It was a beautiful day and the sun shone brightly on the group of four as they strolled companionably together down the road, their journey almost at an end.
"It'll be great to see the old school again," Jason enthused as he walked hand in hand with Alcmene. "It feels like it's been forever."
"It has been forever," Hercules teased his friend. "We're getting old, Jason."
"You speak for yourself," the former argonaut told him sternly.
"Are you sure they're expecting us?" Iolaus asked timidly, lagging behind and still so unsure of himself and his place in his new world.
"Oh, I'm sure Iolaus got my letter," the demigod replied easily. "And even if he didn't, Cheiron is the welcoming sort."
"He's one of a kind," Jason agreed.
"Techinically he's two of a kind," Iolaus said absently. When the others looked back at him questioningly, he explained. "You see, in my world, the Academy was a center of learning of the black arts. Cheiron ruled it with an iron fist. He turned the Sovereign into a tyrant."
"Don't worry, that wasn't our Cheiron," Jason assured him.
"If you say so," the former jester muttered.
"Iolaus, repeat after me," Hercules commanded him suddenly.
"After me," Iolaus said, then chuckled apologetically as he realized he'd automatically gone for the fool's response.
"Change is good," the demigod reminded him in a no nonsense tone.
"Change is good," Iolaus parroted, although his own voice lacked conviction.
"I will not run from it," Hercules continued.
"I will not..." Iolaus trailed off as they rounded the bend in the road and the Academy gates came into view. "Run from it," he finished weakly.
"Come on," Alcmene encouraged him, leaving her husband's side and dropping back to walk beside the nervous man, linking his arm through her own. "You'll be fine."
Iolaus took a deep breath and nodded, regaining the confidence in his step as he escorted Alcmene through the gate. It was still hard for him being in a world where everything looked so familiar, but it was all so deceptively foreign. People looking like those he once knew, although he didn't know if they were friend or foe here. And they all mistook him for someone else. For a hero. So traveling to new places and meeting new people were a continuing source of anxiety for the former jester. Although, it was becoming easier as his list of allies and friends grew, and he was grateful for the support and understanding of the small group of people around him. Iolaus had been a little unsure when Hercules had left him in Thebes while he went off to Trendopolis alone, but Jason had welcomed him warmly and Alcmene had immediately taken him under her wing, nurturing and mothering him like he’d never been before. And in no time he’d felt safe and comfortable with them and had greatly enjoyed the time spent at the little cottage, living the simple life and smelling the roses, both figuratively and the literal blooms of Alcmene’s lush garden.
Hercules suspected that Iolaus must have been watching for them, for the hunter spotted them almost immediately as they came through the gate and rushed to greet them enthusiastically. He had a hug and a kiss for Alcmene and welcoming shakes for the guys.
"We've got a lot to talk about," Iolaus told them, noting the surprise in his old friends’ faces at the state of the Academy and the score of young children running through the yard. Not to mention the bombshell he’d need to drop that Strife was back. "But I'm sure Alcmene would like to get settled in after the trip and Cheiron's waiting to say hello."
"He's not the only one," Lilith cried out as she rushed up to join them. Iolaus had already told her the story of his counterpart from beyond the vortex, so there was no shock or confusion on the Amazon's part as she introduced herself to the former jester and welcomed him warmly. Tight hugs were exchanged with the rest of the gang, and Iolaus watched closely as Lilith threw herself into Jason's arms.
"It's been a long time," he whispered into her ear.
"Too long," she sighed, giving him a squeeze. "I'm glad to see you Jason." She pulled away, giving them all a bright grin. "There's someone I'd like you all to meet." Lilith whistled loudly and waved, and across the yard Seska broke away from her training and trotted over to them.
"Are you sure you don't want to ease into this?" Iolaus asked the Amazon quietly. "You know, break the news gently?" "Break what news gently?" Jason demanded.
"Everyone, this is my daughter, Seska," Lilith announced, putting an arm around the girl and ignoring the hunter's concerns. "This is Iolaus, Hercules, his mother, Alcmene, and Jason. Your father."
"Her what?" the demigod choked out.
"Her father," Lilith repeated, giving him a hard look.
"Hey." Seska nodded at Jason and then addressed the group. "Nice to meet all of you, but I have to get back to drills." She kissed her mother and ran back to work, leaving a proudly smiling Amazon to face the stunned group.
"We have a daughter?" Jason asked slowly, trying to wrap his head around the idea. "We have a daughter?!" He glanced at his wife, and Alcmene nodded her understanding at his need for a moment alone. Taking Lilith by the arm, the former king of Corinth led her a few steps away. "Why didn't you ever tell me?"
"Oh, what would you have done, raise her as a princess in Corinth?" Lilith scoffed.
"Because she's an Amazon."
"You bounced between worlds growing up," Jason reminded her. "What made you think Seska couldn't handle it?"
"Hey, it was bad enough I had to grow up with an identity crisis," Lilith told him. "I wasn't about to hand one down to my daughter."
"But where do you think your strength came from, Lilith?" the Argonaut argued. "Ask yourself 'who am I' enough times and sooner or later you're bound to find an answer. And you did. Seska had a right to find hers."
"I never denied her that right," the Amazon said gently. "She's known about you since she was little. We Amazons don't raise our daughters to hate men, Jason. Only to rely on their own inner strength. If Seska had ever asked to see you, I wouldn't have hesitated." She paused, surprised and saddened to see the hurt reflected on his face.
"You still should have told me," Jason told her quietly. "I had a right to know I had a daughter, whether or not she wanted to see me."
"Look, I have to get back to the cadets," Lilith apologized. "We'll talk about this later, ok?"
"What's to talk about?" the Argonaut muttered sarcastically under his breath as the lovely Amazon began striding across the yard. He sighed, running a hand over his face as he went back to where his friends were waiting a few feet away.
"You ok?" Hercules asked, clapping his old friend on the shoulder.
"Yes," Jason replied. "It's just... finding out I have a daughter after all these years. It's going to take a little getting used to."
"I always thought you guys might have had something going on," Iolaus revealed. "How come you never told us?"
"You two clowns?" the Argonaut said skeptically. "Yeah, right. We never would have heard the end of it. Besides, Lilith wanted to keep it a secret. Well, you know how hard she worked to get accepted as one of the guys. She felt that if people knew we were dating, she'd lose everyone's respect." He sighed again, his thoughts drifting back to a time long ago. "Lilith was my first love and I wanted a future with her, but the timing just never worked out for us. After graduation, I had a kingdom to run and even though I repeatedly tried to talk her out of it, she chose to go back to her tribe." Jason came back to the present and went to his wife, taking her hands in his. "Are you upset?"
"Of course not," Alcmene assured him. "A bit surprised, naturally, but we both had other lives before each other and I can't be angry at what came before me. You welcomed Hercules and Iphicles into your heart, and I can do no less for Seska. Besides," she continued, smiling over Jason's shoulder at her son, "I always wanted a daughter."
Everyone laughed and the tension eased, and Iolaus rallied them all together.
"Let's go greet Cheiron and then I have to get back to running drills with Lilith," he announced. "If you guys want to help, we could sure use it. And Alcmene, maybe you could stop in the kitchen and have a word with the cook?"
