Previously, in the Real Legendary Journeys:
Arianna wrote in Stranger in a Strange World:
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!”
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.
Ceryndip wrote in Armageddon Now Part II:
Lightning cracked the sky and the portal opened. Hercules hit the ground rolling. He knocked Callisto off her feet. She rolled back up as did Hercules who found himself looking forward to the fight.
“I've always got time for you, Hercules. I've looked forward to it.”
“I wouldn't want to disappoint.”
They slammed into each other, kicking and hitting. When the dust cleared, Hercules stood with his foot on Callisto's back, pinning her to the ground. She wiggled and squirmed but there was no escape.
Iolaus ran forward and handed Hercules the Hind’s Blood pendant, “Here.”
“This isn't an option.” He twisted and threw the pendant into the still open vortex. Callisto followed a moment later, just before the portal closed.
The screaming alerted him to the arrival of someone new. The Soverign straightened the hind’s blood pendant around his neck and rose from the rock he’d been lounging on to see who his new companion would be. “Well, well, maybe that goody-two-sandals isn't so bad after all. You could be a lot of fun to spend time with.”
Callisto climbed to her feet and gave Hercules’ doppleganger the once over. He looked like Hercules but she didn't think Hercules ever graced his face with an expression of such pure lust like the one facing her now. “Where is this place?” she wondered.
“Better back away from there, that's our ticket out of here.” He pointed toward a second home-made lightning rod, positioned at the point opposite of the last rod. “I don’t think we’ve been introduced. I am The Sovereign and I'm very pleased to meet you. I think we'll get along famously. As for where you are, it doesn't matter, it's nowhere and we're about to be somewhere else.”
As he spoke the words lightning struck and a second portal opened. They were drawn into it together.
They swaggered through the market place, knocking over anyone who dared to get in their way. One punch from his mighty fist and the burliest man was tossed aside like so much parchment in the wind. One gesture from her dainty hand could reduce the most sturdy structure to rubble in seconds. They laughed as crowds cleared before them, women snatching children out of the way and men scrambling for cover. Very quickly word spread throughout the city.
“He’s back!” “Where did he come from?” “I don’t know, but he didn’t stay there! Run for your lives!” “He’s back! And he’s not alone!” “She’s worse than he is!” “Save us! We’re doomed!”
Hercules, the bastard son of the mad King of the Gods, Zeus, threw back his head and bellowed with laughter. This was more like it! The peasants cowering at his feet or running in terror of him. Oh, yes, he was back, all right! Right back where he should be! Not only that, but he had a real prize at his side, now! Not just a beauty, but a god and a powerful one at that! How he would cut through the pantheon with her! Nothing would stand in his way!
There was just one tiny, insignificant, trivial, but oh so crucial little wee problem.
She was completely, utterly, totally, insane.
Callisto took great pleasure in blasting down walls, carts, vendor stands, anything that caught her eye. She revelled in destruction, especially if it were brought about by fire. That trait, in and of itself, was not a bad thing, not to the Sovereign. In fact, it turned him on. But there was something manic, something more frightening about her that gave him pause. He had nothing against madness. His own father and most of his immediate family operated many bricks shy of a load. But this lady took the whole concept to a new level. She represented Chaos personified, uncontrollable and random beyond measure.
Desirable as she might be, she definitely had to go.
“So, Callisto,” he said as they sauntered down the street toward the imperial palace. “How do you like my town? Nice, huh?”
Callisto shrugged negligently.
“It’ll do,” she said. “At least for now. Let me add a woman’s touch here and there and in a few weeks you won’t recognize the place!”
She pitched another fireball at a storefront, squealing with delight as the flames engulfed it and the residents fled screaming out the back door.
“There ya go!” she said. “Much better!”
The Sovereign caught her hands before she could follow up with anther blast.
“I like it the way it is,” he growled. “Leave it. When I want a reconstruction project begun, I’ll let you know.”
Callisto laughed hysterically.
“You really think you can stop me if I want fire and death all around me?” she demanded. “You’re no stronger than the other Hercules! Why should I do what you want?”
“Because I’ve got the Hind’s Blood, Sweetie!” the Sovereign reminded her. “You keep on pissing me off and I start experimenting with it on you. Let’s go,” he said, releasing her roughly. “I want to see what’s been happening since I’ve been away. Nothing looks changed, but I’d better make sure. Can’t have the natives getting soft, can we?”
Callisto matched his step as he headed for the palace, but her face betrayed her anger and disgust. She had no intention of being this clown’s stooge, or doing anything he said. She wanted to go back to her own universe. She had a score to settle there with her own Hercules. Otherwise, she preferred the silence and peace of the Netherworld. She could do nicely with a millennium or so of contemplation and meditation.
They reached the palace and the guards, recognizing the Sovereign, hastened to open the huge doors to admit them. Inside they heard the screams and moans of condemned men and women, and the demented laughter of their tormentor. The Sovereign knew her right away. Nebula! After his imprisonment she must have overthrown Xena, who never could get that whole strategy thing down, and taken over. Oh, sure, the dark-eyed beauty was manipulative, scheming, unscrupulous and ready to sell her own mother to get ahead, but she couldn’t plan a castle defense to save her life. He wondered idly if Nebula had spared her rival or cut off her head. No matter, really. Xena was then, Nebula was now. Another scream split the air and sent brave men cowering behind bolted doors.
‘_Music to my ears!_’ the Sovereign thought. ‘_Sounds like Nebula hasn’t let the grass grow under her feet. What a woman! Xena was all right in her way, if a bit too conniving. But Nebula! Power-hungry, ruthless and completely without morals. Warms the cockles of my heart just thinking about her!_’
“Ah, Nebula!” the Sovereign said out loud. “She kept the homefires burning for me! Come and meet her. Either you two will kill each other on sight, or you’ll get along like a house on fire. Maybe we can even plan a little celebration for my home coming.” He added the last with a lascivious glance at the blond goddess’s curves, then laughed when her lip curled in disgust.
The Sovereign smashed open the doors, crushing two guards against the walls in the process. He stepped through the opening with his arms open wide to receive a hug.
“Honnn-eeeey!” he called. “I’m hoooome!”
The scene that met his gaze made his heart clench suddenly with nostalgia. Doomed prisoners huddled in a locked cage while huge, dirty-looking guards stood waiting for their lady to choose her next victim. There were a few more skulls lining the walls than the Sovereign remembered, but that was all to the good. Probably people he had planned to kill anyway. But the most riveting sight had to be Nebula, clad in a bright red leather breast plate, tall red boots and a flowing red cape, about to begin flaying a man with a thick, cruel looking whip.
She looked up, startled by the noise he made. At the sight of the tall demigod, she dropped the whip and clapped her hands together, squealing with glee.
“Pooky!” she cried. “It’s you! It’s really you! You’re back!”
With a spring in her step she raced to him and threw herself into his arms, wrapping her long legs around his waist as she did so. “Oooo, baby!” she purred in his ear. “It’s been so long! I’ve missed you so much!”
She pasted her lips against his, devouring his kiss and demanding more as her hands explored his body. He responded in kind, kneading her buttocks and thighs as he pressed her torso hard against his chest. At last they broke apart and Nebula leapt lightly down. She giggled coquettishly into his eyes and he leered at her in return.
With all the power in her right arm, she landed a hook to his jaw.
“Where have you been?” she thundered. “Every day without you has been an eternity! Every eternity has been an infinity! Every infinity –“
“All right! All right!” the Sovereign held up one hand in mock defeat while he nursed his jaw. “I get your point!”
“So when do I get yours?” Nebula pouted as she made a grab for him. “How long do you think I can wait around here with nothing to keep me happy?”
Callisto had watched this exchange with growing disbelief.
‘_First Ares with that little toad Strife,_’ she fumed, ‘_and now Hercules with this slut. Are all gods this shallow? Doesn’t matter. If I don’t like this I change it til I do like it. She’s mortal. Should be easy to get rid of._’
Meanwhile, Nebula had noticed her lover’s companion and now fixed her with a deadly glare.
“Who’s _this_?” she demanded. She levelled her gaze to the Sovereign. “It can’t be the priestess Callisto because I sent her packing to Rome about the time you went missing. She’s from the other side, isn’t she? She’s taking my place! After all I’ve done for you! I’ve kept your throne warm for you! I put down those stupid rebels! I punished everyone who ever stood against you and it was all for you! Oh, Sov! How _could_ you?”
She dissolved into tears and wails of misery. Hercules shrugged his shoulders and went after her as she threw herself into her throne and pounded the arms with her fists like a little girl in the throws of a tantrum.
Callisto yawned. Yep. Time for this bitch to go.
“Now, now, Nebula,” the Sovereign wheedled, “don’t take it like that. Nobody could ever hold a candle to you! You’ve got to be the most cruel, bloodthirsty crazoid I’ve ever known. You make Cupid look like a sheep shearer. You’re my kinda woman! But this Calisto is a god, and a powerful one. We can use her to get back at those slugs from the other side. Think about it, Nebula!” He lowered his voice so that only she could hear. “That world is ripe for the taking! Their gods are too busy lazing around on Olympus to defy us. But we need a little help to get the ball rolling and that’s where she comes in. Once we’re set up over there, I take this Hind’s blood, wipe them all out and take over for good! Wha’d ya’ say, Baby? Both of us gods? You and me? Together?”
Nebula sat snivelling and pouting while the Sovereign poured out his plans. She liked the idea of being Empress of a new land, with the power of a goddess, but this Callisto person did not figure into her plans, goddess or not. Much too much of a threat, as far as Nebula could see. She listened carefully to all that her lover said, and picked out the points relevant to her own peace of mind.
“She’s a goddess?” she asked in tiny voice.
“That’s right,” the Sovereign answered. “And we’ll get her to open the gateway to the other side.”
Nebula pointed to the pendant dangling from his neck.
“That’s Hind’s Blood?”
“Sure is!” he answered. “The only thing that can kill a god. I’m just keeping it quiet that I’ve got this for now. We don’t want to spook anyone into some rash act, now do we?”
Nebula wriggled a little closer to her swain and inwardly cheered when she saw his eyes widen. She ran one long-nailed finger down his chest, bringing it to rest on the pendant. Once more she congratulated herself as he caught his breath. Her own eyes widened with awe.
“How does it work?” she asked. “Do they break out in spots?”
“Of course not!” the Sovereign sneered. “You put a little bit on a knife, like this . . .”
“Ooooooo!” she cooed and fondled the ornate handle of his blade. “It’s so red!”
He gulped involuntarily and went on. “Yeah, yeah! And then any god who gets in your way . . .”
“You take care of them,” Nebula finished, no longer any trace of the child in her voice. She grabbed the knife, and without warning, thought or remorse, threw it at Callisto.
Too late the beautiful goddess recognized the threat to her life. The knife flew through the air aimed at her heart. With no time to counterattack, she tried to dodge the deadly missile, but could not escape. The sharp edge, dripping with Hind’s blood, nicked her arm and she stumbled to the floor.
The Sovereign had at first been alarmed when Nebula grabbed the knife. As soon as she did, he knew she had played him. He also knew he couldn’t possibly get out of the way of the Hind’s Blood in time to save himself. To his relief, Calisto, not he, was the Empress’s target. As casually as he could, he walked over to where the knife had stuck into a wooden beam and yanked it out, immediately resheathing it out of sight. That triumphant gleam in Nebula’s eye shook his composure. She must never get hold of this weapon again, least her next target be him. He looked down at the dying Callisto and shrugged.
“Nice shot,” he said. “You moved and it missed your heart, but if you hadn’t it would have got you cold.”
Dying, in excruciating pain, and unable to blast her enemy with a fireball, Callisto slipped further to the floor, grasping at her wounded arm. However powerful she had become as a goddess, she hated living almost as much as she hated all those who lived. She had greatly feared that she would never be able to die completely and have peace.
She looked up at the Sovereign. A total buffoon, with none of the virtues of the Hercules she knew, a cruel coward and a sadistic monster, yet he had done her an enormous favour. She smiled at him as she felt life, at last, leaving her.
“Ththththththaaaaaaannnnnkkkkk yyyyyooooooo,” she breathed, and slumped down, dead.
A shame, the Sovereign thought, that he’d just lost his pet god, but really, she was such a loose cannon he never could have accurately controlled her once they had won through to the other side. Oh, well. He’d find someone else, no problem. There were plenty of ambitious gods out there, available for the asking. He favoured the dead woman with a half smile.
“Don’t mention it.”
Gale force winds plagued the land. No one could explain it, for they were miles from the sea with no mountains close by, only rolling hills. Nevertheless, the wind howled through the farms and towns, pulling up everything in its path. Few people had the strength to withstand its force, so most confined themselves to the strongest buildings they could find. Even so, it was only a matter of time before those buildings failed.
The local magistrate, Hortius, bravely fought his way east until he found the source of the disturbance. Quickly he realized that this was nothing natural and much more than he could handle on his own. He made his retreat and sent word to the one man he knew could tackle this problem with ease.
It took only a week for Hercules and Iolaus to respond the request for their help. At first they thought it could not be as bad as the messenger said. But as they travelled closer to the affected area, they saw devastation they had never dreamed possible. Fields stripped bare of vegetation. No birds sang in the few trees left. Wild animals had deserted the area in search of safety. Finally they felt the wind itself. As they drew closer to the village, it became stronger and more violent. They contacted Hortius as soon as they could and he guided them to the epicentre of the storm.
