No doubt about it, Ares was depressed.
But then again, why shouldn’t he be? The war against Dahak and the horsemen, as horrific and near catastrophic as it had been, had invigorated the war god like he’d never been before. But then once the adrenalin had worn off and things were back to normal, Ares was left empty and lost and purposeless. This boredom with life following the war to end all wars had been what had motivated him in his plot to join with the world beyond the vortex in a bid to take control of Olympus. He was justified, he told himself, for the rest of the fool gods had virtually let Dahak walk right in and usurp them all. They needed someone with power and wisdom and foresight and a gift for strategy to lead them, and Ares just knew he was the only god for the job. But the Sovereign turned out to be a less than perfect partner in crime and, like always, Hercules and that annoying little friend of his had managed to put the brakes on his operation. It was a grandiose scheme that had acted as a diversion, in more ways than one, he thought, managing a ghost of a smile as he recalled his volcanic encounter with the multi-talented Nebula. But it had failed, and in the wake of that Ares felt even more empty and lost. With no motivation for anything else, the mighty god of war had retreated to his temple to sulk, an action he felt he’d justly earned. But now he was starting to wonder if that was such a good idea. The place was too quiet, with no noise or distraction from his thoughts. Thoughts that he tried to deny and discourage, for they shone the light of truth on the real reason behind his depression. A depression that ran much deeper than defeat or boredom.
A bright spot began to glow gently in the gloomy confines of the temple, growing brighter and more brilliant until the goddess of love shimmered into view among a shower of golden and pink sparkles. The god of war glowered at his sister, whose presence was definitely not conducive to his brooding state.
“What do you want?” The words should have been a menacing snarl, but Ares, like all beings mortal and immortal alike, usually found his gruffer side softened by his effervescent little sister. So his question came off more with an air of petulance than threat.
“I want to know what you’re doing down here,” Aphrodite pouted prettily. “You’re missing a bitchin’ party up on Olympus!”
“It’s the second feast this week,” the god of war grumbled with a rolling of his dark eyes. “I’ll pass.”
“Come on, Ares,” the goddess of love whined. “Everyone’s asking about you.”
“I doubt that,” he muttered, slouching deeper into his throne. After a moment, he glanced up and saw that his sister was still waiting, demanding an explanation in leu of his attendance. “All the gods have done since Dahak’s defeat is find reasons to throw feasts and banquets and have drunken orgies. Well, unlike the rest of those pathetic excuses for deities, I have real work to do and it’s time to stop celebrating and get back to it.”
“Yeah,” Aphrodite drawled, putting her hands on her hips. “You look like you’re real busy, sitting here alone in the dark.”
“Look, I’m not coming so just go back and have your fun and leave me be.”
“What’s wrong with you?” the goddess of love asked. “You’ve been a real downer lately. You’re not still mad because we defeated Dahak with love instead of war, are you?”
“No,” Ares replied absently. “Dahak needed to be stopped, and if that was the only way to do it, then so be it.”
“Then what....?” Aphrodite trailed off as she caught a glimpse of something her brother was twisting in his fingers. Just a little nondescript ring of silver. But there was something strangely familiar about it. She puckered her lips in thought, and then realized where she’d seen it before. After all, she never forgot an accessory, even if it was tacky. “You miss Strife, don’t you?”
“No!” the god of war protested loudly, palming the silver earring the godling used to wear out of sight. “Of course not! Don’t be ridiculous.”
As the goddess of love, Aphrodite had the power to see into the hearts of mortals. She could also use this trick on gods, but it had to be done carefully in order to escape their detection and prevent them from consciously blocking her. So very gently she reached out and enveloped the god of war’s heart in the barest of caresses. She knew she’d never be able to convince some that her often ruthless brother even HAD a heart, but he did, though he often refused to acknowledge it himself. There was a lot of emotion bottled up there, but she didn’t want to pry too much and just focused on what she was seeking. Guilt, blaming himself for not listening to Strife when he warned him that Callisto was nuts and they couldn’t trust her. Failure, for losing to her and the shadow of Dahak, losing the pendent of hind’s blood and not being able to prevent the unthinkable from happening. And yes, there was sorrow and grief there. Maybe love was a touch too strong a word for what existed between the god of war and his nephew, but in spite of all his faults and foibles, Ares had liked Strife. The godling was an ego stroker and a willing patsy for the menial legwork involved in the god of war’s job. An errand boy and a scapegoat. But also, and Aphrodite had to dig deeply to pry up these feelings, Strife was a companion to a god whose very nature and purpose lent itself to a lonely existence. Discord was too calculating and always working her own agenda, and Deimos was a charmless fool.. But when the whole world was against him, Ares could always count on Strife to understand where he was coming from and cheer on his efforts. The pasty faced little twit was despised by most of Olympus and his passing had not been greatly mourned, but it was suddenly clear to Aphrodite that her brother had a fondness for Strife and was still feeling his loss. Ares looked up at his sister, his eyes narrowing as he saw her expression softening. She clearly didn’t believe him and now she was looking down on him with a mixture of sadness and sympathy... and was that PITY?? Abruptly he leapt to his feet, seething with anger as he stared her down and clamped a tight lid on his heart to prevent her from reading him any more than she already had.
“I do NOT miss Strife,” he growled dangerously. “You got that? At least, not in the way you think.”
“In what way?” Aphrodite asked gently, not a bit intimidated.
“He was my blood,” Ares explained hotly as he began to pace around the temple. “And I take any attack on my blood very personally. Besides, after all the work and training I put into him, I owned him. If anyone was going to have the pleasure of killing him, it should have been me.”
“Why don’t you talk to Zeus?” the goddess suggested. “Maybe he could work something out with Hades.”
“I already tried,” he admitted in disgust. Disgust that he had been reduced to the humiliation of asking favor with the king of the gods, and also disgust that he’d been refused. “Our beloved father said his hands were tied because he can’t undo what the gods have done. Even though the goddess, and I use that term loosely, wasn’t an Olympian.” Ares paused, the rage building inside of him to the point where the spears and shields decorating his walls began to tremble from his barely contained power. “Zeus and his rules,” the god spat. “Dahak was behind Strife’s death. He should have been allowed to return once Dahak was defeated, like Hercules’ little buddy was. How is that fair?!”
“Maybe I can do something,” Aphrodite offered. She had to admit she didn’t really miss Strife and the way he was always leering at her. The godling was a creep, but she felt badly that Olympus had failed to properly acknowledge him as their own, or to support Ares in his loss.
“Don’t bother,” the god of war sighed. “There’s nothing you can do. Nothing any of the gods can do now.”
“Too bad mortals don’t have the power of resurrection,” the goddess of love murmured. “That would be one way of getting around Zeus’ rule.”
“Yeah, that is too bad,” Ares agreed thoughtfully, stroking a hand over his dark beard.
“What?” Aphrodite squealed as she practically saw the wheels turning in his mind. “Do you have an idea?”
“Maybe. Later, Sis.” The god of war dropped a quick kiss on her cheek, something he only did when they were completely alone.
“Where are you going?”
“I have to go see Hecate.”
“Hecate!” Aphrodite pulled on her brother’s arm. “Ares, whatever you’re thinking, don’t do it. Hecate’s unpredictable. Only Hades knows how to deal with her, and even he can’t control her. You can’t trust her”
“Maybe not, but I need her,” he explained. “Her magic is very strong. Strong enough to give a mortal the power of resurrection.” An almost feral grin crept over the god of war’s face as his plan came together in his mind. “And I know just the mortal for the job.”
Iolaus heard the unmistakable sounds of fighting ahead and quickened his pace, cresting the top of the hill where he came to a halt, pausing to take in the scene before him with a rueful shake of his head. A group of bandits had apparently attacked a lone woman, obviously thinking her easy prey. But she was lithe and muscled and her clothing indicated that she was no ordinary woman, but an Amazon. A fierce, well trained Amazon that was more than capable of fending off a bunch of common, unorganized, witless thugs. Not so easy prey after all, and everything the lowly, scavenging men deserved.