"About what?" she asked, amused.
"Oh, about his non use of seasoning," Iolaus told her. "And maybe drop a hint or two that oats don't necessarily need to be a part of every meal."
The son of her heart looked so hopeful that Alcmene couldn't refuse him. Not that she ever could.
"I'll see what I can do," she promised as they walked off toward Cheiron's office.
That night after the evening meal had been served to the cadets, the group of old and new friends gathered in the empty dining hall to share a late dinner. Jason grabbed a plate and joined the others around the buffet table, but his eyes lit up when he saw the tray of fish and feta popovers nestled among the various bowls and dishes.
“Surprise,” Lilith whispered in his ear as she came up behind him.
“You remembered,” the former king grinned as he piled a generous helping of his favorite food on his plate.
“Consider it a peace offering,” the Amazon told him. “Look, Jason, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking all afternoon and you were right. I should have told you about Seska. I guess, if I’m honest, I was afraid to.”
“Afraid?” The Argonaut turned to meet her gaze. “Why would you be afraid?”
“Well, there was a little part of me deep down inside that was afraid that Seska would chose a life as a princess with you over a life with me and the Amazons. I loved her so much and I couldn’t stand the thought of losing her. But that wasn’t fair to you, and I’m sorry.”
“Apology accepted,” Jason said sincerely. “But there’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you. What we had, did it mean as much to you as it did to me?”
“Jason, you were my first love,” Lilith told him seriously. “That makes us kind of linked for life.”
“In more ways than one,” he agreed, thinking of their daughter. “Even if one of those links wants nothing to do with me.”
“Seska’s an Amazon,” Lilith reminded him, her teasing smirk returning. “And you know how stubborn they can be. Just give her a little time. And maybe turn up that old princely charm. No girl can resist that.”
Laughing conspiratorially, they joined Alcmene, Hercules and the two Iolauses at one of the long tables. Cheiron stood nearby, leaning heavily on his staff and saying little, although he listened to the banter and storytelling and reminiscing with much amusement, his wise gaze drifting between his four former students. The four best students he’d even had the pleasure to teach, and while they had been the best, they had still been young and green and had a lot to learn.
Hercules, with his divine blood, had obviously been a natural. He had unmatched strength and stamina, which had given him confidence. But even at that young age he’d known that with that power came great responsibility, and the weight of that on his shoulders sometimes caused him hesitation and fear. His teenage bravado often warred with his insecurity, and the centaur suspected that the young demigod wished he could just be a normal kid like everyone else. Alcmene had taught him well, in that he was a humble, unselfish, polite and caring young man. But the sting of not having a father was still sharp in Hercules. He spent his time alternately performing crazy stunts in an attempt to get Zeus’ attention, and being angry and resentful at the god’s neglect and abandonment of himself and his mother. Cheiron could see that even now Hercules was still struggling with that duality. He’d met his father and formed a relationship, but Zeus was still never around when his son needed him. The best Hercules could do was try to learn to accept his father for what he was, but Cheiron knew that something of that young disappointment was still there, and probably always would be.
Lilith had been on her way to becoming a great warrior. But there was a lot of anger and confusion in the girl, and she’d had to learn not to let her pride weigh her down and interfere with her training. Jason, as a crown prince, had always behaved as such. He was kingly and in charge, often acting as a leader or authority figure for the other cadets, lecturing his friends often when they stepped out of line. But Cheiron had always felt he was a little too in control and rigid, a theory that was proven true after Jason’s personal tragedies overwhelmed him and the only solace he had was in a bottle. However the Argonaut had always been strong, and he managed to rise above his grief and conquer his demons. No longer king, but he was still regal and royalty. And the centaur was happy to see his former student was much more relaxed and at peace with himself and his place in life.
Where Jason had always been a stickler for the law, conversely Iolaus was always one for following his heart and doing what he thought was right. This caused the two of them to butt heads on more than one occasion, when Jason would take the path of righteousness and Iolaus would let his passion lead, rules be damned. And passion he definitely had in abundance. Iolaus loved life and loved having fun, often proclaiming he’d still be having fun when he was at the ripe old age of thirty. He could be a handful, but his boisterous exterior hid a beautiful soul. Iolaus always had an empathetic nature, and a gentleness about him that inspired trust. As in the case of the Basilisk that he’d named Ruff. Despite nearly burning down half of Cornith, Iolaus could only see a scared little baby when he looked at the creature that everyone else was calling a monster. It was hard for him to let Ruff go, and he’d been elated when he met up with him again as the circus came to town. At least until he realized the state Ruff was in. It broke his heart to see him sad, scared, and sick, trapped in a cage by a cruel barker, so Iolaus risked his life to rescue his old “friend”. Loyalty and honor were two things that were never in question where the young man was concerned. And of all his students, it was Iolaus of which Cheiron was most proud. The somewhat troubled former thief who faltered and then found his way, becoming a hero and eventually the savior of Greece. They’d all survived and learned from their trials to triumph on their various paths. Lilith had become a great warrior of the Amazon tribe, and the other three had grown into great men, legends of the age, although with some of the stunts they’d pulled in their youth it was amazing any of them had even made it to adulthood. Like tangling with Bacchus, the so called god of good times who was really the leader of a monstrous cult.
“And I almost became one of his Bacchae,” Lilith recalled with a shudder. “Thank the gods Hercules figured out the riddle about washing your spirit clean and used the water from the golden spring to cure me.”
“I don’t know,” Iolaus teased her. “I think you would have looked good as a wolf.”
“You would have been one right along with me,” the Amazon told him haughtily. “Because you never could outrun me.”
“That should have been the end of Bacchus,” Hercules added. “But that jerk Orpheus just couldn’t give up his precious lyre.”
“Yeah,” Iolaus remembered. “He wanted fame so much that he was willing to sacrifice innocent people to Bacchus to get it. Even his own girlfriend. What was her name again?”
“Eurydice,” Hercules answered quietly. He’d had feelings for the girl, and when she eventually realized the truth about Orpheus she’d reciprocated those feelings. They’d almost shared something, but it was too late. Eurydice died at the hands of Bacchus. The god enjoyed Hercules’ grief and decided to leave him to suffer with it, vowing to return to resume their battle once the demigod’s sorrow faded. He’d never seen Bacchus again, and Hercules suspected that was because a small part of him still grieved for Eurydice, the girl that he’d cared about and who was taken much too soon. “She saved my life,” he continued out loud. “But I couldn’t save hers.”
“You did the next best thing,” Jason reminded him. “You went to the Underworld to speak on her behalf.”
“I didn’t go alone,” Hercules said quietly, with a fond glance at his old friend.
“Well, I thought you were nuts,” the former king told him. “But I knew I wasn’t going to talk you out of it, and I couldn’t let you go by yourself.”
“I’m sorry I dragged you into that,” the demigod apologized.
“Are you kidding?” Jason demanded. “It was great. I got to see my father again. Got to talk to him one more time and hug him and hear him say he was proud of me. I wouldn’t have traded that chance for anything.”