“It’s been going on for over a week now,” he explained, shouting to be heard over the banshee howling. “Half our farms have lost their crops and livestock and more are disappearing every day. If this keeps up much longer, there won’t be anything left!”
“Has anyone been hurt?” Hercules asked.
“A few broken bones and lots of bruises,” Hortius answered. “We keep the children in the central building because its made of stone, but they can’t stay in there for ever.”
“You’ve been lucky,” Iolaus shouted. “This looks like the work of the gods, though I can’t think why they’re doing this now. Anybody done any heavy blaspheming lately?”
“Not that I know of,” Hortius said. “But what can we do if it is an attack from the gods? We’re just a bunch of farmers!”
Hercules had been taking a cautious look around. The wind whipping through the trees felt strong enough to lift a man off his feet. Only one force he knew powerful enough to cause such havoc, but somehow he didn’t think the gods to be behind it, at least not this time. Ares and Zeus currently enjoyed a mellower mood than anyone could remember in eons. Who else would want to use a wind like this?
“There may be gods behind this, but I don’t think its our gods,” he called to Iolaus. “I think we’re in for more trouble than we know what to do with!”
“Hey!” Iolaus said. “Trouble! That’s our middle name! So, do we have a plan at all or do we just wing it?”
“Both!” Hercules said. “I have a sort of a plan that involves a sort of flying type action.”
“Great! So, what are we going to do?” Iolaus said.
“Something _really_ stupid!” Hercules said and stood up to feel the pull of the wind.
“Seriously?” Iolaus said, guessing what his partner wanted to do.
“Yup,” Hercules said. “Care to join me?”
Iolaus shrugged. ‘_Couldn’t be any worse than the last time we went up against the impossible! Could it?_’
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world,” he said out loud, and leaped to his feet.
Hercules grabbed his arm to steady him. Together they faced the same direction as the wind and they could see it, about a half mile away. A swirling, roiling mass of air, churning through the sky and dragging everything into its maw. The two heroes glanced at each other, nodded once and began to run.
The vortex dragged them and soon they ran faster than they had ever thought possible. In unison they both leaped into the air, landed on their feet and dove toward the portal. They did indeed take flight as the wind lifted them up and thrust them through.
It was like falling, only not. It was like flying through a windless tunnel, only not. It was like taking that last step off a cliff in a crazy dream where up was down and down was sideways.
‘_Yeah,_’ Iolaus thought. ‘_That’s it. I’ve had dreams like this before. I better wake up before the dancing pigs start._’
Abruptly, sensation returned, sound sorted itself out and Iolaus had crashed landed onto something very solid. He lay still for a moment waiting for the world to catch up with his senses wondering where they had wound up and where the wind had gone.
“Iolaus?” a strained voice called to him.
“Yeah, Herc?” he answered.
“You wanna move your arm off my throat? I can’t breath.”
“Huh? Oh! Yeah, sorry Herc. That better?”
“Yeah, much. Uh, Iolaus?”
“Get off me.”
Iolaus’ head had finally caught up with the rest of him and he realized that he had landed sprawled across the demigod’s body in what could only be referred to as a compromising position. As soon as he understood, he scrambled to get away.
“You okay, Herc?” he asked as he gave his friend a hand up.
“Yeah, a little bruised but I’ll live,” Hercules grumbled as he rose to his feet. “Just once I’d like to go through one of those things and land on something soft!”
Iolaus turned around, trying to get his bearings. “Where have we got to this time?” he muttered.
Hercules looked around and had no better success at making a judgement.
They were in a room, at least, they assumed so until their eyes adjusted to the poor lighting and they could confirm their suspicions. A few broken chairs and ragged tapestries could be made out in the gloom. The eyes of a small, furtive creature shone at them from a dark corner before it squeaked sharply and disappeared into its hole.
“All the comforts of home,” Iolaus quipped.
Both men froze.
“You didn’t say that, did you?” Hercules asked.
“_Will_ you both keep your voices down?” demanded a stage whisper. “Someone might hear you!”
Hercules looked around for the source of the voice. He’d heard it somewhere before, but couldn’t quite remember.
“Go out into the corridor and turn left,” the voice instructed. “You’ll come to a door with a shaky handle. Go through and I’ll meet you both there. Hurry, before someone finds you!”
The two men turned to each other questioningly. What choice did they have? Iolaus shook his head, Hercules shrugged, and they both headed for the door. To their relief, it opened noiselessly, as if it had never made a sound in its existence.
‘_That’s a neat trick,_’ Hercules thought. ‘_And it means we’re heading to meet a god. I think I know who, the only question is, Why?_’
Moving quickly and quietly down the dimly lit hall, they soon found the door, opened it and stepped inside. The door shut and locked by itself behind them.
Inside, scented candles emitted soft light and soothing music played. Satin cushions covered the floor space anywhere that furniture (ornate and overstuffed) allowed. Trays of sweets and drinks and luscious fruit where everywhere. Graceful statues, erotic in nature, stood strategically around the room. The two men gawked at the trappings.
In a shower of hearts and the scent of roses, Ares, the white leather clad God of Love appeared. He lounged amidst the cushions, the picture of sensual pleasure as he stroked the satiny surface with soft, elegant hands. He appraised Hercules from head to food with a look that left the demigod squirming. Smiling knowingly, he turned his attention to Iolaus.
“I just love two for one sales,” he purred. Iolaus cringed a little. He remembered this Ares from his previous visit and knew that life could become hot and heavy fast if allowed to follow his lead too far. Iolaus took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
“Whoa!” he breathed. The God of Love had lost none of his power over the years! Out loud, the hunter made introductions.
“Hercules, meet the God of Love. Ares, meet Hercules.”
Ares rose in one fluid motion and extended his hand to Hercules. They clasped wrists in the familiar warrior’s handshake.
“At your service,” Ares said, directing all of his charm toward the half god. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you, I’d heard so much about you. Some good, some bad, but one always has to consider the source. I’d love to get to know just how – good – you can be, but we haven’t the time right now.”
He moved in front of a full length mirror, caught his reflection and began to preen.
“You’re planning to stop the madness, aren’t you? Things are getting crazier than usual and I took advantage of your little journey through the vortex to bring you here rather than have you dumped in the street. But you were the only ones I figured could handle the Sovereign.”
“The Sovereign!” the two heroes chorused.
“In all his nasty glory!” Ares answered, admiring the way his hips swivelled in the mirror. “Do you think this outfit makes my butt look big? Hmmm? Anyway, the Sovereign. He came back about a month ago. Hooked up with the Empress Nebula, one of his ex-mistresses. If you plan to go after her, remember to wear protection. The girl is rough trade, if you know what I mean,” he added with a wicked wink to Iolaus. He held up one manicured hand in the shape of a cat’s claw for emphasis.
“Nebula is the Empress?” Iolaus said. “Well, that can’t be all bad. I mean, it’s Nebula, after all. Maybe not the kind of girl you’d bring home to mother, but still . . .”
“Our Nebula, perhaps,” Hercules reminded him. “This world’s Nebula is probably a lot different.”
“You got that right!” Ares agreed. “She and the Sovereign may not be friends. I don’t think they even like each other all that much, but they’re thick as thieves right now. They’ve allied with a few of the more underhanded gods to get a little action going on the other side of the vortex. And, they’ve got a new partner.” He turned his attention back to his mirror image. “He’s a handsome rogue, from what I saw. Dresses a bit severe for my taste. What is with all that black leather with silver accessories? So last year! And the temper on that man!” He shivered deliciously. “Takes my breath away just thinking about it!” “Ares?” Hercules asked.
“Hmmm?” Ares answered, inspecting a loose thread on his vest.
“No, I mean, Ares is their new partner?”
“Oh. Yes, your Ares. The God of War. In all his tight pants, hairy chested, dark eyed –“ the God of Love gulped, regained his composure and continued. “They’ve come up with a scheme to tip the balance of power in your pantheon.”
“Sounds like the kind of thing Ares would get into,” Hercules said. “But how are they doing it? Our gods aren’t that weak that they’d be tricked or trapped somewhere, especially now. They’re stronger than ever.”
“Unfortunately, I am a lover, not a fighter,” Ares answered with a rueful shake of his head. “I’m not privy to all the details. If you want more answers I can put you in touch with someone in the know. Someone who knows this palace like the back of his hand and has heard most of what they’re up to.”
“That sounds perfect! Lead the way!” Iolaus said.
“Umm, doesn’t quite work like that,” Ares said. “See, he’s a bit shy. Matter of fact, we may not get him to come out at all. Let’s just see if he’s home, first.”
To their surprise, Ares walked over to a solid wall, turned to face them, then rapped on a wood panel three times, paused, then rapped twice more. Hercules and Iolaus exchanged a glance as an answering knock sounded from inside the walls.
“So what is this guy, a local mouse?” Iolaus said.
Ares sighed heavily.
“You might say that,” he said. “Look, guys, I have to go before someone comes looking for me. Be gentle with him, won’t you? He’s a – fragile – soul.”
With that, the Love God disappeared in a shower of fragrance and sparkles.
“Hmph!” Iolaus said. “Wonder who he’s got in mind?”
“Yeah,” Hercules said. “Probably some spy for those rebels you told me about.”
A panel in the wall, well hidden unless one knew exactly where to push, slowly began to open. A brightly coloured puppet head, adorned with jingle bells and floppy hat, peeked around the rim.
“Are you alone?” a whispered voice called out.
Once more, Hercules and Iolaus looked at each other. This guy had some serious trust issues!
“Yes, we’re alone,” Hercules said. “It’s safe for you to come out.”
Very slowly and silently, he emerged from his hiding place between the walls. The puppet head pulled back to allow the figure of a man to slip silently through the opening. He was dressed in bright colours from head to toe. A larger version of the puppet’s hat, minus the bells, perched on a mop of blond curls. Instead of a vest and pants he wore a tunic and hose, and curly toed shoes instead of boots. He kept his head down until he had cleared the door and carefully closed it, then he looked up to meet Hercules’ eyes.
The demigod stared in disbelief. Iolaus’ mouth dropped open in surprise. For a moment, no one spoke or moved until Hercules recovered his composure and stepped forward to greet his sometime friend.
“It’s good to see you, Iolaus.”
“I’ve been hiding in there for weeks,” Iolaus the Jester explained when introductions were over. “I didn’t have a whole lot of choice. It was either stay in there or go back to living with the Sovereign. He was bad enough on his own, but teamed up with the Empress –“ The Jester shuddered. “Let’s just say he’s a k-k-k-kitty, kitty, kitty, compared to that tiger! I couldn’t take them together like that, so I hid.”
“Waitwaitwait,” Iolaus said. “This is gonna be weird but – didn’t you die a while ago?”
The Jester looked at him curiously.
“How did you–?” he began. He and Iolaus shared a look, then his eyes widened in comprehension. “_You_ died!”
Iolaus shifted his feet uncomfortably and nodded his head.
“And now you’re not dead any more, so neither am I. The Sovereign blackmailed Hephaestus into giving me my life back. So how’d you do it?”
“That’s – something of a long story,” Hercules said. “Later, perhaps. Right now, we’ve got a crisis on our hands that we need to deal with first. There’s a portal opened between dimensions and it’s ripping our world apart. Somehow we’ve got to close it – permanently this time – and get things back to normal. What can you tell us that your Ares hasn’t already?”
“Well,” the Jester began. “You already know that the Sovereign and your God of War have teamed up? Okay, then we’ll start from there.
“The Sovereign got back a few weeks ago, looking like the cat who just got the cream, according to anybody who was there. He contacted a few of the gods and started setting up a way to conquer some new territory. Seems he’d been plotting this ever since you trapped him in the Netherworld.”
“What other gods are involved?” Hercules asked. “That could give us some idea of what they’re planning.”
“Let’s see,” the Jester began to count down those he knew of on his fingers. “There’s Aphrodite, the Queen of the Gods, Cupid, the God of War, Hermes, the God of the Forge – there may be others, but those are the ones I’m certain about.”
“The Queen, the War god and the Forger,” Hercules mused. “This doesn’t sound good.”
“That’s because it isn’t.” the Jester said. “The Sovereign talked Aphrodite into opening the portal for him. She couldn’t do it alone, so she got her son in on the act. Then they all got on Hermes’ case and before you knew it, they were all walking around with big stupid grins on their faces. But it wasn’t until your Ares showed up that things got really hot around here.”
“What are they looking to do?” Iolaus asked. “Do you know?”
“I don’t know the whole program,” the Jester said. “I catch little bits and pieces here and there, but nothing I can put into a descriptive sentence. I do know this: everybody’s planning to double cross everybody else. The Sovereign’s still got that damned Hind’s Blood pendant, along with a knife poisoned with the stuff. He doesn’t advertise it, but I’m sure it doesn’t bode well for the gods that help him. They want to get him out of the way as soon as they get control over on your side. Your Ares doesn’t want any of our gods intruding on his turf, so he’s thinking to eliminate them as soon as they get rid of any of your gods that can oppose him. After that, it gets complicated.”
“_Whew!_” Hercules whistled. “This whole thing makes me tired just thinking about it.”
“There’s a whole lot more that has to be done, yet. Negotiating with Ares is not easy, so the Sovereign spends a lot of his time just smoothing things over with him.”