The hunter hesitated, wondering if he should offer his assistance. After all, she was handling herself well and he knew from experience that some Amazons had an overdeveloped sense of pride in themselves and did not appreciate help from a man. Like Mila, for example. He and Hercules had just been kids at the time and had come across the young Amazon in a similar situation as the one playing out before him now. Even though he was not feeling his best as a result of winning a sausage eating contest with some satyrs, he had thrown himself into the brawl alongside the demigod and they made short work of the thugs. However, instead of being grateful Mila had lashed out at them, enraged that they had interfered. A lesson learned, that sometimes help shouldn’t be offered with first being asked.
But his hesitation only lasted a moment as his conscience won out. Iolaus simply couldn’t stand by and watch the woman fight off four men by herself. Maybe she didn’t want his help, but he had to give it anyway. It would hardly be the first time his efforts went unappreciated and unthanked, and he speculated it wouldn’t be the last. So he rushed forward and skidded to a halt by her side, drawing his sword with a flourish.
“Need a hand?” he called out, swinging his blade and blocking the club swung at him by one of the bandits.
The hunter spared a glance at the woman. There was something familiar about her. The blond hair and that glint in her eyes... and the way she flipped one of the thugs over her shoulder, making Iolaus wince in sympathy. He’d been on that end many times back in his Academy days when Lilith...
“Lilith?” he sputtered out as recognition finally set in. Surprise washed over him, making him momentarily forget he was in the middle of a brawl and giving his opponent the opportunity to sucker punch him. Iolaus staggered back from the blow but recovered immediately, driving his foe back and finding himself aligned with the Amazon. Instinctively, they fell into an old pattern and together made short work of the bandits. As the defeated bunch limped and slunk away, the two former classmates turned to each other, grinning twin grins before falling into each other’s arms.
“I can’t believe it!” Lilith squealed as she hugged him tight. “It’s so good to see you! How long has it been?”
“Longer than I care to think about,” Iolaus chuckled as they pulled apart. “But I must say that time has been very, very, VERY good to you.”
“You’re looking good yourself,” she told him with a wink. Then her smile faded as she gazed at him. “I’ve been hearing some interesting stories about you lately. All the bards seem to have a different version, but their tales always end up with you saving the world.”
“That’s not exactly what happened,” the hunter muttered, ducking his head and blushing slightly.
“Some things never change,” Lilith said fondly. “You used to talk yourself up to no end, but when it came to something heroic that you did you couldn’t have been more humble.”
“Well, it wasn’t really heroic,” Iolaus shrugged, uncomfortable with the topic.
“I’ll be the judge of that,” the Amazon informed him, crossing her arms over her chest. “So what did really happen?”
“That is a very long story,” the hunter sighed.
And one that he wasn’t eager to share, Lilith concluded. So she relented and let up on the interrogation. For now.
“So where are you headed?”
“I’m on my way to meet Hercules in Corinth,” Iolaus replied.
“Can you be a little late?” Lilith asked eagerly. “I’m on my way to the Academy, to visit my daughter.”
“You have a daughter?”
“Yes. Seska.” The Amazon’s eyes glowed with pride as she thought of her daughter. “You should come along and meet her. I know Cheiron would be happy to see you, and I’d love the chance to get caught up.”
Iolaus was a little surprised to realize her idea was not at all a hard sell. She convinced him with very little effort, and he suddenly found himself eagerly looking forward to a visit to his old stomping ground as he linked arms with the beautiful Amazon as they set off down the road.
It had been a very pleasant journey as they filled each other in on their lives over the years. Lilith had gone back to the Amazons after graduation and she regaled him with tales of her exploits with the tribe. She spoke lovingly and proudly of her daughter, who had been raised for many years with the Amazons before she became old enough to declare her intent to follow in her mother’s footsteps. Seska had enrolled in Cheiron’s famed Academy, and Lilith had bought a small farm in a village close enough to allow regular visits to each other. Iolaus talked a lot about his life with Hercules, glossing over their trials and tribulations and focusing on the triumphs. He kept her laughing with stories of all the trouble and ridiculous situations they had found themselves in over the years, especially where Hercules was concerned. Lilith always enjoyed bardic tales of the demigod whose fame had swept Greece and beyond. But she well remembered him as he was before he became legendary. Even as a kid he was powerful and noble and heroic, but he definitely had his awkward moments, too. And Lilith delighted in hearing the less honorable truths behind the bards’ tales, especially as told by Iolaus, who had a gift for storytelling. Except where his own legend was concerned, for he noticeably avoided talking about anything that had occurred over the past year or so.
They walked unhurriedly, but purposefully, stopping only once in a small village so that Iolaus could commission a messenger to Corinth to relay his change of plans. Hercules had naturally been on the overprotective side since Dahak’s defeat, and the hunter figured he’d allay any fears before they started. Evening was approaching by the time they neared the Academy, and Lilith suggested stopping at Kora’s for a meal.
“Kora still has the inn?” Iolaus asked with wistful nostalgia.
“Yep,” the Amazon confirmed. “So why don’t we go and surprise her?”
The decor had been modernized over the years, but the place was still the same as Iolaus remembered. Kora was older, with a few lines around her eyes and a hint of grey in her blond tresses, but she was still a striking woman and the hunter’s heart beat a little faster upon laying eyes on her. He had definitely been smitten with her as a young man, although she often appeared to barely tolerate him. But time had apparently softened her, for once she got over the shock of seeing him she greeted him warmly and gave him a tight hug.
As a kid, the “charm” that Iolaus thought he possessed tended to be on the obnoxious side. But over the years he had honed his skills, and he was suddenly amused to realize that not even the no-nonsense Kora was immune to him when he turned it on full blast. After a few minutes her biting wit was nowhere to be found as she happily fed his insatiable appetite, insisting everything was “on the house”. She had other customers to attend to, so she left Iolaus and Lilith to enjoy their meals, but when things started settling down she joined them at their table with a bottle of wine and soon they were all awash in memories of long ago.
“I wasn’t that bad!” Iolaus protested merrily as his former boss lamented his busboy skills.
“Let’s just say I was glad when you stayed with the heroics rather than making this your chosen career,” Kora teased him.
“Hey, we did all right that time we ran the inn for you,” the hunter argued. “Herc and Jason and I had this place running smooth as could be. At least until Strife and Discord showed up and started messing with things.”
“Yeah, then Silenus the satyr and his wild bunch crashed the party,” Lilith recollected.
“We had to save all of the food from Artemis’ offering before they could eat it, and then Herc had the brilliant idea to get rid of them all by pretending we died of hoof and mouth disease,” Iolaus laughed. “We saved the inn and found Artemis’ sacred food and stuck it to Strife and Discord all in one night. And in return, Artemis left us... a melon.”
“It was a money melon,” Kora reminded him.
“Yeah.” Iolaus gazed at her for a moment, his eyes softening. “You know, Herc told me about what happened with Artemis and her golden bow. He’s always regretted that, and over the years he’s tried to bargain with Artemis for your freedom. But I guess she just likes you too much to let you go. We’re both sorry.”
“Yeah, well, it’s not so bad,” Kora shrugged, wiping at an invisible spot on the table. “I mean, Artemis hasn’t asked anything of me in a long time, and well, this inn is my life. Even if I wasn’t sworn to her, I doubt I ever would have married or had kids anyway.”
“What am I missing here?” Lilith asked in confusion.
“Artemis saved my life once,” Kora explained. “So I was obligated to serve her. I thought if I won her golden bow in an archery contest and returned it to her, it would earn my release. And it did, for awhile.”
“Strife stole it,” Iolaus continued. “And in the course of getting it back, Hercules was injured. Kora gave up her freedom for the power to help him.”
“Wow,” the Amazon murmured. “I never knew.”
“Like I said, it’s not so bad,” the innkeeper shrugged. And neither of her two companions were sure if she was being honest, or just keeping up a brave face. “Besides, it can have its perks sometimes.”
“Yeah, like that Huntress thing you turn into?” Iolaus added. “I never got to see it personally, but the way Herc described it was so...” He trailed off at Kora’s stern look, but cleared his throat and went on. “I don’t suppose you could whip that out now for an old friend? I would love to see you in all your... glory.”
