to a sitting position. He was desperate to get to his feet, but was too weak and dizzy, yet still he struggled to shove himself upright-intent upon rejoining the battle, if only to buy Hercules a brief respite to gather his own strength.
Soaking wet, panting, not sure of how much more he could take, Hercules lay curled and half-reclined in the water. For the first time since he’d seen Iolaus fall and lie so still, he forced himself to look back toward where his friend lay.
And saw not a dead man, but one struggling against his injuries to push himself upright. Suddenly, Hercules knew what Iolaus was planning, was hoping to do. His best friend would again sacrifice himself; risk his life, to help the demigod. But there was no doubt in Hercules’ mind that Iolaus could never survive another direct blast of that ruthless power.
As he crouched in the water, the demigod heard men calling out encouragement to him, “Get up, Hercules!” Heard Daulin’s voice rise above the chanting of others, “Go-o-o-o-o!” The warriors of both armies screamed and cajoled, yelled and entreated, all of them crying out the same messages, “For us!” “Get him!” “Go, Hercules!”
Grimly, holding his ribs, regaining his breath, Hercules continued to watch Iolaus’ efforts to struggle up, though the blond warrior didn’t have the strength yet to stand. But if this fight with Ares went on much longer, Hercules knew Iolaus would find the strength somehow within the depths of his spirit. And then he would die.
There had to be a way to end this senseless battle with Ares before that happened. There was no purpose…
And the demigod’s mind caught at that thought as he turned his attention back to Ares.
The God of War taunted, lending his own form of encouragement to the hero to stand and face him again. “What’s the matter, Hercules?” he jeered. “I know there’s more fight in you than that.”
Suddenly, the demigod understood why Ares wanted this fight so badly. Needed it. As he pushed himself to his feet to stand unsteadily, curled a little forward to ease his aching body, Hercules called back, “And a fight is exactly what you want. You feed on anger and hate.”
The demigod could not restrain the cry of pain as another blast caught him and drove him to his knees in the water.
Men continued to cheer him on, begging him to win, needing him to win. Panting, semi-reclined in the cold river, holding himself upright with one arm against the ground beneath the surging waters while the other cradled his body, Hercules again sought his best friend’s eyes.
Iolaus gritted his teeth against his pain, and returned his best friend’s steady gaze. He, too, had figured it out as soon as he’d heard Hercules’ words above the frenzied shouting, realizing Ares was feeding on the aggression. The fury of the combined armies was keeping the God of War strong.
As the two lifelong friends held each other’s gaze, each knew it was a risk, a huge risk-but one that had to be tried. Iolaus licked his lips and nodded, his chest tight with the fear that this effort to finally win peace might yet cost Hercules’ life. But-he could not intervene. If he fought, it would only ruin any hope Herc had of bringing this night’s madness to an end. Taking a deep breath, his body tight with dread, hating his helplessness, Iolaus silently watched Hercules stagger to his feet.
Around them, the men screamed out, “Come on, Hercules! Come on! Fight him! Fight him!”
Ares lent his own encouragement to their cries, “Come on, Hercules-show me that rage inside of you!”
The demigod was slow in regaining his feet, his body wracked with pain. He could hear Daulin again, yelling, “Go-o-o-o-o, Hercules!” Others shouting, “Come on! Get up!”
Finally, swaying, Hercules stood and wearily shook his head. “No,” he told the God of War, “there’ll be no more fighting-from me-or any of these people.”
Shocked by his words, silence began to fall over the men as Hercules held his half-brother’s gaze, his wordless message making it abundantly clear that the game was up, at least for now.
Furious, Ares blasted him, driving him down, only to have Hercules stand once more to passively face him…again Ares lashed out, and again…but each time, his power was less, so that now Hercules only staggered but was able to continue standing, weak as he was, no longer blown off his feet, but absorbing the diminishing power of the blasts thrown at him.
Desperately, Ares taunted again, “Fight me, Hercules!” But his last attempt to blast his brother to the ground fizzled…without the fire and fury of aggression, his power was muted, no longer a threat to the demigod.
Watching, Daulin understood what was happening and abruptly shouted to his army, commanding them, “Throw down your weapons!” When they hesitated, his Captain echoed the order, “Do as he says!” When still they hesitated, Daulin roared sharply, his voice brooking no resistance, “Throw them down!”
As weapons and shields clattered the earth, Ares winced and groaned as he sank to his knees, gritting his teeth as he glared at Hercules. The bad blood between families leading to violence, whether it was the mortal families engaged in the civil war, or the battle between the sons of Zeus, was over for that night. There would be no more fighting.
Unseen by the multitude beside the river, back in the cave, Graegus whined piteously. The monster rolled weakly onto its side and flames sprung up around it as it disappeared from the world of men.