“We’re missing something, here,” Iolaus said. “Hermes. Your Hermes. You say he’s the god of the Forge. So, what do they need him for? He’s not the most powerful among them. Why wouldn’t they go to someone like Hera or Apollo?”
The Jester looked at him as if he’d grown another head.
“The Goddess of the Harvest? The God of Weaving? What good would they be? In any event, you’re right to wonder about Hermes. All I can tell you is that if you want a weapon that can make you invincible or a cage that nobody can break out of, Hermes is your god.”
Hercules sat back and tried to think. There was a lot to consider at this point. Whatever Ares was up to, he had to find it soon or a lot of innocent people would suffer. Somehow, he had to get one of the principal players to tell him what exactly was going on. In all that the Jester had told him, there was one name conspicuously absent.
“What about Nebula?” he asked. “Where does she fit in to all this?”
The Jester shrugged.
“The Sovereign leaves a lot of the little details to her while he covers the big stuff like dealing with the other side.”
Hercules sat up. This was useful information. Now, to exploit it.
“Where’s the Sovereign right now?” Hercules asked. “Is he close by?”
“Nah, he’s away,” the Jester said. “Matter of fact, that happens a lot. Right now he’s on your side, schmoozing with Ares. He’s too much the control freak to let anybody else do it. Never could delegate. Why? What are you thinking?”
Hercules stood up and went to the door to listen. The corridor outside was silent.
“I think I know a way we could plug up the holes in our own information,” he said when he returned. “Iolaus, could you get us into the Sovereign’s bed chamber?”
The Jester swallowed hard before he answered.
“I – I guess so,” he said. “There’s a secret passage way that runs right beside it.”
“Perfect!” Hercules said.
“Herc, you’ve got something?” Iolaus asked.
“Yeah, a long shot, but it’s all I can think of,” he said. “We know all the players, just not everything they plan. But one of them might be persuaded to tell us what we need to know.”
“Who?” Iolaus said, trying to catch up to his partner’s idea. “Who in this world is gonna – Nebula!”
“Nebula,” Hercules said, nodding his head. “Like I said, a long shot, but it could work. Iolaus, get us to that bedchamber! We’ll work out more of the details along the way!”
Ares, the God of War, stood solid and unmoving in the wind tunnel caused by the portal. Beside him, not quite as steady but still strong, stood the Sovereign of Greece, son of the mad Zeus.
“So, what did those peasants tell you?” Ares asked his companion.
“Hercules has gone through to my side,” the Sovereign said. “You know, this vortex-tag with that guy is getting old fast!”
“Not this time,” Ares growled. “Tartarus take that goody-two-sandals brother of mine! He’s about to ruin everything!”
The two men looked at each other and nodded once. They could not be more in agreement. Hercules and Iolaus had to be stopped before they could destroy weeks of careful planning and plotting.
Ares began to run towards the vortex with the Sovereign on his heels. The closer they got to the swirling mass, the more powerful its pull on them. Finally, together, they leaped, the wind caught them and they flew into the gaping maw.
“How do I look?” Hercules asked as he tugged the black leather straps into place.
“Frighteningly life like,” Iolaus said.
“How did I ever let you two talk me into this?” the Jester moaned. Nervously he resettled a band of leather over Hercules’ chest that hadn’t needed adjusting in the first place. “This is never gonna work! Nebula knows the Sovereign too well. She’ll see through this in a minute!”
“Will you stop worrying?” Iolaus said. “Herc and I have done stuff like this before. She’ll be completely fooled. Right, Herc?”
Hercules took a short breath and puffed it out.
“Yeah. Right,” he agreed.
In truth he had no such certainty. Back home, Nebula was one of the smartest, toughest women he had ever met. Here she could either be blinded by her ambition and greed or it could make her more focused. The only way to tell would be to get next to her and talk to her.
“But what about the Sovereign?” the Jester fretted. “He’s been away for longer than usual, even for him. He could come back any time!”
“All the more reason to hurry,” Hercules said. He took one last look at himself in the mirror. “Well, time’s a-wastin’ and I’m as ready as I’ll ever be. Let’s go. Iolaus is there any place you could wait where you’ll hear and see everything but remain hidden?”
“There’s a loft that nobody uses any more,” the Jester said. “It used to be where the Sovereign kept all the war toys Zeus gave him when he was little. We’d be safe enough there.”
“Good,” Hercules went to the bed chamber door. “Be careful, you two. Once I’m inside the throne room, you two stay out of sight. This whole scheme, whatever it is, has got to be stopped!”he said to his partner. Their eyes locked, Iolaus nodded, and Hercules quickly left the chamber.
Iolaus looked troubled.
“Be careful yourself, big guy,” he murmured.
“What?” the Jester asked. “We’ll be all right as long as we stick to the hidden passages.”
“I’m not worried about us,” Iolaus said as he pulled open the passage door. “Herc’s going out into that hell-cat’s den without me and he’s counting on me to back him up.”
The Jester could not see the problem with that, and said so. Iolaus stopped and looked him straight in the eye.
“He doesn’t mean for me to jump down and try to save him if he gets caught out,” he explained. “He wants me to make sure that our mission is successful. That whatever Ares and the Sovereign have planned, I’ve destroyed. He wants me to leave him behind.”
“My loyal subjects!” Nebula, Empress of Greece, addressed a cage full of condemned prisoners, none of whom were loyal to her and all of whom had recently plotted her death. “As your Empress Regent, I look forward to seeing each and every one of you die!”
The prisoners grumbled and cursed her under their breath. They hated the Sovereign, but this witch was more than they could bear. They watched as she picked up a long, vicious looking whip and stroked it appreciatively.
“All right, you lot!” Nebula continued. “It’s party time! Which one of you is going to be first to test out my new toy? Come on, now, don’t be shy. Nobody? Guards! Go in there and grab somebody, then tie him to that post. Move it! The Sovereign’s been away for weeks and I need a good workout. I’m getting more frustrated and rustier by the minute!”
When the cage door was unlocked, two burly guards muscled their way inside and grabbed hold of an old man, who begged and pleaded with his captors for mercy. Instead, they dragged him to the whipping post and quickly bound him. They bowed to the grinning Empress and stepped back. “Your test case, Your Grace,” said a guard.
“Perfect!” Nebula said happily. “A tad scrawny perhaps, but he’ll do nicely until you can get me someone with a little more meat on his bones.”
She brandished her weapon, enjoying the feel of the hard leather almost as much as she relished the moans of her intended victim. She snapped the whip in the air over the hapless man’s head and he cried out in fear.
“Oh stop whining,” Nebula ordered him. “You knew this was coming when you rebelled against me. Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time. Hey! I like that! I’ll have to remember it for later. Meanwhile, on with the show! The rest of you take notes! There’ll be a test for you all later.”
The prisoners still in the cage screamed at her to stop. The bound prisoner wailed in terror at his upcoming death and Nebula laughed maniacally at the chaos in her throne room. This was going to be _so_ good!
The doors to the room crashed open, slamming against the walls on either side hard enough to break off their hinges. Two guards, luckless enough to be stationed beside the doors, were flattened behind them and knocked senseless to the floor.
Standing in the ruined doorway, backlit by the corridor outside, stood a man, tall, muscular and lean. He stood at ease, perfectly still, until he knew he had everyone’s attention. Finally, his handsome face split with a sardonic smile and his eyes gleamed with a cruel light. He stepped languidly into the room, his hard gaze fixed on the Empress as she stood, mouth agape, transfixed by his appearance.
Hercules called on every ounce of calm he possessed to not storm against the woman who stood ready to whip some innocent old man to death. At this point, he needed to control everyone in the room, not just the Empress, and that meant keeping the guards on his side. If they decided that he was an imposter, they’d kill him outright. Therefore he strove to imitate, as far as possible, his insanely cruel doppleganger.
“Well, well, well!” he began. “Someone’s been sitting in _my_ chair!”
The Jester Iolaus and the warrior Iolaus crept into the loft overlooking the throne room just as the guards were dragging an old man from his cage to be bound at the whipping post. Cautiously they peeped over the edge.
“That’s her,” the Jester said, pointing to the Empress. “That’s the Empress. After the Sovereign disappeared, she took over Corinth and started running things. The Sovereign was bad news when he ruled, but this one is bad news squared! Everybody started wishing the Sovereign would come back, once she was in power. Then when he did come back, instead of kicking her out, he joined up with her. We just can’t seem to catch a break around here!”
“I’m beginning to understand why everybody preferred a psycho like the Sovereign,” Iolaus said when he heard the Empress threaten her victim. “Looks like no one’s safe around her.”
“At least the Sovereign laughed at my jokes,” the Jester answered. “Nebula was born with no sense of humour, except the twisted one she learned from her brother. Yeesh! Just about the only thing the Empress did that everybody approved of, hanging him like that!”
Iolaus wanted to comment, ask about what had happened to the Gilgamesh of this world, but the sudden arrival of Hercules, disguised as the Sovereign, interrupted. He found it disturbing, to say the least, to see his normally gentle, mild-mannered friend act like a homicidal psychopath.
‘_Good thing I know who it really is_,’ he thought. ‘_I only hope the Empress is fooled. We’ll soon see! She’s just as stunned as everybody else, and she’s still holding that whip. What’s she gonna do? What’s she gonna say_?’
Empress Nebula, the scourge of the Grecian world, squealed like a little girl, threw aside her whip and leaped delightedly at the man standing so menacingly in front of her. She bounced into his arms and engulfed him in her embrace, her long legs wrapped tightly around his waist.
“It’s really you!” she shrieked and hugged him tightly.
Hercules was a little floored by her greeting, but quickly recovered.
“It better be me,” he said. “Or someone else is wearing my underwear.”
“Oooooo!” Nebula giggled. “You’re so silly! And what’s this?” She ran her tongue over his smooth shaven face. “I know I haven’t seen you in a while, but – no hair?”
‘_Ooops!_’ Hercules kicked himself. Why hadn’t they thought of that? The biggest difference between them, besides their attitudes, was that the Sovereign sported a goatee, while he was clean shaven. ‘_Think fast, Herc, or you’re dead!_’
“I got tired of keeping it trimmed,” he lied easily. He sighed with relief as Nebula seemed to accept this explanation.
“I know the feeling,” she said, nodding sympathetically. Lithe as a cat she jumped down. Her eyes raked over his figure.
“And now I want to know a few more feelings,” she said, reaching for him. “You’ve been away too long. Give!”
Hercules caught her hands and held them, trapped in his grip.
“Not so fast,” he growled. “I’ve been hearing – stories – about you.”
Nebula’s eyes widened as she tried for innocence.
“What stories?” she said, trying to pull free. “I’ve done everything that you’ve asked. Whatever could you have heard to disturb you so?”
“You’d be amazed,” he said, and sent her spinning across the room. She landed in a heap beside her throne. “About you and some other gods. About you and some new toys. So tell me.”
“You were gone,” she shrugged. “But now, you’re back!” Her dark eyes suddenly glowed with lust. Unexpectedly, she leaped once more at him, throwing her arms around him and kissing him hard. “I needed something to pass the time. Working out details to our plans gave me something to do. Besides, it was all part of our business. I thought you’d be pleased.” With all the force in her arms she shoved him away from her. He fetched up against the wall with a thump.
“Is that so?” Hercules said. “Tell me more. How does it all relate to our other arrangements?”
“Who cares?” she demanded, snatching up her discarded whip. She snapped it in the air by his head. “You’re back now. Love me!”
Quicker than lightning, he plucked the end of the whip out of the air. With one jerk of his hand, he dragged Nebula into reach and wrapped the deadly weapon around her, pinning her arms to her sides.
“Tell me about these ideas of yours,” he whispered huskily into her ear. “How do they help us?”
Nebula’s heart was racing and her mouth felt dry. If this was his current idea of foreplay, she promised herself a wonderful time tonight!
“I had Hermes make us a little something,” she breathed, trying to catch his lip between her teeth. “Something no god could ever break out of once trapped inside. It’s finished, now, and I hid it. I hid it real good!”
“You clever little devil, you!” Hercules chuckled. “And where did you hide it? Hmmm? Some place close by?” He stroked her chin with one hand and grabbed her hair with the other.
Nebula growled in her throat. This was getting better by the minute! “In the Labyrinth of Eternal Memory,” she said, her heart pounding and her desire almost unbearable.
Hercules didn’t quite know what else to say or ask. He had no idea where this labyrinth might be, or what this little something might look like, but he figured he couldn’t ask too much more without giving himself away. Time to move on!
“Hmph! You are the devious one!” he said. “I approve! Now, just what did you hope to accomplish by not telling me? You wouldn’t be planning on double crossing me, would you? Hmmmm?’
“Why Sov!” Nebula purred, rubbing herself against his chest. “Whatever gave you that idea?”
Hercules began to laugh again.
“I know your ways too well, my dear,” he said, a roguish smile on his face. “And now you’re going to get your reward. Guards!”
“Yes, Your Torturousness!” one of the men approached and bowed.
“Take the Empress to my bed chamber and see that she doesn’t leave,” Hercules ordered, his eyes never leaving those of the seething Empress.
Nebula began to writhe with anticipated pleasure.
“Meow!” she snarled as she was hustled away. “Don’t keep me waiting!”
Hercules watched her disappear around a corner and let out a breath of air, relieved that he had fooled the dangerous Empress, if only temporarily. Now to get out before the Sovereign returned. Nonchalantly, he released the man from the whipping post, then turned to the guards.