“What happened with Eurydice?” Iolaus asked, finding he was thoroughly enjoying these tales of youthful exploits of his new friends.
“Oh, well, I had my first meeting with my uncle, Hades,” Hercules continued. “He’s really not so bad for a god. Not when compared to some of my other relatives. Anyway, I plead Eurydice’s case, and eventually won. She got to go to the Elysian Fields, rather than suffer banishment to Tartarus for being a Bacchae.”
“That kind of became a theme, didn’t it?” Iolaus joked around a mouthful of food. “You meet up with Hades, he complains about his job, you demand a favor, he gives you a little challenge, you do it, and he grants your request. It’s the same song and dance every time.”
“Not quite as easy as you make it sound,” the demigod told his old friend. “But not too far from the truth. Hades just never could refuse his favorite nephew. And I learned something from that experience. A little name dropping isn’t necessarily a bad thing for getting you what you want sometimes.”
“It was a learning experience for me, as well,” Jason added. “In the art of tact and negotiation. A king’s two best allies.”
“Oh, really,” Hercules smirked. “Was it tact or negotiation that you used on Charon to get him to let you come along for the ride?”
“You swore you’d never mention that to anyone!” Jason hissed.
“What?” Iolaus yelped. “What? Tell me. Come on, I was stuck at the carnival in the dunk booth while you guys were off adventuring without me. You owe me. What did Jason have to do?”
“Don’t you dare,” the Argonaut threatened ominously.
“For the duration of the ride...”
“Hercules, I’m warning you...”
“Jason had to rub Charon’s bunions,” Hercules revealed merrily, ducking as a chunk of bread came whizzing across the table at his head.
“Boys,” Alcmene said firmly, but fondly.
Everyone settled down, but Hercules didn’t miss the “I’ll get you for this” look the dignified former King of Corinth was sending his way.
“What about Ares?” Lilith interjected, changing the subject. “He certainly made life interesting around here.”
“Yeah, you’d think as the god of war he’d have better things to do with his life than pick on some kids,” Iolaus tossed over his shoulder as he got up and headed back to the buffet table to refill his plate.
“Remember that time you and I went mushroom picking and got trapped in that cave?” the Amazon asked Hercules.
“Vividly,” the demigod answered. “I was supposed to distract you and get you out of the way while Iolaus and Jason decorated for your surprise party. The real surprise was Ares showing up and trying to use you to kill me.”
“It’s amazing that after all the times he tried to do you in, he actually had the guts to make you defend him when he was on trial for attempting to murder you,” Jason said with a disgusted shake of his head.
“The irony appealed to him,” Hercules muttered, equally disgusted. “But it worked. I cleared his name, like he knew I would. Maybe he’s smarter than I give him credit for after all.”
“Remember Timor?” Iolaus asked suddenly, around a burst of laughter. “That farm boy we found who looked just like Ares? We dressed him up and he pretended to be the god of war and made Strife and Discord work on the farm while Jason negotiated peace talks.”
“And then we had him order peace between Sparta and Thebes,” Hercules chuckled. “I can’t believe that worked! Ares might be smarter than I gave him credit for, but Strife and Discord were dumber than a bag of hammers.”
“I can’t believe you guys even had time for education with all these distractions,” Iolaus commented.
“Yeah, I never thought becoming king would be anticlimactic,” Jason agreed.
“Your coronation wasn’t anticlimactic,” Iolaus reminded him. “The giant Golinthia attacked the city.”
“And what about that coronation present King Cadmus sent you,” Lilith recalled. “His daughter, Dido, to be your bride.”
“We couldn’t risk offending him so we had to pretend I was already married,” Jason chuckled. “Lilith stood in as my wife.”
“It wasn’t easy turning the warrior into a refined princess,” Hercules teased.
“She had it easier than I did,” Iolaus protested. “I was the one stuck in a chicken outfit!”
“She made a wonderful princess,” Jason defended her. “In fact, that was when I first realized... I was in love.” The words of King Cadmus to Lilith echoed through his memory. ‘You were meant for your Jason.’
“Awww,” Iolaus murmured. “Too bad she blew the charade when she started kicking everyone’s butt.”
Everyone laughed, but Alcmene was starting to feel decidedly uncomfortable. She thought she was fine with learning that her husband had been involved with Lilith all those years ago, but now she wasn’t so sure. Watching them together was starting to fill her with doubt and dread. They had history together, and Seska. Amphitryon was dead and Zeus wasn’t around, but her husband’s first love was sitting right there next to him, her hand on his arm. Alcmene knew Jason well enough to know he was going to want to be a part of Seska’s life from now on, which would mean he’d be a part of Lilith’s life as well. An uncharacteristic wave of jealously rose in her, as she couldn’t deny that the beautiful Amazon was much younger than she was, much closer to her husband’s age. And that jealously became fear. Fear that she could lose the man that she loved with all her heart.
Needing to step away, Alcmene used the excuse that she was going to the kitchen to get the desert. Lilith watched her go thoughtfully, and then announced her intention to help as she rose and followed the older woman.
“Alcmene,” the Amazon began softly as she entered the kitchen. “I owe you a thank you.”
“What for?” she asked, busying herself with arranging gooey honey cakes on a tray.
“Do you remember when I came to your home for the Feast of Persephone?” Lilith inquired. “You knew that Hercules and Capaneus would be too busying fighting to do any hunting, so you and I went out and caught the boar for the feast.”
“Yes, I remember,” Alcmene said, confused as to where the Amazon was going with this.
“All I knew about women was two extremes,” Lilith continued. “My sister, and the women of my village, and the Amazons. I thought that I had to choose between being a warrior or a domestic. That weekend, you taught me that there could be a balance between both. I’d never met anyone like you before, Alcmene. You were kind and motherly, but you were also strong and fierce when you had to be. I respected that, and I studied you in a way. Everything I know about parenting I learned from you, and by your example, I became a much better mother to Seska. So thank you. For being my role model, even if you didn’t know it.”
“I don’t know what to say,” Alcmene whispered, touched. “You’re very welcome, my dear.”
Lilith stepped forward and hugged her tightly, which the older woman genuinely returned.
“Jason will always hold a special place in my heart,” the Amazon said quietly in her ear. “But only as a very good friend. And just so you know, he never once looked at me the way that I see him looking at you. I can only wish that he had.” Lilith stepped back and picked up the tray of pastries. “I’ll carry these in.”
Alcmene watched her go, wiping the moisture from her eyes before she followed. Lilith had set the tray down on the buffet table and everyone eagerly crowded around, jostling for a fair share of the treats. Jason was with them, but he left the others and moved to his wife, pulling her into a warm hug and kissing her forehead tenderly. And as Alcmene gazed into her husband’s eyes, she plainly saw what Lilith had been talking about. Jason was looking at her with a deep, all encompassing love that defied everything in their past. A burning passion that nothing or no one could ever come between. And with that, any doubt in Alcmene’s heart was forever silenced.
Early in the morning, all of the cadets assembled out in the yard, waiting expectantly until Cheiron appeared before them.