“I’m sure you would, Curly,” Kora sneered. “But keep dreaming.”
The mood around the little table lightened, and more laughter ensued as the memories kept coming. Like the time Kora’s free spirited sister, Cleo, visited and became the life of the party. In a rare moment of jealousy and insecurity, Kora tried to lighten up and be like her sister, with disastrous results. After so many years she could laugh about it, happily relaying that Cleo was still traveling with the band. There was the Orpheus concert that turned into a vampiric free for all until Hercules and Iolaus managed to vanquish Bacchus with a dryad bone. And the time Iolaus snuck out of his punishment with Feducious to report for his first day of work at the inn, only to find that Cheiron was his first customer.
“How did you think he wouldn’t know it was you?” Lilith howled in mirth at the thought of the young Iolaus trying to disguise himself from the very astute and wise centaur.
“I thought I did a pretty good job of hiding myself,” Iolaus laughed. “But of course he knew it was me. He even tipped me when we got back to the Academy. Although Herc commandeered it in compensation for having to go face first in the pig sty to fool Feducious into thinking he was me.”
Lilith choked on her wine and had to be patted vigorously on the back by the hunter.
“What about the time we held that talent contest?” Kora interjected.
“The one with the Chronos stone in the prize basket?” Iolaus clarified. “That had Ares entering as the ‘King of Swing’?”
“The sad thing was that he was actually good,” Kora giggled. “The crowd loved him.”
“They loved us, too,” the hunter reminded her, although secretly he shuddered at the thought of singing in front of all those people. Even though his one night performance had landed him more than a few dates.
“Yes, they did,” Kora conceded. “It was a tie if I remember correctly.”
“Ares went for the stone and Herc used it to blast him silly,” Iolaus recalled. “The ‘King of Swing’ became the ‘Dane of Pain’!”
The gleeful reminiscing continued long after closing, until it was much too late for Iolaus and Lilith to arrive at the Academy. Kora graciously offered to put them up at her nearby home, which had the hunter speculating about the sleeping arrangements. But his former boss and the object of so many of his teenage fantasies apparently still had some immunity left to his charms, and with a long familiar air of strained patience she exiled them both to the barn.
“What’s so funny?” Lilith demanded, pausing in arranging her blankets to glance over at the hunter, sprawled comfortably in the hay pile next to her.
“I was just thinking,” Iolaus answered wryly. “When I was a kid, I didn’t have anything and I always had to struggle to get by.” He raised himself up, propping his head on his hand. “Seems like not a lot’s changed.”
Lilith grinned and flopped down into her own makeshift bed.
“Oh, I think a lot’s changed,” she said as she regarded the man beside her. In youth he had been overly cocky, sneaky, underhanded, conniving, and impulsive. He thought he knew it all, had a reckless streak and an insatiable curiosity that never failed to get him in trouble. But now Iolaus wore an easy confidence born from experience, rather than bravado. Lilith had a feeling that reckless streak still surfaced now and then, but she could see it was tempered with caution and wisdom. This was a man who no longer ran from learning, but who had spent considerable time in the East mastering difficult teachings. And his eyes reflected honesty and nobility; the conniving side reserved for dealing with those that threatened the innocents he protected. “And yet,” she continued gently, “I think some things will never change, and for that I’m thankful.”
For all his faults, the young Iolaus had been fiercely loyal to his friends. He stowed the clowning and could be serious when needed, and he was always passionate about causes he believed in. And nobody ever had a bigger, more caring heart. Lilith recalled the time Lucius had tried to burn down Alcmene’s village. Iolaus had found a little girl crying and asked her if she was ok. When she told him that she’d lost her dog, he tried to cheer her up with “magic”, pulling a dinar from behind her ear. Then she promptly stole his money and ran off. He griped about it, loudly, but it didn’t stop him from combing the village until he found her mutt. When he returned the dog to the child, she tried to give him his dinar back but he wouldn’t take it, even though it was probably the only one he had.
Everyone had known Hercules was destined for greatness, but most of them overlooked the troubled cadet by his side. Lilith had been one of the few who saw the real Iolaus. Saw the greatness inside of him. And once he learned to see it inside himself, he’d gone on to become a hero with extraordinary accomplishments and amazing feats that were too frequently overshadowed by the legend of his best friend. But Iolaus accepted it with good humor, just glad to be able to share in the adventure at Hercules’ side. And with what she knew of the demigod, Lilith had to wonder where he’d be today without Iolaus both physically watching out for him as well as caring for him in other ways. For even as a kid Hercules had leant heavily on his friend for emotional support when it all got to be too overwhelming for him. Lilith doubted this had changed. Too few actually knew everything Iolaus had sacrificed for them, and that was sad. Although in light of recent events, this seemed to be changing and the hunter was starting to finally get his long overdue recognition as a hero in his own right. Lilith was glad about that, but she was definitely curious as to why Iolaus didn’t seem to be comfortable with it.
“Iolaus,” she spoke softly, reaching out and lacing her fingers through his. “You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to. But I would like to know what happened in the war with Dahak. Your version.”
He was quiet for a long time. Then Iolaus squeezed her hand and started to tell her what she wanted to know.
In the morning Kora insisted upon serving them up a hearty breakfast before sending them on their way, not that she had to try too hard to convince them. Iolaus and Lilith thoroughly enjoyed the meal, and another animated conversation with the sassy innkeeper, but soon the road beckoned and they had to bid Kora a very fond farewell. The Amazon left the inn first but the hunter lingered behind a moment, taking one last look around. He’d spend a lot of time there during his Academy years, both working in order to pay his tuition and also just hanging out with the gang. In hindsight, he realized those were some of the best times of his life.
Iolaus’ gaze came to rest on the cash box that Kora had left on the counter and he remembered one of his earliest visits to the inn, before he was ever employed there. He and Jason, and of course, Strife, though they hadn’t known he was a god at the time and believed him to be a new cadet, had all left the inn at closing. But Iolaus had forgotten his money pouch and had gone back alone to retrieve it. It, and the single dinar it contained. Kora was in the kitchen and a pile of dinars were strewn oh so temptingly on the counter. Iolaus had stared at the money, thinking that Kora would never miss a few. And he could desperately use them, for Feducious was demanding his Academy fees and threatening to expel him, which would mean his probation would be forfeit and he’d be sent to jail. There was a time, and not long before that moment, when he would have snatched a few and ran. But he didn’t. Iolaus took his nearly empty money pouch and had left the inn, and as he walked back to the Academy alone in the dark, a strange new feeling of pride welled up in him. That was the moment he knew he had changed. No longer a “no good thief”, but on his way to becoming an honorable man.
Of course, Strife ended up stealing the money and framing Iolaus anyway. Not a hard sell, since he was at the Academy in the first place following an arrest for thieving. But Hercules had believed he was telling the truth when he proclaimed his innocence, and so had Jason and Cheiron. And that had meant the world to Iolaus, realizing there were people in his life who believed in him and trusted him and cared enough to prove he wasn’t guilty. Little did he know, it would hardly be the last time they did so. With a small smile, Iolaus let himself out of the inn and hurried to catch up with Lilith, who was already striding down the road.
As they entered through the Academy gates, Iolaus tried to keep his expression neutral in order to hide the disappointment welling up in him. He had fond memories of his time as a cadet there, pure, ageless memories. And it hurt a little bit to see the once pristine grounds and facilities weathered with time and starting to fall into disrepair. Students milled about, some ignoring them and some giving them questioning looks, but they all kept going about their business. Which didn’t seem to be doing much of anything. The hunter glanced up at the sky, wondering why at midmorning the kids weren’t in class or training. Something small crashed into his knees and he looked down to see a young child. The boy muttered an apology and took off to join a group of his friends running by. None of them were older than seven or eight and Iolaus turned to Lilith in surprise.
“Looks like they lowered the age limit since we were here.”
“They’re orphans,” Lilith explained with a touch of sadness. “The war with Dahak left a lot of them. Cheiron didn’t want to see them end up on the streets, so he took in all the ones who had nowhere else to go.”