Poena also finally understood as she watched her brother’s army disarm. “Do it!” she commanded, her words carried back through the ranks of her own men by others, soldiers calling to one another, “All of ‘em! You heard her!” Spears and swords, knives and arrows clattered together as they hit the ground until both armies stood with their hands empty, the rage and hatred, the fear and confusion in their hearts quenched.
The civil war was over.
Looking up with a glare that burned with unadulterated hatred and promise, Ares snarled, “Hercules, I’ll be back. Know that. We will fight again.”
Hercules stood tall as he regarded his defeated brother, refusing to respond to the threat, to be deceived by Ares’ apparent weakness-only another trap to draw him in, to taunt and tempt him to try to finish their argument here and now, to not wait until another place, another time. But Hercules would not be fooled into fuelling Ares’ strength by battling with him further on this dark night. Knowing he’d won, the demigod said flatly, “Maybe, but not today.”
Vanquished, Ares let himself fall face forward into the waters of the shallow river, melting until he disappeared from view. There was a hushed silence, and then a column of flame burst upward from the river toward the sky as the God of War screamed out his frustration.
But-the blood on the moon cleared, until it once again shone with a pure, soft, silver light.
Alone on the far bank of the river, the undertaker wept-his sobs the only sound in the silence as he mourned the loss of his much anticipated profits.
Iolaus shoved a triumphant fist into the air as he cheered with gleeful abandon, “Whoo-hoooooooo!”
It was the signal for all to cheer their victory over madness. The opposing armies regarded one another across the barrier of water, and then as one, they surged forward, to greet fathers, and sons, brothers and friends, to embrace one another with relief that it was over and no more would die. Daulin ran to meet his sister, as Poena skipped through the water toward her dear brother. When they met, they embraced fiercely, hearts full, scarcely able to breath with the relief of the peace and love that was restored between them. Together, they turned to find Hercules in the melee, to hug him warmly, and stand on either side of the hero with arms around his waist and back, to thank him for what he had done…for what he’d saved them from doing to one another and the people who looked to them for leadership.
Iolaus had finally managed to regain his feet on the bank of the river, and stood alone now with an arm braced across his body, biting his lip as he fought back the pain of his injuries. As he watched the young royals hug his friend, and saw the peace on Hercules’ face, he smiled to himself and bowed his head in mute gratitude. Herc had loved these two as children, remembered their innocence and had been heart-broken by the conflict between them. Though Hercules hadn’t been able to save his own children, he had saved these children and given them the chance to live, and to prosper. The golden warrior absently brushed moisture from his grimy cheek as he hoped, with all that he was, that what had happened here would help, somehow, to ease the still very raw grief and pain in Hercules’ heart.
“I should have trusted you all along, Hercules,” Daulin said, his voice hoarse with gratitude and regret for his foolishness in doubting the demigod.
“So should I,” Poena asserted in her turn. “Instead, I was a fool.”
One arm around each of their shoulders, Hercules smiled warmly, his eyes alight with relief to see these two united again. “It’s all right,” he assured them, forgiving their doubts of him. “At least it’s over.”
“But what about Graegus?” Poena asked, concern clouding her eyes. “If that beast is still out there…”
But Hercules shook his head; confident the danger was over, he assured her, “Ares and his dog can only survive in a land of war. As long as you’re at peace-there’s nothing to fear from either of them. Now… there’s one more thing we have to do.”
It was a solemn parade that moved silently in pace with the beat of a single drum. Flickering torches, anchored to the stonewalls of the cave they were approaching and carried by the mourners, illuminated the darkness. The sombre crowd marched to the cave and entered the chosen cavern, led by four men carrying an ornate coffin. Hercules supported one corner, and Daulin had another, pacing beside the demigod as they led the way forward together. Behind them, Iolaus supported the coffin on his shoulder and thought to himself that it was especially appropriate that the last corner was borne by the youth whose actions had ultimately ended the terrible war-Krytus, who in his courage, and for love of his brother, had set off alone to race across the country to bring help.
To bring Hercules.
And so the four of them, the King of Tantalus to represent all of his now united people, the Hero who had saved them, the stranger who had come because it was the right thing to do, and a brother, who represented all who had lost loved ones, led the procession of families far into the depths of the cavern. Finally, they came to the chosen resting place and set their burden down.
Moving back, the mourners studied the lone coffin, remembering their lost lovers, and fathers, sons and brothers; aching with their grief. They hoped profoundly and with all the love in their hearts that this symbol of all those who had been lost would somehow replace the necessary ritual of burying a soldier’s body to ensure his soul’s safe journey to the Other Side. Within the coffin, they had placed tokens of the loved ones who’d perished, tokens in place of bodies that had been hauled off and destroyed by a hideous, foul monster.
