The princess had been taken by a small band of rogues intent upon making their fortune by ransoming her back to her doting father - a common enough occurrence in the outlying reaches of Greece, where law and order were determined more by wealth, strength and guile than common consent on the rules to ensure a safe and peaceful life. The kidnapping of the powerful and wealthy was almost routine and normally would give little cause for concern - even to the principals involved - as once the ransom demanded was paid, the victim was usually returned none the worse for wear for their adventure. However, when the Princess was taken, a witness recognized the leader of the nefarious bandits - Gravus, a wild, young hellion with aspirations to be a great Warlord. No one who knew him had ever recognized even the vestige of conscience or compassion in the man, but all were well familiar with his broad streak of cruelty; he was cold and greedy, quick to anger, known for his violence particularly against the weak and vulnerable. What he might do to a young, beautiful woman to proclaim his authority over her, and his contempt for all she represented in her person, didn’t bear imagining.
Alarmed by the threat to his beloved only daughter, the King didn’t trust to the usual process, afraid to hope she’d be returned unharmed if he simply paid the gold demanded. Hearing that Hercules, the noble son of Zeus, was visiting the neighbouring kingdom, he sent for help - and the hero was quick to respond. The demigod and his staunch companion, Iolaus, set off immediately and it took them little time to track the outlaws to the king’s own hunting villa, which normally stood vacant in his absence.
Warily topping the rise as the day waned, keeping low against the sky, they studied the dark edifice, taking note of the villains that swaggered in the forecourt, making free with the king’s store of wine. The small palace was built like a fortress out of black lava rock that gave it an aura of menace and danger without the leavening effect the banners and flags of the king would bring when he was in residence. There was a wide span of marble steps up to the wide portal and porticoes all along the side to give shade from the sun and, clustered nearby, were the usual outbuildings - the barn and stables, sheds and hovels for the servants. Above, a storm was gathering, the darkening clouds ominous and foreboding.
Scratching his cheek, Iolaus muttered disparagingly, “Doesn’t look my idea of a fun little holiday lodge.”
Hercules arched a brow and the corner of his mouth quirked. “No. You’re more partial to the sea, sand and palm trees,” he replied with a hint of sarcasm. “Or mud baths.”
Snorting, Iolaus gave his friend an indulgent if aggrieved sidelong glance. “I’m telling you, Herc, someday riding a slab of wood over the waves is going to be very popular. You’ll see. And mud is very good for the skin,” he added with a grin. “Good thing, given how many times I end up being covered in it.”
“Uh huh,” the demigod grunted with a slow grin and an amused shake of his head. Studying the establishment below, he suggested, “The stables?”
“Yeah, probably,” the warrior nodded. “He wouldn’t show her the respect of allowing her the luxuries of the palace. Gravus would be only too happy to hear her whine about the discomfort of straw in a barren stall.”
Nodding soberly, Hercules asked, “You ready?”
“Let’s do it.”
They circled down off the hilltop, keeping to the shadows of a long stand of pine as they made their way toward the back of the stone stables.
Carefully, Hercules eased out one stone block and then a second, creating a large enough opening for them both to slip silently inside. They could hear the Princess in one of the stalls, muttering miserably about how itchy the straw was and how meanly these ugly men were treating her. Iolaus grimaced and quirked a brow, thinking how much she sounded like Queen Melissa when he’d first made her acquaintance - when Melissa was spoiled and self-centered, before she’d grown up in the face of war’s ugliness. Figuring his friend would make a better impression on the whiny woman, he waved Hercules toward the stalls while he eased closer to the front, to keep an eye on the guys loitering in the courtyard.
Hercules carefully made his way through the stables, hunched low and stepping carefully over the dried leaves and straw that were strewn over the ground, hoping they’d be able to sneak in and out again without attracting attention. Moving to the mouth of the stall where the princess was standing with her hands bound over her head by chains that were secured to the roof, he lifted a finger to his lips. “Shh,” he murmured softly as he moved up beside her. “I’m Hercules, and we’re here to rescue you,” he whispered, frowning at the chains.
The Princess gaped at him, speechless for a moment, and then she blinked. “Hercules!” she cried with careless abandon, smiling at him brilliantly.
“Shhh!!!!” he urged again, looking out toward the courtyard, knowing it was already too late.
“Hercules?” the sentry on guard outside yelled in consternation, waving at his drinking buddies for help. “Hercules is here!” he called sharply, wheeling to rush into the stable - only to be caught by a solid fist followed up by a spinning kick as Iolaus laid him out.
But the others were rushing toward the stable, all of them bellowing that Hercules was there, and more were pouring out of the small palace.
“Company’s coming!” Iolaus called in sharp warning.
There was no time to free her. Hercules swiftly took up a position in front of the princess, standing like an impenetrable wall between her and danger. Within seconds, the foreground and stable were filled with battling men. Iolaus more than held his own out front, laying out several bandits with flashing fists and feet, smashing one over the head with a wooden bucket that had come readily to hand, while Hercules effortlessly knocked heads together, and slammed attackers through the stone walls as if they were nothing but flimsy wood, creating new exits on either side while the Princess cowered behind him, her eyes wide with terror.
The demigod was just finishing up with the last of his allotment of goons when Gravus, furious with having his plans for wealth go awry, closed in on Iolaus. The warlord wanna-be’s dark eyes flashed with murderous intent and his face was livid with rage. Crouching, the two warriors circled one another.
“Iolaus! You all right?” Hercules called as he dropped his last attacker unceremoniously to the earthen floor.
“Yeah, I got a coupl’a moves I can show him,” the blond warrior confidently assured him, dropping into a fighting stance, arms and hands positioned to block attacks as he studied his opponent.
Nodding, Hercules turned back to the Princess. Grasping the chains in two strong fists, he gave a modest tug and the links burst apart. Delighted to be free, she flung her arms around his neck, pressing in to give him a tight hug, but the demigod modestly extricated himself and stepped back, turning to see how his partner was faring.
Cautiously, they were still circling one another, looking for an opening, an apparent weakness. “I want blood,” Gravus snarled, half threat, half promise.
Amused, Iolaus quirked a brow. “Ooooh, I’m so scared,” he taunted sarcastically with a low chuckle, patiently waiting for Gravus to make his best move.
Oblivious to the shouts of furious if impotent anger of those who’d live a while longer, tall, burly guards, in full armor, helmets concealing their identities, hauled a random prisoner from the cell full of captive rebels. The jailer clanged the heavy door shut in their wake as the guards hustled the traitor along a winding corridor and then up a stone-cut stairwell into the massive hall above. Torches flickered in brackets on the walls, but barely cut the oppressive gloom of the cold, cavernous chamber, leaving the crowd of spectators in shadow. They watched silently, there by command rather than desire to see injustice done, sick to their souls to know yet another brave man, one of the few prepared to fight for something better, an existence that was not defined by terror, was to be punished for his temerity in revolting against their powerful and very mad ruler.
The prisoner, his head bowed with exhaustion, weakened by previous beatings and malnourishment, was hustled unceremoniously past the onlookers. But when he heard the deep, cruel laugh, he forced his head up proudly, doing his best to appear defiant and undaunted, despite knowing his situation was hopeless. There would be no escape from whatever his ruler had planned - another beating, perhaps. Or whipping. A stint in the cramped box of torment, dangling high above the floor, starving while others stuffed themselves. Whatever this latest torture turned out to be, he was determined to face it bravely, and not cry out.
But the torchlight reflected on a curved, metal surface at the far end of the hall, and he gaped, his gut clenching in fear when he realized what his fate was to be. The executioner stood ready, head and body cloaked in black, face concealed by a fearsome metal mask, the double-headed axe lifted and ready. He swallowed the bile that burned in the back of his throat and fought to draw in breath, to hold onto his courage and not pull back, not struggle fruitlessly or beg for mercy. He knew too well there would be no mercy, nor had there ever been.
The guards forced him down onto his knees before the blood-stained stone and pressed him forward to lay his chest and cheek upon the rough surface. He panted, desperate to draw in breath, knowing he breathed his last, and he kept his eyes wide open to see as much of life as remained to him. There was no warning when the blade fell, severing his head from his body. He felt a moment’s giddiness as his view shifted, his head dropping and rolling into the basket, his mouth open in a soundless shout and his eyes wide with horror as Gravus looked his last on the only world he’d ever known, a world of dark madness and depraved appetite.
The two warriors glared at one another and Gravus growled, about to launch his attack. But he faltered, and his eyes widened at first with incomprehension and then with alarm as he dropped his knife and his hands clutched at his throat. His mouth opened in a rictus of urgency and there was a choked gurgle in his throat. He floundered, staggered a step and then crumpled into a still heap at Iolaus’ feet. Iolaus, still poised for battle, blinked in surprise but continued to watch his foe closely, wondering if it was some sort of trick to get him to relax and lower his defences.
Watching, Hercules stepped forward, studying the downed felon. “Wow,” he observed, looking askance at his friend. “What’d you do to him?”
“I don’t know,” Iolaus replied, mystified, looking at his hands as if they’d somehow mesmerized Gravus into complete capitulation. “But it was really good.”
Dropping to one knee beside the fallen bandit, Hercules turned him and checked his throat for a pulse. His eyes narrowed in surprise and he gaped at his partner. “He’s dead.”
Astonished, Iolaus dropped his guard and shook his head. “Then he died of fright,” he asserted, “‘cause I didn’t touch him.”
Hercules stood and they both studied the dead man in silence, wondering what had killed him, for he seemed healthy enough, strong. A clap of thunder and the sizzle of bright light brought them back into fighting stance as a very angry Ares materialized several yards away.
“Ares!” Hercules called out accusingly. “Did you do this?”
“Me? Kill one of my most devoted disciples?” the God of War spat back scathingly as he strode furiously toward them. “I had serious plans for Gravus. And now,” he roared wrathfully at Iolaus, drawing his sword, “his murderer is gonna join him in the Underworld!”
Hercules instantly launched himself at his half-brother, determined to protect his partner at whatever cost, using his momentum to drive the full force of his body into a flying double-kick into Ares’ body. The force of his assault threw the God off-balance and the sword went flying high into the air as Ares staggered back, fighting to retain his balance. Landing lightly on his feet, the demigod pursued him, landing one solid blow and then another before Ares recovered; and then the two Sons of Zeus were slugging one another like Titans, neither giving ground. Hercules grabbed his hated half-brother and, using one of the moves Iolaus had taught him long ago, levering Ares’ strength and power against him, rolled down and back, heaving the God high to land hard on the hard-packed earth of the stable floor.
Iolaus rushed forward, wanting to help if he could, but the God surged back to his feet and kicked him away viciously, no longer as intent upon executing him immediately as using Hercules’ attack upon him as an excuse to kill the demigod with his bare hands. But the momentary distraction Iolaus granted him allowed Hercules to charge in and once again grapple with strength equal to Ares’ own.
Iolaus stumbled back to the Princess. Standing protectively between her and the combatants, he kept a close watch on the battle, looking for another opportunity to be of use. She gaped at him and then at Hercules, who was grunting with effort as he shoved and danced back, swinging at thin air. “What’s happening?” she demanded, confused, wondering if the demigod had gone mad.
“Well, Hercules is fighting Ares,” Iolaus explained tersely, his body taut, ready for battle.
“Over me,” she replied with a preening, self-satisfied tone, quite flattered to have such adversaries grappling mightily for her honour.
“No,” the blond warrior retorted flatly, unhappy with having to be defended, worried about Hercules. “Over me.” When she gasped in surprise, he explained tightly, “That’s why I can see him and you can’t.”
She huffed with insult, scarcely able to believe two Sons of Zeus would be fighting so furiously over the scruffy little man beside her. Cutting her a quick glance, in an effort to placate her obvious pique, he began to explain, “You see, what happens -” But the two combatants raged close in that moment and he had to move quickly, crying, “Look out!” as he unceremoniously pushed her back and out of the path of danger.
Hercules pitched Ares through the stone wall and the god crashed onto the ground, spitting out dirt, and then his eyes narrowed and he smiled as he spotted his sword lying close to hand. But Hercules dove through the wall after him and again they wrestled for dominance, slugging one another mercilessly. Frustrated, livid with rage, Ares roared and spun away - only to launch himself into a flying kick that sent Hercules sailing back hard against a distant stone wall. He bounced off and dropped to his knees, not far from the sword, momentarily stunned, giving Ares time to lunge forward and snatch up his weapon.
Maddened by the battle, beyond all reason and certainly beyond caring about any of his father’s commands about not killing relatives, the God of War growled and lifted his sword high. Too late, the demigod twisted around, half-sprawled in the dust; he looked up into his half-brother’s murderous glare, at the sword lifted high over Ares’ head, poised in a killing blow, and muttered, “Uh, oh.”
Deafening thunder cracked, and lightning streaked from out of the sky to crackle through the upraised sword with explosive power. The current sizzled through the weapon into Ares, leaving him paralyzed, shuddering uncontrollably and then, as the sword shattered, the God and the demigod were blasted apart by an invisible clap of power, both sent careening into walls like a child’s rag dolls. There was a roar of wind in the courtyard as the day darkened into the gloom of unnatural dusk, and a massive whirling, howling vortex materialized. Staggering to his feet, Hercules gaped at the phenomenon, never having seen anything like it before. “Uh, oh,” he hollowly intoned again, his eyes wide, knowing whatever it was couldn’t be good.
The Princess wasn’t sure what was going on, but decided she’d had enough. “I thought you said this was over,” she complained, backing away, flinching against the monstrous wind.
Iolaus, curious, ventured out of the stable, his gaze narrowed and his hands raised protectively against the stinging cloud of dust kicked up by the vicious wind. “What is it?” he asked, casting Hercules a look of disquiet before taking a few more cautious steps forward.
“I think I was better off before you two rescued me,” the Princess asserted, trying for hauteur and simply sounding terrified as she hastily turned away to find her own way home. “Goodbye!”
The demigod glanced at Ares, to ensure he was no further threat, at least not for the moment, and then moved toward Iolaus. He was about to call out, to tell his partner not to get too close, when they were both startled by a man careening out of the vortex, directly into Iolaus.
For a moment, the warrior gripped the man, steadying him, his eyes widening and his mouth dropping open when he looked into the other’s face, and then the newcomer tore away, bolting off in fear. Turning away from the portal, Iolaus called after him, “Stop! Wait!” He didn’t see the troupe of horsemen race out of the vortex, didn’t hear their hooves under the roar of the wind, until they were surrounding him.