Iolaus gazed after the retreating bunch of children, feeling an ache in his heart. Yes, the war was over. They had victoriously defeated Dahak. But the wounds he’d caused ran deep and some were not easily healed. In some ways, maybe the war would never really be over. And maybe things would never be the same as they had been before.
The hunter was shaken out of his thoughts as a lovely young girl, the spitting image of her mother as she was at that age, hurled herself into Lilith’s arms. She gave the girl a tight hug, then turned to Iolaus, beaming with pride.
“Iolaus, this is my daughter, Seska. Seska, this is my old friend, Iolaus, that I told you about.”
“Not that old,” Iolaus grinned, extending a hand. “But I am happy to meet you.”
Seska grinned back, pleased that he had greeted her with a warrior’s shake.
“You, too. Maybe you can tell me what my mom was like back when she was a wild child.”
“Don’t you dare,” Lilith threatened playfully when she spied a mischievous gleam creeping into the hunter’s eyes.
“Well, she was tough,” Iolaus began. “I thought girls were supposed to be all sweet and gentle but your mom kicked my cocky butt enough times to knock some sense into me. But she definitely had a chip on her shoulder and once she joined the Amazons she only got worse.” The hunter chuckled and ducked away as Lilith made a grab for him. “But once she stopped hating men she was a great friend,” he added quickly. “And she won the Decuda and taught all of us that a true warrior’s strength comes from within.” “Thank you,” Lilith said in response to his praise. “But don’t think I’m letting the two of you spend any time alone together. I can only imagine what you’d tell her if I’m not around to censor.”
“Come on,” Seska urged her mother, tugging at her hand. “I have a new move I’ve been dying to show you.”
“Like mother, like daughter,” Iolaus murmured, waving off Lilith’s apologetic look as her daughter pulled her off to the practice room. He turned around, his thoughtful gaze traveling around the yard until his blue eyes landed on a cadet who looked familiar. The hunter studied the boy who was sitting by himself, brooding slightly as he worked on sharpening a knife, and Iolaus racked his brain trying to figure out where he knew the kid from. He tried picturing him younger, and smiling, and suddenly recognition set it.
“Tabor!” Iolaus approached the young man eagerly. “Is that you?”
“Yeah,” the cadet answered suspiciously. “Who are you?”
“It’s me, Iolaus,” the hunter told him. “I’m a friend of your father. Maybe you don’t remember. We met years ago when you were hardly older than a baby. Cheiron was so proud of you.”
Tabor snorted loudly at those words.
“No, I remember you. You came to our village with Hercules. So what are you doing here now?”
“Just visiting. I used to be a cadet here...” Iolaus trailed off as the boy rose to his feet and brushed past him.
“Do us all a favor and make it a short visit,” he tossed over his shoulder.
The hunter stared after him, wondering what he could have possibly done to inspire such open hostility in Cheiron’s son. But he didn’t have long to ponder.
“I’m sorry about that.”
Iolaus turned around to face a tall boy with dark hair and a plastered on smile that oozed insincerity.
“You’ll have to excuse Tabor,” the boy continued. “Being the son of Cheiron, he sometimes thinks he owns the place.” The cadet took a step forward and extended a hand. “I’m Zylus.”
“Iolaus,” the hunter introduced himself. “I’m here to see Cheiron.”
“He’s in his office,” the cadet offered. “I can show you if you like.”
“That’s ok,” Iolaus told him with a grin. “Believe me, I know the way.”
He turned, leaving the chaos of the yard and the students behind him, and began making the very familiar journey to his old headmaster’s office.
Seeing the decay of the Academy had opened Iolaus’ eyes to the passage of time, but nothing could have prepared him for the sight of his old teacher. The once powerful centaur had withered and grayed and was leaning heavily on a staff as he flipped through a stack of parchment. Fortunately he didn’t notice Iolaus’ arrival and the hunter had time to collect himself and school his features before softly clearing his throat to announce his presence.
“Iolaus!” Age might have taken its toll on the centaur’s body, but his clear eyes reflected a mind that was still sharp and wise.
“Cheiron.” A genuine smile illuminated the hunter’s face as he hurried forward to take his friend’s hand. The centaur exchanged a warrior’s shake and then used his free arm to sweep his former student into a quick hug.
“I’m glad to see you, my friend,” Cheiron told him in a heartfelt whisper. And Iolaus was suddenly very happy he’d come.
“How bad is it?” Iolaus asked as he stared out of the window into the yard. Some of the older cadets were trying to lead the rest in a series of drills, but their moves were off and not many were taking the exercise seriously.
“It’s bad, I’m afraid,” the centaur answered soberly. “Attendance is at an all time high, but it’s more than I can keep up with. I’ve always relied on the older cadets to help train the younger ones, but they aren’t learning enough to be effective teachers. There are too many students and none of them are getting the level of attention they need. They come here with visions of being great soldiers and warriors and heroes in their heads, but they don’t understand that they have to start with the basics. They’re rebelling against simple drills and exercises, and academics have all but fallen by the wayside since Feducious died. I don’t want to close the Academy, but I’d rather shut it down entirely than graduate cadets that aren’t ready for the real world and ruin the reputation that I spent so many years building. But now I have the little ones, and if I closed the facilities, what would become of them?”
“I’m not sure what the answer is here,” Iolaus said slowly. “But there’s got to be something beyond closing the Academy. It’s become an institution in Greece.”
“I’ve tried to hire in a replacement for Feducious,” Cheiron continued. “But no one has worked out for long. Nobody wants to teach students that don’t want to learn.”
“Well, I can stick around for a few days,” Iolaus offered. “Maybe Lilith and I can work on getting the training program back on track. It would be a start, at least.”
“If anyone could inspire those who didn’t want to learn, I suppose it would be you, Iolaus,” the centaur said with just the barest hint of a smirk.
“Yeah, I guess it would,” the hunter agreed sheepishly.
He had come to the Academy as part of his probation after getting caught for stealing, an alternative to jail thanks to some lobbying on his behalf from Alcmene and his blacksmith mentor. The deal was he had to pay his own tuition and keep up passing grades, or else his probation would be violated and he’d be sent to prison. Iolaus had embraced the physical side of his education, enjoying learning to fight and training to become a warrior. The academic side of it was another matter. He couldn’t understand why he was required to learn so much useless information, and he simply couldn’t make himself care enough to pay attention and retain any of it. So when finals rolled around, he realized that he was on his way to failing, and subsequently, on his way to jail.
Desperate and scared, believing Feducious had it in for him and was eagerly looking forward to expelling him once he failed, Iolaus had planned to cheat. It didn’t dawn on him at the time that if he had spent as much time and effort actually studying as he did trying to come up with ways to avoid studying he wouldn’t be in the mess that he was. But Hercules caught him and was extremely disappointed in him. Iolaus hated to let his friend down, but he didn’t think he had any other choice. Until Hercules challenged him, saying that Iolaus *couldn’t* study, which had the predictable effect of making the cocky young cadet adamantly insist he could out-study them all.
Hercules called in all his IOUs with the rest of the cadets and they tried everything they could to help Iolaus learn a semester’s worth of information overnight. But he couldn’t make himself care about the information and when nothing seemed to be working the cadets wrote him off as hopeless. No trick could make anything stick in his brain, and even Hercules began to doubt that his friend had it in him. Iolaus began to panic, sure that he was doomed. Feducious appeared to taunt him, eagerly sharing his dark predictions as he did his best to intimidate the cadet. But Hercules and Lilith rallied around their friend and gave him their support. After that Iolaus really did try, for them, but he just couldn’t seem to get past his mental block. He about had an anxiety attack before the test and was on the verge of running, believing that he was going to fail and at least he’d have a head start before the magistrate came to haul him off to jail. But his friends had believed in him and Hercules, somewhat forcibly, convinced him to go in and take the test.