“This Academy was once a venerable institution,” the centaur began without preamble. “A place of honor. A place of education. My students left here well trained and ready to face the world, and none of my graduates ever disappointed me. I’m ashamed to say that this is no longer the case. Things here have grown lax and unorganized, and education has fallen by the wayside. But I’m here to tell you that from this moment forward, everything changes. I know some of you are here with aspirations of becoming mercenaries for money, but you’ll find no place here any longer. This Academy is going to become a place of honor once more. You will be trained to be warriors and soldiers, but you will be schooled in the way of nobility. Academics will be of equal priority with your physical training. You will give your instructors your respect and your full attention and cooperation. My graduates will once again be well rounded, well educated individuals that will continue to make me proud. For those of you who aren’t interested in this new curriculum, you are welcome to leave with no hard feelings. For those of you that choose to stay, I challenge you to work together. Learn together. Compete with each other, but don’t be afraid to help each other. Bring out the best in each other, and do your Academy proud. Classes will begin in ten minutes. Dismissed.”
“Good speech,” Hercules told his old teacher as he turned away from the crowd. “Inspiring.”
“I wish I had your optimism,” Cheiron said wearily. “I’m more inclined to believe it did more to decimate enrollment than anything.”
“I don’t know,” the demigod murmured as he watched the cadets wandering off. A few of them seemed disillusioned and disappointed, but they were definitely in the minority. Most of the kids had a new light in their eyes, and a palpable sense of relief that some kind of structure and order was going to be reinstated. They seemed eager to learn, and even anxious to make their headmaster proud. “I think you might be surprised.”
Jason wandered through the yard, lost in thought. He hadn’t expected that his return to the Academy would bring back so many memories, but he’d been almost overwhelmed by them. It was so long ago, and it almost seemed like it had all happened to another person. His life had turned out very differently than what he’d expected it to be when he’d been a cadet. He’d been robbed, in a sense, of being a kid. Where Hercules and Iolaus had the luxury of acting like teenagers, Jason had the weight of being the crown prince on his shoulders. About to become the king of all of Corinth, but still just a young man. Faced with his impending coronation and the order to grow up and put childish things behind him, Jason had rebelled and had run away to the Northern lands. He found a place on a farm and for the first time in his life had experienced a hard day’s work and a good night’s sleep. Surprisingly, he had embraced the simple life, and he began to worry that he was not cut out for being a king.
At least until a warlord attacked the village, when his royal side took over and he organized the villagers to make a stand and fight. It was then Jason discovered he was a natural leader and had the ability to inspire others. Not something that could be taught, he’d been born to it. And he realized that it wasn’t about him, but that he had a responsibility to the people of his home and that he really was ready to grow up and accept that responsibility. Accept it he did, and Jason bore his crown and all its burdens for many, many years. Until sacrifice and tragedy wore him down, and he had to admit the time had come for selfishness. He was ready to live for himself, and he passed his rule to Iphicles, who had the passion for it that Jason no longer possessed. Not once did he ever regret giving up the crown to his father’s kingdom. It was the best thing he could have done for Corinth, to put her in the hands of someone who would do right by her. And never once did he feel guilty for indulging in his own happiness. After his long years of service and sacrifice, he felt he earned the right to live out the rest of his life in peace and quiet, with his family.
A family that had suddenly become a little bit larger. Jason’s gaze swept the yard until he spied his daughter. Seska was busy stretching and warming up in preparation for afternoon drills, and she barely glanced at her father as he came up behind her and leaned casually on the exercise bar.
“So why is six afraid of seven?”
“Because seven eight nine,” she replied disdainfully, not breaking stride in her warmup. “Are you trying to bond with me?”
“Trying being the operative word,” Jason replied wryly.
“Look, it’s not that I have anything against you,” Seska explained, turning to face him. “It’s just that I’ve never needed a father and I don’t intend to start now.”
“And I don’t need to be needed,” Jason called out as she started to walk away. “If nothing else, I’d like us to be friends.”
Seska paused, turning to give him an appraising look over her shoulder.
“Then you’d better start coming up with some better jokes.”
“I’ll second that,” the former king muttered under his breath as she moved off. Maybe Iolaus could give him some pointers, or at least tell him some jokes that the jesters weren’t telling back when he was a toddler at his father’s knee.
“Good job,” Hercules called out, watching two cadets as they sparred. “Keep your shield up. And watch your footwork.” The demigod winced as one of the students crashed hard onto the ground. “Ok, nice try. But this is what I’m talking about. You can’t just rely on strength in battle. You have to learn agility and balance, and most importantly, you have to learn that your mind is your greatest weapon. You have to think on your feet, anticipate, and be able to react before your opponent can make his move. Iolaus?”
The hunter stepped in, helping up the fallen boy and aligning him in position, walking him through the drill to show him exactly where he went wrong. As he did, Hercules glanced off to the sidelines, and then trotted over to speak to the boy who was sulking there alone.
“How you doing, Tabor?” he asked congenially, nodding toward the sling that still cushioned the boy’s arm. “You want to participate in some drills? You could practice some footwork or try some left handed sword moves.”
“What’s the point?” the cadet muttered.
“The point is your training,” Hercules admonished him. “You might be hurt in a real battle but you can’t just give up. You have to compensate and carry on so you should learn to...”
“Why are you here?” Tabor burst out. “Really, what are you doing here?”
“I’m here as a favor to your father,” the demigod answered him seriously.
“Because you owe him?” the cadet asked sarcastically.
“Yes, I do,” Hercules replied, with a trace of annoyance. “You can believe whatever you want, but I consider it a great honor to be here now. Cheiron taught me everything I know. How to be a warrior, but he also educated me and taught me about medicine, philosophy... he taught me about life. Zeus wasn’t around and my stepfather died before I was born. Cheiron was like a father figure to me, and I could never repay the debt I owe him for that.”
“I’m glad he was there for someone,” the boy said bitterly as he turned to storm off.
“Tabor, wait.” Hercules reached out and caught the cadet by his good arm. “What is going on with you?”
“What do you care?” he demanded bitterly. “You’re not helping anything, you know? You might stick around for a few days and things will seem better, but then you’ll be gone and we’ll all be left in your shadow again. Trying to live up to your impossible standards. Why don’t you do us all a favor and just get out of here so we can all try to go on with our lives?”
Tabor pulled free of the demigod’s grip and stomped off as Iolaus trotted up to his partner, watching the angry youth’s retreat with concern.
“What was that all about?”
“I wish I knew,” Hercules sighed. “But I get the feeling that Tabor feels pressured to live up to whatever legacy he thinks I left back when I was a cadet.”
“Yeah, I think there’s some definite communication problems going on between him and his father,” Iolaus agreed. “Do you think we ought to talk to Cheiron about it?”
“Maybe,” the demigod answered distractedly. “But first I think we have a more pressing problem.”
He pointed across the yard where Iolaus had emerged from the classrooms, dripping wet and apparently on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
“I have had it!” the former jester shouted, to nobody in particular. “I've tried everything. I've tried laying down the law. I've tried putting my foot down. But nothing works. They're walking all over me!”
“Maybe putting him in charge of teaching the little ones wasn’t such a good idea after all,” Iolaus chuckled.