“There he is!” a rough voice called urgently. “Get him!” Unceremoniously, Iolaus was scooped up by one of the mounted soldiers and dumped across the saddle, and then the horsemen wheeled to pound back toward the vortex.
“Hercules!” he cried out, stunned by the speed of the attack. Struggling to break free, feeling the sucking power of the vortex drawing them all back inside, he called again, “Hercules!”
Alarmed, the demigod raced toward the portal but, just as he got close, it vanished as if it had never been. He skidded, off-balance and frozen with shock. The thundering rush of wind was gone, along with the riders and Iolaus. Just - gone. The darkness cleared and the sun’s light once again illuminated the dusty courtyard. Blinking in stunned astonishment, scared, sick with worry about where Iolaus had just been taken and by whom, Hercules stared at the empty space. His eyes were wide with shock, his expression distraught, as he struggled to figure out what had just happened and what to do to rescue his friend.
Behind him, Ares’ voice, rich with cruel laughter taunted him. “You lose your little buddy?”
Angrily, Hercules whirled around, but his response died in his throat when he saw that Ares was holding a small, struggling man by the scruff of his neck.
The God of War chuckled nastily as he turned the cowering stranger around. “Well, I found someone to take his place!” Ares crowed, and then roared with laughter at the gaping expression of shocked disbelief on Hercules’ face as the demigod stared at the oddly dressed, whimpering man with the peaked, tasseled cap and terrorized expression distorting the beloved visage of his best friend.
Not having a clue about what was going on, but certain that it couldn’t be good, Iolaus was desperate to escape and rush back out through the howling vortex. The tunnel itself was disorienting, colours streaming like mad vapor, the air acrid and sharp, the wind a constant moan. Determined to get away, the warrior flipped himself off the saddle but landed in the melee of stampeding mounts. Before he could get his bearings or balance, another steed clipped him hard as it sped past, leaving him reeling - and easy prey for another rider to grab him by the arm and drag him along. The riders clattered into a courtyard just before the vortex collapsed behind them.
Iolaus was summarily let go, and he careened forward with the momentum of having been trying to keep his feet and run alongside the galloping horse. He smacked into a stone wall and bounced off, stumbling dizzily, his hands raised in a defensive position. But he was trapped and he knew it, with no idea of where he was, why he’d been brought or how he was going to escape and get back to Hercules. The soldiers dismounted, laughing at him, jeering at his pretense of being ready to fight. The first to approach, though, had the laughter kicked out of him by a solid boot to his jaw and he dropped as if he’d been pole-axed. Angered by his temerity in resisting his capture, the others roared and crowded in, pummeling him into submission. He fought back, and got in a few good licks before they overpowered him by sheer force of numbers. Blows rained on his head and his body before they grabbed his arms and dragged him up a short flight of stone steps and through the lintel into a massive, dark and cold Hall.
He was pitched forward to skid along the flagged, straw-strewn tiles. Dazed, he shook his head. A pair of glistening black boots appeared in his field of vision and he lifted his head, his gaze taking in the gleaming black leather and he swallowed, recognizing Ares’ traditional taste. His gut was hollow as he understood that the God of War had somehow managed to separate him from his partner after all, and he wondered dismally how he was going to get out of this mess with his skin intact. But he hid his sinking feeling of despair, his gaze still traveling up and up - and he gasped.
“Hercules?” he stammered uncertainly, for it was and it wasn’t. Sure looked like his friend, but the demigod sported a goatee similar to Ares’ beard as well as the black leather getup more reminiscent of the God of War than of his friend, and this Hercules’ expression was cold, cruel, his clear blue eyes hard and flat. “Is that you?” he asked, more confused than ever, knowing it couldn’t be his partner - his Hercules, the real Hercules, was back on the other side of that tunnel of powerful whirling winds.
The tall demigod’s lip curled and one brow quirked sardonically. “Nice disguise,” he approved grudgingly, his tone deep, almost raw with power. “It almost allowed you to escape from me.”
The words, the tone, the man himself - none of it made any sense. “Huh?” Iolaus grunted, his gaze flashing around, trying to figure out what was going on as he pushed himself to his feet. He could scarcely have tried to escape a place he’d never been before. And what was that about a disguise? What disguise? What he saw of the dark hall didn’t reassure him. The place had a brutal feel, the people other than guards looked cowed … well, terrified, actually. Ice curdled in his gut. Whatever was going on, wherever he was, definitely wasn’t good. His gaze returned to the Ares-wannabe Hercules who was still staring at him coldly.
“Too bad it didn’t work,” the Son of Zeus snarled as he lashed out with no warning, slamming Iolaus with the full force of his right fist.
Startled by the unprovoked and unexpected attack, Iolaus barely had time to jerk back and away, so the powerful blow only just grazed the side of his face. But the brutal punch was still more than enough to send him flying backward, pain blasting through his head. He crashed hard onto the floor, unconscious.
Staring down at his crumpled form, the demigod smiled with satisfaction as he sighed smugly, “Yeah.”
The little guy squirmed in desperation, his arms pinwheeling as he kicked his feet and stretched to find purchase with the ground that was just beyond his reach. His eyes rolled and he whimpered pitifully, inarticulate with terror. Scowling at his half-brother, the demigod ordered bluntly, “Ares, let him go.”
The God of War snorted with amused contempt, and roughly pitched the diminutive man forward to sail through the air, laughing and calling jovially, “He’s all yours, Brother.”
Hercules caught the so familiar looking stranger and eased him to the ground, gripping his arms to hold him steady, and to keep him from bolting away until he got some answers. “Take it easy; take it easy,” he soothed the frightened man. He could feel the little guy literally quivering with fear under his hands. “You’re all right,” he insisted, easing his grip and attempting the approximation of a smile to show he was no enemy and that there was nothing to fear.
Gradually, the terrified man calmed down. He shot wary glances over his shoulder, and cut uncertain looks up at Hercules. “Oh, thanks,” he stammered breathlessly. “It’s like, like somebody had me by the scruff of the neck, and then I turn around - there’s nobody there! Uh … you?!” His eyes widened as they filled with new alarm, and he shivered as he blurted fearfully, his voice trembling with renewed terror, “Hey! Hey, hey, hey, wait a minute. Ah, ah, you hear the one about the two Egyptians and the drunken mummy?”
“What?” Hercules exclaimed, blinking at the rapid shift of emotions and bizarre change of subject. A small frown puckered his brow at the flare of horrified recognition in the man’s eyes; why would the stranger be afraid of him? For the first time, he took in the odd clothing: rich brown velvet with golden swirls of design, shoes with turned-up tips that looked exceedingly uncomfortable, a tasseled, velvet cap scrunched tight in a white-knuckled grip. But what was most disorienting was how much the guy looked like Iolaus, though Hercules had never seen such an expression of horrified self-abasement on his lifelong friend’s face, or such fear in the big, bright eyes. Meanwhile, the stranger who’d raced pell-mell out of the now vanished whirlwind-like portal was mumbling and trembling and dithering in a fever of anxious motion.
“No jokes today,” he muttered to himself, distractedly putting on the cap and then pulling it from his head to wring it between his hands. But he brightened with such poignant hope that it was very nearly pitiful as he pulled his cap back on with an air of determination. “Okay,” he nodded, holding up his hands as if to buy time as he backed away. “Gimme some room; gimme some room!” he insisted and then, with a wild cry of forced exhilaration and strained laughter, he launched himself into a series of flips and cartwheels, “Whoo! Ho-ho-ho! Yeah-ha-ha-ha! Oh-oh-oh.”
Gaping at him, thinking he resembled a traveling performer of some sort who earned his living offering entertainment in villages and castles alike, Hercules lifted his hands in a calming gesture as he called out, “Look, I don’t know who you are or, what you’re doing -” He had to turn and twist around to keep the hyperactive, bouncing, whirling, twirling and leaping fellow in sight. It was exasperating. “But we have to talk,” he implored, his voice rising to get the little guy’s attention. “Where did you come from?”
The desperate entertainer pulled little red balls from his capacious pockets and began to juggle frenetically as he replied nervously, “Uh, I got my start at the Comedy Cave in Hellespont. Huh! I know it’s a dive,” he went on with an air of apologetic humiliation, “but, uh, you gotta start somewhere, right?!” And he was off again, making exuberant noises of feigned enthusiasm and excitement, a vision of perpetual sound in motion.
Scowling heavily, Ares crossed his arms with evident disgust and his lip curled menacingly as he growled, “He starts to mime - he’s a dead man.” As if determined to tempt the Fates, the frenetic performer began to mime being entrapped in a shrinking cage, crouching ever lower to the ground until he was flat out on his back, his feet in the air in a grim parody of death.
The God of War growled as he started forward to fulfill his vow of extermination, but the demigod grabbed his arm, holding him back. “Ares ….” Hercules warned with a hot glare, his voice low with palpable threat. This guy might seem crazier than a loon, but the hunter’s look-alike was his only hope of finding out what had happened to Iolaus, his only lead to finding his partner. Nothing and no one, least of all a pissed-off God of War with no sense of humour was going to get between him and some answers.
Iolaus woke in a psychedelic chamber, the walls and ceiling painted with garish blocks and squares, circles and swirls. There were boxes overflowing with gadgets and gimmickry, costumes to aid buffoonery, mats strewn about the floor, a table and chair in one corner. There were no windows and only a single door. The place reeked of madness and despair, the air cold and still. He felt disoriented and his face felt as if a bull had stomped on it; his head ached badly. For a moment, he gazed around in confusion, wondering where he was and what had happened. When the memories crashed back, his eyes widened and he pushed himself up. He needed to get out of here. Find out what in Tartarus was going on. Lurching a little dizzily to the heavy door, he opened it only to find a short hall and another door with the iron bars sunk solidly in the carved window at the top. Peering out, he saw oddly dressed guards standing at attention just outside, and a long, dark corridor beyond.
“Hey! You guys in the clown suits!” he snapped, irritable with confusion and increasingly anxious about what had happened. Belatedly looking down at himself, he realized someone had taken his clothing and dressed him in an outfit as bizarre as those the guards were wearing. Grimacing, he set the observation aside and returned to the matter at hand, shouting, “Let me out of here! I wanna talk to Hercules!”
“Quiet!” one of the soldiers growled menacingly. Looking over his shoulder, he added contemptuously, “When the Sovereign wants to see you, he’ll call your numeral.”
Sovereign? Numeral? Iolaus gaped at him in exasperation and grabbed the bars, giving them a futile pull, but they were set so solidly no one but Hercules would ever be able to pry them loose. “What is this place? What’s happening?!” he demanded, beginning to feel a chill of fierce apprehension. When the guards shrugged and moved away on their rounds, he shouted after them, a raw tone of desperation echoing in his voice and words, “I am not a numeral! I’m a free man!”
He heard one of the guards snort with disparaging humour as the sound of their footsteps grew distant.
Iolaus jerked vainly on the solid bars one last time, and then took a deep breath to calm himself. No fool, he knew something was fundamentally wrong, that he was in a very, very strange place - maybe no longer in his own world. He’d been carried into a funnel of wind that had appeared out of nowhere; carried away from all he knew was real. Was this an illusion of some kind? That guy who looked like a cross between Hercules and Ares was one scary dude. In this strange place, was Hercules more evil than good? He shuddered at the thought of that strength unharnessed by integrity or compassion.
Where was this place? And, more importantly, how did he get back to where he’d come from? Frowning, his lips tightened and he turned to look around the odd chamber behind him, seeking inspiration. He needed answers and, to get them, he needed to get out of this cell.
Hercules’ mouth twisted with exasperation and a small frown bunched between his brows as he watched the distinctly odd stranger cavort around the courtyard. The little guy had resumed his athletic cartwheels and tumbles interspersed with intervals of walking around on his hands, all the while yelling enthusiastically at the top of his lungs.
Nearby, his posture indolent, his arms crossed, Ares was looking at the little guy like he was a mosquito he’d dearly love to squash.
“Ares,” the demigod asked in desperation, hoping maybe this was some act of the gods that he could do something about, “do you have any idea what’s going on, here?”
Shaking his head, the God of War replied with a negligent shrug, “I hate to admit it, but I’m as much in the dark as you are.” His gaze narrowed and his lip curled irritably as he continued to contemplate the clown-like mortal. “Annoying, isn’t he?” he observed with cool disdain.
“Oh, yeah,” Hercules sighed in hearty agreement as he raked his fingers through his hair.
Their attention was diverted at an exuberant, “Yoo-hoo!” Looking up, searching the sky, they soon spotted Aphrodite standing motionless amongst the clouds and then she grinned and swept up and down in a fast, cutting dive, moving at blistering speed toward the earth, yelling, “Geronimooooooooo!”
She plummeted straight down and into a small, shallow puddle that splashed at her entry. Before the surface had settled, she materialized in all her radiant glory, eyes alight as she shook droplets from her golden hair and sighed with almost smug satisfaction, “Woo hoo!”
Wryly amused, Ares shook his head indulgently. “You gotta hand it to Sis,” he observed approvingly, “she really knows how to make an entrance.”
“Huh!” she exalted. “Now, that’s a rush-and-a-half!” But her glow of exhilaration swiftly faded and her shoulders slumped as she turned to amble slowly toward them, looking the picture of desolation, “And I was hoping it’d cheer me up, but no such luck.” Pausing before her brothers, she looked up at them, her eyes wide and filled with anxious uncertainty. “There’s a big problem,” she told them with grim sorrow. “Zeus is dying.”
Ares and Hercules gaped at her in consternation.
A set of exceptionally bright, white, large teeth floated in the air within sight of the barred door, the thin, thin, lines from which the body-less dentures dangled too fine to be seen except upon close inspection.
“Hey, knuckleheads!” the teeth clacked and taunted with Iolaus’ disembodied voice. “Wanna hear a good one?!” A mocking laugh rang out as the guards were drawn first to peer into the cell, and then through the door to approach with wary wonder. “That’s right …yeah!” The teeth leered and encouraged, dancing lightly in the air, enticing the soldiers into the main chamber. “Come closer. This is really gonna knock you out!” The teeth laughed again raucously.
Intrigued, mystified, the guards eased closer and closer, peering intently at the babbling, laughing jaw, until they were well within the room and, soundlessly, Iolaus dropped down behind them from where he’d been perched on the beams under the ceiling. He slammed their heads together and they dropped like stones. Smiling smugly, he snatched the teeth from the air, clacking the jaws like castanets as he murmured whimsically, “And the tooth shall set me free.”