He was a little surprised to find he actually knew a few answers, but not enough to earn him a passing grade. At least until Cheiron announced the topic of their geography essay was on Cerillia. The one subject Iolaus knew all about. It had been almost unintentional. Last he’d heard, his father was on a campaign in Cerillia. And Iolaus had absorbed the information in class, imagining his father there doing and seeing the things Cheiron was telling them about. It was a time in his life before bitterness had overtaken him, when he was still young enough to yearn for his father’s approval. And a small part of him, one he didn’t even like to admit to himself, imagined he was there with his dad in Cerillia, sharing the experience together. But it worked. His essay was enough to earn him a passing grade, albeit barely. He’d had to spend three excruciating months with Feducious as a tutor, but his success had given him new confidence and a new motivation to study harder. Hercules told him years later that Feducious, having overheard Iolaus talking about Cerillia, had influenced Cheiron in his choice of geography subject. Because he knew that if Iolaus failed, he’d have only learned he should have cheated. Apparently, the grouchy administrator didn’t have it in for Iolaus after all.
“I’m sorry about Feducious,” Iolaus said softly, turning to meet Cheiron’s gaze. “We gave him a hard time now and then, but he wasn’t a bad guy.”
“No, he wasn’t,” the centaur mused. “After his son left, this Academy became his life. Much like it is mine, I suppose. Feducious was hard on you cadets because he didn’t want to see anyone end up going down the same road as his own son. He never was able to forgive himself for not being able to prevent Pythagoras from getting into so much trouble. But he was proud of you, Iolaus. Proud of what you and Hercules and Jason became, and proud of the things you accomplished. He said so many times.”
Iolaus turned back to the window, unsure of what to say and a bit surprised the curmudgeonly old administrator had felt the way he had. And a bit more surprised to realize he was proud that he managed to do right by yet another that had believed in him, even if he never knew it until now. Hoping that Hades had treated Feducious well, the hunter steered his thoughts back to the present and glanced over at Cheiron.
“What’s the story on this Zylus kid? He looks like he’s got some leadership abilities.”
“He has a number of followers, but not for the right reasons, I’m afraid,” Cheiron answered, moving to stand beside Iolaus as they both looked out into the yard where Zylus was taking over one of the drill squads. “He worships his late father, Magnus, who he claims was a great war hero overseas, although I’ve never heard of him.”
“Doesn’t ring a bell, but there have been a lot of wars outside of Greece over the years,” Iolaus shrugged.
“I suppose you’re right. Anyway, Zylus dreams of being a general and commanding his own army, like his father. He does have a certain charisma about him and he is undoubtedly one of the brightest students here.”
“But his ego outweighs his experience, and he tries to lead by force rather than with wisdom. I believe him to be a bully and I know some of the other cadets fear him, although they won’t admit it to me. I think he’s given up on learning anything here. He already considers himself to be superior to an old hasbeen like me. I think he’s just biding his time until graduation, because a diploma in my hand will automatically increase his ranking when he joins up with an army.” “Cheiron, you aren’t an old hasbeen,” the hunter admonished him. “Don’t be putting yourself out to pasture just yet. No pun intended, of course.”
“The wise man knows when to stop fighting the current and simply follow the flow in the river of time.”
“Please, don’t start in with the riddles,” Iolaus begged, rolling his eyes. “I’ve already had enough of those to last me a lifetime. And come to think of it, while I’m here that means I’m your guest, so no sneaking up on me, either.” Too many times in his youth he would turn to find the centaur behind him, absorbing in his latest scheme and reacting with stern words and a twitch of the lips that almost seemed like Cheiron was holding back an indulgent smile of amusement. Kind of like the look the centaur was giving him now.
“Very well. Although I do have to wonder if you object to me calling myself old because you aren’t far behind?”
“Hey, I’m a long way from being put out to pasture, thank you very much,” the hunter replied indignantly. His gaze drifted back out the window and he suddenly grinned broadly. “But as long as I’m here, I’d love to show a few of your cadets just what an old hasbeen can do.”
“Did you see what I did there?” Iolaus called out to his students as he reached an arm down and helped up the boy who was sprawled at his feet. “You have to be able to read your opponent’s body language so that you can anticipate his next attack and avoid it. While at the same time making sure you don’t give away your own defense pattern. It takes time and practice, but it will make you all significantly better fighters. Now, who wants to go next?”
“I do, sir.”
The hunter wasn’t surprised that Zylus had eagerly stepped forward. He grasped the practice staff loosely in his hands and adjusted his stance slightly before nodding to the boy.
“When you’re ready.”
Zylus attacked him fast and hard. Again, Iolaus wasn’t surprised. This wasn’t a drill to the boy, but rather an opportunity for him to best his master and exalt his worth and skill. He wasn’t going through the motions of the exercise and he wasn’t trying to merely disarm. Zylus was out for blood. He was strong and he really did have good instincts. But he was just a pup, and Iolaus had certainly been up against much bigger and badder than a half-trained kid with something to prove. The hunter didn’t want to hurt the boy, but Zylus needed a life lesson and he desperately needed some of the wind taken out of his sails. So Iolaus sparred back with him, not as intensely as he would if he were fighting for his life, but with more power than he’d been using on the other cadets. Zylus put up a good struggle, but in the end he landed in a bruised heap in the dirt with the hunter’s staff firmly on his chest, holding him there. A few of the cadets, led by Seska, gave him a scattering round of applause, genuinely impressed with the speed and skill demonstrated by the “old man”.
“That actually wasn’t bad,” Iolaus complimented the boy as he let him up. “You’ve got great reflexes. You just need to work on patience. A lot of times you can’t force a battle to go your way, and if you start getting frustrated, you lose concentration. Don’t worry about winning quickly. Just focus on winning.”
Something dark flashed over the boy’s face and for a split second the hunter’s grip tightened on his staff as he anticipated the kid’s rage getting the better of him. But then Zylus brushed himself off and smiled, extending a hand.
“Thank you for the lesson, sir. I’m sure we’ll all learn a lot from you.”
Iolaus sighed as Zylus stiffly returned to the crowd of his peers, some of whom were smirking in pleasure over seeing him get his comeuppance. That was not going to help his beaten ego, or ease the anger that still burned in his dark eyes, no matter how sincere and humble his front. The hunter was afraid the kid hadn’t learned a thing, and that his “lesson” had only served to increase the boy’s desperation to be number one. Next time the attack would be even more frenzied and brutal. Iolaus knew he could handle the kid, but he was starting to worry about one of the other cadets getting hurt. He was going to have to keep a close eye on Zylus, especially during peer drills. Unless he could find some way to get through to the kid and convince him he still had a lot to learn. And, that there was no shame in that. In the meantime, Iolaus decided it would be safer to let all the kids vent their energy on something that could withstand a little youthful exuberance.
He led the group of cadets from the yard inside to the training room. Not expecting much, the hunter gave the stationary practice dummy a quick test, a little surprised to find the modifications still worked without so much as a squeak of protest. He had to hand it to Hephestus; his creations were built to last. Iolaus stilled the flailing object, gazing at it thoughtfully as a memory overtook him. Back before Heph had amped the thing up, Hercules had used the dummy as a vessel to hide the Academy fees from the Lowacks after they had invaded. Iolaus hadn’t been at the Academy long and for a second he had been torn. Crateus had meant a lot to him at one point, an older boy who had time for him when his own father had written him off as a waste. Iolaus felt beholden to him for showing him the ropes of the streets, and protecting him until he learned to protect himself. For a second, he considered abandoning the rigors of the Academy where he didn’t fit in, and rejoining his old gang and picking up his old life. But only for a second. For he was finally starting to realize that he was worth more than that, and that he had people who believed in him and he never wanted to let them down. Then Crateus tried to burn him and Iolaus realized there was no honor among thieves. He could only count on his friends, like Hercules, who saved them all.
Coming back to the present, Iolaus turned his attention back to the cadets with the intention of showing them a new paired attack pattern. But the kids started to balk, asking for a break. The hunter considered it for a moment. He hadn’t been working them half as hard as Cheiron had worked HIM, but then again, they weren’t used to intensive daily training and they had been pretty cooperative that morning. Once he’d made it crystal clear that he could mop the floor with them if they were anything but attentive and respectful. Seeing him hesitate, some of the students began plying him with questions about Hercules, wanting to know what he was like as a cadet all those years ago. It was a stalling tactic, but many of them were curious to hear about the exploits of Greece’s favorite son, back when he was their age.