“Would you rather do it?” At his partner’s look of mock horror, Hercules slapped him lightly on the chest and grinned. “Come on.” They crossed the yard and the demigod put on a somewhat stern face. He hadn’t known his new friend long, but in that short time he had learned that coddling him and consoling him didn’t really work. Iolaus’ biggest problem was that he lacked confidence, and often the figurative kick in the pants was the only way to get him to buck up and face his fears. So there was no sympathy in the demigod’s demeanor as he reminded his friend that his charges were only children.
“No, they're not,” Iolaus argued vehemently. “They're demon spawn. They're minions of evil. They're the army of darkness.” He threw his arms up with a plaintive wail. “How am I supposed to teach them when all they want to do is laugh?”
“I think you just answered your own question,” Hercules informed him calmly.
“Remember what you told us about entertaining children?” Iolaus reminded his frazzled double. “You said that you just have to talk to them on their level, and they’ll respect you.”
“Yeah,” the demigod agreed. “Lay off the heavy handed approach and just be yourself. Make learning fun. And if that doesn’t work, just remember, you’re bigger than they are.”
“Is that a joke?” Iolaus bristled, wondering if that was a dig at his height.
“No,” Hercules promised soberly.
“I’m bigger than they are,” the former jester muttered as he turned around. He set his shoulders resolutely and began marching back to the classroom, repeating the phrase like a mantra.
“Do you think it will work?” the hunter asked.
Hercules shrugged and grinned.
“But better him than us.”
“I’ll second that,” Iolaus enthused. “Hey, Herc, listen. I’ve been thinking that the kids have been working awfully hard today. Maybe we ought to cut them some slack.”
“Really? What did you have in mind?” the demigod drawled.
“A game of bagball before dinner?”
Hercules grinned and slung an arm around his hopeful partner’s shoulders.
“I guess we can’t have all work and no play. And it would be a good lesson in hand-eye coordination.”
“Leave it to you to suck all the fun out of it,” Iolaus teased, giving his friend a jab before squirming free and sprinting ahead to announce the last “drill” of the day, which netted him happy cheering from the cadets. As the hunter divided the students up into teams, Zylus stepped away from the crowd and approached the demigod.
“Excuse me, sir,” the cadet began. “I just wanted to reiterate on behalf of myself and the other cadets our support for what you and the others are really trying to do here, you know? What an honor it is for someone as fresh and young as me to work with someone as experienced and seasoned as you.”
Hercules gazed evenly at the boy. Iolaus had voiced his concerns about this particular student and the demigod had quickly come to agree with his friend’s assessment. He found the kid to be insincere and manipulative, but until he was caught actually doing something wrong, Hercules was obligated to treat him fairly. So he forced himself to smile.
“Thank you. I'm glad we can count on your support. And for the tenth time, Zylus, you don’t need to call me ‘sir’.”
The cadet turned and joined one of the teams that were lining up on either side of the yard, not bothering to hide a large, self-satisfied smirk.
It was becoming habit for the group to gather in the dining hall late in the evening, to talk about the day and discuss plans for the next. And to just be together, enjoying the fine company and dredging up old memories, some of which certain people wished would stay buried. This night was no different, except that talks of drills and exercises were trumped by Iolaus’ enthusiastic report that he had taken their advice to be himself and had gotten through to the children. Entertaining and educating together had put him in his element, and the others smiled fondly to see the shy jester brimming with confidence and flush with success.
But all were unaware that another presence was among them. Just outside the door, Zylus was listening. When he was sure that all the adults were present and accounted for and were not likely to break up the party anytime soon, he silently crept away from the dining hall and slunk through the dark night toward Cheiron’s office. The safe behind the tall desk was locked, but Zylus’ father had taught him well and he opened it easily. Pawing through the contents, he found what he was looking for and palmed the magical scroll that the centaur had confiscated from his son. Zylus locked the safe and crept out of the office, confident that he’d left no trace or clue that he’d ever been there.
Bolder now, he sprinted across the yard and let himself out of the gates. Pausing only to ignite a torch to light his way, he hurried through the woods and ironically ended up in the same cave that Tabor had used to summon Ares. The alter was still there, and Zylus glanced at it disdainfully before lodging his torch in the wall and unrolling the scroll in his fist. Haltingly, he spoke the unfamiliar words that stood out starkly against the light parchment, and when he’d finished the ring on his finger began to tingle and grow hot. Zylus slipped it off and tossed it onto the ground, and after a moment it exploded in a flash of light. The boy blinked against the spots dancing before his eyes, and when his vision cleared he focused on the image of his father standing before him.
“Zylus,” the man whispered. “My son.” He pulled the boy into a quick embrace, then held him back at arm’s length to study him. “Did you do this? You brought me back?”
“Yes, sir,” Zylus answered proudly, trying to remain composed even though he was almost beside himself with joy that his beloved father was whole before him once again.
“How?” Magnus demanded. “How did you do it?”
“With this scroll,” the boy explained, handing it to his father for examination. “It’s a resurrection spell.”
“Where did you get this?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Zylus replied. “All that matters is that you’re back. And I’m leaving the Academy and going with you on your next campaign.”
“Cheiron’s Academy?” the man questioned, growing thoughtful. “You’ve been training there?”
“I was,” the boy answered with a shrug. “But you can teach me more in a month than I could learn there in a year, right?”
“Must be a lot of students there,” Magnus mused. “And Cheiron has to be getting pretty old.”
“Yeah, it’s overcrowded and Cheiron’s a hasbeen,” Zylus summed up impatiently. “But forget about the Academy. Let’s go find your old army. I’m sure they’d be glad to have you back.”
“No, son,” Magnus told him. “I have a better idea. I want you to take over the Academy.”
“Yes. Overthrow Cheiron. Then you and I will take over and together we’ll build our own army. Once we’ve done that, we can really make our mark on the world. The two of us, together.”
“But that won’t be so easy to do, sir,” Zylus protested. “Hercules is there now. Along with some of his friends. They’ve got control of everything...”
“Son, listen to me,” Magnus said gently, bending down to look his boy in the eye. “I know you can do this.”
“But Hercules is the son of Zeus!”
“And you are my son,” the man continued. “I taught you well. Hercules may be strong, but you’re smart. You’re a leader. Rally the other cadets. Lead them into battle. Send Hercules and his friends packing, and take over control of the Academy. I know you can do this. I know you won’t disappoint me. Will you?”
“No, sir,” Zylus whispered.
“Good. Now go back there. Say nothing of me and act as if everything is normal. Tomorrow, start the infiltration. And when you have control, come for me. Do you understand?”
“Good. Now go, son. Go and make me proud.”
Zylus nodded dutifully and turned, his steps heavy as he plodded out of the cave.
“The Academy will be ours,” Magnus called after him. Then he turned and surveyed his humble surroundings, rationalizing that it was only temporary. Soon the Academy would be home. It, and all those lovely tuition dinars.