Whirling around, he raced to the open door, carefully checked the hall and then eased out to do a little exploring and to find some badly needed answers.
Looking away thoughtfully, Hercules murmured his thoughts aloud, “Zeus is dying … the lightning bolts - and this gateway opening up. That’s no coincidence.” Behind them, hoping he was unobserved, the jester crept toward the stable, desperate to find a place to hide.
With a slight, uncertain shrug, Aphrodite sighed, “He barely had the strength to break it up between you two.”
His expression resolute, the demigod asserted, “You go tell Zeus, if I’m gonna help him, he’s got to help me find Iolaus.”
Grimly, Ares interjected, “I’ll go, too. I want to get to the bottom of this. If something where,” he pushed between his two siblings and reached out with raw power to invisibly haul the little guy back toward them, growling, “he came from is killing the old man, I might be next.” With a glare at the trembling Iolaus, he snapped his fingers and disappeared.
Ignoring her brother’s dramatics, Aphrodite took a step toward the demigod. “Herc, I know things have never been exactly copascetic between you two, but….” She paused, giving him a poignant look of urgent and meaningful entreaty before continuing, “maybe you ought to think about paying him a visit.”
Sorrowful understanding and regret washed over Hercules’ features as he nodded and looked away. “Well, we have had our problems,” he murmured, “but I always thought there’d be time to work things out.” Lifting his gaze to hers, he added, “Tell Zeus that I’ll do what I can.”
She gave him a small, sad smile before vanishing from sight.
Hercules grimaced helplessly, feeling torn. He wanted to see his father, to somehow make things finally right between them but, glancing over his shoulder and seeing the little jester sneak into the stable, he needed more urgently to find out what had happened to his best friend. A god didn’t just ‘die’ - something had to be happening to put Zeus’ life at risk, something that might well also be related to Iolaus’ disappearance into the mysterious gateway. Maybe if he could solve one mystery, and get Iolaus back, dealing with that problem might somehow also help his ailing father. Taking a deep breath, he strode toward the stable, determined to get some answers.
Inside the shadowy stable, the very nervous Iolaus crept as silently as possible in search of a place to hide. He kept glancing over his shoulder, back toward the broken wall, watching for the demigod to appear and capture him. Cowering, prowling quiet as a mouse, but more worried at what might attack from behind, he wasn’t watching where he was going and, when he backed into the demigod’s solid form, he jumped and shrieked in terror, and then stood shaking like a leaf, his shoulders hunched in expectation of a blow.
“Hi,” Hercules said mildly, stooping a little, trying to look friendly and non-threatening.
“Oh, please, please, make it fast and painless!” the strange Iolaus begged pitifully, tears glimmering in his eyes and his shaking hands held up in entreaty. “I mean … I know, I know I got a little pain coming,” he babbled apologetically, clearly nearly beside himself with the terror of impending death as he fell to his knees to plead even more piteously, “but please make it fast!”
Striving for patience, the demigod rolled his eyes and shook his head. Reaching down, he drew the smaller man to his feet, cajoling, “Come on; come on. Get up; get up.” Once the stranger was once again standing in huddled terror before him, he waved around the stable and asked with asperity mingled with compassion, “Don’t you understand? This is not where you came from. I’m not who you think I am.”
Cautiously, fearing some trick, the little guy looked around warily. Comprehension began to dawn in his eyes and he nodded jerkily. “Oh, I get it!” he gasped, daring to think there might be cause for hope. “I should be happy because I’ve escaped from that monster!”
“What monster?” Hercules demanded, confused and beginning to seriously worry about what his partner had gotten himself into. “Who were you running from?”
Iolaus looked up hesitantly, still hunched and trembling. Tentatively, he quickly pointed a finger at the demigod and said tremulously, “You.”
“Me?” Hercules exclaimed in astonished, instinctive denial, but the little guy gulped and nodded emphatically in earnest if still very wary confirmation.
Iolaus crept soundlessly down the marble hall, the chill gloom illuminated by candles flickering in sconces placed at intervals along the wall. There was nothing familiar about the place and he was certain he’d never been in this palace, or even one like it, though its very oppressiveness made him think of the black lava-stone villa where he’d been before that weird vortex had appeared. It was almost eerily quiet, no sounds of servants bustling about, humming as they worked, and the air was heavy with nearly tangible threat, as if the walls themselves were emanating fear. The place gave him the creeps.
There were no doors or windows in the corridor leading from the cell-like chamber that he’d been locked within, and he wondered if the hallway spanned one side of the massive hall he’d seen when he’d been dragged in by the guards. Finally, he came to a high-ceilinged, ornate anteroom. Dim light streaked through a tall crimson and blue stained glass window, painting the walls the crimson tones of fresh blood. Hundreds of candles burned in black, cast-iron candelabra around the perimeter of the chamber, but still the place was dark with shadows. The heavy wooden furniture looked richly made, and the blue marble tile of the flooring was of the highest quality, but the chamber seemed ominous rather than welcoming. He eased into the room and began to warily cross the floor to the archway on the far side, moving carefully past tall pedestals that supported various elaborate and costly sculptures and pottery.
The hair prickled on the back of his neck, warning of imminent danger, and he turned suddenly, prepared to fight off any guards that had come after him. “Yah!” he blurted in started surprise to find the dark Hercules standing directly behind him. Where had the guy come from? How had he moved so soundlessly that Iolaus hadn’t heard him approach? It was unnerving. But he quickly gathered his wits and exclaimed, “Oh! You! Just the guy I was looking for!” Well, more looking to avoid, but that amounted to almost the same thing. Telling himself he was being an idiot, that there was nothing to fear from a guy who looked so much like his best friend, he took a steadying breath and asked, “Hercules, what is going on?”
“You, uh, said that name before,” the demigod rumbled, his blue eyes as cold as ice. “Hmm, Hercules. My mother called me that.”
“Y-you see, this is good! Go with this!” Iolaus encouraged, if uncertainly, trying to find reassuring signals in Hercules’ hostile eyes and brittle voice. The big man’s manner was unsettling, as if he were coiled tightly on the edge of explosion, but thoughts of his kind, gentle mother had to be good - right? “Think of Alcmene.”
“Alcmene …” the demigod roared, his face flushing red with fury, his features twisting in livid rage as he stumbled around and crashed his fists down upon an elaborate figurine, smashing it into smithereens.
“Huh!” Iolaus grunted backing away slowly, unnerved by the unexpected, raw violence at the mention of her name.
“She abandoned me!” Hercules cried out, doubled over the destruction he’d wrought, his voice laced with angry pain. And then he charged away and out of the chamber like a madman, screaming his furious denial, “Noooo!”
Iolaus gaped after him and swallowed heavily. “O-kay,” he muttered and licked his lips. Taking a deep breath, he edged backward, his hands up defensively as he babbled, “Uh, you know, something tells me, uh, you’re not the guy I was looking for ….”
But the demigod had disappeared through the archway, and he found himself talking to thin air. “Huh,” he breathed. Not only wasn’t this guy anything like his own Hercules, he was beyond weird - there were definitely a few screws loose and, if anything, he was more like an out-of-control Ares, which was not a happy thought. “Oh my goodness,” the warrior mused with false bonhomie, in case anyone else was nearby and listening, wanting to defuse any untoward interest in his movements and just get out of the madhouse, “where has the day gone?” He forced a laugh, and said like a child whistling in the dark, “Ha-ha. I better be going.” Wishing he had a clue of where to go to, he backed away from the archway, thinking to try one of the other portals that led from the room, to see where they would lead, and was badly startled when he edged up against a hard body. “Yahhh!” he cried out, whirling around - to find the demigod once again directly behind him.
This guy was beyond spooky.
“Getting cold feet, are we?” Hercules asked congenially, as if the last few minutes hadn’t occurred. Iolaus blinked, thinking the demigod’s mood swings were beginning to make him dizzy - or maybe that was just the effect of having been knocked out not all that long ago. Before he could even begin to wonder what the guy was talking about, Hercules had looped a strong arm around his shoulders, putting him into a friendly, sort of, headlock. “Well, think how I must feel on my wedding day! Ha-ha! Ahh,” Hercules sighed, fondly tightening his grip to the point where Iolaus felt strangled, “I’m lucky to have you as a best man! Come on!”
Best man? Wedding day? Feeling as if he was caught in the grip of a never-ending and incredibly bizarre nightmare where absolutely nothing made any sense, Iolaus coughed when the grip around his neck loosened enough to breathe. Before he could ask any more questions or begin to make sense of anything he’d heard or seen so far, the big man hauled him out of the antechamber, going only the gods knew where. Well, he thought as Hercules hustled him through yet more hallways, if I’m his best man, then at least we must be friends. But he remembered the punch that could easily have killed him, and the unpredictable, scary mood swings, and he wasn’t sure even being a friend of this maniac was going to do him a whole lot of good.
“Oh, come on,” Hercules protested, laughing uncomfortably. “Me? A tyrant! I mean, you’re joking, right?”
“No, no,” Iolaus asserted, his conviction and tones leaving no room for doubt. “You’re … you’re a heartless psycho that’d kill at the drop of a mood swing!”
“Really?” the demigod challenged, unable to imagine being anything like the little guy described.
“Mmm,” Iolaus nodded emphatically, and then gestured at the body crumpled nearby. “Look! Need I say more?”
Shaking his head, Hercules waved off the example, explaining, “Oh, uh, nobody killed him. He just keeled over.”
The black leather-clad demigod cheerfully dragged Iolaus across the floor of the massive Hall he’d first seen on his arrival, toward a manikin posed aggressively on a small podium. Waving toward the bizarre statuary, he crowed, “You’re just in time for the unveiling of my newest exhibition.”
They’d approached close enough for the warrior to realize that this was no manikin, but what had been a living man, stuffed and mounted like a hunting trophy. His gut clenched and nausea threatened the back of his throat as he gasped, “That’s sick.”
Far from being offended, Hercules preened. “Inspired, isn’t it? The leader of the rebels who were plotting against me - gutted and stuffed - for all to see,” he proclaimed with evident satisfaction and pride.
“Wait a minute,” Iolaus muttered, venturing closer to study the dead man’s features, thinking there was something familiar ….
“I know this guy!” Iolaus exclaimed as he peered closely at the dead man’s face.
“You do?” Hercules replied, surprised.
“Yeah,” the jester said as he stood, “only, the last time I saw him, the sovereign had him ….” He grimaced as he graphically slid one hand across his throat and mimed blood spurting everywhere.
Hercules winced at the imagery, and his lips thinned. But then he frowned and asked, “Did this happen before you came through the gateway?”
Iolaus nodded with a subvocal murmur of agreement.
“Then that explains how Gravus died,” the demigod muttered thoughtfully, feeling a chill of understanding. “There must be one of everybody on both worlds … and when one dies -”
“… the other one dies at the same time,” Iolaus whispered to himself, appalled. “That has to be it.”
“Ah, we could stay here and admire this all day,” Hercules sighed happily, then shrugged himself back to the demands of the day. “But!” he sang out merrily, “We’ve got a wedding to get to.”
“Wait,” Iolaus protested when the demigod grabbed him to again drag him off somewhere. He badly needed to think about the implications of what he’d just realized, needed to make sense of what was happening to him and figure out what to do to get back home.
But the bizarre Hercules had other plans and was heedless of Iolaus’ confusion. “Let’s go,” he urged, brooking no opposition as he hauled the reluctant warrior along. Exasperated, Iolaus had little choice but to go where he was dragged. He couldn’t figure this Hercules out. The guy seemed seriously nuts and sure teetered on the edge of violent outbursts - and that stuffed Gravus was disgusting - but he couldn’t believe the demigod could be all bad. This was Hercules, right? Even in this mixed up, crazy, nightmare world, Hercules couldn’t be evil, could he? Nah. Not Hercules. But, looking back over his shoulder at the hideous cadaver, Iolaus shuddered and he wondered if anything in this world would make any kind of sense.
And he wondered, with an increasing sense of desperation, how in Tartarus he was ever going to find his way home.
“But, I keep telling you, I switched places with your Iolaus,” he protested as Hercules shoved him along, through the antechamber they’d been in earlier and on into a private throne room. “I’m not the guy that’s supposed to be here.”
Hercules chuckled and patted him heavily on the back, making him stagger. “You always make me laugh. There’ll be a place for you in Olympus after I’m hitched to the Goddess of War.”
“You’re marrying Athena?” Iolaus exclaimed.
“The Goddess of Music? Don’t be ridiculous. You know very well I’m marrying Aphrodite.”
“Aphrodite’s the Goddess of War????” Iolaus gaped and then blinked as he shook his head. This place just got weirder and weirder. “Okay, but, wait! Doesn’t that mean Aphrodite’s married already? To Hephaestus?” Wondering what else was different in this strange, strange world, he asked with a frown, “Zeus is still king of the gods, isn’t he?”
“No, Aphrodite is not married to the God of the Underworld!” the demigod snapped, scowling heavily. Grabbing Iolaus by the collar, he lifted the smaller man and shook him in a fury of irritation as he snarled, “And, of course, Zeus is King! Why are you asking these idiotic questions?! Start acting like yourself, and start amusing me, or, I swear …!”
“Sovereign!” A soldier interjected deferentially from the doorway. Hercules dropped Iolaus, who staggered dizzily, and turned to deal with the interruption. But before he could yell anything, the guard continued hastily, “The Goddess of War wishes an audience.”
“Ohhh,” Hercules murmured with a smug smile, giving Iolaus an off-hand slam that sent him sprawling with a garbled moan of pain at the force of the blow.
“Very well! Show her in,” the demigod commanded regally. Grimacing and rolling his eyes, he muttered, “She could just pop in, but she likes to make an entrance.”
“Great. Aphrodite’s my buddy,” Iolaus muttered to himself as he rubbed his aching jaw. “She’ll help me get out of this nuthouse.” But his eyes widened in disbelief when the goddess walked in with her head held high. She was garbed in a flowing, floor-length gown of gold, the design distinctly elegant with a high collar and long sleeves that revealed only the long, graceful column of her neck and her delicate hands. “Aphrodite?” Iolaus gasped at the incongruous image. “You’re all … covered up!”