“Take these cretins out of here and drag them off behind the palace,” he ordered the guards. “Leave them there until nightfall. Let the wild dogs have them.”
“Shall we chain them or tie them, Your Cruelness?” asked one of the guards.
Hercules let himself appear to be thinking this over.
“Better chain them,” he said. “I don’t want to give the dogs indigestion. You!” he called, pointing to a prisoner who appeared to be both younger and stronger than the others. He grabbed the boy and pulled him nose to nose. “Maybe this will teach you to rebel against the rightful ruler of Corinth!”
He shoved the frightened youth back into line with the other prisoners and watched as the guards marched them away. As soon as he was alone, he looked up at the loft. “You guys coming?” he asked.
Very quickly, the two men climbed down from their perch and joined Hercules in the throne room. Iolaus the hunter nodded after the departed prisoners.
“That key the right one?” he asked.
“Should be,” Hercules said. “I lifted it off their guard.” He turned to the Jester. “Iolaus do you know where this Labyrinth is?” Hercules asked.
“Yeah, it isn’t far,” the Jester answered. “It’s one of the few places the Sovereign would go to relax. Not my first choice of a playground, but then again, I’m not quite as crazy as he is.”
“Well, what are we waiting for?” Iolaus said. “I get the feeling we’re running out of time, so let’s go. Lead the way!”
“Wait a minute,” Hercules said. “Iolaus, you’ve been a big help already and if you show us where the maze is, we can take it from there. You don’t have to come with us. We’ll understand.”
The Jester swallowed hard. True, the two heroes did not need his help to find their way through the Labyrinth to whatever Nebula had hidden there. They needed a man of courage and guts and that did not describe himself. He did not want to be a dangerous burden to two men who were trying to help him.
But Iolaus the warrior had not hesitated to join his partner. He’d never been in the Labyrinth before, but he willingly jumped into the fray, right beside Hercules, facing whatever might be in there with a smile on his face, beside his partner. That alone inspired the Jester to at least try to make a similar gesture.
“No,” he said. “I’m coming with you.”
“But we don’t know what we’re getting into,” Hercules said.
“That’s never stopped us before,” Iolaus muttered. Hercules nudged him, hard, in the back.
The Jester drew himself up to his full height.
“Believe me when I tell you I couldn’t be more scared,” he said. “But then, I live in a perpetual state of panic anyway. I’m coming with you.”
Ares, the God of War, and Hercules, the Sovereign, stepped through the vortex and found themselves in the streets of Corinth. As soon as they spotted him, the peasants began to shout in terror, “The Sovereign is coming! The Sovereign is coming!” then flee for their lives. The Sovereign sniffed at this blatant cowardice, at the same time reveling in the power he had to invoke such terror. The citizens _should_ be afraid of him, he’d beheaded and tortured enough of them. He flexed his muscles and chuckled to himself as mothers dragged children off the streets and strong men melted into the shadows. He’d grab a few of them later and amuse himself, but first he had business to attend to.
“Hercules and Iolaus are here, somewhere,” Ares growled as he stalked angrily toward the palace. “It won’t take them long to find a way to mess up our plans.”
“Nothing we can’t handle,” the Sovereign said. “We grab them, throw them in the vortex and leave them there. Problem solved.”
“If it were that simple to get rid of my annoying brother, don’t you think everyone would have tried it by now?” Ares said. “He’s too smart by half. He found a way out once and he’d do it again. No, we have to find a way to deal with him permanently.”
“Whoa! Hold on there, Partner!” the Sovereign stepped in front of Ares and held up his hands. “We off Hercules and I die with him. Not an option.”
“Don’t get your leathers in a twist, I’ve got other ideas,” Ares assured him. “That little toy Hermes whomped up would be the perfect solution to everything. All we have to do is get him near it and he’s done.”
The Sovereign nodded thoughtfully.
“Of course!” he said. “I hadn’t thought of that. It’s perfect! My hated twin, trapped forever in a hidden prison.”
“It does have a certain symmetry to it, doesn’t it?” Ares said, admiring his own plan.
“Once he’s inside, we lure Hermes from your side, or Hephaestus, or some other god friendly to Mr. Goody-goody in a bid to rescue him, they get caught and the rest fall like ninepins. It’s genius!”
“Naturally! Now all we need are the full schematics to this fiendish thingy your Hermes made and we’re in business.”
“Perfect!” the Sovereign clapped his hands and rubbed them together in anticipation of his victory. “I’ll head over to his forge right now and get them. I’ll meet you back here as soon as you get finished with Nebula – Hey!”
“Hey what?” Ares said, feigning innocence.
“You . . . Nebula . . .” he said, his eyes narrowing suspiciously. “What’s up with that?”
“Heeeeeey, Soooooov, Baby!” Ares said. “What kinda talk is that?” He slid a companionable arm across the half god’s shoulders. “We’re buddies, Buddy! Partners in this venture. Fifty-fifty all the way.”
“Oh, yeah! You and me, we’ll rule my world the way it should be. I can see it now!” He held up his free hand to describe his grand vision. “Me on Olympus, ruling the gods who are with us. You having it your way in the mortal world! A thousand armies to command any way you want. Any woman you want, yours for the taking! Wealth, power and no one to stand in your way!”
The Sovereign stopped cold and shook off Ares’ arm.
“That’s what I’ve got now,” he sneered. “Plus one other teensy weensy little bauble that sorta makes me one up on you.”
“Oh, really, Sunshine?” Ares challenged. “And what might that be?”
Ares’ plans had progressed further than he had ever hoped with the Sovereign’s help, but if this petty little tyrant thought he was going to be handed the gold ring at this late date, he had another thought coming. The War God prepared to hand out a little ‘Ares argument’ to keep his half mortal partner in his place.
“Just this,” the Sovereign said, holding up a dagger crusted with dried blood.
Ares stepped back quickly. He could feel the death vibrating from the blade as it wavered in front of his face. No doubt about it, Hind’s Blood.
“Now,” the Sovereign continued, “who is the alpha dog around here again?”
The God of War held up his own hands placatingly, but did not answer as his partner smiled smugly and replaced the dagger in its sheath. Inwardly, he seethed at the betrayal. Why hadn’t he remembered this doofus had that damned vial of Hind’s Blood? A trivial error on his part, but one that could cost him everything he’d worked for. He glared into the Sovereign’s eyes and nodded curtly. The tall demigod laughed and swaggered off to find Hermes in his mountain forge.
“Alpha dog, huh?” Ares muttered under his breath. “Oh, yeah. We’ll just see about that! This is _not_ over! Not by a long shot!”
The Labyrinth of Eternal Memory turned out to be an impressive facade built into a mountain side a few miles from the city. Long, wide steps led up to a tall stone wall, topped by an overhanging arch. Elaborate bas relief of battles and monsters cavorted across the arch while tall, thick pillars held it in place.
Before he changed out of his disguise as the Sovereign, Hercules ordered the door guards to take five and find some food and ale. He flipped them a coin.
“Get lost,” he told them. “I’m going for a workout and I don’t need gawkers.”
The guards looked at each other, decided not to look this gift horse in the mouth, and disappeared.
“I think you’re starting to enjoy this whole bad boy thing way too much,” Iolaus said as he handed Hercules his clothes. “I’m gonna have my work cut out for me when we get back home, making you nice again.”
“Hey, I didn’t knock them out or anything,” Hercules said. “I gave them enough money to get good and drunk. They won’t be bothering us for the rest of the day. I’m still nice.”
“He’s right,” the Jester said. “The Sovereign would have just broken their necks and tossed them in the gutter. He can always get new guards. At least, he can always coerce somebody into guard duty.”
Iolaus didn’t look convinced, but restrained to argue the point. He didn’t smile again until he saw his partner dressed once more in his familiar pants and shirt.
‘_Clothes really do make the man,_’ he thought.
The three men climbed the wide steps, very aware of the majestic work around them. Iolaus whistled appreciatively at the art work and style of the place.
“Wow!” he said. “This is some place!”
“Zeus built it for the Sovereign when he was a baby,” the Jester said as they reached the heavy wooden doors. “I’ve never been in it, myself, but the Sovereign used to go here pretty often for what he called down time. The look in his eyes when he came back made me want to run and hide every time. I’ve heard designing this place was what drove Zeus insane.”
“Zeus is insane?” Hercules asked, surprised.
“Oh, yeah,” the Jester said, nodding vigorously. “He was never all that stable to begin with, but since the Sovereign was born, the old boy’s gone a few sandwiches short of a picnic.”
“Then I guess its no surprise that the Sovereign is the way he is,” Hercules said. “Like father like son.”
He put his shoulder to the door and pushed. The others helped, but it required Herculean strength to push the thick door open enough to admit them.
“The Sovereign used to get in here when he was a kid?” Hercules asked. The Jester nodded. “How’d he open that door? I gotta stop underestimating that guy!”
The room they came to was bare of furnishings, but did have rows of intricately carved pillars throughout. The plaster on the walls had been elaborately painted to depict man-eating monsters, fighting men dying horribly in battle and scenes of panic and fear among ordinary people. Whoever the artist had been, he obviously went for a seriously disturbed effect with his work. None of the three men wanted to look at the walls for very long. The sooner they could find whatever they were looking for, the better.
Torches lined the wall at regular intervals. Hercules pulled one out, lit it with the help of Iolaus’ flint and began to pick his way carefully through the room. He held the torch one way, then another, sweeping slowly from side to side as if getting a good look at some of the more lurid scenes on the walls.
“What are you doing?” Iolaus asked him. “I hate this room. Let’s move on.”
“In a minute,” Hercules said, moving his torch slowly to his left. “This is a labyrinth, remember? We can’t just go blundering about in the dark. We haven’t got time to make any mistakes, so I’m looking for air currents. The wind will blow toward an opening. We follow the drafts to the centre, grab the fiendish thingy and get back out the same way.”
Iolaus shrugged his shoulders at the questioning look in his twin’s eyes. Hercules had tested many innovations in their long association, usually to good effect. Being guided by air currents may be new, but not nearly as outlandish as some of the demigod’s other ideas. Iolaus began to follow his partner’s methodical progress, then looked back as the Jester stood watching them.
“You know, you really don’t have to go any further if you don’t want to,” he said. “You’ve already been a big help.”
The Jester lifted his chin defiantly.
“You didn’t hesitate,” he said. “You didn’t even ask about what you might be getting into. You just jumped right in there and said, ‘Let’s do it!’
“Yeah, but that’s me,” Iolaus said. He could hear the anguish in the other man’s voice, and his own heart was moved to pity rather than scorn. How easily the Jester’s life could have been his! “Not everybody’s cut out for this kind of work. I’ve always known that. It’s just what we do.”
The Jester seemed near to tears in his own self loathing.
“‘Just what you do?’” he repeated. “It’s what you both are! You’ve both got more self respect than I’ll ever have! You wouldn’t let people walk all over you or laugh at you. You’d both stand up for yourselves or die rather than submit to that kind of abuse.”
Iolaus put his hands on his double’s shoulders and gently shook him.
“Hey, guy, ease up on yourself!” he said. “We both made choices in our lives, you and me. They were different choices, that’s all. Different, not wrong and that’s true for both of us.”
“It’s not true,” the Jester answered. “Choice had nothing to do with the way my life turned out. I could never be as brave as you. I could never do the things you do.”
“You don’t have to,” Iolaus said, a little exasperated that his double couldn’t grasp this simple concept. “Just being yourself is enough. Nobody has to be like anybody else.”
But the Jester’s attention had been distracted by the huge, dark snake that slithered into the room while Iolaus was talking. He stared and pointed at it, just as Hercules also became aware of their unwelcome companion.
“You mean like being able to face that without messing my pants?”
“Good example!” Iolaus shouted as he drew his knife out, ready to fight.
Hercules ditched the torch.
“Hold that thought!” he said circling away from the monster. “Iolaus, keep it focused your way!”
“Which one?” the two blonds chorused.
Hercules stopped, stunned. It had never occurred to him that the simple matter of a name would get in his way. Up to this point, it hadn’t been an issue. Now, in the heat of battle, he needed to differentiate his companions or they were all going to die. He pointed at his partner.
He pointed at the Jester, cowering against the wall.
“One, go left! Two, fall back and don’t move!”
“Are you kidding?” the Jester croaked. “I can’t move! I’m terrified!”
Iolaus began to circle to his left, his eyes never leaving the giant creature that menaced them all.
“That is one big snake,” he growled. “Think it’s poisonous?”
Hercules was mirroring his partner’s movements.
“Does it really matter?” he asked. “Whoa!”
Hercules dived for the floor as the creature attacked him, missing him by bare inches. He rolled and leaped up, facing his foe, close enough that the demigod could feel its hot breath. His right fist slammed into the snake’s nose with enough force to knock it into a new line of sight.
The Jester stood directly in front of it.
Hercules’ face fell as he realized the danger facing the untrained fighter.
The smaller man began to move along the wall, keeping eye contact with the monster. It swayed above him, uncertain what to do. The Jester’s foot knocked against Hercules’ discarded torch and he snatched it up, waving it in the snake’s face.
“Get away!” he shrieked. “Get away!”
The snake hesitated, momentarily cowed, wary of the fire, but it would not be long before it attacked again. Hercules searched desperately for something to bring its attention back onto himself.
“One! Throw something at it! Get its attention!”