Hercules strolled through the yard, observing as Jason, Iolaus and Lilith led their respective squads of cadets through drills. They’d had a few students drop out, unwilling to roll with the new changes and added discipline of the new regime, but most of the cadets had stayed and even willingly embraced the structure and rigor imposed on them. They were good kids and they wanted to learn and be all they could be. However, as he surveyed the cadets, the demigod was not altogether satisfied. He remembered Tabor’s words to him a few days earlier, and he had to admit they’d held the ring of truth. They’d managed to restore order to the Academy, but they couldn’t stay forever and would have to be moving on soon. Hercules knew that once they were gone things were likely to fall apart again, unless they could find Cheiron some help. They needed to find a way to make their temporary fix permanent. He owed Cheiron that. The centaur had patiently guided him through a lot of bad times in his young life. So many sleepless nights Hercules had crept off to his headmaster’s office and Cheiron had never once turned him away, listening to his young student and offering his wisdom. For it hadn’t been easy for the young son of Zeus. Struggling to fit in, fighting to come to grips with what and who he was. Dealing with powerful beings that wanted him dead simply because he was fathered by the king of the gods. Being made to pay and answer for his father’s sins - the father he’d never even met. It was enough to make anyone crazy.
Which was why he’d been so taken with Castor and Pollux when he’d met them at the Corinthian Games. They were sons of Zeus as well, and Hercules suddenly felt less alone in the world. Pollux ruined it by being a jerk, but Hercules still felt a kinship with Castor, even though he learned that family was about more than just blood. However, that lesson didn’t stop him from becoming immediately enamored with Lucius, another son of Zeus. Hercules felt an instantaneous bond with him, for he knew exactly what it was like to be caught halfway between earth and Olympus. Alcmene and his friends always gave him support and understanding, but they couldn’t know what it was like to be trapped between worlds. Not really. But Lucius, his brother, knew.
Of course, he’d turned out to be a lying, murdering whacko. He’d killed Castor, and was attempting to eliminate all the sons of Zeus, believing there could be only one. And yet, Hercules could still understand Lucius. He had his own obsession with Zeus and thought he’d do anything to meet him. It worried him that maybe he wasn’t so different from Lucius. But Pollux, who had given up fighting and become a pacifist after his twin had died, reassured him that he was a good person, just trying to find out who he was. Castor had guided Pollux to his true self, and the reformed demigod assured Hercules that he would likewise be guided by his friends.
And he’d been right. Lilith and Jason had always been there for him. And Iolaus... well, Iolaus had never failed to knock him down a peg when he needed it. Always beside him, guiding him, more than he could ever know. And if Hercules ever faltered, all he had to do was look to his best friend, who led him by example. He’d had his dark moments, sure, but Hercules had never come close to reaching the level of desperation and madness that had consumed Lucius.
The demigod couldn’t help wondering what had happened to his deluded half brother. Lucius had surfaced once when he’d tried to burn Alcmene’s village, knowing that the way to hurt Hercules was to hurt the people he cared about. Fortunately, no one had been hurt, but the attempt alone filled the demigod with rage. It was the first time in his life where he realized that people were in danger for knowing him. Just as he was a target because of his father, people he loved were a target because of him. It was enough to send him over the edge when he finally caught up with Lucius, and almost killed him. But Hercules was better than his half-brother, who managed to escape and was never heard from again. He wondered if Lucius was dead, and Hercules managed the half-hearted hope that if he were, he’d managed to find peace in the Underworld.
Hercules was distracted from his thoughts by the commotion of the squads breaking up and cadets dashing every which way, off to get some lunch before afternoon classes began. But some of them weren’t in a hurry to get to the dining hall. Zylus had a group of his followers cornered and was trying to rally them, as his father had commanded.
“We should be in charge here. Who’s with me?”
A few weeks ago, the cadets all would have agreed. But now, they traded hesitant looks and sheepishly avoided Zylus’ piercing stare.
“I don’t know,” one of the braver ones spoke up. “I’m not sure we should go against Hercules and the others.”
“I think you all need to take a step back and take a good, long look at your so called heroes,” Zylus told them smoothly. “If you would just forget about the fairy tales the bards tell and see them for who they really are, then maybe you’d agree with me.”
“What do you mean?”
“Jason’s a drunk who lost his crown,” Zylus ticked off on his fingers. “Hercules was on trial for sedition and was accused of killing his own wife. Iolaus willingly sacrificed himself and let a demon enter our world. One that almost destroyed all of Greece! Are these really the people you want in charge? Running things?” He began to pace in front of the rest of the students, who were mesmerized by his charisma. “This is OUR Academy,” he insisted. “Hercules wants to turn it into a day care center. I say we take it back, and take charge of our own futures. Get people in here that can really train us. Real leaders and real heroes. Now who’s with me?”
Zylus indeed knew how to work the crowd, but he was only mortal and no competition for the divine entity that suddenly appeared in the middle of the yard with a brilliant flash of light and a deafening explosion. Everyone else had been on their way inside, but the grand entrance quickly brought them all running.
“Who is it?” Iolaus asked his partner, not recognizing the being in front of them, although there was no question she was a goddess.
“I’m not sure,” Hercules murmured as he studied her. She was beautiful, slender and clad in a form fitting white gown. Long silvery blond hair cascaded down her back, but when she turned to face them they saw that her eyes were disturbingly white and blank. “But I can guess.” Motioning the others to stay back, the demigod cautiously approached the goddess that he’d never met, but had heard enough about to know to tread lightly around her. “Hecate?”
“Hercules,” she spoke in a sweet, ringing voice. The famed, and infamous in many circles, son of Zeus was known to her. “We finally meet.”
“I guess so. What are you doing here?”
“Hades is angered that souls are disappearing from his realm, so I’ve come to reclaim the scroll that I gave to Ares. He said it was here. I will have it back.”
“I have it,” Cheiron spoke up from the corner of the yard. “And I’ll be happy to return it. I beg a few moments of patience, and I’ll retrieve it for you.”
The goddess nodded almost imperceptibly, and the centaur turned and hobbled quickly off to his office to fetch the scroll.
“So that’s Hecate,” Jason whispered to Iolaus. “Not quite what I had imagined.”
“Just keep Alcmene behind you,” the hunter whispered back to his old friend. The goddess seemed unthreatening, even beautiful and ethereal. But Hercules had shared with him the stories he’d heard about Hecate. How she was a master of black magic, and how her mood was as variable as the phases of the moon. She could be volatile and unpredictable, and while she shared Hades’ domain and he could sometimes reign in her temper, she answered to no one, not even Zeus, himself. Hecate was definitely not a goddess to mess with, and they would all be a lot safer once she had the scroll and took her leave. But when Cheiron returned, Iolaus could see by the look on his face that something was very wrong and his heart sank down to the pit of his stomach.
“I can’t find it,” the centaur announced, more to Hercules than to the waiting goddess. “I put it in my safe, but I don’t know what to say. It’s just... gone.”
Everyone watched Hecate carefully for a reaction, and all of their hearts sank much like the hunter’s when her milky eyes began to darken. A wind swept up, blowing her silvery hair around her wildly as the goddess raised her arms up to the sky.
“Oh, this isn’t good,” Iolaus muttered, pulling the sword from the scabbard on his belt.
“If you can’t find it,” the goddess thundered in a booming voice that echoed through the yard, “then I will!”