“Watch your mouth,” Hercules growled, flipping a fist back to connect solidly with Iolaus’ head, once again sending the warrior sprawling. “That’s my blushing bride!” Sauntering closer to the goddess, he seductively fingered the neckline of her gown and rumbled with crude desire, “He has a point. It wouldn’t kill you to let it all … hang out.”
Aphrodite stiffened with disgust at his unwelcome touch and her chin came up defiantly as she protested, “Please, no! It’s not ladylike!”
“Aw,” Hercules murmured with feigned chagrin, while Iolaus climbed back to his feet, touching his nose carefully, surprised it was neither bleeding nor broken. Shaking his head dazedly, he mumbled, “Aphrodite’s shy … wow.”
Ignoring him, Hercules said with heavy sarcasm, “My dear, it’s so empty here with you gone to Olympus. How is Father?”
“I’m afraid you know all too well!” she retorted grimly. “Zeus is dying.”
Hercules gave a sardonic half smile, amused by her defiance. Behind him, Iolaus exclaimed in astonishment, “Zeus is dying?! That’s unbelievable!”
Taking a breath, clearly appalled to have to appeal to such a disgusting creature as this half-brother, but having no choice, Aphrodite asked with as much dignity as she could muster, “I’ve come to ask that you call off this farce of a wedding before it’s too late.”
“You mean, too late for your precious Zeus,” Hercules snapped, his eyes flashing dangerously. Once again, he meaningfully fingered her neckline, his fingertips caressing her throat, and he asked with pointed meaning, “Have you forgotten our pact? Marry me, and I’ll provide the cure for the poison that’s killing him.” Whirling away, caught up in his visions of future power and glory, he expounded with lustful satisfaction, “Then I’ll get to work slaughtering every last puny mortal who opposes me and leave the world to my worshippers, while we reign as King and Queen of Olympus for eternity.”
Iolaus could scarcely believe what he was hearing. He felt sick inside, physically revolted, as he struggled to accept that this Hercules was, in fact, the personification of all that was evil and dangerous, the manifestation of all he and his own Hercules lived to contest and defeat. This demigod was worse than Ares, worse even than Hera - even they didn’t destroy everything and everyone who failed to worship them as they thought fit. This Hercules was a monster. Swallowing heavily, he turned to Aphrodite and demanded hoarsely, “You’re a goddess! Why don’t you stand up to him?”
“Because she knows better!” Hercules roared as he turned on Iolaus, grabbing him in a choke hold and throttling him as he shouted, “As should you. I may be a cur - but I’m the cur with the cure.” Shoving Iolaus away, he stroked his beard and murmured with self-satisfaction, “I like that. Cur with the cure. Hmm.” Recalling himself, he whirled around to face Aphrodite and lifted an imperious arm, pointing toward the portal, “Now go. You have a wedding to prepare for. And then we’re off to Olympus to launch my plan. I have waited long enough. And by the way,” he leered at her retreating back, causing her to pause and flush as he continued, “I’m looking forward to the honeymoon.” He laughed uproariously at her discomfiture, drunk with the power he held over her - over everyone - as he strode to his elaborate throne and threw himself onto it, to lounge with one leg casually draped over a padded arm.
“You are insane!” Iolaus grated, his voice raw with horror as he rubbed his bruised throat and pushed himself to his feet. He felt battered, dizzy, and very nearly overwhelmed with confusion. Nothing made sense on this crazy world, nothing!
“Ah, thank you,” the demigod preened, far from insulted as he stroked his beard and contemplated the wonderfulness of his life. “Imagine, a bastard like me reigning supreme as King of the Gods.”
One of the heavy crimson curtains behind the throne twitched, drawing Iolaus’ gaze. He tensed, wondering what new threat might be in the offing, as a hand with long, black-painted nails appeared, and he saw the hand was clutching a long, rawhide whip. The gap widened, and he saw Xena, her hair cut in a short bob and garbed in a short suit of glittering black mail that hugged her lithe, voluptuous body. He relaxed marginally, a smile of anticipation playing over his lips. Finally, someone who could help him fight this monster! “It’s not gonna be as long as you think,” Iolaus drawled as he approached the throne, his muscles tensing for battle.
Xena slunk around the throne, and Iolaus waited, poised to leap in and assist her, but Hercules must have heard or sensed something for he reached out as quickly as a snake. She screamed as he grabbed her and she struggled ineffectually against his great strength while he pulled her across his body to hold her close.
“You’re not gonna punish me, are you?” she asked with sultry, seductive tones.
“You wish,” he chuckled low in his throat.
“Xena?” Iolaus gasped in dismayed disbelief. “You’re with him?”
She kicked out at him, sending him reeling backward as she snarled contemptuously, “When I want a eunuch, I’ll ask for you.”
Fondling the whip in her hand, Hercules observed dryly, “I see you brought a new love-toy.” Without warning, he threw her high and far across the chamber, and dove after her. She twisted and landed well-balanced on her feet and, when he came close, she thrust her hips backward, sending him sprawling. Laughing with delight, she dropped down onto him, cooing, “Oh, Sov, you’re so … you’re so good when you’re bad.”
“Oh, I could play like this all day,” he murmured, voice thick with desire as he caressed her throat and shoulders, his fingertips stroking her beaded necklaces and the great amulet she wore. But his mood shifted again, and he pushed her away. “Unfortunately, I gotta get married.”
“Oh, that’s all right,” she purred, smoothing her palms down over her curves and batting her eyelashes. “We’ll have plenty of time to play after the honeymoon.” He laughed and grabbed her, roughly throwing her onto the bed, and then he leapt after her, pinning her body between his strong thighs. Her face suffused with admiration and lust, she urged, “Don’t ever let her change you. If she has her way, you’ll be wearing a maid’s outfit … and a collar.”
“Sounds more like your style,” he rumbled, letting down his guard as he leaned over her, “not Aphrodite’s.”
She laughed and kicked him off her, so that he staggered back against a pedestal, knocking a bust flying. She flew after him, and they fought like hellcats. Precious masks and pottery filled the air, more pedestals were knocked from their foundations to roll or fly through the air. Iolaus found himself scrambling to avoid being further battered by flying furniture and artwork. “Their foreplay’s gonna get me killed!” he exclaimed in disgust.
The demigod caught her and pinned her against him. “Okay, enough for now,” he rumbled, leaning down to sniff her hair while his hands roamed her body. She moaned and leaned into him, lifting her face, and they kissed deeply. When they pulled apart, he stepped away and then snapped his fingers. “Oh, I almost forgot. I need a token of my undying love to present Aphrodite at the wedding.”
He reached for the garish pendant at her throat, but she slapped his hand away. “Not that one,” she snapped, “it’s my favorite.”
Unperturbed, Hercules snatched a ring from her finger. “Oh, this will do,” he said with complacent indifference as he tossed it to Iolaus. “Here!” he commanded, “Sit on it till the wedding!”
Sulkily, Xena demanded, “You’re not gonna forget me when you’re married to her, are you?”
The demigod laughed as he drew her close. “Don’t worry,” he soothed her. “You’ll be riding my coattails straight into Olympus … like you planned all along, right?”
“Little old me?” she cooed, batting her eyelashes coquettishly, and he laughed again with rich abandon. Turning to Iolaus, he observed proudly, “Ahh! She’s quite a doll, isn’t she?! There’s a world of scheming going on behind those baby blues.”
Cocking a sculpted brow, she rejoined with caustic sarcasm, “If you mean, where would your plan be without my secret stash of hind blood, then … hmm … ahh! I guess you do kinda need me.”
Hind blood? Iolaus thought furiously, trying to make sense of all he’d seen and heard, even as the demigod strode toward him, clamping another headlock on him before dragging him toward the door. “Oh, but wait! Wait a minute,” the warrior protested, needing to know more. “Let me get this straight!”
But Hercules tossed him toward the archway with careless strength. “Go make yourself useful!” the Sovereign commanded, “Throw me a … a bachelor party or something.” When Iolaus went sailing through the portal, he turned back to Xena and stalked toward her, like a black leopard preying upon helpless game. “Whoa, baby,” he growled with raw passion as he grabbed her and hauled her toward the bed. She pretended to struggle, but was giggling with delighted anticipation. He threw her down upon the bed and promised, “You are gonna scream, now.”
Wild with desire, she squealed and wriggled, and he crawled onto the bed to take her.
Iolaus didn’t know what to do. Bruised and battered, absently rubbing his fiercely aching head, he despondently prowled through the palace. Desperate to sort out the riotous confusion around him, he reflected upon what he’d learned so far. Zeus was dying and the gods and goddesses seemed powerless in this insane place. He didn’t know where he was, not really, or how to get back home. This Hercules was so … crazy. So governed by his moods. But he was still Hercules, wasn’t he? The demigod couldn’t really be as terrible as he seemed, as bloodthirsty as he’d appeared when he’d gazed upon the disgusting, pitiful remains of Gravus. And … was he right? Was this somehow a mirror image of his own place and time, the same people only with different personalities? And when one died here, their counterpart died in his world? Sighing, not sure of anything, he raked his hair back from his brow.
Xena had a supply of hind’s blood and that’s what was poisoning Zeus - or maybe it was another kind of poison? Didn’t Hind’s blood, even a drop of it, kill a god? In his world, that was true - but in this world? Who knew?
What was he going to do? How was he going to find his way back? Briefly, he thought of his own Hercules and felt a pang of longing. Herc would be trying to figure out what had happened to him, he knew that. And his friend would do all he could to get him back home - if there was a way, Hercules would find it. He just had to hold on, stay out of trouble, give Hercules time to … to come after him. Gods, surely he wouldn’t be stuck here for the rest of his life.
Grimacing, beating back feelings of despair, Iolaus looked around the massive chamber, yet another in a string of equally massive and grim chambers, all full of wealth, but cold, even ugly, like everyone he’d met in this cruel, strange world. He couldn’t just wander around aimlessly, hoping to be rescued; he had to do something to help himself. And, maybe, just maybe, to help the vulnerable on this world. Straightening, he was about to march out of the chamber, again determined to get answers when, behind him, lights spangled in the air and Ares garbed in glistening, tight white leather materialized, calling to him, “Hey, not so fast.”
Whirling defensively at the well-recognized voice, Iolaus blinked at the vision before him. “Ares?” he gaped, and then recovered, to observe incredulously, “Ares, this is, uh, a new look for you.”
Smirking good-humoredly, Ares drawled, “What did you expect? I am the God o’ Love.” He waved his hand at a credenza and rose-coloured lights rained through the air, transforming the wooden furniture into a low, cushioned, divan. “That’s better,” the God remarked as he sat down in a seductive pose and grinned up at Iolaus. “Now, it’s a love thing.”
Iolaus’ brows quirked as he gazed speechlessly at this incarnation of Ares. He supposed he shouldn’t be surprised - after all, so far, nothing on this world was the same as where he’d come from; everything was just about the reverse of anything he had ever come to expect. But the god was gesturing at him, beckoning him closer, so he approached warily.
“I got a favor to ask,” Ares said, his voice pitched low, as if they were speaking confidentially. “Poor Sis is being bullied into marrying the Sovereign.” Iolaus nodded. He’d figured that out for himself, but Ares hadn’t finished. “All of Olympus is helpless, as long as Xena keeps him supplied with hind’s blood.” Beckoning Iolaus closer still, his voice dropping to a breathy whisper as he looked around to ensure they weren’t being overheard, he suggested, “Now, if you could keep close tabs, maybe find out where she’s hiding it ….”
Iolaus rolled his eyes in exasperation. “Look, I’ll do what I can,” he agreed, then went on pointedly, “But you have to understand, I’m not the Iolaus you think I am. We switched places. I’m from another world.” When Ares seemed less than fascinated by this information, he felt his frustration grow. What was wrong with these gods? Were they all useless? “And you know?” he observed, unable to keep all trace of caustic irritation from his voice, “It’d really help if you stood up to the Sovereign yourself, sometime.”
“Ohh, it is times like this I regret the fact,” Ares moaned and rolled his head back dramatically before again meeting Iolaus’ gaze, “that I’m a lover, not a fighter.”
Iolaus rubbed his mouth and tried to get a grip on his rising anger. “Okay, look,” he ventured, “if the Hercules here is the same as the Hercules back there, then he can’t be all bad. I’ll just have to appeal to that part of him that’s … hidden deep inside.”
“I’ll be forever grateful,” Ares vowed, as if he believed there might be some good hidden deep inside the Sovereign.
When it looked as if he was finished and about to vanish, Iolaus held up his hands. “Wait, wait, wait, wait! Who’s the God of the Forge around here?”
“Shh!” Ares urged, leaping to his feet. “No, no, no, no, no, no, no. Don’t even think about him. The last thing we need around here is that maniac, Cupid, showing up.” With that, as if afraid that Cupid might actually appear, the timid God of Love vanished in a flash of pink lights.
“Cupid,” Iolaus mused, shaking his head. “God of the Forge … weird.”
Hercules and the little court jester wandered out of the dark stable and back into the sunlit courtyard, the demigod listening closely to his companion’s tale of how he’d arrived through the gateway. “Then I was looking behind me, and I could see these horses, and they were catching up,” he said in a rush, residual fear shadowing his eyes, “and then I felt like someone grabbed me by the neck, and then … I was here.” His voice trailed off and he looked around, not sure what else he could say.
Nodding, Hercules thought about what he’d heard, but then was distracted when two whirling clouds of light transformed into Aphrodite and Ares, who strode toward him with grim expressions.
“Well?” he demanded. Iolaus looked up at him, about to reply, only to realize Hercules was staring at empty space in front of them, as if expecting the air to answer. He frowned, confused.
“He’s worse. I tried feeding him ambrosia broth,” Aphrodite said despondently. “He could barely keep it down.”
“Ares, you and I’re gonna have to give Zeus a good, swift kick,” the demigod replied.
“Meaning?” the God of War asked, his eyes narrowing.
Iolaus grinned happily. “Talking to Ares, huh?” he interjected, waving at the air. “Saying a little prayer to the God of Love?”
“Me? The God of Love?” Ares snorted and then laughed at the absurdity as both he and Aphrodite materialized for Iolaus.
The little guy gaped, his jaw falling open and his eyes wide and staring at the vision of the scantily clad Goddess of Love. She laughed with delight, pleased by his reaction. “Hi, there. Name’s Aphrodite, and the, uh, walking bad attitude is Ares.”
“Ares!” Iolaus exclaimed and laughed as well, but then grimaced when he turned to the God. “Uuuh! What’s with the basic black? Last time I saw you, you were convening the summer of love.”