Iolaus grabbed up the only object that lay near at hand, a tall, earthenware vase.
“Like that’ll work!” he chided himself. “Herc! Hit it!”
But it was already too late. The snake had grasped the Jester’s torch in its mouth, ripped it out of his hands and tossed it aside. Disarmed and suddenly vulnerable, he screamed, turned tail and ran for his life. The snake followed, its powerful jaws snapping in the air behind him.
“Two! This way!” Hercules shouted.
The Jester suddenly leaped up, somersaulted through the air and landed on his feet at Hercules’ side. The demigod stepped into line, cocked his fist and rammed it into the snake’s jaw. The beast was turned by the blow so that it faced Iolaus. He caught his partner’s eye and they both nodded curtly.
“Go!” they chorused.
Criss crossing each other, they raced around one of the pillars, the snake never far from chomping one of them. In a matter of seconds, they had managed to trick the beast into winding itself around the strong stone so tightly that it could barely move its head. Before it could figure out how to untangle itself, Hercules grabbed its tail and looped it around the thing’s neck. Finally, he pulled the slack in the opposite direction. Trapped by its own weight and length, the monster roared and struggled uselessly to escape.
Iolaus leaned his back against a bare pillar to catch his breath. Hercules joined him.
“That worked,” he said.
“Yeah,” Iolaus panted. “Good plan. Love it. Let’s do it again some time.”
Hercules caught his eye.
“Not!” the said together and Iolaus began to giggle.
The Jester picked himself up from the floor, still shaken by his experience. The snake was well and truly stuck, but he still did not like the way it thrashed about and the blood curdling noises it made. He shivered nervously as he passed it.
“And you guys do this all the time?” he asked.
Iolaus was still grinning from his shared joke with his partner.
“Only on good days,” he said.
“How can you laugh about it? That thing tried to kill us!”
“Eh, you get used to it,” Iolaus shrugged. “No biggie.”
The Jester shook his head as he followed Hercules and Iolaus further into the maze.
“‘Get used to it’ he says! ‘No biggie’ he says!” He took a deep breath. “Not in a million years!”
Hercules smiled and put his arm across the frightened man’s shoulders.
“Hey, don’t sell yourself short, Iolaus,” he encouraged. “You were great back there!”
“I was?” the Jester said, surprised at this assessment.
“Yeah!” Iolaus echoed his partner’s opinion. “Not bad at all!”
“You really think so?”
“Definitely,” Hercules said. “But let’s pick up the pace a bit. Iolaus, you got the torch? Good! Hold it up in this cross road. Which way now? Okay, let’s go!”
“Yeah,” Iolaus said with a wry grin. “Wouldn’t want to keep whatever else is crawling around in here waiting.”
Nebula settled her breast plate more firmly over her chest, checking to see that it was showing her off to best advantage. She had already freshened her makeup, patted her hair into place and plumped up all the pillows on the bed in anticipation of her lover’s arrival, which she expected momentarily. She heard a noise in the room behind her and smiled to herself. The Sovereign had taken his time getting to her, but that only served to make her more ready for him than ever.
“You don’t have to get all gussied up on my account,” growled a silky voice. “I’ll come willingly!”
With a scream of rage, Nebula seized a cushion and hurtled it at the tall man standing in the chamber doorway.
“Get out of here, Ares!” she shrieked. “I’m finished with you!”
Ares hugged the cushion to his face and breathed deeply. There was still a faint aroma of her perfume and it went to his head like a fine wine.
“Uh! I have got to find a way to bottle that!” he said. He tossed the cushion aside and strode confidently into the room.
Nebula sprawled on the bed, unwilling to disturb the picture she had created for the Sovereign’s pleasure. Ares drank in her long, sensuous form and mentally licked his lips. He wanted nothing better than to tear off her clothes and ravish her. If she were any other mortal, he would have thought nothing of taking her any time he wanted her. But unless she invited his touch, it would be political suicide to have any part of her, he needed the good will of both her and the Sovereign. His gaze strayed to her lovely face, marred by a hardness in her luminous eyes and a sneer on her generous lips.
“I don’t get it,” he pouted. “I’m tall, I’m dark, I’m handsome, I’ve got a great job and I can stay up _all_ night! Why don’t you like me?”
“You?” Nebula spat. “Because you remind me of that sickeningly saccharine God of Love, that’s why!” She made a sound of supreme disgust in the back of her throat.
“Oh, yeah?” Ares countered, stung by her rejection. “Well in my world you’re just as – _nice_ – and nasty – as you are here. And it is _killing_ me that I can’t have either of you!”
“Tell it to the Sovereign!” Nebula spat. “He’ll be here any minute now.”
“And you told him everything didn’t you? All your little plans and schemes!”
“So what if I did?” Nebula demanded. “He was very impressed! Couldn’t wait to get things rolling on this end.”
Ares stamped his foot angrily and resisted the urge to wrap his hands around Nebula’s lovely throat. How could she be so dense?
“If I didn’t want you so bad, I’d’a killed you by now!” he fumed at her. “The Sovereign is on his way to Herme’s workshop right now. You told Hercules and he’s about to pull the plug on everything we’ve built up! If he finds that orb, he’ll destroy it! That’s it! I’ve got to eliminate him as soon as I can!”
“But if you do that, the Sovereign – my Sovereign – he’ll be history!” Nebula whined.
Ares shrugged his shoulders. One partner, here or there, more or less, didn’t really concern him. Winning was all that mattered.
“That’s the way it goes, Sweetheart,” he said. “Get used to it.”
To his surprise, Nebula dissolved into hot, angry, frustrated tears. She threw herself at her pillows and beat them with her fists. Her screams and wails of anguish could be heard throughout the palace.
Hidden away in the upper loft of the Sovereign’s bed chamber, Ares, the God of Love, looked down on the scene between the Empress and his own counterpart. He would never understand War’s attitude – all this talk about killing, a sneering disregard for anyone’s fate – it was all beyond him. He sighed deeply in his despair.
“Why can’t we all just get along?”
“So all I have to do is hit somebody on the head with the orb and they’re caught?” the Sovereign lounged indolently on the only chair in his half brother’s workshop. He played with an intricately designed tool as he spoke, turning it over and over in his big hands, tossing it back and forth. Hermes rescued the device before his careless sibling could damage it beyond repair.
“Hit them in the head or the heart, to be specific,” he said, moving the tool to a less prominent position. The Sovereign often became fixated on objects and would not leave something alone unless it was removed from his line of sight long enough for him to forget about it. Hermes figured a few minutes should do the trick.
“How hard?” the Sovereign asked. If he’d had the orb in his possession at that moment he would have lobbed it at Hermes for taking away his toy. He hated being denied anything.
Hermes shrugged and placed a less delicate toy, one that could take more abuse from a careless psychopath, within the Sovereign’s reach.
“Not hard enough to knock them out, but harder than just a touch,” he said, and smiled when the demigod picked up the new object and began to handle it. “What most people would refer to as a love tap. I know this is a stretch for you, but it needs a gentle hand. Hit somebody too hard with that thing and it’ll pass right through them. You’ll have to experiment a little to get the force exactly right, but that’s basically it.”
“Hmph!” the Sovereign absently mangled the tool in his hands until it was a lump of metal and wooden cogs.
He didn’t like things that required thinking. Not that he lacked intelligence, he just didn’t like having to exercise his mind unless he absolutely couldn’t avoid doing so. He could plot and plan with the best of them – otherwise he would never have survived among his siblings beyond six months of age – but he liked his results quickly and easily. There was something inherently wrong, he thought, with having to use subtlety to get what he wanted.
“What’s the use having to go easy on someone I want to get rid of?” he complained. “I don’t care if the orb damages some god who opposes me. Let ‘em spend the rest of eternity nursing a broken arm or leg! Teach ‘em respect.”
Hermes shook his head. Sometimes his half brother could be incredibly dense.
“If there weren’t rules to these little things, anybody could use them,” he said. “Once you learn to use the orb, you can take out anybody you want, and only you, me and Ares will know the key to its use.”
The Sovereign tossed the useless lump of metal aside and rose to his full height.
“You may have noticed that I don’t share well with others,” he said, an obvious threat in his demeanor. “Why should you and Ares know how to use this thing? Why shouldn’t I just take you out of the game right now?”
“Oh, please,” Hermes said. “Try not to be a total idiot. Ares is the only one who can get close to the gods of his Olympus. If we want this whole thing to succeed, you’ll have to tell him how to use the orb. If you don’t, I will. And just so you know, if you trap me in the orb, I’ll destroy it to get out. I’m the only one who knows how, and don’t ask me because I won’t tell you. That’s my insurance you won’t use it against me. You kill me and the other gods will ally against you, and even your Hind’s blood dagger won’t help you this time.”
“How’d you know about the dagger?”
“That’s not important. Suffice it to say that I’ve got my sources. The point is, you cross me, you lose a whole lot more than you gain. Play by my rules and you get everything you want for Solstice. You got the picture now?” The Sovereign looked directly into his half brother’s eyes. Hermes was completely unafraid of him, which was something he found both refreshing and disturbing. However, he needed the smith’s cooperation, if not his good will, to accomplish his long and short term goals. After he had succeeded in conquering both his own world and that of the other side of the vortex, then all debts would be paid. Hermes would not escape revenge forever.
“I get the picture,” he said with a smile that did not reach his eyes.
Hermes was not fooled. He knew that the Sovereign would one day try to kill him, but that just meant he had to plan. Not a problem for the god of the forge. For now, he let matters stand as they were. Time enough to pay everyone out for past insults.
“Good,” he said. “See that you keep it in mind. Now, why don’t you scoot off to the maze and make sure Hercules doesn’t wreck everything on us. Trapping him would be good practice for you.”
Cautiously, Hercules held the guttering torch into the corridor. The flame jumped, sputtered, then settled on leaning to the left.
“We go that way,” Hercules said.
“Are you sure we’re not lost?” the Jester said. He had never been in the labyrinth. The Sovereign had always made him wait outside when he went in. Considering some of the traps set up inside it, Iolaus felt more grateful than slighted. “I’ve been lost before and it looks exactly like this.”
“Will you relax?” Iolaus the Hunter said. “We’re going the right way. Right, Herc?”
“As near as I can tell, yeah,” came the reply. “I’ll let you know for certain when we get there.”
“I knew it!” the Jester wailed. “We’re lost! We’ll never get out of here!”
Hercules stopped and put a calming hand on the distraught man’s arm.
“Calm down, Iolaus,” he said. “It’s a maze, we’re supposed to be going all over the place in seemingly aimless circles. That’s the whole point.”
“Yeah, try to enjoy the experience,” the hunter added. “This’ll be a story you can tell your grandchildren.”
“Hmph! That’s easy for you to say! You won’t be telling your grandkids how you nearly got everybody killed when you ran away from that snake. No, you’ll be describing how you helped defeat a monster or two and every other trap we’ve come across.” Iolaus turned sharply on his twin.
“What is with you?” he said. “So far you haven’t done anything to be ashamed of. Why are you beating yourself up all the time?”
“Because I’m not like you, all right!” the Jester blurted. “I’m not brave like you! I tried to be like you but I couldn’t. And I tried! The gods know how much I tried!.”
Iolaus grabbed his double and forced him to stand face to face.
“So stop trying to be like me,” he said. “Be more like yourself. There’s nothing wrong with being you.”
He let his doppleganger go and followed after Hercules. The Jester ran to catch up.
“But don’t you want me to be more of a hero? Like you?”
“Only if that’s what you’re happy being. Look, it doesn’t matter what I want, or what anyone else wants you to be. What do _you_ want you to be? That’s what’s important. If you want to be a hero, that’s what you’ll be. If you want to be a clown, a farmer, a fisherman, whatever, that’s what you’ll be.”
It had never occurred to the man known only as a Jester to the evil Sovereign that he could become whatever he wished to become. He had always lived his life as it was dictated by someone else, namely the mad son of Zeus. That he should have control over his own destiny took some getting used to. For a moment he stood gaping after Iolaus’ retreating back. Once more, he ran to catch up to the other men.
Hercules had stopped at another crossroad and held the torch in the middle. The flame flickered then leaned decidedly to the left.
“We go that way,” he said.
Iolaus shrugged his shoulders in a ‘whatever’ gesture, then followed his partner. The Jester was close behind him.
In a flash of bright light, the God of Love appeared in the passage ahead of them. The sudden apparition startled the Jester enough that he scurried behind Hercules, allowing the big man’s frame to completely conceal him.
Ares smiled happily at the sight of Hercules flanked by the two handsome blond men, one brazenly handsome, the other so shy and sweet as to soften the hardest heart.
“I am so glad to see you all finally getting close!” he said, a tear of joy forming in his eye. He barely noticed when both Iolaus and the Jester stepped hastily away from Hercules’ proximity. “The other Ares is coming,” he continued after a moment. “He knows you’re all here and he’s going to kill you before you can get to Hermes’ device. It’s an orb, by the way. I don’t know much else about it except that the Sovereign had to go to Hermes to get instructions on how to use it. Does this help you?”
“Yes, it does,” Hercules said. “More than you know. But we need you to do something more for us. I’m not surprised that Ares is bent on killing us, or me, at least. Can you distract him somehow?”
Ares heaved a deep sigh of regret.
“I am a lover . . .” he began.
“. . . not a fighter, I know,” Hercules finished for him. “I know you won’t try to fight him, but you could slow him down a little, couldn’t you?”