Lightening streaked through the clear sky and struck the ground at her feet, creating a crack in the yard. The crack stretched and widened and grew into a chasm, and monstrous, twisted black creatures began to emerge.
“Find the scroll,” Hecate bellowed to her minions. “Kill all who get in your way.”
“Definitely not good,” Iolaus yelped as he grabbed Alcmene and shoved her into his counterpart’s arms. “Get her and the kids someplace safe,” he commanded. And, remarkably showing no fear, at least not for himself, the former jester gathered up all his young charges and quickly ushered them inside, out of the line of immediate fire. Iolaus ran to Hercules’ side, and Jason’s kingly side came out of retirement as he addressed the horrified kids all around him.
“You’ve been through the drills, cadets,” he shouted. “Now it’s the real thing. Stay focused and keep an eye on each other.” Jason spared a glance to the front lines where his friends were fending off the initial onslaught, and he was relieved to see that whatever those foul creatures were that Hecate had conjured, they were not impervious to Iolaus’ sword or Hercules’ mighty fists. Turning back to the cadets, Jason began splitting them into groups and barking out attack patterns, and the students braced themselves to face the oncoming horde of beasts straight from Tartarus. Hercules and Iolaus were like a two man army and they fought like none the kids had ever seen before. But they just simply couldn’t hold back all of the monsters and several of them were advancing.
The cadets were all aware that a week ago they all would have been slaughtered like lambs. But they’d learned a lot in the last few days, most importantly how to work together. Instinctively they began backing each other up, protecting each other as they fought. Their groups began to splinter as the hideous creatures thundered through their lines, but each cadet made sure another was always at his or her back. Tabor, trusting in his solid build, ripped the sling off his mostly healed arm and threw himself at one of the beasts as it tried to rush past. He knocked it off balance, but also lost his own, and he struggled for footing as the monster turned on him. But someone was beside him and blocked the attack with a sharp sword thrust. The creature screamed and spun and Tabor felled it with his own blade. Panting, he turned to thank his companion, surprised to see that it had been Zylus who’d been at his back.
“We’re on the same side,” Zylus pointed out.
“Yeah, I guess we are,” Tabor acknowledged. “Duck.”
Zylus dropped to the ground and Tabor swung his sword over his head, spearing another of the monstrous beings as it rushed at them.
Lilith and Seska has likewise been fighting back to back, but in the chaos and confusion they became separated. Searching for her mother, the girl let herself get distracted and she squealed as one of the creatures grabbed her from behind.
“Get your slimy claws off my daughter!”
Seska felt herself being released and she spun around to see Jason hacking away at the downed beast.
“Thanks,” she said, with more than a touch of admiration.
“What’s a father for?” the Argonaut asked with a wink. “Now go on. Your mom needs you.” Spying the Amazon battling another of the monsters a few feet away, Seska nodded and ran off to guard her mother’s back.
Tabor and Zylus worked in tandem and together they took down several more of the creatures. Pausing for a breath, Tabor looked at his unlikely ally with new respect.
“I guess we make a pretty good team.”
“Yeah, but you’re on your own from now on,” Zylus told him with a companionable clap on the shoulder.
“What are you talking about?”
“I know where the scroll is,” Zylus confessed. “I have to go get it. It’s the only way to end this.”
“Wait!” Tabor watched in confusion as the other boy darted toward the Academy gate. He started after him, intending to follow, but out of the corner of his eye he saw his father. One of the beasts had Cheiron cornered and the centaur was trying, and failing, to fend it off with his staff. The monster grabbed the stick and pushed back against it, knocking the centaur to the ground. Cheiron could only stare up at the creature, certain that his time had come.
But a streaking blur crashed into the beast, knocking it to the ground. Tabor was on his feet before the monster could rise, and he firmly pinned the creature to the earth by driving his sword all the way through its twisted body and into the dirt with one mighty, forceful thrust.
“Are you all right?” he asked his father.
“Yes,” Cheiron replied, although Tabor was already moving off. “Where are you going?”
The boy hesitated, then looked back at his father.
“After a friend,” he finally replied.
“Are you sure you missed this?” Hercules teased as he tossed one of the beasts at his friend.
“Oh, yeah,” Iolaus replied as he bent down and let the monster topple over him. “But I’m still going to kill Ares for this.”
“We have to get past Hecate first,” the demigod reminded him.
“No kidding.” The hunter tossed his sword up in the air and dove down toward the ground, catching himself on his hands and bringing his feet up to brutally kick one of the beasts. Then he sprang back to his feet and caught the sword as it came down. “Talk about your mood swings. What, does she have an assembly line for these things down there?”
Hercules glanced over at the chasm that was still producing a seemingly neverending stream of creatures. Grabbing the nearest two and bashing them against each other, he merely shrugged.
“She’ll probably call them off if we just give her back the scroll. We have to find it.”
The demigod turned to see Cheiron’s son weaving up to them through the chaos.
“We’re a little busy here, Tabor,” Hercules pointed out as he threw an arm out and clotheslined another beast.
“Zylus took the scroll,” Tabor relayed, sidestepping a monster that came sailing his way, courtesy of a roundhouse kick from the hunter.
“Where is he?” the demigod demanded, his gaze immediately sweeping the chaos.
“He ran off to get it,” Tabor explained. “And I think I know where he went.”
Hercules whistled sharply to get Jason’s attention and waved when the Argonaut looked his way. It wasn’t much of a signal, but after so many years the former king knew what his old friend was trying to convey and waved him on.
“Show us,” the demigod told the boy, giving him a little push. “Hurry.” They started toward the gate and Hercules glanced back at his partner, who was still spinning like a whirlwind, his slashing blade making short work of the creatures. “Come on, Iolaus,” he called out impatiently.
“What?” The hunter looked up to see his friend moving rapidly away from the battle. “Um, ok.” Trustingly, he fought his way past two more of the beasts and then ran to catch up.
“You’re back so soon,” Magnus greeted his son as he burst into the cave. “Is it done?”
“No,” Zylus gasped. “I don’t have time to explain but I need that scroll!”
“Why?” the man demanded. “What’s going on?”
“It belongs to Hecate,” the boy explained impatiently. “She’s at the Academy right now and she’s conjured up demons from Tartarus to tear the place apart until she gets it back.”
“Forget the Academy,” Magnus told his son. “Let’s just get out of here while we can.”
“What are you talking about?” Zylus asked in agitation. “Hecate will destroy the Academy and everyone there unless I bring that scroll back.”
“Forget them,” Magnus said sternly. “Leave them to their fates. We have to look after ourselves.”
“What’s wrong with you?” the boy murmured, shaking his head in disbelief that his war hero father could really be saying such things. “There’s no honor in that.”
“Self preservation comes before honor,” the man told him harshly.
“There are little kids there,” Zylus exclaimed. “I can’t leave them all to die. Run if you want to, but I’m going back. So give me that scroll!”
“Or what?” Magnus asked menacingly.
“Or I’ll take it.”
Father and son whirled around to see a very large and very angry demigod blocking the cave entrance. Flanked by his equally angry partner and a scowling Tabor.
“Hand the scroll over,” Hercules commanded, his voice indicating his patience was about out. “Now!”