Angered by the lack of respect and the aspersions on his war-like nature, Ares pulled Iolaus toward with a wave of his hand, and gripped the small man’s throat. “Insolent toad!” he roared.
“That’s enough, Ares,” Hercules warned, and the God tossed the little guy away like so much flotsam. “You want a fight,” the demigod added, “I’m your man.”
“You wanna have at it again?” Ares asked, surprised. Giving Hercules a measured look, he asked, “Why? What are you up too?”
“Well,” Hercules replied with a glance at the sky, “a little divine intervention.”
“Like getting Zeus to throw another lightning fit and re-open the gateway,” Aphrodite guessed with a thoughtful nod.
“Ordinarily, I’d jump at a chance like this,” Ares told him, his tone smug, as he ambled a few feet away, “but, uh, the prospect of Zeus dying is not something I’d considered. Maybe it’s time for the old man to step aside for some new blood, huh?”
Shaking his head, his hands on his hips, Hercules muttered sarcastically, “And I wonder who that would be?”
“Who better?” Ares asked with a cold smile.
Appalled, Aphrodite protested vehemently, “Ares, he’s your father.”
Fury suffused the god’s face as he spat angrily, “He always liked you two better than me! I’m outta here.” Aphrodite sighed and shook her head, and then she, too, vanished.
Iolaus edged closer to Hercules, though he kept a wary eye on the thin air around them.
“Ares? The God of Love?” the demigod asked for clarification, and Iolaus nodded strenuously. “Weird,” the demigod sighed, and shrugged.
Iolaus had found his way to the main Hall and was keeping a low profile so as not to attract the attention of the guards. There were a number of what looked like underfed sycophants hovering in the shadows, twisting their hands together and looking scared stiff, and he wondered at the kind of Tartarus that life in this world seemed to be for nearly everyone in it. He heard a heavy tread behind him, and turned to see Hercules, or the Sovereign as he appeared to be known, stride into the gloomy, cavernous chamber. A servant or slave carrying a platter piled with fruit moved to meet him, and he grabbed an apple from the top. “Where’s my food-taster?” he bellowed.
One of the wretches from the shadows hastened forward and took the apple. He swallowed and took a bite and then handed the fruit back to the demigod.
Stepping forward, Iolaus said with as much deference as he could manage, “Sovereign? I’d really like to have a word.”
“Later. I have to make an announcement first,” the big man growled, watching the food taster, who grabbed at his throat and then keeled over. Rolling his eyes, the Sovereign tossed the apple away. Iolaus looked at the dead man and at the demigod, who seemed utterly indifferent. Hercules looked around the Hall and lifted his voice, calling out, “Today is my wedding day. To celebrate, I’ve decided to reduce the prison population by clearing a few cells.” He stared at the pathetic group of prisoners lined up against one wall - men, women and children. They were dressed in rags and looked starved … and very frightened.
One of the ancient ones in the shadows called out with a thin, weak voice, “Praise you, Sovereign.”
“You’re setting them free! Way to go!” Iolaus encouraged, desperately taking this as a positive sign that the Hercules in this world wasn’t the monster he’d feared the demigod was. “This is good.”
“Who said anything about free?” the Sovereign drawled sarcastically, with a wave toward the soldiers to drive the prisoners out of the Hall.
Iolaus frowned, not understanding, but feeling a chill of foreboding as he followed along, wondering what was going to happen next. In minutes, the guards had herded the hapless group along a corridor and down a winding staircase of stone into the dank dungeon below. The warrior felt a chill when he saw the chamber filled with the artifacts of torture, and he knew whatever was going to happen next couldn’t be good. The soldiers shoved the prisoners into a line along one wall. “Move along!” a guard called impatiently, harrying the benighted people with a spear. “Let’s go!” he urged, when they hesitated. Obviously frightened, they very clearly did not want to move further into the chamber. “Move along!” the guard bellowed impatiently, “Come on!”
The Sovereign strode in and, slumping onto yet another throne, he regarded the prisoners with utterly cold detachment, smiling only at Xena when she sidled close and draped herself over his shoulder. Iolaus watched them both, dread weighing heavily in his gut. The prisoners were terrified, and even the guards seemed wary. Fear hung thick in the air, along with the stench of death. Hercules fondly stroked Xena’s cheek, and then he called out, “Release the Executioner!”
Someone called fearfully, “Stand back!”
And then Xena was sidling with a sultry gait to a box that the guards had pushed to the centre of the room. It was high but narrow, like a small, portable closet. She winked over her shoulder at the Sovereign, and then sexily draped herself across the front of the box before languidly opening it.
As soon as the door was fully open, the black-garbed and masked Executioner spun free, whirling in a mad frenzy across the floor with a long-handled, deadly axe clenched in gloved fists. Guards and prisoners alike ducked away from the whirling blade, fear written on all their faces. At the stone block, the hideous figure stopped and lifted the axe high - and Iolaus was appalled to see that the soldiers had already thrust a victim forward, pushing him down on the block, his face a grimace of terror.
“Wait! You can’t do this!” Iolaus shouted desperately, rushing toward the Sovereign. “There’s gotta be a better way to get your kicks, today of all days.”
“You are supposed to amuse me,” Hercules snarled, not well-pleased by the interruption. “You haven’t been doing a very good job,” he added, threat clear in his heavy tones and flashing eyes.
“Ah, well, hey,” Iolaus babbled, knowing he needed to do something to distract this maniac, to buy time for those poor unfortunate innocent victims - for surely, those little children couldn’t be rebels, couldn’t be any threat to the kingdom. “Give me half a chance,” he pleaded, backing up and digging out his ridiculous, pointed cap. Pulling it on, he went on quickly, “I’m a million laughs! You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”
“Oh, very well,” the Sovereign yawned. “Make me laugh, and I’ll spare their miserable lives.” Xena glared at him and began to pout.
Forcing a laugh of his own, Iolaus pulled three small balls from his pocket and tried to juggle, but the balls went wild and he forced another laugh, pretending to continue juggling while he sang merrily, “The Sovereign is his name; His game is fear and pain. He’ll watch ‘em die; won’t even cry. He really is insane.” He bumbled backward against a dummy used for battle practice and did a pratfall, landing hard on his back.
“Pitiful, pitiful,” Xena complained, having no interest in seeing the prisoners spared.
Aphrodite and Ares appeared, laughing gaily. “He’s really very funny!” the goddess insisted, but the Sovereign rolled his eyes. “Oh, come on, Sovereign, give it up!” Ares cajoled, “The poor guy’s pouring his heart out, here.”
“I’ve seen funnier,” the insane demigod muttered repressively.
Iolaus forced another nervous laugh. “This really ain’t magic,” he sang desperately, doing a ventriloquist trick with a clacking skull in one hand. “They call me Herc’s side-kick.” Tossing the skull away, he stood in front of a guillotine, and leaned forward, his head in the notch as he continued, his tone harried as he belted out the words quickly, “If this don’t work, I’ll be a wreck. And -”
The scrawny man on the block called out, “And we’ll all lose our necks?”
“Hey! That’s great!” Iolaus yelled back enthusiastically as he stood upright - and the large blade crashed down over the place where his neck had just been. His eyes widened and he faked a faint, falling over backwards, much to the amusement of everyone - except Xena and the Sovereign.
“Amazing,” the black-haired witch observed with a curl of her lip as she gazed sullenly at Aphrodite, “she can smile without cracking that frigid little face.”
All trace of laughter died from the goddess’ visage as she retorted with low, hostile contempt - and no little threat, “One of these days, I’d like to crack something of yours.”
“Oooh,” Xena smirked scornfully, while the Sovereign looked passingly impressed by the flare of unlikely fire in the goddess’s eyes.
But Iolaus was acutely conscious that the Sovereign wasn’t laughing. His voice revealed his increasing sense of helpless desperation as he resumed singing and dancing a soft-shoe routine, “His girlfriend Xena’s crass; A heartless witch, no class. If Zeus were well, he’d cast a spell, And knock her - aaahhh!” he yelped as he awkwardly tumbled backwards over a supine Iron Maiden, arms and legs flying. Aphrodite and Ares laughed uproariously, as desperate the warrior was to win his bet with the Sovereign to spare innocent lives.
When Iolaus saw the ones that mattered still weren’t laughing, he leaned on a keg beside a wizened, mutilated head and gasped, “Oh, boy, tough crowd, tough crowd.”
“Enough! You have failed!” the Sovereign bellowed, having grown bored with the tedious, ineffectual efforts at amusement. “Let their deaths be on your head.”
“Stop! Please!” Iolaus cried out, running to stand humbly before the demigod. “Think about it,” he pleaded. “The Hercules I know … he … he’s not a monster. He’s a hero. Come on. Listen to your heart.”
Xena goggled at him as if he had two heads, unable to believe her ears. The Sovereign stared at him, equally dumbfounded by the ridiculous plea, and then he started to chuckle. “My … my heart?” he snickered, and then broke into guffaws. “Now that is funny.”
“You did it,” the pitiful man on the block called out with weak jubilation, “you really did it.”
“What is this?” Xena snarled, her expression ugly. “You promised me an execution.”
“I did, didn’t I?” the Sovereign murmured indulgently. She made puppy dog eyes at him, pouting prettily as she nodded eagerly. Looking toward the Executioner, he slashed his hand across his throat.
And the blade fell.
A horrified hush filled the chamber. Aghast, furious, Iolaus wheeled on the Sovereign. “You said you’d spare them!” he shouted furiously, heedless of his own safety.
Hercules and Xena looked at one another, grinning like bad little children as they crooned mockingly in unison, “Ooops!”
“Why you …!” Iolaus snarled, launching himself toward the Sovereign only to be grabbed and held fast by the guards.
“You could use an attitude adjustment,” Hercules snapped angrily, no longer amused. “Lock him up.”
“You can’t do this!” the warrior yelled, struggling as they pulled him away. He was revolted and sick to his soul to know he’d failed. That monster would kill them all, even the little kids ….
He was still shouting and struggling in vain, nearly mad with impotent fury, when they tossed him into a crowded cell filled with prisoners who looked at him balefully, some with concern, some with disgust, others simply with resignation in their dark eyes.
As he slammed and bolted the heavy door, a soldier sniped sarcastically, “Go ahead, make them laugh.”
Iolaus stumbled but regained his balance. Behind him, someone growled in bleak approbation of the guard’s words. A few grunted, “Yeah, right,” sardonically, though their tones bore him no malice, just conveyed the hopeless sound of men who knew that none of them were free or were ever likely to be free again. Panting with his effort to regain some measure of control over his raging fury, Iolaus looked around at them, but froze when his gaze met that of a prisoner who looked disconcertingly familiar.
“You? What are you doing here?!” Iolaus demanded. The man looked exactly like that idiot, Joxer. Well, not exactly, he thought, upon closer appraisal. Intelligence shone from this guy’s eyes and his expression was thoughtful, not vain and vacant, his manner calm and confident, not vacuous and frenetic. Shaking his head, Iolaus’ lips thinned at his harsh judgments. His world’s Joxer wasn’t bad or evil, but the gods’ knew a brick was brighter. Was this truly and completely a world of opposites? A place where Joxer was solid and dependable rather obtuse and, well, a liability?
Joxer strode toward him and, without warning, slugged him brutally, snarling, “Shut up, scum.”
Massaging his jaw, wondering if anyone in this accursed place was sane or predictable, he muttered grudgingly, “Wow. Joxer, you pack a heck of a punch in this world.”
The rebel’s right hand struck with the speed and force of a snake, his fingers grasping and digging into Iolaus’ throat, very nearly cutting off his air - but not quite. Wondering why the guy had apparently very deliberately stopped short of strangling him, though continuing to pretend to do so, Iolaus grabbed at the iron hard hand and arm for balance but, so long as he could breathe, didn’t immediately fight back. One of the rebels shouted with bloodthirsty glee, “Yeah, get him and rip his face off.”
Giving a quick glance over his shoulder at the guard still peering through the bars, Joxer snarled, “I’m gonna enjoy tearing the Sovereign’s boot-licker apart, limb by limb.”
However, despite the venomous expression on his face and his threatening words, his grip still didn’t shift or tighten. Iolaus watched the rebel’s face, his eyes, glanced hurriedly around at the other jeering faces, but nobody was moving in, nobody was actually hurting him. If they were trying to hurt him, or planned to do him real harm, they were sure going about things in an odd way. Something didn’t add up. Playing along, he kept a grip on Joxer’s arm, feigning an effort to break free, but his struggles were definitely more show than real.
The soldier at the door sneered and called out with malicious enjoyment, “When you’re ready to apologize to the Sovereign, give a yell. Till then, enjoy your new friends.”
One of the rebels keeping watch by the bars, turned with a cold grin, “Yeah, they’re gone. All clear.”
Immediately, the threatening lock on his throat loosened and Joxer’s arm fell away. The rebel stepped closer to loosely grip his arms in a comradely manner. His expression was warm, even regretful as he apologized, “Sorry, Iolaus; I had to make it look real.”
Massaging his throat, watching this Joxer and his band of merry men warily, Iolaus rejoined, “Oh, right, yeah - uh, that was very good.”
“If they thought you were with us, you’d be dead now,” Joxer stated, evidently without any doubts and, from what he’d experienced of the Sovereign’s state of mind and lack of mercy, Iolaus suspected he was right. Joxer gave him a long look and then stepped back and away. Walking slowly toward the door of their cage, he gripped the bars and observed carefully, “You know, uh, when Gravus got killed and you ran away? We were afraid you’d never come back again.”
Frowning, looking around, the warrior began to feel some of the pieces of the crazy puzzle he’d landed in begin to come together. “You’re the rebels the Sovereign was talking about.”
“That’s right,” one of the others agreed, as they all stood around him in a tight circle, watching him cautiously, probably every man of them wondering which side he was really on.
With grim, almost desperate resolution, Joxer drew a long, deadly knife from his jerkin and paced back to Iolaus. Thrusting it out, he said, “Here, you can use this.”
“What for? To cut the cake?” the warrior demanded with a confused, startled expression, wondering if they expected him to kill himself for apparently running away from some confrontation. Well, they could guess again.
“Quit joking,” Joxer shot back, desperation now very clearly visible in his eyes and face. “If you’re gonna assassinate the Sovereign, you better start taking this seriously.”
Gaping at him, mentally reeling away from what killing the Sovereign would mean, Iolaus protested heatedly, “Me? An assassin? Forget it!”