At first, the God of Love wanted to protest that he was no match, physically, for the God of War. However, he did have a few tricks up his sleeve to – distract – his more violent twin. He smiled wickedly.
“I’ll see what I can do,” he said. “Love will find a way!”
He disappeared, leaving a sweet odour of roses behind him.
Hercules threw a sharp glance at his grinning partner.
“Not one word,” he said.
Iolaus tried to look innocent, failed, and started to snicker.
“I wouldn’t dream of it!” he smirked.
“You – you’d kill off my Sovereign?” she whined, her big brown eyes brimming with hot tears.
“In a Peloponnesian minute,” Ares said. “He’s way too close to being a liability anyway. Getting rid of Hercules just solves two problems at once.”
Nebula began to wail and cry once more, kicking her feet in her frustration.
“Oh, please!” Ares said. “Like you actually care for that clown?”
“No!” she raged. “But he’s the best I’ve had in a long time and I thought I was gonna get lucky tonight!” She went back to her furious kicking and screaming.
Back in the loft, the God of Love almost cheered. Hercules needed a distraction? Man! Did he have a distraction! One lucky Empress coming right up!
“Oh, but you are, my dear,” he whispered. “You most certainly are! Hang on to your – everything!”
He gathered love together in his hand, held it up and blew on it gently. It fragmented, scattered, then drifted through the air toward Nebula.
Ares, the God of War, paced back and forth like a caged animal. On the one hand, he hated to hear a woman crying because it grated on his nerves. On the other, Nebula’s temper tantrum turned him on in a way he hadn’t expected. How he longed to capture and confine those churning legs and arms to his own use and pleasure! Too bad the business at hand took precedence. Maybe, when he’d got rid of all the Herculeses in his life . . .
“I gotta get back to work,” he said. “If I thought for one minute that I could stay with you and still get to Hercules in time, I would. But for now I’ve got to find a more permanent solution to my problems.”
Slowly the love that had blown down from the loft settled over Nebula. She ceased her wailing and took a deep breath. She needed something, and she needed it right now! She needed a man! A strong man! A man like – _him_!
“You’re not going anywhere!” she growled, her eyes bright with lust and her chest heaving with desire. “Come to me, you hunk!” She began to stalk Ares as he walked toward the chamber door. He paused to watch her progress, fascinated, captivated by her graceful, panther-like movements. A wisp of the love draft tickled his face and his own eyes became fever bright. With a final snarl, Nebula pounced on him. “You hunk of burning love!”
Ares caught her as she leaped into his arms.
“Oh! Mama!” he screamed as she ripped the leather vest from his back. He began to tear her clothes from her body, trying to devour every inch of her as it became exposed.
The God of Love at first watched the two lovers with interest and delight. This was turning out better than he’d hoped! But the violence of their encounter, the scratching and clawing, the teeth and the nails, soon began to sicken him. He clapped one hand over his eyes.
“I can’t look!” he shuddered.
Their howls and screams continued, punctuated now and then by the sound of ripping leather. In the throws of passion they crash landed on the bed, unable to contain their needs. The God of Love risked one little peek between his fingers when Nebula demanded, “Give me what you’ve got, Baby!”
The white clad god found himself captivated by the action. How cool! He watched with more interest and a growing appreciation for their athleticism.
“Hmph!” he said. “I didn’t even think that was possible. Oh, well. This outta keep ‘em busy until Hercules gets to the centre of the maze. Oooo! Good one! This is starting to be fun! Let’s keep that good lovin’ comin’, guys!”
The Labyrinth of Eternal memory was a twisted, misshapen place, conceived by a madman and built for a psychotic with delusions of grandeur and rampant paranoia. As such, it included numerous traps and tricks. Monsters lurked around every corner, ready to snap up the unwary, chew them up and spit them out. As they inched their way through the many corridors and false leads, the three men came across many of these creatures forcing them to fight their way through. The Jester alerted his companions to the newest threat.
“Arrrrgh! It’s a rat! A rat! It’s a rat! Keep it away! Keep it away!”
He nearly leaped onto Hercules’ back in his efforts to avoid the evil eyed rodent that shared their space in the maze.
“Will you relax?” Iolaus said. “It’s only a rat. You’re about a hundred times its size.”
“Yeah,” Hercules said, disengaging the terrified man’s clinging hands. “Take it easy! It’s a lot more afraid of you than you are of it.”
“Oh, yeah?” the Jester countered. “Then why does it look so calm?”
He tried to continue after the other two men, but his legs had suddenly become weak and shaky. The Jester watched as Hercules and his partner forged ahead, unafraid. Iolaus suddenly noticed that his twin was no longer with them, and he turned back.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, not unkindly. “I know it’s kinda dark, but we are getting near the end.”
“I shouldn’t have come,” the Jester said. “I’m a coward, Iolaus, I always have been and I always will be.’
Iolaus put his fists on his hips and looked sternly at the man in front of him.
“Stop that!” he said. “You’ve got as much courage as the next man. More, if what Hercules told me is true.” The Jester looked up, curious.
‘What’d he say?”
“He told me that you had the chance to stay in our world, and you chose to return to this one,” Iolaus said. “Is that true?”
“Welllll, yeah, I guess so,” the Jester said.
“So there you go!” Iolaus concluded. “That took a lot of courage. Especially since you didn’t know what you were going back to.”
“Iolaus is right,” Hercules said, joining the two men. “You were even determined to make a difference in the lives of people living here, no matter how small it might be.”
“You don’t understand,” the Jester said, twisting his hat in his hands. “I came back here wanting to be like you, Hercules, and make you proud of me, even if you couldn’t see what I did. When Xena ran away and the Empress took over, I joined the rebellion against her. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time, and they needed me because I knew the palace. Lot of good that did! Nebula was waiting for us and we got caught almost right away. Most of the others fought their way out, but I didn’t know how, so I was outa luck. The Empress didn’t like me before the Sovereign went away, so she made sure I wouldn’t be bothering her any more. She had me executed!”
“So that’s how you died!” Iolaus said.
“Yeah, and let me tell you there’s a lot to be said for being dead,” the Jester told them. “It was nice in Tartarus. Nobody bothered me there, nobody made me tell any jokes, nobody tried to hurt me or punish me for not being funny enough or tall enough or stupid enough. I kinda got to like it after a while. But then the Sovereign came back and found out what had happened to me. He blew his stack! He had some old scrolls that Hephaestus had written to this girl in some little hick town, and he threatened to show Athena, his wife, if he didn’t bring me back from the dead.”
“Must have been about the same time the gods granted you your life back,” Hercules said to his partner.
“Mmm,” Iolaus answered, not really listening. His heart had been steadily breaking for this broken man before him. A man who welcomed death as a way to end his trials and resented being alive because it put him right back in the thick of things.
“Talk about going from the frying pan into the fire!” the Jester continued. “I was right back where I started, only worse. The Sovereign was crazier and more vindictive than ever! I thought I’d finally escaped him once and for all, but even death isn’t a surety any more with him around, so suicide wasn’t an option. He takes this idea of ‘it’s not over til I say it’s over’ really seriously. I was never going to get away from him, not for good, anyway, so one day I hid in the walls of the palace. It was the only place he’d never think to look for me and the one place to be absolutely safe.”
Hercules felt as moved by this tale as his partner. He placed a comforting hand on the Jester’s shoulder.
“I’m so sorry you had to live like that,” he said.
“Herc! Look at the walls!” Iolaus said, pointing behind where the Jester stood.
The walls were suddenly alive with moving images. At first they showed the Jester as he had looked when he came through the vortex to his own dimension. He looked resolute, if a little nervous, about the new life facing him. The scene suddenly jumped to many men and women, the Jester among them, fighting Corinthian soldiers and pressing their way through the palace halls and rooms. Another scene showed the Empress, resplendent in red, standing haughtily over a row of chained men. She raised a long, wicked looking sword and, with one mighty slash, beheaded all of them at once. Hercules turned away, revolted, when she laughed as she picked up one head by its long, blond hair and held it up for all to see.
Another scene played out, this time of the Jester in a place with no walls, no floors, no up, no down, no light, no dark – a place of nothing and no where, Tartarus. For the first time, he looked at peace, calm, almost happy. Until the next scene, that showed the Sovereign dragging him back. In desperation, he hid himself in a long disused tunnel in the walls of the palace and stayed there, hoping his cruel master might one day give up the search for him.
“Well, there’s something you don’t see every day,” Hercules said as he observed the images.
The Jester turned to look and his face fell.
“Oh, no!” he said. “Oh, gods! Does everybody have to see what a coward I am?”
“Hey! Take it easy!” Iolaus told him. “The Labyrinth is just replaying your memories somehow. It’s neither good nor bad, just the facts as you remember them.”
More scenes unfolded, some involving the Sovereign as he returned to his bloody, evil ways. Others showing the Jester skulking through the empty corridors of the palace at night, pilfering food as the opportunities presented themselves and avoiding detection at all costs. Only the God of Love knew where he had gone, and he kept that knowledge to himself. Watching the images on the wall, the Jester’s head fell further and further and his cheeks flamed red with shame. His new friends would see him for a failure and a coward and they would desert him, too disgusted to ever give him so much as the time of day again. His hopes began to sink within his heart.
“This can’t be good!” Iolaus said.
“What is this?” Hercules said in alarm. “How is it happening?”
The Jester suddenly realized that the two heroes were not referring to the images, but to the fact that they were all sinking into the floor beneath their feet. Slowly, they sank down, the sand clutching at their legs and holding them fast so that they could not escape. The Jester looked from Iolaus to Hercules and back to Iolaus.
“I don’t remember this!” he exclaimed. “I don’t remember this at all!”
“Herc!” Iolaus said. “What’s going on? Does this make any sense to you? I mean, this place is the Sovereign’s playground, and you two are sorta connected –“
“It makes no more sense to me than it does to you,” Hercules said, trying to grab on to the walls to haul himself back up. His fingers could find no purchase. “One! Grab that torch bracket! Try to hang onto to Two and keep yourselves above the sands! There’s got to be a way out of this. Think!”
“Sorry, Hercules,” the Jester said, clinging to Iolaus’ hand while the Hunter wrapped one arm around the bracket. “My mind is so full of terror right now, there’s no room for anything else!”
Abruptly, their descent halted. They looked at one another questioningly.
“What now?” Iolaus said.
“Well, we’re not sinking any more,” Hercules said, “but we’re not rising up, either. One, can you pull Two up to firmer ground?”
Iolaus pulled as hard as he could while the Jester worked with all his might to free one leg, but the sand held them fast. The wall bracket began to bend under their weight.
“Stop! Stop!” Hercules said. “That bracket won’t take much more pressure. We’ll have to think of something else. Two, we stopped sinking when you said you were too terrified to think. Maybe that’s got something to do with this?”
“Hey, the picture show!” Iolaus said. “It’s stopped! What’s that mean?”
“You didn’t want to see that anyway,” the Jester moaned. “Best if it’s hidden away from the world. Like me. Hidden where no one will ever find it.”
There was a flicker across the walls, and suddenly the images reappeared, just as bright and real as before. Once again, the three men began to sink, more quickly this time as if the labyrinth itself eagerly swallowed their lives into its own.
“Whoa!” Iolaus cried out as his footing slipped beneath him. “Hang on! Don’t let go!”
“I told you I should never have come here!” the Jester said. “It’s the story of my life, being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“That’s it!” Hercules exclaimed. “The story of your life! That’s what the Labyrinth is doing – using your memories, your regrets – using them to pull us down!”
Iolaus tried to tighten his hold on the wall bracket, shifting his weight slightly to accommodate his grip, but the thing was never meant to take that kind of abuse and it broke, sending him down into the sand. He floundered, buried up to his armpits and unable to reach anything that would help himself or the Jester.
“Great! You’ve figured it out!” he said. “So keep going! What do we do now?”
“‘We’ don’t do anything,” Hercules said. “It’s all up to Two! You’re living in the past, Iolaus! You’ve got to let it go! Put it behind you or we’re never getting out of here alive!”
The Jester turned to him helplessly. If the mighty Hercules couldn’t escape, how could he, a lowly court jester, do any better?
“How can I help us?” he said. “Be more scared? I can do that! Lose whatever hold I’ve got on my sanity? I can do that too, but I don’t think that’ll help us much!”
“Shut the past out of your thoughts,’ Hercules instructed him. “Think of something you _want_ to have happen. There must be something you look forward to in this life.”
The Jester shrugged.
“How about dying again?” he said. “It’s not so bad, once you get used to not living any more.”
“Come on, there’s gotta be something else,” Iolaus prompted him. “Something that would make you happy if you kept on living to see it through. Think!”
The sand had pulled Iolaus down almost to his shoulders. Very soon, he would sink out of sight and be lost. Hercules reached out and caught his hands, trying to pull him back, but he had no footing to push against. He looked at the Jester.
“Don’t give up on us!” he said. “Look forward to something! Anything!”
The Jester’s legs were completely trapped, and he knew their plight connected to his own despair. But he had never actually looked forward to anything good before. He watched as Hercules tried desperately to hold Iolaus above the sinking sands and knew he had to try. It was the most difficult thing he had ever done in his life, to imagine an outcome that did not involve pain or suffering or humiliation, but he bent his will to the problem. Slowly, a picture began to grow in his mind. Not much at first, but he gently coaxed it along until it shone more brightly. The idea expanded, showing him a brighter vista than he had ever thought possible, and he followed it incredulously.