Iolaus grinned and gave in, deciding his class had been working hard and they’d earned a short break. So he began answering their questions, enjoying himself as he did so. It was a relief not to have to field Dahak questions yet again, and a lot of fun reliving old memories. Good memories. From a more innocent time, before a lot of bad things happened. Not that they didn’t have their problems and heartaches back then, but they’d also had their whole lives ahead of them. Lives filled with dreams of heroics and adventure, and none of them could even imagine the horrors that were waiting for them. Loss of families. Loss of friends and loved ones. Helpless to prevent the havoc the gods wrecked across the countryside. Pain. Suffering. Hardship. Betrayal. And... Dahak. No, back then they were just wide eyed kids, ready to grab the world by the tail. Iolaus knew he could never go back to that time, but talking about it brought him a kind of contented peace.
“But what was Hercules *like*?” one of the students pressed. “He wasn’t always a hero, was he?”
“In some ways he was,” Iolaus replied thoughtfully. “He always had the heart and the soul of a hero. Just like Jason always had the heart of a king. But it takes wisdom and experience to make a legend. And a lot of growing and learning from your mistakes.” The hunter paused, chuckling to himself as he considered his own words. “And the three of us made plenty of those. We really did some dumb things.”
“Well, what would you call stealing a magic eye from three vengeful witches?”
“Dumb!” the class chorused.
“Well, Herc didn’t see it that way. He thought he could use it to see Zeus. The thing was, the old hags took it out on me and Jason. They cursed me so that I kept getting attacked by plants and Jase...”
“What? What?” the eager kids demanded.
“They turned Jason into a boar,” Iolaus managed to gasp out around a fit of giggles. And the cadets were soon following suit as he described the distinguished and royal Corinthian Prince with pig ears and a snout and tusks, happily declaring his love for slop.
“You’d better not be talking about me,” Lilith called out as she entered the room and took in the laughter.
“No, I know better than that,” the hunter told her as he wiped a tear from the corner of his eye. And he did. His urge to spin yarns about the lovely Amazon was quenched when she pointed out she could tell the students an incriminating tale or two about him. So they mutually agreed all storytelling revolving around embarrassing incidents be restricted to Hercules and Jason. “What’s up?”
“A messenger just dropped this off for you,” she explained, handing him a scroll.
Iolaus slid the ribbon from the parchment and unrolled it, his eyes lighting up as he scanned the message.
“It’s from Hercules,” he relayed. “Guess he’s feeling a little nostalgic, too. He’s on his way here, and he’s bringing everyone with him.”
“Jason, too?” Lilith asked.
“Yeah, that’s what it says.”
“Good,” the Amazon declared. “I can’t wait to introduce Seska to him. It’s high time she met her father.”
“Yeah, that’ll be fun,” Iolaus replied absently, absorbed in rereading the message. At least until his companion’s words registered in his brain. “Wait! What? Are you saying that...?? Lilith!” The hunter started to run after the Amazon who had already slipped out of the room, but he paused and turned to his students who were all watching him expectantly. “Oh, just take five,” he commanded with a dismissive wave as he hurried out after Lilith.
The cadets milled around the room, relaxing and talking amongst themselves. While Iolaus and Lilith were making them work harder than they ever had before, most of them didn’t mind. They had come to the Academy to learn and to train, so most of them were glad to finally be doing that. Those that initially balked at simple exercises and routine drills quickly came around when they were given demonstrations of Lilith’s agility and Iolaus’ speed and strength. Zylus and his crew were even complying for the moment, although everyone knew he was just biding his time. However, more of the cadets had faith in Iolaus than their blustering, bullying peer, and the overall mood in the training room was mellow, lacking the tension that usually surrounded the group. Only one student was sullen and openly resentful of their guest instructors. And as the rest of the kids chatted with each other, Tabor retreated from the group and slunk out of the practice room.
As he walked down the hallway, he let his seething anger rise. It was bad enough that Iolaus was there, but now Jason and the mighty Hercules were coming as well. All he’d heard about since the day he was born was how great the three of them were. What promising cadets they’d been, the best his father had ever had the honor to teach. And what incredible heroes and legends they’d become. The old man was proud of his star pupils. He said so every time another story of their amazing feats had reached them. Well, at least he was proud of someone. He sure wasn’t proud of his own son.
And why should he be? As he left the building, Tabor glared down at the shadow he cast along the ground. The two legged shadow. There had never been, as far as anyone knew, a son born to a centaur that wasn’t a centaur as well. It presented a difficult birth for the mortal mothers, to say the least, and a lot of the women didn’t survive it. But his own birth was quick and uncomplicated, and when he’d emerged everyone had seen why. He was fully mortal. No centaur strength. No centaur power. No centaur features. And a grave disappointment to his father. Cheiron had raised him nevertheless, although he had to wonder in the back of his mind if the boy was even really his. To be honest, Tabor had wondered that as well. But there were enough similarities to identify them as father and son, and Cheiron had trusted his wife implicitly. It would almost have been easier if he were illegitimate. Because Tabor knew the alternative was that he was a freak. An accident of nature. And if that wasn’t enough to have to overcome, he also had the insurmountable task of trying to live up to the legend of the mighty son of Zeus.
Tabor tried hard. He absorbed everything his father taught him. And he trained and practiced until he could barely move. He was a good fighter for his age, but that would never be good enough. Without the power of a centaur, or the strength of a demigod, or even the whirlwind energy that Iolaus possessed, Tabor knew he would never measure up in his father’s eyes. He was doomed to a life of criticism and comparison, fated to be a failure no matter how hard he tried. Unless he could get some help.
Entering the forest, Tabor reached the cave he had found weeks ago. He slipped inside the dark opening and lit the candle that was resting on the altar he’d crafted. Carefully, he drew the symbol for Ares in the dirt on the floor with his sword. If Cheiron knew what he was doing, Tabor knew he’d be disowned. While the old man was careful to remain neutral in his classes, not letting any personal feelings color his teachings, he had no obligation to do so after school. Since he was little Tabor had been subjected to his father’s disdain for gods that abused their power and tormented mankind for sport. Tabor was forbidden to worship them, especially Ares. Apparently the god of war had kidnaped his father once, using him as bait in order to goad Hercules into sacrificing himself to save him. Big surprise, the wonderful Hercules, along with Iolaus and Lilith, managed to defeat Ares and save Cheiron.
Well, that was in the past. And by the very act of training to become a warrior Tabor was, in a way, already worshiping Ares. He needed a boost and Ares was the only god who could help him with that. Besides, the chances of it working were slim at best. Still, he was willing to give it another try, hoping that the god of war admired persistence. Maybe today would be his lucky day. Tabor nicked his finger with the tip of his sword and let the crimson drops fall onto the symbol, figuring a little blood offering couldn’t hurt. Closing his eyes, he began to pray to the god of war, beseeching the great Ares to help him. “Looks like today IS your lucky day, kid.”
He hadn’t heard a sound, but when he opened his eyes Tabor was staring face to face, or face to chest, with Ares himself. Shock, and a little fear, overcame him and his throat froze as he tried to speak.
“So what can the great Ares do for you?”
Tabor tried again, but no words came out.
“I don’t have all day, kid, so if you’re going to stand there like a statue...”
“No, wait!” Tabor cried out as the god started to shimmer from view.
“Yes?” Ares asked expectantly, materializing once more.
“I need your help,” the cadet blurted out. He took a deep breath, trying to calm himself. This was his one chance and he couldn’t blow it now by acting like a spaz. “Please, my lord Ares, I want to be a great warrior.”
“I’ve seen you on your little playground,” the god shrugged. “You do ok.”
“I’m tired of ‘ok’,” Tabor continued, consciously keeping the whine from his voice. “I want to be the best. As good as Hercules.”
“To make my father proud.” It was the truth, but not an answer that impressed the god of war, so Tabor quickly amended himself. “And to better serve and honor you, my lord.”
“Look, kid, I’d like to help you out, but this isn’t exactly how it works. Great warriors are great because they just are. Not because I snap my fingers and make them that way. You either have it or you don’t, and I hate to break it to you, but you don’t.”
Tabor nodded his understanding, quickly ducking his head to hide his crushing disappointment.
“On the other hand...”