“It all depends on you,” the new rebel leader insisted hoarsely. “You’re the only one he trusts. You’re the only one who can get close enough to kill him. Now, look. He’s going to be at his most vulnerable when he says his wedding vows. And that’s going to be your best and last chance.”
“Joxer, there’s gotta be another way,” Iolaus appealed, aghast. “I mean, you’re talking about killing a man in cold blood.”
But Joxer’s face suffused with impotent rage as he leaned in close and shouted, “It’s not a man - it’s the Sovereign - the most bloodthirsty monster in this world or on Olympus. Iolaus,” he gasped, hope and despair mingling in his eyes and voice, “you’re our only hope.”
Iolaus tore his appalled gaze from Joxer’s and studied the deadly blade in the rebel’s hand. All at once, it all crashed into him and he understood, really understood that the man who’d raced out from the vortex, panicked as if the hounds of Hades were chasing him … was himself. The Iolaus of this world. And this had been his destiny: to kill the Sovereign. “Oh, Gods,” the warrior moaned as he turned away from the rebel leader, his memory conjuring images of the mounted Gravus - and the sudden, inexplicable death of the Gravus on his world. Closing his eyes, he slowly shook his head. Joxer was right - the Sovereign was a monster, void of conscience, filled up with hate and mindless, soulless violence. But … how could he kill the Sovereign and know he was in the same moment killing Hercules?
Nausea surged in his gut and he stumbled to the wall, blindly sagging down upon a ledge. Leaning forward, one hand pressed against his tightlipped mouth, he struggled to swallow the bile that burned in the back of his throat. Grimly, his jaw clamped, he drew in careful breaths and struggled to find some measure of control. His body trembled, like a stag caught in a trap, knowing there was no escape. Slowly, he slid sideways and lifted his legs, to curl onto himself on the narrow ledge. How could he do this? However much it was necessary - how could he kill Hercules?
“It’s gotta be done,” Iolaus, the odd, very anxious Iolaus babbled on, his hands wringing with unconscious dread and helplessness. His face was pinched and pale with fear, he seemed oblivious to the fact that he looked ridiculous with his pointed hat, the long flaps hanging loosely around his face. “Maybe, if I got a second chance, I could be more … more like your f-friend.” His lips twisting in a paroxysm of self-hatred, he quavered contemptuously, “More … man than … than mouse.”
Hercules quirked a brow and crossed his arms. His expression preoccupied, his tone distant, he observed unhappily, “Whatever destiny you were fated for, it looks like Iolaus has stepped into your shoes.”
“The shoes of an assassin,” the little jester ground out darkly, tearing off his cap and twisting it in his hands. “Oh, I’m such a spineless coward,” he wailed brokenly, his voice cracking. Turning to pace toward Hercules, trembling with emotion, he confessed the full, wretched degree of his betrayal of those who had counted upon him. “I …I ran away from the only brave thing anybody’s ever asked me to do. He’s killing Zeus! And then, after that, it’ll be the rest of the world - all except his followers, who will go together to make his great master race.” He looked up into the demigod’s face, into eyes that were patient and gentle, though clouded with anxiety for his friend. “Oh,” Iolaus gasped, new horror filling his wide blue eyes, “it just hit me. When the Sovereign killed Gravus, he died here. Which … which means ….”
When the jester’s voice died away with appalled understanding, Hercules continued dryly, “If the Sovereign is killed, I may die at the same time.” Nodding soberly, he went on, “Yeah, I know. I’ve thought of that already.”
Iolaus, covering his mouth with his hands and, shaking in his boots, made little mewling sounds of despair.
Hercules’ jaw tightened and an expression of determination came over his face. “C’mon,” he said, latching a hand on the smaller man’s shoulder to draw him along in his wake. They mounted the stone steps and the demigod shouldered his way into the villa, not having to go farther to find his goal. The main hall had been redecorated by Gravus and his men to create a shrine in praise of Ares. Stylized representations of the War God filled the massive candlelit room. Scattered on the ceramic floor were barrels filled with tribute, sacrifices in homage to his despised half-brother.
“Zeus isn’t the only one who needs a good, swift kick,” Hercules growled as he heaved a barrel heavy with gold onto the wooden altar, crushing it. Picking up a second barrel, he was about to lob it into a metal likeness of the god, when Aphrodite appeared. Nonplussed, she demanded uncertainly, “Herc, is this the time for a temper tantrum?”
“It is, if it gets Ares’ attention,” he grunted and heaved the heavy barrel into the metalwork, demolishing the artistry. “Ares, you fake!” he shouted with guttural contempt. “You’re a coward!”
“Yeah! Yeah!” Iolaus shouted, entering into the spirit of the game, though perhaps not fully comprehending the wrath he was courting, “Come on, Ares! Get down here!”
“I’m calling you out, Ares!” Hercules roared as he continued to trash the shrine, piece by piece.
Behind him, yelling to the skies, Iolaus taunted dangerously, “Yeah, come on! Come out, come out, wherever you are!”
Bemused, not really understanding but willing to enter into the spirit of the thing, Aphrodite turned her attention to a carved and painted statue of a fierce warrior that no doubt was meant to represent her brother. Sighing and shaking her head, she declaimed, “Ares, this whole basic black thing is like so five minutes ago.” With a wave of her delicate hand, she garbed the warrior in a dazzling dress of flowing pink silk and an equally ridiculous blond wig. Smirking, she dusted her hands and thought that baiting Ares could be a lot of fun.
Behind her, Hercules was systematically trashing the place, and Iolaus continued bellowing to the heavens, “Come on!”
Sitting hunched on the ledge with his back to the rest of the men in the cell, Iolaus pondered the immensity of what he was being asked to do. Gods, he’d rather face an eight-headed hydra than grapple with the problem that had been laid at his feet. Herc was … Herc was his best friend. More than that, he was the champion, the hero of Greece, the man who gave the oppressed hope and kept recalcitrant kings from precipitous bloody battle. More than a man, he was a demigod, someone infinitely special …
… someone Iolaus wasn’t sure it was to possible to kill.
Someone Iolaus hoped with all his heart was immortal, for he never wanted to see Hercules die.
And the Sovereign was just the same, wasn’t he? Possibly - even probably - immortal?
This whole plan was a disaster, doomed to failure.
They needed a better plan and they needed it now.
Coming up behind him, Joxer demanded impatiently, “Well, have you made up your mind?”
“This won’t mean anything to you,” Iolaus replied with patient sorrow, “but where I come from, your Sovereign, is … is the best man I know. He’s the hope of Greece. The already legendary hero that everyone respects and listens to - the only one who can impose reason upon warring factions.” Lifting a hand, he turned to face Joxer, cutting off interruption as he continued, his tone hard, uncompromising, “And don’t tell me the stakes - I know what they are. Genocide. The end of the world as we know it … both our worlds. And it’s not as if I haven’t taken a life before. It’s just … it’s always been in self-defense. Never in … never in cold blood.”
“Whatever we’ve become, it’s what the Sovereign made us,” Joxer rejoined without any apology or self-consciousness. “But if we have become as cold-blooded as him, then, so be it.”
Staring at him, Iolaus very nearly pitied the man and what his world had forced to become. He’d only been there for a few, confusing, horror-filled hours, and couldn’t begin to imagine living in such a nightmare land for the whole of his life. Gods, everyone here must be half-mad simply to survive. Distantly, flatly, he murmured, “Yeah, it’s really simple, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” Joxer agreed fully, unable to see any other solution.
Staring at the blade, Iolaus muttered heavily, “In order to save the world, I’ve got to kill my best friend … and all the future good he would have done.” His gut twisted and he thought he might vomit. How could he do this? How could he wield this blade knowing that … that ….
“In your heart, you know it’s the only way,” the rebel leader urged softly.
“No, no, I don’t know that,” Iolaus protested angrily, feeling caged and despising the role the Fates had thrust upon him. This could not be right. “He’s half-god, have you thought of that?” he challenged. “This flimsy blade, as impressive as it looks, won’t kill him. Oh, he may bleed and rage - but he’ll heal. He always does. What then?”
“That blade was made by Cupid, in his forge - it can kill a god,” Joxer insisted.
“Cupid?” Iolaus exclaimed and rolled his eyes, unable to grapple with the image - it was one too many for his beleaguered imagination. “Nuh uh,” he shook his head. “Hephaestus’s, er, Cupid’s armaments are meant to be used against mortal flesh. No god, not even, uh, Aphrodite would permit the forging of weaponry that they could use against themselves. They’d all be dead in a week, and they know it. Nuh, someone has lied to you, Joxer. Who told you this blade would kill the Sovereign?”
Joxer’s gaze skittered away and he scowled, wondering if he’d been played for a dupe. “Aphrodite,” he admitted, and then looked squarely at Iolaus. “Why? You think she’s playing her own game?”
“Duh! Of course, she is!” Iolaus exclaimed. “She’s a goddess. Gods and goddesses don’t do nothin’ for nobody for nothin’ - they just do not do gratuitous favours. Haven’t you people figured that out yet?”
Heaving a sigh, he got up to pace the chamber. “She may want the Sovereign out of the picture, even if only briefly if it means distracting him from marrying her. She won’t want to compromise her position - and I doubt that she has any intention of reigning with him as her new King, though she may well be interested in being the new Queen of the Gods. But for that … for that she needs to know where the hind blood is. She thinks Hercules has it, but he doesn’t.”
“He doesn’t?” a nearby rebel exclaimed in surprise.
“No,” Iolaus replied grimly. “Xena has it - that’s her hold over the Sovereign. Aphrodite has to know that - has to know the ultimate plan is to dispose of her, too, so that Xena can be given ambrosia. She’d become immortal, and she’d be the new Goddess of War and Queen to the Sovereign.”
“Well, if you can’t kill him, then … why’d she make us believe he could be murdered during the wedding ceremony?” Joxer challenged. “What would be the point?”
“A distraction,” Iolaus returned thoughtfully, still putting the pieces together - still trying to devise a plan of his own.
“You really aren’t the Iolaus we know, are you?” another rebel observed uncertainly. “You’re too much a warrior.”
“No, no, I came here through some weird whirlwind,” he replied. Scratching his head, he admitted, “I’ve been trying to figure out where I am and what’s going on here ever since.” With mute despondency, he added to himself, “And trying to figure out how to get home again.”
“So, what have you figured out?” Joxer demanded sarcastically, very obviously not happy to see their single, desperate plan go up in smoke. “That we didn’t figure out long ago for ourselves?”
“Well, for starters, the Sovereign is a fruit cake,” Iolaus muttered, idly spinning the knife in the air and catching it with ease. “And too stupidly arrogant for his own good. I think Xena and Aphrodite are both playing him for a fool. One wants power, and sees him as her route to Olympus. The other wants more power, and probably wants Zeus dead, despite her charming protests to the contrary. Our Ares wouldn’t shed a tear at his father’s deathbed, and there’s no reason to think she’s a whole lot different, given how war-like this world is.”
“If you think the Sovereign is nuts, you don’t want to ever meet Zeus,” Joxer retorted. “Trust me, nobody would care if he bit the dust.”
“So the marriage makes no sense,” Iolaus countered. “Unless Aphrodite is throwing up a smokescreen to confuse the one god who actually might care if Zeus lived or died, other than Zeus himself.”
“And who would that be, pray tell?” Joxer demanded, crossing his arms in disgusted frustration.
“One of Zeus’ favorites,” Iolaus postulated. “Ares. The God of Love. When I met him, I got the impression that he thinks this marriage is definitely for real and is upset for poor Aphrodite, and genuinely worried sick about his old man. Ares might be the ally we’re looking for.”
“Him?” someone scoffed. “Haven’t you heard? He’s a lover, not a fighter.”
“Maybe,” Iolaus murmured, frowning in thought. “But even lovers can be pushed too far. Ultimately, those who fight for love are the most dauntless, the most courageous.” He paused, and then looked up at the ceiling. “You listening to this, Ares?” he challenged. “You want to save your father’s life and keep Aphrodite from marrying a demigod who would wreak havoc both on this world and on Olympus? You want to help re-establish the balance of power?” Silence greeted his words. Iolaus snorted. “C’mon, don’t play coy with me. I know you’ve gotta be dying of curiousity. Sure you don’t want to dance?”
There was a flash of pink sparkles and then the white-garbed, simpering Ares flashed into view. “Dance, Iolaus?” he echoed coyly, batting his eye lashes. “Now, you know how much I’d love to dance with you.”
The sight and sound of big bad Ares as a crooning, seductive love-machine was almost too much, and Iolaus had to swiftly cover his mouth with his hand to hide and wipe away his smile. He didn’t want to offend this god by being struck by a fit of the giggles. “Uh, yeah, right, maybe later,” he managed as he took Ares by the arm and drew him aside. “I need your help, Ares. Both at the wedding and, if my plan works, later, to help me hold onto the hind’s blood.”
“What? You know where it is?” the vision molded in white gaped.
“Yeah, I think, maybe,” the warrior allowed, looking thoughtful. “Here’s what I want you to do ….”
A few moments later, Ares wrapped Iolaus in a massive hug, nearly squeezing the life out of him, and then disappeared in a puff of pink colored mist.
“What was that all about?” Joxer demanded, his surly tone reflective of the resentment he felt in being kept in the dark.
“Just … just trying to give us an edge,” he replied obliquely. Gripping Joxer’s shoulder, he went on, “Now, about the assassination.” But he paused, closing his eyes, still shook by what he had to try to do. If his idea was off-base, if he was wrong, then these people’s only hope was the death of the Sovereign, much as it sickened him to contemplate the possibility - let alone his role in bringing that reality into being. Finally, he swallowed heavily and said hoarsely, “Okay, I’ve thought about it and … and Hercules would want me to act for the greater good. I’ll … I’ll try, alright? But, you gotta know, I’m not likely to succeed. I’m good, but Hercules is fast and he’s ten times stronger than all of us put together. He’s probably also immortal, so even if I cut him, stab him deeply, he’s still likely to have the strength to rampage like a bull - short of poisoning him with hind blood, it may be impossible to kill him.” Swallowing hard, his gaze falling, he rasped, “I have to hope - I have to hope I’m right about that. Because … because if what I do here kills my Hercules ….” His throat tightened and he couldn’t continue, couldn’t bear to think about it.
“Then what’s the point?” Joxer sighed, trying to sneer, but failing, despair heavy in his tone and demeanor. “If we can’t kill him, there’s no hope of changing anything.”