‘_Could this really happen?_’ he thought, daring to hope. ‘_Could I do this? Would they let me?_’
“Whatever, you’re thinking,” Iolaus said, “keep it up! It’s working!”
The three men began to rise up through the sand, until the Jester opened his eyes and caught sight of an image of himself, running from the Sovereign. Hope began to fade once more in his heart, and they all sank deeper from his despair.
“No!” Hercules shouted. “Keep looking ahead, Iolaus! Don’t look back!”
With a monumental effort, the Jester wrenched his eyes from the depressing pictures of his past, and turned his sight inward to his more hopeful future. Ruthlessly, he put down the urge to take one last peek at what had been, and concentrated on his fantasy future. If only this could happen! He felt himself rising and kept his eyes closed, enjoying the thought of greener pastures and freer winds.
“It worked!” Iolaus said, clapping an arm around his twin’s shoulders. “We’re free! Way ta go, Buddy! I knew you could do it!”
The Jester laughed weakly, but happily. He returned Iolaus’ handshake.
“Yeah, I did it!” he said. “And all I had to do was to remember to forget to remember! Piece ‘o baklava, when you think about it!”
“Yeeeeeaaaah,” he said. “Oooookay! Herc, what’s next?”
Hercules picked up the discarded torch and held it in front of him. The flame bent unerringly in the direction they had been heading before the floor tried to swallow them.
“We go that way,” he said. “I’d say we’re nearly there.”
Ares, the God of War, collapsed beside the Empress, exhausted. The blankets had somehow crept over his head and he felt too warm, so he crawled out and took a deep ragged breath of fresh air. What a woman! He had dreamed that loving her would be good, but he had never imagined that it would be like this! One minute she played a tigress and a kitten the next. He wanted to list all the animals he could compare her to, but at the moment he only wanted one thing.
“Water!” he squeaked.
He tried to pull himself out further from under the blanket, but a long slim hand clamped onto his shoulder and held him back. Nebula slid up beside him and began to nibble on his ear.
“I’m not done with you yet,” she growled. “You know what they say? Tenth time’s the charm!”
Ares wanted to weep with either joy or despair. He’d never been with any other woman like her, and fervently prayed that he never would be again. At the same time, he wanted to rest for a day or two, then go back at this again. But how could he do that and still maintain his sanity? Unable to escape Nebula’s arms, he began to chew on the bed stead. Maybe he could escape that way, just for a little while, mind you. Just until he had regrouped and could enter into the fray once more.
“I’ve been a good God of War over the years” he muttered to himself. “I’ve done everything that’s expected of me. I’ve played by the rules, mostly. I haven’t done anything any other god wouldn’t do, given the chance. I’m not a bad guy, when you get to know me. I’m clean, I dress nice and I don’t belch in front of ladies. What’d I do to deserve this?”
Nebula swarmed over him, licking his neck, caressing his muscular back, wrapping her long legs around his body. She couldn’t get enough of this man! Why this should be, she could not say. Certainly he had the physical beauty to excite a woman’s interest. But just hours before she had rejected him because he looked exactly like someone she despised. What _had_ he done to pique her interest.
“Nothing!” she said to herself.. “Nothing? How could that be unless –“
She looked wildly around the room. Where would he be hiding? Where was that little weasel? When she found him, so help her, she would – ah ha!”
“Ares!” she grated, her eyes filled with hate. “It was you!”
From his vantage point in the Sovereign’s loft, the God of Love looked down on the bed where two people had lately been lovers. Nebula, however, was breaking out of his spell. Soon she would alert the war god that something was not right, and then he would do something violent. Not only that, he would probably head straight for the labyrinth, and there was no way of knowing if Hercules and his two delicious companions had finished their mission. Therefore, he prepared one more hit of his special love potion and blew it to sprinkle over Nebula once more.
The Empress screamed like an angry cat and rolled out of the way of the sparkling potion. It landed harmlessly on the bed, but one tiny sparkle drifted onto Ares’ head, and he was immediately aware that someone had just tried to put a glamour on him. With a snarl he looked around for the culprit and he, too, saw the white leather and smooth face of the God of Love. “You!” he barked. “I’ll get you for this!”
“You moron!” Nebula screamed at him, punching his arm. “This was a distraction. Hercules has probably found the orb by now and smashed it. Do something!”
“Oh, it’ll be a pleasure!” Ares grated. He reached over and picked up a vase, just big enough to fit in his hand. He heaved it at his look-alike with deadly accuracy.
The God of Love abhorred violence of any kind, especially when directed at him. He knew he could never go one on one with the God of War, and had done everything to avoid a confrontation, but now the confrontation had come to him and he feared for his life. The vase hurtled toward him and he knew it would hit – hard. It wouldn’t kill him, but it would hurt, and he hated pain almost as much as the violence that caused it. He screamed and disappeared in a shower of scented hearts and rose petals. To revive his fragile spirit, he willed himself to Olympus. This would need at least a full massage and a hot oil rub to make him alllll better.
The God of War had already leaped out of bed. He struggled with his clothes, anxious to get to the Labyrinth before Hercules could destroy everything. He shoved his feet into his boots, forgetting that his pants should go on first.
“Idiot!” Nebula hissed at him, wiggling into her own favourite fighting outfit. “You’ll never get ready in time!”
“Don’t get in my way!” Ares shouted at her. Belatedly, he remembered that as a god, he had omnipotent powers. With a thought, he was fully clad and ready to go. “I’m leaving now,” he said. “I’ll stop Hercules if it’s the last thing I do! The Sovereign is coming back from Hermes’ workshop by now. Find him and get to the maze as fast as you can. No matter what, we stop them. Permanently!”
“This must be the place,” Iolaus said as he, Hercules and the Jester entered the centre chamber of the Labyrinth of Eternal Memories.
Hercules extinguished the torch. The room was well lit, even though it was buried deep within a mountain, for the orb hidden there glowed with an eerie light. It showed a spacious chamber, unfurnished except for a plinth in the middle on which the orb rested. Iolaus stepped boldly inside, his sword grasped in his hand, ready to face whatever monster that might challenge them. Hercules, weaponless by choice, moved with a sure and easy grace around the room, alert for any danger. He caught his partner’s eye and they both nodded curtly.
The Jester poked his head inside and looked around fearfully. Sticking close to the wall he snuck inside, his head darting this way and that, expecting every second to be grabbed by some unseen, unknown and unexpected creatures set to guard this priceless treasure created by Hermes. When Iolaus spoke, the nervous man jumped and yelped.
“Whoa! Take it easy, Buddy!” Iolaus said. “You have got to stop watching those horror plays at the coliseum. They’re making you crazy. I don’t get it, Herc. This is what we’re here for? This bag- ball with delusions of grandeur?”
“Apparently,” Hercules said as he inspected the orb from all sides. “And if Hermes is half the inventor that Hephaestus is, this thing is bad news from start to finish.”
“What’s it supposed to do, anyway?” Iolaus asked.
“Trap people,” the Jester answered. “At least, trap gods. I don’t know about ordinary people.”
“I thought you said you didn’t know their whole plan?” Hercules asked.
“I didn’t,” the Jester said. “But I overheard a lot of stuff that didn’t make any sense at the time. Now it does. The Sovereign kept talking about keeping everybody in one place. He said some things about people never getting away once he had them. That sort of thing. The Empress made some other comments to other people that I never understood before, but now the only thing that makes sense is that this ball thing will be used to trap other gods in it.”
“If that’s the case then we have to destroy it, Herc,” Iolaus said. “I’m sure the Sovereign has his own agenda in this, but think what Ares, our Ares, can do with this kind of fire power.”
“Nothing good, you can bet on that,” Hercules replied. “The trouble is, we don’t know how to destroy this thing, or if that will make matters worse than they already are. We may be better served to get it to Hephaestus and see what he can make of it. He may have an idea how to dispose of it safely.”
“Alllrighty, then,” Iolaus said. “Plan in place. Let’s get outa here!”
The others agreed, and Hercules reached out to take hold of the glowing orb. Iolaus stopped him.
“Wait a minute,” he said. “We don’t know how this thing works, so if anybody’s going to grab it and run, it better be me.”
Hercules looked at him as if he’d grown another head.
“You’re kidding, right?”
“No. Seriously, Herc. If it does something weird, or traps me inside it, you can make plans to do something about it. After all, you’re the one with divine connections, not me. You can get it to Hephaestus to set me free or reverse the spell or whatever it takes. There is method to my madness.”
“And all too much madness to your method,” the Jester added.
Hercules and Iolaus turned their attention to the man and stared in amazement. He stood before them, gently holding the orb between his hands. He shrugged and gave them a half laugh.
“Problem solved,” he said.
Hercules and Iolaus stared at the Jester, mouths agape. Finally, Hercules broke the silence.
“Iolaus,” he began, shaking his head in disbelief. “Why? We had no idea what that thing would do to anyone who touched it. It might have killed you or made you disappear into it. Why would you do something that foolish?”
“Somebody had to do it,” he said. “Logically, it had to be me. I’m the most expendable member of the group. But look! Nothing bad happened, although I couldn’t tell you why. All I did was reach out and touch it. It’s sorta warm, sorta tingly. Almost like it’s getting a feel for me, you know?”
“Good! Now that we’re finished with the touchy feely stuff, hand it over.”
The three men whirled at the new voice.
“Ares, are you crazy?” Hercules demanded. “You think the other gods are going to let you just waltz in and take over? That they’ll just let you imprison them in that orb? How stupid do you think they are?”
“Actually, pretty damned dumb when you get right down to it,” Ares replied. “Look how long it took the pantheon to recognize Dahak as a threat. I knew he was bad news from the start and I tried to tell Zeus, but oh, no! There’s no problem! Everything’s juuuuust peachy! Just ignore it and it’ll go away!” Ares made a noise of disgust in his throat. “Old fool almost got us all eliminated! And the rest of them went along with it all!”
“But you were behind the other gods all the way when you finally defeated Dahak,” Iolaus protested. “What happened to all that ‘standing together’ stuff?”
Ares shot him a look.
“Are you kidding?” he said. “Do you know how boring Olympus is when everybody gets along? Somebody had to juice things up around there.”
“So this is all just because you were bored?” Hercules said. “That’s low even for you!”
“The gods really are crazy!” Iolaus said.
“Can’t argue with you there,” Ares agreed. “So hand over the orb and nobody gets hurt.” He paused to think. “No, that’s a lie. You all get hurt, big time. But, it’s nothing personal. Nah, that’s a lie too. It’s totally personal. At any rate, gimme the orb. Now, or it’ll hurt a lot longer than it has to. Toss it here, Shorty,” he ordered the Jester.
The orb glowed brightly in the Jester’s hands, the light almost painful to look upon. He clutched it securely in his arms and backed away.
“N-n-no!” he said. “I won’t!”
“Get real!” Ares snorted. “You really think you can stop me from taking it from you?”
“No, he can’t,” Hercules said. “But I can!”
He backhanded his half brother, sending him flying to land in a heap by the wall.
“Two! Get out of here while you can!” Hercules shouted, advancing on Ares who leaped to his feet. “One! Make sure he gets to Hephaestus with that thing to destroy it! Go!”
Ares had taken a fighting stance. At the sound of his brother’s name, he looked up.
“You’d really break it? he said. “What a Philistine! You have no appreciation for art, you know that?”
“But I do know what I like,” Hercules said. Ares charged him and the battle was on.
Both god and half god were evenly matched in strength and size. They traded blows, throwing each other across the room, slamming into walls with enough force to shake the floor, but neither could stop the other. Ares used his hatred of Hercules to put more power in his punches, and at first he seemed to be winning. But the longer Hercules fought, the angrier her became and the more strength he gained. Their playing field was level early in the game.
Iolaus tried to follow Hercules’ instructions to get the Jester and the orb out of the maze. He hated to leave his partner to face a fight alone, but knew it to be the only way to make sure this deadly little toy never fell into the wrong hands. He positioned himself between the battle and the Jester, shielding his double with his own body and watching for an opening to flee the room. Somehow, Ares anticipated and blocked him every time he tried to make a break for freedom.
“We’ve got to get out!” the Jester said, twitching nervously. “If Ares knows we’re here then the Sovereign can’t be far behind!”
“Yeah, I kinda figured,” Iolaus said. “Herc! Get him outta the way!”
At that moment, Ares landed a hard right to Hercules’ jaw. The half god staggered back, shook his head then glanced at his partner.
“Sure thing!” he said. “No problem. Ares out of the way, coming up!”
He jumped up and thrust both feet at once into the war god’s broad chest, sending him crashing into the plinth.
“Iolaus! Go! Now!” Hercules called.
Iolaus grabbed the Jester’s arm and propelled him towards the door.
“You heard the man! Go!” he shouted.
The Jester staggered a little, found his footing and raced toward the exit while Hercules held Ares back. Keeping the orb cradled in his arms, he planned to run all the way out of the labyrinth, not stop, not look back until he could see daylight over head. Suddenly he ran smack into something distressingly solid. He bounced back, tripped on his own feet, and managed to turn his fall into a back flip. When he righted himself once more, it was to stare into the baleful blue eyes of the Sovereign.