And each of them spared a thought to other soldiers who had been lost to Graegus, their souls condemned to forever wander restlessly, unable to find peace. Silently, they hoped that in some way this ceremony, this coffin and the tomb in which it would forever lie, could also represent those souls, those unknown soldiers who had died with courage and fortitude, who had given their lives to protect and safeguard those they had loved.
Then, as if summoned by their thoughts and by their love, first the apparition of Jarton appeared to stand by the head of the coffin, and then a crowd of comrades, the ghostly wraiths of those who were being mourned and remembered for their honour and their sacrifice, soon surrounded him. Led by Jarton, they all moved forward to stand facing those they’d left behind, but loved still…to say a grateful, if wordless and final good-bye. Grasping his shoulder, Krytus’ mother gasped out softly when Aelon came toward them, sad but also relieved to know that her son’s soul would indeed be at peace as a result of their efforts and remembrance in this cavern.
And in the back of the cave, still by the coffin, stood those who had no one to mourn them in this town, but whose souls had been gathered in with the others, saved by the thoughts and generous love that underlay the hopes that lost souls like their own might also find rest. The two mercenaries who had first realized the truth, and had died for it, stood side by side as they watched their comrades part from their families.
“You made us whole again, Hercules,” Jarton intoned, his hollow voice echoing in the cavern, tones of warmth and gratitude infusing the emptiness. “Now we can cross over to the Other Side. It’s a very special friend who can help a man-even after his death.”
Again Hercules’ arm lifted with his unconscious desire to once more clasp Jarton’s arm as a fellow warrior, in respect and affection. But his arm fell to his side as he said sadly, “I guess it isn’t possible for us to shake hands, is it?”
Equally sadly, Jarton responded, “I’m afraid not.”
“Then let me wish you peace,” Hercules offered with deep sincerity as he held his old friend’s gaze. Jarton nodded and then turned his attention to the young royal siblings, as he said, “Poena, Daulin, your father always expected me to be here to help you. I’m sorry I won’t have that privilege.”
Daulin replied soberly, “Your lessons will stay with us, Jarton.”
“And we’ll honour them the best way we can,” Poena added, “by ruling together.”
“Thank you,” Jarton acknowledged with a slight inclination of his head and the shadow of a smile. It was time to leave. “Looks like we better be going. I’ll say hello to your father for you.”
The nameless mercenaries were the first to turn away, arms about each other’s shoulders, content to face this unknown road together, as they had faced other journeys in life. One by one, the other wraiths fell in behind them.
“Goodbye, Son,” Aelon’s mother sighed as her son drew away.
Finally, all of the wraiths were once again clustered together around the coffin. There was one final long moment while the two groups held one another’s gaze, and then the spirits of the fallen faded from sight.
Silently, grief less raw now in their hearts but still very real, the crowd turned to move away, out of the darkness of the cavern and back into the brightness of the day. As they neared the cavern’s portal, Hercules paused, Iolaus with him, as the demigod looked back into the cave.
“It’s time to make sure these men are never disturbed again,” the demigod asserted as he hauled off and punched heavily against the rock of the wall. The earth trembled; dust and then boulders fell from the ceiling, until the entrance was sealed.
Outside Daulin and Poena waited with their people to say good-bye to the heroes who emerged to stand side-by-side, heroes who had come from afar to save them. Smiling at them fondly, Hercules called gently, “And peace to you, my friends.”
Daulin, Poena and all their people raised their voices to call back, “Peace to you, Hercules.”
Smiling softly, Iolaus sighed, “Has a nice ring about it, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah,” the Hercules agreed quietly, “too bad we don’t hear it more often.”
The heroes turned away then, as did the people of Tantalus, as they headed in separate directions.
As they moved through the forest, walking closely together, Hercules draped an arm along his best friend’s shoulders. “So, Iolaus,” he asked, his words signalling that from now on they would be traveling together, “wanna stop off anywhere on the way back home?”
“I don’t know,” Iolaus returned with a shrug. But then humour glinted in his eyes as he lifted his gaze to Hercules’ blue, steady gaze, wondering if he would soon be able to close up his forge for good, and travel along pathways that didn’t immediately lead them back to Thebes-if Hercules would soon want a full-time partner again. Honestly uncaring of where they went so long as they went together, a smile playing around his lips, the irrepressible warrior teased, “How about we try to find some fields to till?”
Hercules spluttered and Iolaus snickered-and then they both burst into raucous laughter at that hilarious and highly unlikely idea, their rich, warm voices echoing through the forest as they strode along the trail that would eventually lead them back to Thebes.
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