The boy looked up to see the god of war studying him intently, stroking his beard, and a ray of hope illuminated him.
“You do have the heart of a warrior. I suppose it’s not your fault that the fates didn’t give you the body of one. Maybe I can help you out.”
“You would do that?” For a moment, logic prevailed. “I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but why would you want to help me?”
“Don’t be so suspicious,” Ares sighed. “You aren’t old enough to be cynical yet. Look, it’s a slow week, all right? And if I help you join the ranks of my greats, I’m getting something in return for my efforts. Ok?”
“Ok. So what do I need to do?”
“Here.” The god of war tossed a sealed scroll to the boy. “Before your next fight, read this out loud and it’ll give you the strength to defeat any opponent.”
“That’s it?” Tabor asked, half expecting he’d need to be zapped or something.
“That’s it, my soon to be warrior. And here, take this, too. For luck, for a souvenir, or just a symbol of my good will.” Ares removed a small silver ring from his ear and pressed it into the cadet’s hand.
“Thank you, great Ares,” Tabor said, bowing to the god. “I promise that I’ll serve you well.” “Yes,” the god murmured with an evil grin. “I know you will, kid.”
“All right,” Iolaus called out after surveying the squad of cadets sparring before him. He clapped his hands loudly to get their attention. “I think you’ve all got it. Now let’s try it on the beam.” A series of groans greeted his announcement and he waved away the students’ protests. “Just be glad I’m not making you do it blindfolded, like Cheiron used to do to us.”
“They weren’t blindfolded,” came a muttered stage whisper from the back row. “It was just in the days before Prometheus gave mankind fire and it was too dark to see.”
“I heard that, Shamus,” Iolaus said sternly, though his blue eyes were twinkling as his gaze raked over the torches on the walls that were dispelling the shadows from the practice room. “And just for that, you get to go first. Everyone pair up. We’ll try out the series you just learned on the beam. Winners of each match up get to call it a day and the rest of you will have to stick around for one more drill.”
With those stakes the students regained their flagging enthusiasm and eagerly began lining up. Iolaus scanned the mob and singled out the tall, dark haired boy.
“Zylus, how about going one on one with me?”
“I’m honored that you would think I was worthy of you, sir,” the cadet answered glibly. “But I think I’d prefer to practice with someone closer to my own skill level. Like Tabor, here. Right, Tabor?” “Huh? Yeah, sure. Whatever,” the boy replied distractedly.
The hunter’s gazed narrowed as he studied Zylus, wondering what his new game was. Obviously the boy was trying to regain his standing with his peers, and targeting the headmaster’s son seemed a likely way to do so. But Tabor was strong and good with a staff, so Iolaus chose to let them spar and work it out, deciding not to intervene unless things got too rough.
The paired cadets began going through the exercise on the beam, with Iolaus watching carefully and calling out advice and encouragement. They all were focused and driven, with the promise of freedom waiting for them if they won. And the victors eagerly claimed their rewards, while those unfortunate students who found themselves knocked off of the beam picked themselves up and slunk off to the side, resigned to another round of tedious drills. Finally Zylus and Tabor were up. They each mounted the beam and waited tensely for their teacher to give them the signal to begin. When he did, Zylus attacked with a controlled fury that almost sent the other boy immediately crashing to the ground. But although he was not as wiry or agile as his opponent, Tabor managed to recover his shaky balance and even drove Zylus back a few steps.
“That’s it, Tabor,” Iolaus shouted. “Good work.”
Zylus glanced down at the hunter, his eyes going cold and hard. Then he gripped his staff tightly and advanced again, swinging it with a brutal force. Tabor tried to fend him off but again was knocked off balance and Zylus took advantage of that to swipe at his knees, causing the boy to topple from the beam.
“Well, looks like I just earned the rest of the afternoon off,” Zylus gloated smugly as he leapt lightly down to the ground.
“Yes, you did,” Iolaus told him tightly. He wanted to chastize the boy, but technically he hadn’t done anything wrong and he had put up a good fight, even if it had been rather militant for a simple drill. “Good job.”
As Zylus strutted from the practice room, the hunter extended a hand to Tabor. The boy ignored him and got to his feet himself.
“Nice defense, Tabor,” Iolaus tried to compliment him. “Just work on holding your balance a little and next time you’ll have him.”
But the boy shrugged off his words and angrily stomped off to join the rest of the losers. The hunter sighed and turned his attentions back to the next pair of cadets.
Once they had all gone and the winners had made their escape, Iolaus gathered the remaining cadets and led them outside, thinking a change of scenery would do them all good. But he was dismayed to see that Zylus and several others from the group he’d already dismissed were hanging around. They kept quiet, but their mere presence was taunting to the rest of the class. Iolaus turned his back on their smug grins and concentrated on leading the cadet through the drill once more, giving each student his full attention and working out the problems they were having until he was satisfied every one of them had the series down cold. He ordered them to pair up again, telling them each pair would spar through the exercise once and then they were done. More relaxed this time without so much pressure to win, the cadets chose their partners and prepared for the final drill.
All except Tabor. He was still smarting from the sting of Zylus’ staff and he knew he’d be bruised from the match. But far more painful than that was the sting of defeat. He’d let that pompous windbag get the better of him, and even though his father hadn’t been there to see it, Tabor could still imagine the disappointed scowl the old centaur would have had. It was bad enough having Iolaus patronize him. Well, Tabor was determined that wasn’t going to happen again.
He casually took a few steps away from the cadets and slipped the folded piece of parchment from his pocket.
“Here goes nothing,” he muttered to himself as he took a deep breath and began to read. The words were foreign and nonsensical to him and he stumbled over more than a few, but he kept going and made it through the entire passage. As soon as the last syllable fell from his lips, a burning pain began shooting through his head.
With a cry, Tabor ripped the silver ring Ares had given him from his ear and tossed it away from him, the metal burning like molten fire. The pain alleviated, but only for a second before a new one started. Tabor clawed at the leather thong around his throat desperately, unable to remove the stone pendant that was searing into him. Iolaus, striding forward to investigate the commotion, didn’t understand what was happening but it was clear his student was in pain and his pendant was somehow the cause. The hunter grabbed the cord and pulled the pendant over the boy’s head, dropping it to the ground as he felt the heat and power radiating from the object.
“Are you all right?” he asked the cadet. But before Tabor could answer, the ring that he’d tossed away began to glow and pulse. Everyone in the yard watched in fascination as the small object grew and hummed and finally exploded in a burst of light and energy. When the smoke cleared, the kids all gasped and the hunter’s heart sank.
“Oh, yeah!” Strife yelled out, pumping his fists in the air exuberantly. “It’s good to be back!”
The godling giggled dementedly, but he quickly found his grand entrance back to the land of the living overshadowed. Tabor’s pendant had likewise begun to glow and pulse, and everyone stared in fascinated horror as they speculated what was going to appear next. After another explosion, much larger than the first, their questions were answered. And everyone was sorry that they had asked.
“Everyone get back!” Iolaus cried out, grabbing Tabor and pushing the boy behind him. “Head for cover. Now!”
The students all began scrambling for the relative safety of the buildings. Iolaus followed them, meeting up with Cheiron who was coming out to investigate the chaos.
“Iolaus, what is...” The centaur trailed off as he spied the monstrosity in the yard. “I don’t believe it. It can’t be. He’s dead!”
“Friend of yours?” the hunter asked sarcastically, waving at the giant ogre that was beginning to lumber toward them.
“He attacked my kindra, decades ago,” Cheiron explained. “My brother was killed, and I vowed my revenge. I tracked him down and we battled fiercely, but in the end I was victorious.”
“And that stone pendant Tabor wears,” Iolaus questioned as he began to put two and two together, “that was his?”
“Yes,” the centaur replied, puzzled. “He had a dagger and the stone was inlaid in the handle. I took it as a trophy. How did you know that? Iolaus, what is going on here?”
“I’m not entirely sure,” the hunter answered, nodding toward the yard. “But I would guess they have something to do with it.”
“Ares,” Cheiron murmured, his eyes widening as the god of war appeared in their midst. “And Strife. This is not good.”