The son of the mad Zeus stood in the doorway, Nebula at his side, his arms crossed over his chest and a look in his eyes that promised death for whoever crossed him. He sneered at the Jester, who backed away fast.
“Well, well, well!” the Sovereign drawled. “So you’ve come out of hiding at last, have you? I must say you’ve kept me guessing for the last few weeks. And you’ve got my orb! Good on ‘ya! Now, just hand it over and come along like a good little jester and we’ll let this lot sort itself out.”
Hercules and Ares had jumped apart and begun to circle each other around the room. The Jester backed up against his twin and the two men stood side by side, ready for action. The two groups faced each other, Hercules, Iolaus and the Jester on one side of the room, The Sovereign, Nebula and Ares on the other.
Ares smiled triumphantly.
“Let’s see now,” he drawled. “We’ve got a full god, a half god and a psychopath on our side, and we’re standing in front of the only door. And what do you guys have? A half god, an admittedly decent fighter and – him,” he finished, waving vaguely at the Jester. “Looks like we win.”
“Ares, you always were too confident for your own good,” Hercules said.
“You really think we’re gonna give up?” Iolaus demanded. “Him don’t know us very well, do him?” he said to his partner.
“And after all these years you’d think he’d learn,” Hercules added, shaking his head.
“Enough debate!” Nebula growled. “I say we get rid of them all!”
“Patience, Babe, patience!” the Sovereign admonished her. “We have to do this right. We get the orb, we trap those two and that one comes back with me.”
“Right!” Ares said, rubbing his hands together. “Plan in place! Let’s do this!”
They began to advance on their puny adversaries. It looked like an easy victory.
“So what do we do?” the Jester said, hugging the glowing orb to his chest. “Do we let them beat us into submission or put up a token resistance before they clobber us? Just asking, you know, so I can brace for a lot of pain or a little.”
“Man, you have got to start thinking outside the box,” Iolaus told him. “We play our cards right and there won’t be any pain at all.”
“You mean we die fast?”
“Watch and learn, my friend,” Iolaus said. “Watch and learn.”
He and Hercules exchanged a glance and nodded once.
“One, left! Two, right!” Hercules called, then sprang straight up and over Ares’ head, landing on his feet behind them.
Momentarily confused by the order, neither Ares nor the Sovereign were ready to hinder Iolaus or the Jester as they scrambled into place.
“Two! Over here!” Hercules shouted.
Without hesitation, the Jester whipped the orb high over the Sovereign’s head to Iolaus, who immediately drilled it to Hercules.
“Shift!” he yelled.
Iolaus and the Jester dived to new positions and Hercules tossed the orb straight up, jumped up and smashed it to his partner as it came back down.
Ares and the Sovereign both tried to intervene when the two mortals moved, but every time they punched high, their quarry went low. Nebula had no better success. When she tried to attack Hercules, he suddenly threw himself at her feet, tripping her. Ares and his half god sidekick found themselves entangled with her as she struggled to get back up. Meanwhile the orb was tossed from Iolaus, to Hercules, to the Jester and back again, never in the same pattern. The three men constantly moved into new positions, keeping the orb in motion.
However, it was a stalemate, and they knew it. Their opponents were their equals in commitment and, with a full god on their side, superior in strength. Hercules tried to keep Ares off balance by occasionally landing a punch or a kick, then diving out of the way. It wouldn’t last long, but it could give them the edge long enough for the Jester to escape with the orb, somehow get it to Hephaestus and have it destroyed.
The Jester caught the orb, but he did not have clear access to the door. He fell back a pace to toss it and Iolaus ran across his path to intercept. Nebula, on the look out for just such an opportunity, saw where he was going and reacted with cat-like speed. Before Iolaus could avoid her, she hooked her elbow around his throat, yanking him off his feet. Her arm locked in place, she drew her knife with her free hand and jabbed it into his neck.
“Gimme that orb” she yelled. “Now! Or he dies!”
The Jester and Hercules froze in shock. Ares and the Sovereign straightened and closed ranks.
“Wait! Wait!” the Jester called, backing away from them. “You don’t have to do this! I’ll give it to you!”
“Iolaus, no!” Hercules called. ‘_C’mon, Herc, think! Think!_’
But the Jester had already made up his mind. He admired Iolaus greatly and couldn’t bear to see him die. He looked pleadingly into Hercules’ eyes.
“I can’t let them do it, Hercules,” he said. “Just let him go,” he said to the Sovereign, “and you can have it.”
The Sovereign swaggered in front of him.
“Finally, you get some sense,” he said. “Maybe it’ll buy you a little less pain than what I had planned for you. We’ll see. Meanwhile, toss it over, nice and easy.” He held out his hands to catch the orb.
“Iolaus! Don’t do it!” Iolaus called. If it cost him his life to keep this weapon out of Ares’ hands, so be it.
The Jester hung his head. He hated to give in, especially to the Sovereign and Nebula, but he could not stand by and let Iolaus die. He closed his eyes, heaved one shuddering sigh, and tossed the orb . . .
Nebula screamed in fury and flung Iolaus away from her.
“You idiot!” she shrieked. “What have you done? Where is he? Give him back!”
Hercules, the first to recover from the shock of seeing his twin disappear in a blinding flash, reached out and picked up the orb where it had landed by the plinth. The Jester’s toss had been light enough, but very inaccurate. Instead of landing safely in the Sovereign’s hands, it had twisted in mid air, hit him on the head, and engulfed him in a swath of light. When it bounced harmlessly on the floor, the Sovereign was nowhere to be seen.
Nebula began to search around the plinth, waving her arms through the air as if she could find her missing lover by touch.
“Sov!” Nebula called. “Sov! Pooky! Speak to me, Baby! Where are you? Come back!”
Ares backed away as he looked suspiciously around, wary of some hidden attack.
Iolaus joined Hercules.
“What just happened?” he said.
“He did it,” Hercules answered. “Ask him.”
The Jester stood staring at his hands in disbelief. He looked up, then back at his hands, then up again, his mouth opening and closing as he tried to explain what he had done.
“How?” he finally managed. “How did I do that? I didn’t mean to! It’s just that she was gonna kill Iolaus and – and – I – I wanted her to stop and –“
“You!” Nebula suddenly sprang up to face him, her face twisted with hate and grief and fury. “You pasty faced, useless, snivelling worm! What did you do to my Pooky? Bring him back! Bring him back right now or I’ll carve you up and feed you to my dogs!”
“You don’t have any dogs,” the Jester said in a small, frightened voice.
“I’ll get some!” Nebula snarled. “Big ones with sharp, nasty, pointy teeth! Now _bring him back_!”
She suddenly leaped at the quivering Jester, her long nails poised to claw at his face, then tear him apart with her bare hands. Hercules, unable to reach her in time, used the only weapon he had at his disposal. He whipped the orb at her head, intending to knock her out. Instead, it slowed slightly and struck her almost gently, like a love tap, on the shoulder and she, too, winked out in a flash of light. The Jester caught the orb as it bounced clear of where the Empress had stood.
He joined the two heroes, and handed Hercules the orb.
“You’d better take this,” he said. “It’s more dangerous than it looks.”
“You can say that again!” Iolaus said. “I didn’t think it would trap mortals as well as gods. That is one nasty thingy!”
“And it’s mine!” Ares said, coming forward once more. “Gimme!”
Hercules faced him, the orb resting easily in his big palm. He eyed his brother skeptically.
“I don’t think so,” he said.
“Hand it over!” Ares ordered, and prepared to throw a fireball to eliminate his half brother, once and for all.
Hercules raised the orb in response, ready to throw it at the enraged war god.
“Try it, Ares,” he said. “You throw that, I toss this and who knows what happens? It seems to have a mind of its own. It decides to hit you, you go out like a candle. Poof! Gone. And I don’t think anyone will miss you enough to try to get you back.”
Ares’ eyes narrowed challengingly.
“You wouldn’t . . .” he said.
“Try me,” Hercules answered.
For a moment or two they locked eyes, each daring the other to make a move. At last, Ares let his fire die.
“Yeah, you prob’ly would,” he said. “Oh, well. It was fun while it lasted. But don’t think this is the end. Tomorrow’s another day!” With a flash of fire and a smell of sulphur, he disappeared.
“Well fiddle-dee-dee to you, too, ya jerk!” Iolaus said. “Sheesh! Some people!”
“Yeah, well, I’m just glad that’s over,” Hercules said as he cradled the orb in the crook of his arm.
“Me, too,” the Jester agreed. “But where did the Sovereign and Nebula go? Will they be back?”
“I doubt it,” Hercules said. ‘Listen!”
They all stood very still and stretched their hearing to the limit. Faint, angry screams of protest could be heard emanating from the orb itself.
“They’re in there!” Iolaus said, smiling broadly. “Cool! Way ta kill two birds with one – orb! And they’re not even dead! I love it!”
“And the Hind’s Blood dagged is safely locked away,” said a new voice. All three men started, fearing some new threat. With neither fanfare nor flashes, Hermes, the God of the Forge, was standing in their midst. He stood casually, with his arms folded over his chest.
“So you guys won the toss, so to speak,” he said. “Bravo. Nicely done. Hurray. Now what are you going to do with that thing?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I hadn’t thought much further than finding and destroying it. But if I do that, the Sovereign and Nebula go free. I don’t want that to happen, especially if it means he’ll try something like this again.”
“Mind if I make a suggestion?” Hermes said. Hercules gestured to him to continue. “Give me the orb. I take it home and it becomes a permanent display piece in my gallery.”
“How do we know you won’t let them out and try this whole scheme again?” Iolaus said . “After all, you didn’t have any problem getting on board with it in the first place.”
“It was an interesting challenge,” Hermes said with a shrug of his own. “I just wanted to see if I could make something like that. Otherwise, I thought it was a pretty pointless exercise. Besides, I don’t want that maniac loose any more than you do. He’s really pissed right now. I let him out and he starts going wild with that damned dagger. Somebody could get hurt, like me, f’rinstance. Not an option.”
“What about your Aphrodite? Or Zeus if he finds out about it?”
“You think they care what happens to the Sovereign? They’ll be happy to hear that he’s gone. I don’t think any of our gods will try to get him out. And with him out of the way, there won’t be any bid to take over your side. I’ll pass the word that if anybody tries to take the orb away from me, it’ll break as soon as they touch it. That ought’a keep away any unauthorized users. So, wha’d’ya say?”
Hercules thought about it for a few minutes. Hermes sounded sincere, and his attitude reminded him sharply of Hephaestus, who wanted only to be left in peace to work.
“On one condition,” he said at last. “I give this to you, you close the door behind us.”
Hermes smiled slowly.
“I’ll need a little help,” he said. “Athena won’t mind. Okay, deal. I get the orb, to lock it away for the next millennium or two, you guys get the portal closed for ever. I don’t know how your gods indicate that they won’t cheat you, but around here we make an oath binding this way.”
“_I swear, by the River Styx!_”
Three men walked toward a swirling vortex, the portal between two worlds. Shortly, two of them would enter to return to their own universe with no way of coming back. The third, a man of great compassion and courage, followed them with a wistful look in his bright blue eyes.
“I wish I was going with you,” the Jester said. “It’s kinda what I was thinking about, you know, in the Labyrinth when we were sinking. I thought about what it would be like to go to your world. Start over again. There’s nothing for me here. No family and no future, just a past I never wanted.” He saw the two men exchange a glance. “That’s okay,” he said, his head hanging sadly, “it was just a thought.”
“Come with us?” Hercules said. “I don’t see any reason why not. We could use a good, brave man like you on our side.”
“Really?” the Jester said. “You mean that?”
“Trust me,” Iolaus said, placing a hand on his partner’s shoulder, “he doesn’t say a whole lot that he doesn’t mean. And he wouldn’t say anything at all if we didn’t think it was a good idea in the first place.”
The Jester looked at him searchingly.
“‘We?’” he said. “You mean ‘we’ as in the Royal ‘We’ or ‘we’ as in ‘us?’ That is, the two of you. Together. Thinking the same thing. That sort of ‘we.’ What’s so funny?”
Iolaus had begun to giggle. He clapped the Jester on the back and turned to his partner.
“And you say _I’m_ the babble king!” he laughed. “I think we’ve found a new contender for the crown!”
“But you do mean it, don’t you?” the Jester persisted. “That you both want me to come? I mean – you’re partners, and you really don’t need another –“
“Are you kidding?” Iolaus said. “Greece is a big place. There’s more than enough room for the both of us. Besides, with Ares back to normal, we’re gonna need all the help we can get!”
Rarely had the Jester felt this excited and happy. The nightmare that had been all he’d known could finally be said to be over.
“I can’t wait!” he said. “When do we start?”
“You’ve already started,” Hercules said with a smile. “By being willing to put your past behind you. But you know, you can’t forget the past, any more than you can change it.”
“Yeah,” the Jester said, his heart full with the new hope he could see in his future. “I guess the trick is to learn from our mistakes.”
“And if we’re lucky,” Iolaus added, putting a companionable arm across the Jester’s shoulder, “we get a second chance at life.”
“One second chance coming right up!” Hercules said, gesturing toward the vortex.
“Great!” Iolaus answered. “Let’s get out of here!”
The Jester felt his heart sing. His past was behind him forever and the future shone bright before him.
“Ready when you two are, Partners!” he crowed.
Hercules took one arm, Iolaus took the other, and together they ran towards the portal. As one, they jumped, caught the air currents and sailed inside.
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