“That’s not true,” the warrior argued vehemently. “He’s running riot now because he has access to hind blood and the gods are afraid of him - but, if we can cut off his supply, then they’ll deal with him for having dared threaten all of them. I don’t think they’ll kill him, but they’ll probably lock him up someplace he can’t get out of. We just need to get the blood.”
His eyes narrowing, Joxer nodded. “Go on. What’s your plan?”
Iolaus bit his lip, thinking it through and then nodded. “Okay, when I go after the Sovereign, that’s going to cause a diversion. I need you to use that to break out of here - I really need all of you to swarm into the throne room as quickly as you can, to wreak as much havoc as you. That will be your chance to defeat his warriors, to take over control of the castle, providing … providing that, one way or another - with or without the help of the gods - we take the Sovereign out of the picture.”
“You mean, by getting hold of the hind blood,” Joxer stated flatly.
“Yeah, that’s what I mean,” Iolaus agreed, turning away.
“What if you’re wrong?” Joxer demanded. “What then, huh? He’ll be gone to Olympus and our last chance at freedom - at life - will be forfeit!”
Breathing heavily, Iolaus turned away. Joxer was right - he was playing with the lives of everyone in this world and his own. And he didn’t have that right. His heart breaking with despair, taking a breath, he said hoarsely, “Okay, okay. I’ll … I’ll do my best to kill him. But, you have to know, he may not die. As a minimum, the … the attempt will cause confusion. Maybe give me a chance to get the hind’s blood before the Sovereign beats my brains out. Then you … you and the gods can deal with him and Xena.”
Joxer scowled. He didn’t like it. There were too many things he couldn’t control, too much that depended on the gods doing their part. Far too much that rode on the chance that the demigod was mortal. Studying Iolaus’ adamant countenance, he muttered, “I guess you don’t leave us much choice but to trust you.”
“No, I guess I don’t.”
The rebel leader looked around at his men and then bowed his head, thinking about it. Finally, he nodded. “Okay,” he agreed. “You get us a diversion, and we’ll get out of here - and we’ll either take over the castle or die trying.”
“Good,” Iolaus replied bleakly. “Then let’s get this show on the road.” Turning away, he strode toward the locked door, shouting, “Guards! I’m ready to apologize. Take me to the Sovereign.”
Aphrodite was as busy redecorating the place in a palette of pastel colours, as Hercules was in demolishing it, when Ares roared into sight, his expression thunderous. “All right! That’s enough!” he bellowed furiously.
Iolaus ducked behind Aphrodite for protection, but Hercules simply paused on his way to smash another altar with a stout pole. Looking over his shoulder, he smiled indifferently and said, “Aw! I’m just getting started!” And then he lashed out, leveling a wrought iron replica of Ares with one massive blow.
“He’s really mad, look!” Iolaus cried out anxiously. “He’s got smoke coming out of his ears.”
Grinning at her steaming-mad brother, the Goddess of Love crooned cheerfully, “Ares, don’t wig out on us.” And then, unable to resist, she flicked the long blond tresses from one of the statues she’d clothed onto her brother’s head.
Beyond rage, Ares glared at them all. “That’s it, pretty boy!” he snarled. “Let’s step outside.”
The throne room was filled with peasants and retainers who had been hustled into place by the Sovereign’s men at arms. At the front of the massive chamber, Ares stood by the demigod, waiting for the bride to arrive. In the back, a table draped in crimson held a tiered wedding cake with effigies of the demigod and the Goddess of War. Xena sauntered over, looked around to ensure no one was paying attention, and then - her face greasy with malice - darted forward to exchange the tiny replica of Aphrodite with one of herself. Entering the hall behind her, Iolaus noticed her act and his features hardened at her brazen stupidity. Evidently, she felt inviolate and had no fear of reprisal from the goddess … but, perhaps, he’d be able to re-stack the deck in the next few minutes and shake that gloating complacency off her ugly face.
If he was right … if his plan worked.
If the Sovereign didn’t kill him.
Rushing forward in a parody of compliance, pulling his ridiculous hat onto his head, he slid to a stop next to the evil Hercules. The Sovereign gave him a cold, flat measuring look. “Glad you could make it,” he drawled sarcastically.
Shaking his head, trying to appear chagrined rather than anxious about what was to follow, Iolaus replied hollowly, “I’d hate to disappoint you.”
Eying him narrowly, as if trying to figure him out, perhaps wondering why his Jester no longer trembled and groveled in his presence, the demigod refrained from comment. And then his attention was caught by the arrival of his bride.
Aphrodite was garbed in a form-fitting, off the shoulder gown of unrelieved black, a dress more appropriate to a funeral than a wedding. The hem of the flowing skirt trailed back behind her in a long train that Xena hastened to gather up and carry, assuming the role of a helpful maid of honour. “You look lovely in virginal black. About old Zeus, is it true that he throws those thunderbolts, ‘cause they’re the only thing about him big and stiff? Well, is it?” she haggled, being deliberately crude in her references to the Goddess’s father.
Aphrodite paled but lifted her chin, determined not to be baited as she regally progressed down the long aisle between the benches of unwilling ‘guests’.
When she took her place beside the Sovereign, Ares looked ill but took a breath and began, “It is my sad duty to join this man and this woman in unholy matrimony. If anyone present objects to this union, speak now, or forever hold your peace. Please, someone …” he pleaded, “speak”
One of the men in the audience stood. He was plainly garbed, but looked prosperous and Ares recognized him as a successful butcher. A decent man, if unimaginative. The God looked hopeful, but the Sovereign growled and his men at arms jumped to surround the man with leveled lances. The fellow froze and then cleared his throat. But he was afraid and didn’t dare continue. Ashamed, he bowed his head and returned to his seat.
Ares looked as if he might weep.
“Nope, nobody objects,” the Sovereign observed with supercilious complacency, but there was a threat in his voice as he ordered harshly, “Get on with it.”
The God of Love’s gaze flickered toward Iolaus before he swallowed helplessly and asked unhappily, “Do you have the necklace?”
Iolaus watched closely as, unconsciously, Xena protectively closed one hand around the garish pendant at her throat. Her eyes narrowing maliciously, she sneered, “You’re on, fool.”
“Oh,” the warrior mumbled, as if he’d forgotten the ring the Sovereign had tossed him for safe-keeping earlier in the day. Fumbling in his pockets, he finally drew it forth and handed it to the impatient demigod.
Ares beat on Hercules mercilessly, heaving him into walls, and tossing him high in the air to smash with bone-rattling force upon the hard earth. Stalking after the demigod, landing solid punches and kicks, one after another, the God of War seemed oblivious to the fact that Hercules wasn’t fighting back. Through a wall, across the courtyard, into the stable and back out of again, Ares vented his wrath with furious single-mindedness.
And Hercules absorbed the abuse, blow after blow.
Ring in hand, the Sovereign turned back to his bride and took her hand. Leering at her, he slowly slid the heavy band onto a slender finger. “Hmm,” he purred with gloating pride, “My bride. We are going to rule supreme, you and I, with all Olympus at our feet - all mankind at our mercy.”
Aphrodite’s lip curled in revulsion while, behind her, Xena sobbed with sniveling abandon, wiping her nose on the hem of the Goddess’s train, and crying out, “It’s so beautiful.” Her celebratory voice, harsh in its falseness, was garish in the silence of the hall - a mockery of the loathsome event, nauseating in its grossness.
Ares’ jaw clenched, and his whole body tensed at the abomination of this marriage. Loathing the role he was forced to play with the hope that his father’s life would be spared, he swallowed heavily, and then hoarsely began to proclaim, “I now regretfully pronounce you, King … and ….”
Aphrodite flinched in anticipation, and the Sovereign grinned wolfishly as he taunted her, “Oh, go ahead. Fight me … I’ll enjoy it.”
Behind him, nausea roiling in his belly for what he was about to attempt, Iolaus mutely cursed the Fates with visceral loathing for having brought him to this moment, this choice, this terrible act that would break his heart if he succeeded. Wretched with uncertainty about whether Hercules was immortal or not, hating himself even as he drew forth the dagger, he thought of his best friend, the being he had always loved beyond all others. Lifting the blade, in the moment before he struck, he thought to seek silent forgiveness but, in his extremity of regret and despair, softly whispered his tortured plea for absolution aloud: “Forgive me, Hercules.” And he stabbed downward, aiming to drive the long knife through the back of the demigod’s neck, into his throat, to sever the vessels there … and kill him, if anyone could, if it was possible for a half-god to die.
But the Sovereign heard the wretched whisper and whirled, catching his arm and twisting viciously so that the blade flew from Iolaus’ hand. “I didn’t think you had it in you, old friend,” the brute snarled, hatred flaming in his eyes. The warrior stood as if frozen, breathing heavily, knowing he’d failed but relieved … so utterly, immensely, incredibly relieved. This monster might now kill him, but he’d at least die with the knowledge that Hercules still lived. Perhaps … perhaps he’d failed this nightmare world but … he could yet try to help the hapless people who lived in this perpetual Tartarus. When the demigod grabbed him angrily and tossed him with livid force across the room, he curled to protect himself as much as possible, his body absorbing the impact of collision with the stone wall.
Ares smashed Hercules to the ground and, looming over him, drew forth his sword. Consumed by blood lust, he shouted, “Fun’s over,” as he lifted the gleaming blade high and then sliced down - but Hercules caught the blade between his palms, and then his boots slammed out, sweeping Ares from his feet. The demigod tossed the weapon away and they grappled in the dirt, wrestling and shoving, slugging one another with wild and brutal abandon.
The wind howled around them, and the day darkened as clouds gathered heavily overhead. A massive lightning bolt split the air, arcing from the heavens to assault the earth just a few feet away. The vortex loomed into existence, its gaping maw swirling threateningly, sucking in dirt and debris. The roar of the opened gateway drew both of their attention, and Hercules grinned as he lunged to his feet.
“Thanks!” he jubilantly called over his shoulder to his half-brother as he raced to enter the whirling portal before it closed, “It worked!”
Still sitting on the ground, Ares gaped after him, stunned. Shaking his head as if to clear it, scarcely able to believe what had just transpired, he muttered incredulously, “I helped him?”
Iolaus bounced off the wall to the floor and rolled, stunned by the power with which he’d been hurled, but he leapt determinedly to his feet, poised to do battle. Everyone in the chamber gaped at him in utter silence, shocked by the temerity of his attack - stunned that the cowardly jester would act so boldly. The Sovereign strode ruthlessly toward him, evidently quite ready to tear him limb from limb, but he didn’t drop back. Instead, he dove forward, sweeping out his legs to trip the bigger man and bring the demigod crashing to his knees. Iolaus jumped up and whirled, leveling a kick at the Sovereign’s head, only to have his leg caught in a crushing grip. The Sovereign smashed him to the floor, and then hauled him up, overhead, and sent him flying to crash facedown onto a long table.
Iolaus groaned, and began to push himself up, but his opponent was already there pressing him down. “I’m sorry, did that hurt?” the evil Hercules demanded facetiously and then slammed his fist down into the warrior’s back, just over a kidney.
Iolaus cried out, and moaned, “No, but that did.”
The demigod laughed as he backed away, assuming his jester was out for the count.
Gritting his teeth, Iolaus rolled off the table, landing on his feet. With a wild yell, he launched himself at the Sovereign. And, as if their own resentments and fears were unleashed by Iolaus’ dauntless courage, their anger bubbling over, the crowd howled and began to attack the guards. Ares stood at the edge of the hall, Aphrodite beside him, both watching the free-for-all intently - and both clearly frustrated that the elusive hind’s blood held them in thrall when they both very much wanted to do so much more than watch from the sidelines.
A soldier hastened along the torch-lit stone corridor to the garrison room near the prison cells. “Get up there!” he shouted urgently. “That crowd’s an ugly mess!” The lounging guards scrambled to their feet, slamming on helmets, securing their weapons, calling, “Yes, sir!” Impatiently, he urged, “Hurry!” as he strode through the room and hastily checked the cells, to ensure the rebels were securely locked inside.
“What’s happening?” Joxer called, just as the soldier was turning away.
“Somebody was foolish enough to try and kill the Sovereign,” he sneered, and then added maliciously, “Now, he’s paying the price.”
“It’s a diversion,” Joxer shouted when the man at arms again turned to rush away. Startled, the soldier looked back, hesitating. “Look, make me a deal,” Joxer urged, lowering his voice confidentially, and giving a hasty, wary glance over his shoulder at the other rebels incarcerated with him, “and I’ll … I’ll finger the real assassin.”
“If you know something,” the soldier growled, stepping closer, his manner threatening, “you’ll spill it, or I’ll ….”
“Okay, okay,” Joxer agreed, surreptitiously waving the man closer, lowering his voice still further so that the guard had to lean close to the bars to hear him. “It’s, um, it’s -” But as soon as the guard was close enough, Joxer reached out with blinding swiftness, grabbing his head and yanking him into the bars, knocking him senseless. With one strong arm, he held the soldier leaning against the iron bars while he snagged the ring of keys from the man’s belt. As soon as he had them, he tossed them to a confederate waiting by the door, and let the guard sag to the floor.
The rebels eagerly clustered around the opening, calling, “Let’s go!” And, as soon as the way was clear, they pushed through, grabbing weapons from the cabinets in the garrison room on their way through. “Come on!” Joxer yelled, leading the way down the shadowed hallway to the stairwell that would take them to the throne room.
The Sovereign swung at Iolaus, but the agile warrior dropped under the blow and kept coming, startling the bigger man by scrambling up his body as if he were a tree. Enraged by Iolaus’ nimbleness, unable to get a good grip on the squirming, quick-silver climber who swung up to sit on his shoulders, like some kind of circus acrobat, the demigod roared, “I am very disappointed in you.” Just as the Sovereign was reaching up to drag him down, the band of rebels stormed into the large chamber and immediately engaged the guards in battle.
“Hey!” one soldier cried out, startled by their unexpected appearance and fierce attack. In the sudden confusion, the Sovereign momentarily forgot about the annoying Jester perched on his shoulders and swung around to deal with what he considered a more credible threat. Iolaus took the opportunity of the demigod’s distraction, and dropped down along his back, like a tumbler, landing on his hands and then his knees. Hastily, he crawled between the Sovereign’s legs and scrambled out of reach, making for his primary target - but his way was temporarily blocked by peasants, rebels and guards locked in mortal combat. Behind him, the Sovereign was swinging at three rebels who had fought their way through to take him on personally.