“No, it’s not. But first things first.”
Both of them turned their focus to the more immediate threat that was approaching.
“Cheiron!” the ogre bellowed. “Come out and face me! Coward! You are right to fear me! I’ll have you begging for death before I’m finished with you!”
“Tabor!” Iolaus hissed as the cadet darted past them. “What are you doing?”
“This is my fault,” the boy tossed over his shoulder, having instantly realized that Ares had played him for a fool. “So I’m going to fix it.”
Cheiron watched in horror as his son charged at the giant ogre with only a tiny sword for defense. The great brute laughed at his challenger, which only served to infuriate the boy. Tabor rushed at the ogre and slashed at his knee with his weapon, cutting into flesh and drawing blood. The ogre roared out and swung a meaty hand down, catching the cadet and flinging him across the yard where he landed hard in the dirt.
The centaur took a few steps forward and hesitated, torn between needing to go to his son and wanting to face his attacker.
“Go take care of Tabor,” Iolaus decided for him as Lilith and the group of cadets she’d been training arrived on the scene. “We’ve got this.”
Again, Cheiron hesitated, but wisdom prevailed over his anger and he nodded his acquiescence.
“The forehead between the eyes,” the centaur told him. “He’s weak there.”
As Cheiron began trotting off to where his son was still lying in an unmoving heap, Lilith moved to Iolaus’ side.
“Well, you heard him,” she declared. “What are we waiting for?”
“Wait.” The hunter grabbed her arm to reign in her eagerness. “Remember what Cheiron taught us.”
The Amazon followed his gaze to a coil of rope hanging from a nearby wall.
“Cut your opponent down to your size,” she grinned, catching on to his thinking and waving her daughter forward. “We’re on it.”
Lilith took up the rope and she and Seska carefully approached the massive ogre. It took a little effort to divert his attention from Cheiron, as the simple minded creature was focused on revenge against the centaur who had ended his original reign of terror. But with a little creative name calling, the Amazon manage to direct the ogre’s wrath toward herself. However, while he definitely had size and strength on his side, speed and agility were not among the ogre’s assets. He swung at them with clumsy blows, but the lithe Amazons evaded him easily with their acrobatic skills, ducking and flipping around his legs as they simultaneously wove the rope around his feet. When he was thoroughly tangled, they each took an end of the rope and pulled for all they were worth. The slack tightened and the ogre teetered precariously for a moment before falling forward. He hit the ground hard, getting the wind knocked out of him. And as he raised his head up, the last thing the brute saw was Iolaus flying through the air toward him. The hunter’s boots slammed into his head, squarely between the eyes. Iolaus was knocked back by the force of the blow and sprawled across the ground, but Cheiron’s prediction had been correct. The ogre immediately went still, and after a moment his giant frame shimmered and disappeared.
In the heat of the moment, Iolaus had almost forgotten about Ares. But the god of war made his presence known with a bout of sarcastic applause.
“Not bad.” Ares’ sneer became a leer as he glanced at Lilith and Seska. “And as for you ladies, what can I say? Brilliant form.”
“Ares, do you have any idea what you’ve done?” Iolaus demanded, glaring at the resurrected Strife.
“Just taking a page from your playbook, Blondie,” the god of war gibed. “I figured that if a lowly mortal can defy death, then a god should certainly be able to do the same.”
“Yeah,” Strife crowed. “You aren’t the only one with a Get Out of Hades Free Card, chump! Strife is back, and I’m large and in charge!”
“You are going to make me regret doing this, aren’t you?” Ares sighed.
“Come on, Unc!” the godling urged. “Time’s wasting. Let’s blast ‘em!”
“Not now,” the god of war told his nephew. “There’s another feast on Olympus and for once I feel like attending.”
“Olympus?” Strife squeaked. “No way, man! Hades has had me on a short leash down in Deathsville for an eternity. I’m finally free, and I want to do some damage!”
“You have a real eternity to do some damage, you ungrateful little toad,” Ares bellowed at him. “For now, I’m more interested in seeing the look on dear old Dad’s face when we crash the party. Now let’s go!”
The god of war grabbed his protesting nephew by the ear and both immortals vanished in a flash of light.
“I can’t leave you alone for a second without you landing in trouble, can I?” Lilith teased as she approached Iolaus and offered a hand to help him up.
“Some things never change,” he grunted as he got to his feet.
“So what was that all about?”
“Isn’t the fact that Ares was here explanation enough?” the hunter asked wearily.
“Ah, the beauty is in the details,” Lilith reminded him. But her smile faded as she saw something lurking in his blue eyes. “Are you all right?”
“You don’t look it.”
“It’s nothing,” Iolaus shrugged. “Just something Ares said.”
“What did he say?” the Amazon inquired, puzzled.
“Nothing, never mind,” the hunter told her in dismissal. “Let’s go check on Tabor.”
The boy was standing and appeared mostly all right, although he was holding his arm tightly against his side and had a trickle of blood running down his cheek.
“I’m ok,” he announced sullenly, before Iolaus or Lilith could even ask.
“Then perhaps you could explain yourself,” Cheiron suggested cooly.
“I was just trying to be a great warrior, all right?” Tabor blurted out. “Ares promised to help me. I didn’t know he was lying.”
“That’s a safe assumption every time he opens his mouth,” Iolaus interjected. “Let me see that.”
The hunter took the parchment and glanced it over, with the Amazon reading it over his shoulder.
“Do you know what it says?” Lilith asked.
“No,” Iolaus answered. “Definitely something of the gods. Going by what happened today, it must be a resurrection spell. Did Ares give you something of Strife’s?”
“An earring,” Tabor muttered. “But I didn’t know what it was.”
“Looks like you can bring the dead back to life with this, as long as you have a personal effect,” the hunter concluded. “Ares didn’t bargain on an ogre, but he got what he wanted.”
“He’s a god,” Lilith pointed out. “If he wanted Strife back, couldn’t he have done it without all this trouble?”
“Gods can’t undo what other gods have done,” Iolaus parroted, having heard the rule many times over the years. Mostly as an excuse for the tragedy and pain that was allowed to burden his best friend’s life.
“Well, this certainly could be dangerous in the wrong hands.” The Amazon voiced what they’d all been thinking. “What do we do with it?”
“I’ll take care of it,” Cheiron announced, “and secure it somewhere safe.”
Iolaus handed the parchment to the centaur, who rolled it up before turning to his son.
“And as for you, Tabor, you have a lot to answer for. What in Zeus’ name were you thinking of, asking Ares for help?”
“He’s the god of war and warriors,” the boy said defensively. “We serve him just by the very nature of our training!”
“After all I’ve tried to teach you... You disappoint me, my son,” the centaur told him sadly. “Go on inside and wait for me. I’ll see to that arm, and then we’ll discuss your punishment for this stunt.”
The boy dropped his head and plodded off to his father’s office
“He’s a good kid, Cheiron,” Iolaus reminded his old headmaster. “He just made a mistake.”
“I know,” the centaur sighed. “That’s part of growing up. But I fear he’s not learning from his mistakes. None of the cadets are. I’m failing them.”
“You’re just a little overwhelmed,” Lilith tried to console him.
“I once defeated that ogre all on my own,” Cheiron continued. “Back when I was a warrior in my prime. But today I finally had to face the truth. I’m old, and I’m a warrior no more. I still have much to teach, perhaps, but I can’t run this Academy any longer. I don’t know what to do.”
“Don’t worry,” Iolaus told him, laying a hand on his shoulder. “We’ll help you figure it out together. Just go take care of Tabor for now.”
The centaur nodded and headed inside, followed closely by Iolaus, Lilith and Seska. Out in the yard, the cadets were realizing the show was over and began busying themselves righting overturned objects and cleaning up, or comforting the smaller children who were mostly scared and confused. But there was one cadet blind to the activity around him. Zylus watched his headmaster as he disappeared inside, the cadet’s calculating eyes firmly glued to the scroll in the centaur’s hand as the boy purposefully twisted the jeweled ring he wore around his finger.
To be continued in part two....
Disclaimer: Despite our golden hunter’s most charming efforts, Kora’s virtuosity remained intact during the writing of this story.
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