Leaping into the fray, Xena jumped upon Joxer’s back and, screaming, pummeled his head and shoulders. Ares and Aphrodite stiffened, their tension and desire to engage with their enemies palpable as they flexed their fists. But they couldn’t intervene; not yet - and maybe not ever.
“Go on! Ow! Get off of me! Witch!” Joxer cursed as he grappled with the mad woman on his back, reaching to shove her off. His hand caught in her necklace and as his arm flailed for a better grip, the gold chain snapped, the heavy pendant flying to land some distance away. Xena watched, horror filling her features but she seemed relieved when the object didn’t shatter but simply slid along the stone-flagged floor. Dropping from Joxer’s back, the rebel and the battle forgotten, she hastened after her pendant, only to be frustrated by the battling men who blocked her path.
Iolaus, on the far side of the hall, had noticed what had happened and was making his way as quickly as possible toward the pendant that now lay vulnerable on the floor, heavy boots dodging and weaving to and fro, over and around it.
Xena pushed her way toward her treasured bit of jewelry with single-minded resolution, shoving and cursing at those who blocked her progress. Unnoticed by her, Iolaus was closing in, dodging warriors in his path. Finally, with an immense sigh of relief, she got close enough to drop to her knees and scoop up the pendent. Standing, she hastily examined it to ensure it had not been damaged. Iolaus slid to a stop and edged closer.
“Get out of here!” she snarled at him, her expression ugly.
“I noticed before,” the warrior panted, thrusting his chin toward the necklace in her hand, “you’re awfully fond of that pendant.”
“Well, a girl’s nothing without her baubles,” she sneered over her shoulder as she turned away from him.
“Ah, the Xena I know is a lot smarter than that,” he countered sharply. “My guess …” he continued, and then lunged forward to grab the pendant out of her hands, “you are, too!”
Furious, she made a grab to get it back, yelling, “Gimme, gimme,” when he backed away, one arm stretched out defensively to hold her at bay while he kept the pendant out of reach.
“Yeah, like I thought,” he retorted triumphantly. “This is the hind’s blood you’re using to poison Zeus!”
Appalled to have her secret known, Xena looked around the room, searching for the Sovereign, and when she spotted him, she waved toward Iolaus and shrieked, “He’s got the hind’s blood! Get him!”
Whirling to face the two Olympians standing tensely on the sidelines, Iolaus yelled, “Quick! They’ve lost their secret weapon! Show them your stuff!”
Ares and Aphrodite both broke into gleeful, shark-like smiles as they let loose their hold on their urge to join the fray.
“With pleasure,” Ares called back jubilantly as he sashayed across the floor, dispensing feelings of love and bliss on puffs of air filled with little red hearts - and, one by one, soldiers and guards disengaged from the battle and stood as if stunned with euphoria.
Aphrodite, however, leveled her steely gaze on Xena and stalked toward her adversary, the air around her fairly crackling with menace.
“I’ll get you, little goddess!” Xena raged, crouching into a warrior stance as she prepared for battle.
Vastly unintimidated by the bravado, the Goddess of War strode closer, then pulled back her fist and slammed it against Xena’s jaw, sending her flying. Relentlessly, Aphrodite went after her and grabbed her stunned opponent by the hair. Whipping around, dragging Xena haplessly with her, the goddess smashed Xena facedown into the wedding cake. Grinding the much-loathed woman into the pastry, Aphrodite growled exultantly, “Eat cake, baby!”
Xena struggled vehemently, but she was no match for the avenging Goddess of War, who hauled her back, white frosting and bits of white cake smeared over her face, and backhanded her, sending her sprawling and dazed.
The Sovereign grabbed the two rebels harrying him and tossed them away. Slipping out of the range of Ares’ love spells, he surveyed the chaos around him with a jaundiced eye, and then he leveled a glare at Iolaus. Calling upon his ultimate weapon, he shouted, “Release the Executioner!”
A hush fell over the hall at the dreaded command. Xena pushed herself up on one elbow and dizzily wiped the sticky mess from her face, as she gleefully hissed, “Yeah,” at his command.
A soldier hastened to fulfill the order, and jerked open the door to the cabinet in which the bloodthirsty whirling killing machine was stored. Immediately, the Executioner spun into the Hall, her double-bladed axe scything the air. Men - peasants, guards and rebels alike - scrambled in panic, desperate to evade being caught in her swath.
But Iolaus stood forth to meet her, watching her closely, poised - and when she drew close, he ducked under the blade and then surged up, driving his fist with all the force of his muscle and bone into her hooded face. When the Executioner dropped like a stone at his feet, he drawled, “Chill out.”
Stunned silence filled the room at his daring. He reached down to yank the hood from the monster’s head, revealing a very dazed Gabrielle. “Where’s that Trojan elephant that stopped me?!” she grated with impotent fury before losing consciousness.
Battle once again broke out as peasants and rebels grappled with soldiers. Wielding clubs and swords, the bravest rebels charged the Sovereign, surrounding and him and closing in. Shouts and the clashing of weaponry filled the chamber, echoing in its hollow heights, swamping the sound of rushing wind.
But Iolaus caught the sound he’d feared he’d never hear again and turned, blinking with relief to see the whirling portal of the vortex appear in the courtyard just beyond the Hall’s doorway. “Hercules did it,” he exclaimed. Turning, he spotted Joxer and called, “I gotta go.”
The rebel leader hastened toward him and held out his arm, which Iolaus took firmly in the age-old warrior’s grip of respect and equality. “We’ll take it from here,” Joxer assured him warmly. “Go with the gods.”
Iolaus smiled and nodded, and then broke away to race toward the vortex but he paused and looked back when Ares called out his name. The God of Love snapped his fingers and then pulled Iolaus’ vest and leather pants from the air. Bundling the garments into a tight ball, the god tossed them to the warrior and then, as Iolaus caught them with a grateful grin and shoved them inside his loose tunic, jerkin, Ares saluted him and bowed in gratitude for his help in freeing all of Olympus from the threat of the hind’s blood.
Behind him, the Sovereign roared as he straightened from under the assault of more than half a dozen rebels and sent them flying like so much flotsam. He saw Iolaus dash out of the Hall, the pendant gripped tightly in one hand, and ran after him, brutally knocking aside anyone who got in his way.
Xena, confronted by both Aphrodite and Ares, tried to distract them by throwing a shoe, but they continued to close in on her. Desperate to escape, she backed a step and turned to run, but Aphrodite clapped her hands and Xena found herself trapped in a small metal cage, caught like a rat in a trap.
“Ah, that should hold her,” Ares observed admiringly.
“For an eon or two, until I decide what to do with her,” Aphrodite agreed coldly. Lifting her jaw imperiously, she held Xena’s cowed gaze for a moment and then regally turned her back. It was time to deal with a certain arrogant, despicable demigod. But when she looked around the Hall, the Sovereign was nowhere to be seen, and she frowned, wondering if he’d already gone into hiding.
Iolaus tightly tied the flaps of his hat under his chin as he and Hercules waited for the gateway to stabilize enough to rush through it. “I don’t know if I can be a hero when I get back,” he shouted over the roar of the wind. “But I’m gonna try!” In all his life, he’d never dared even dream that a reality other than the grim world he had known could possibly exist. But now … now he knew that life could be different, could be lived without quavering in constant fear, and he felt a fierce desire to make his own world such a place as this.
Clapping him supportively on the shoulder, Hercules assured him warmly, “That’s all any of us can do! Good luck, my friend!”
“Thanks!” the little jester replied, holding the demigod’s gaze for a moment, as if drawing strength from him, and then he was running pell-mell into the portal, Hercules close upon his heels. Unbeknownst to them, Iolaus and the Sovereign were racing toward them from the far end.
The vortex formed a tunnel of undulating wind that howled like nothing Hercules had ever heard before. The sound was hideous, grating and threatening, and he knew instinctively that there was no time to lose. Ahead of him, he could barely make out grappling forms - Iolaus and … and himself, his other self, struggling. Picking up his pace, he soon out-distanced the Iolaus running ahead of him, and reached the grappling pair just as his other self wrenched something from his Iolaus’ grasp. Hauling back, he slugged his alter ego with all his might, and then grabbed his friend, pushing him urgently back toward their world, shouting, “Run, Iolaus!”
Iolaus needed no encouragement, but he stopped in surprise when he bumped into … himself. The other one, the one everyone had thought he was. The guy gave him a wide-eyed look, and then hastened on. Hercules looped an arm around Iolaus’ shoulders and together, they raced to the end of the portal, which already appeared to be shrinking.
The little jester, determined to be brave, ran on toward his world, though his step faltered, briefly, when he reached the dazed Sovereign, who gave him an odd look but allowed him past without comment or blow. On he ran, anxious to reach the other side before the howling tunnel collapsed.
The Sovereign gaped at him and then frowned as he looked the other way and saw two figures running in the opposite direction - his double and the guy who had grabbed the pendant of hind’s blood. For the first time, he fully realized that the man he’d thought his jester had been the stranger he’d claimed to be, and he shook his head, bemused. But it didn’t matter, he thought. Nothing mattered. He held the pendant that contained the hind’s blood, so he still held all the power he needed to achieve his desire to rule both Olympus and the world. Smiling with cold complacency, he turned to go back the way he’d come.
But … there was no tunnel back, no opening, only swirling blue wind closing in around him. Startled, not yet afraid, he started toward the far end, following after that other one who had slugged him - but that tunnel was also collapsing inward, the exit gone. Not yet believing he was trapped, he whirled around, seeking a way out.
But there was no way out.
And the whirling, howling winds crowded closer, spinning dizzily, until he no longer knew what was up or down and terror gripped his soul.
“No,” he protested, struggling futilely against the wind that gripped him relentlessly, swallowing him up. The blue walls collapsed toward him, hemming him in, tighter and tighter, until he thought he would be crushed. “Noooooooooooo!” he screamed into the wailing wind that carried him away.
Iolaus and Hercules pelted out of the vortex just as the tunnel collapsed behind them. Panting, clutching his bundled vest and leather pants close, the warrior gripped his friend’s arm as he recounted soberly, his voice quaking a little, “Hercules, you have no idea how close it was. He has a pendant full of hind blood.”
“Hind blood?” Hercules exclaimed and frowned as he looked back over his shoulder. But the gateway was gone. There was nothing they could do. “Well,” he offered, uncertainly, “hopefully he’s trapped between both worlds, now.” Iolaus nodded with almost desperate fervor, only too well aware of the damage the Sovereign could do in that other world … and the resulting impacts his acts would have here, in this world. Before he could speak, to tell Hercules more of what had happened, they were both distracted by the distinctive tingling in the air that heralded the imminent appearance of gods.
Looking around and up, they saw Aphrodite and Ares materialize on the landing of a parapet, or perhaps the floor of what had been a guard tower.
“Guess we better see how Dad’s doing,” the Goddess of Love chimed, smiling broadly - and then she added with evident warmth, “Good to have you back, Curly.”
Disgusted, Ares cut in, “I hate happy endings.”
Before either hero could respond, both Olympians vanished into the air.
For a moment, they looked around wordlessly, but there was nothing to keep them in that place. The princess had run off long before and was probably more than halfway home. Any remaining thugs had taken to the hills. There was only silence. Sighing, they turned their backs on the villa and resumed their journey, having no destination in mind, only the desire to be somewhere other than there.
“You know, Herc,” Iolaus confessed hesitantly, giving his friend a sidelong look before turning his gaze to the ground, “I almost did a terrible thing over there, I -”
But Hercules interjected. “I know … I know what your counterpart was meant to do - what you were probably considering. He, uh, he told me about the Sovereign.”
Iolaus sighed, and shuddered with the memories of what had transpired in the last few hours, hours that had felt like days. “He’s … he’s pure evil, Herc. I’ve never known anyone like him. And he’s mad as a hatter,” he added feelingly. “Bonkers. Crazier’n a loon.” Swallowing, he looked up at his best friend. “I figured it out - I knew what would happen if I … I did what they wanted, what the rebels wanted. And I … I was prepared to try because, because he had to be stopped, or he’d’ve destroyed everything - not only that world but this one, too! I’m sorry, Herc. It was the hardest decision I’ve - and I … I came so close ….”
His voice caught and broke, and he looked away, blinking hard against the burn in his eyes at what had almost been required of him. Taking a breath, he squared his shoulders and continued, “But I … I was pretty sure where Xena was hiding the hind’s blood, so I made a deal with the rebels to create a diversion while I went after the blood. I got it, too - only the Sovereign got it back, just before you slugged him.”
Hercules looped a solid, supportive arm around his shoulders and drew him close. “You did what you had to do, Iolaus,” he murmured, his tone low, understanding and accepting with no recrimination. “I’m just … glad it wasn’t, uh, necessary to, um, well … and that you found another way to try and stop him. Maybe … maybe he and the hind’s blood are safely trapped somewhere.”
Iolaus blew a long breath and nodded. “I hope so,” he agreed feelingly. Looking up at Hercules, he added meaningfully, “At least … at least we know he’s still alive, whether he made it back to his world or not.”
The demigod thought about that, his hand drifting unconsciously to rest over his heart. “Yeah, I guess you’re right,” he allowed. Clearing his throat, hoping to lighten their somber mood, he asked with forced cheerfulness, “So … do you think I look better with a beard or without a beard?” When Iolaus simply gave him a disbelieving look bordering on disgust before rolling his eyes and striding away, he murmured, “Ah.”
And broke into a lope to catch up with his partner.
Once again looping an arm around Iolaus’ shoulder, he said with quiet solemnity, “I’m glad to have you back, buddy.”
Iolaus stopped and turned to look up at him. “So’m I, Herc. You have no idea how glad I am to be back. For a while there, I … I wasn’t sure there was a way to get back, you know? But … but I knew if there was a way, you’d make it happen.”
A soft smile played over Hercules’ lips at the candid trust shining in Iolaus’ eyes. Mutely, he drew his best friend into a tight hug. “Failure was never an option, Iolaus,” he said huskily.
“I know, Herc,” the warrior rasped, hugging him back tightly, his throat tight at the thought of what he’d come so close to doing - and what he would have lost forever. Tears of relief burned in his eyes and he blinked quickly to quell them. And then, letting go of the horror and the guilt, he smiled serenely, secure in his partner’s strong embrace. Finis
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