Hesitantly, Magnus reached into his shirt and pulled out the rolled up parchment. Zylus snatched it from his father and handed it to Hercules, who in turn passed it to Tabor.
“Get this back to the Academy as fast as you can,” he requested, but before he could finish the sentence, Tabor was already gone. “Now,” he continued, turning back to the suddenly quaking man before him. “What are we going to do about you?”
Magnus cried out as he was suddenly and inexplicably hoisted in the air by the scruff of his neck. He twisted, helpless in the iron grip, but he could see no one. Iolaus and Zylus were likewise surprised, but Hercules and his divine blood had clearly witnessed Hades’ arrival. As a courtesy, the god of the Underworld made himself visible to the gathered mortals, and as he did, Magnus visibly paled and seemed to shrink within himself.
“Zylus, meet my uncle, Hades,” Hercules said, patting the suddenly shell shocked boy on the back. “What are you going to do with him?”
“Take him back to the Underworld, where he belongs.” Hades glanced down at the cadet, and his expression softened slightly. “Magnus is a liar and a coward,” he told the boy. “He never was a soldier and never fought in a single war. He was nothing more than a con artist and a swindler, bilking people out of their money and outright stealing from those he couldn’t con.”
“Hades,” the demigod cautioned gently as he watched the boy’s expression crumple.
“He deserves the truth,” the god attested. “And now we have to go. I’ve got work piling up as it is, and this latest fiasco has put me even further behind.”
“No!” Magnus cried out, frantically struggling. “You can’t take me back! I can’t go back! Nooooooooo!”
The terrified scream faded as Hades vanished, taking the rogue soul with him.
“I’m sorry, Zylus,” Iolaus spoke up. The boy nodded, wrapping his arms tightly around his chest.
“Come on,” Hercules urged the cadet. “We need to get back to the Academy and make sure Hecate’s finished with her little temper tantrum.”
“Yeah,” Iolaus agreed as he followed them out of the cave. “Remind me never again to make her angry. I don’t like her when she’s angry.”
Hecate had indeed ceased her attack as soon as Tabor had returned with the scroll. She recalled her magical creatures and they retreated back into the chasm, which shrank back to a crack once they’d all been reclaimed. The earth closed and sealed itself as quickly as the goddess’ mood changed. Once again calm, pretty, and silvery, she took her scroll and vanished in a brilliant explosion of light.
Once she was gone and things started to settle down, inventory was taken. There were some injuries, but nothing too serious and no fatalities to any of the students or staff. The Academy didn’t quite fare so well, but the damage didn’t extend to the living quarters, so it was decided that clean up could wait until the morning and the cadets were all given the evening off to recover. Most of them decided to go to Kora’s, and their instructors all felt a pang of sympathy for the innkeeper as the horde of cheering, celebrating cadets stampeded out of the gate. Tabor lingered behind, keeping close to his father who seemed to be relying rather heavily on his staff to keep him upright.
“Are you sure you’re all right?” he asked in concern.
“I’ll be fine,” the centaur assured him. “Thanks to you. You saved my life, my son. I’m proud of you.”
“Really?” the boy asked, hardly daring to hope he was finally hearing the words he’d been longing to hear for years.
“I’ve always been proud of you, Tabor,” Cheiron told him. “And I’m sorry if I ever made you feel otherwise. All I’ve ever wanted from you is for you to be yourself and try your best, at whatever you chose to do. And you’ve never disappointed me or failed to make me proud. I love you, my son.”
“I love you, too, Dad,” Tabor whispered, blinking heavily as he hugged his father.
“I’m really all right,” Cheiron promised his boy as he embraced him warmly. “So why don’t you get out of here and go celebrate with your friends? You’ve earned it.”
“Ok.” Tabor gave his father a genuine smile, his former sullenness replaced by a relaxed confidence. “Don’t wait up,” he teased as he left to go catch up with the rest of his classmates.
The centaur watched him go with a fond look, then turned to face his former students, now friends, his expression sobering.
“We have much to talk about.”
“I can’t believe they’re finally asleep,” Iolaus sighed as they left the dorm. The younger children had been positively bouncing with energy after the excitement of the afternoon, and he’d found it impossible to calm them down and get them to sleep. He’d been forced to call in reinforcements in the form of Alcmene and her soothing bedtime stories. “I was starting to think they were going to be up all night.”
“Let’s just hope the poor dears don’t have nightmares,” she remarked as they started across the yard. “On second thought, I hope I don’t have nightmares.”
“You and me both,” the former jester agreed, repressing a shudder at the thought of the hideous demon spawn from Tartarus.
“A glass of wine might help,” Alcmene suggested. “Would you care to join me?”
“I’d love to.” They started for the dining hall, but Iolaus spied a lonely figure across the yard, huddled by the gate. “You go on ahead,” he urged her. “I’ll be there in a minute.”
Alcmene followed his gaze and saw what he had seen, and she squeezed his hand and nodded her understanding. As she went on alone, Iolaus hesitated for a minute, then he went to stand beside the wraith haunting the gate.
“Are you all right?”
“Fine,” Zylus answered with heavy sarcasm. “Everything’s just perfect.”
“You probably won’t believe me, but I know how you feel,” Iolaus told the cadet.
“You’re right, I don’t believe you,” Zylus said bitterly. “You can’t possibly know how I feel.”
“But I do,” Iolaus continued gently. “I know what it’s like to have your whole world turned upside down and everything you thought you knew gone. To have everything look the same, but it’s all different. I know what it’s like to have your whole life change in the blink of an eye.”
“Yeah,” the boy finally said, some of the anger leaving him. “I guess maybe you would.” He sighed, turning to face the man who had left all he knew behind to come to a strange new world. “So how do you deal with it?”
“It’s not easy,” Iolaus told him honestly. “And maybe I’m not the best person to give advice on coping. But I can tell you one thing.”
“You can’t control your circumstances, but you can control how you react to them. I know you want to run from this, but believe me, you can’t ever run from yourself. You don’t have to let all this define you, Zylus. You can learn from it and grow. It’s never too late to change. You just need to figure out what you want to be and then become that person. And if you decide you want to stay here, you’ll never find a more supportive, forgiving group of people to help you.” Iolaus put a comforting hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Don’t run tonight, ok?” he bargained. “At least think about it and sleep on it before you decide anything.”
“Ok,” Zylus agreed, his shoulders slumping with sudden weariness. “I’ll sleep on it.”
As the morning sun dawned over the Academy, everyone assembled out into the yard. When they were all there, and more or less quiet, Cheiron mounted the wooden platform and spoke to them.
“I’m proud of you, cadets,” he told them. “I challenged you to work together as a team. You met that challenge and saved your Academy, and each other. You all have my deepest respect. But while it’s been an honor to serve as your headmaster, it’s time for me to step down. I’m happy to say that I’m turning you over to the best of hands. I’d like you to meet your new headmaster, my former student and good friend, Jason.”
The students all looked at each other, unsure as to how they should react. In the few days they’d known him, they had all grown to respect and admire the Argonaut very much and they were eager to learn all he had to teach. But cheering just didn’t seem quite right, for in many ways Cheiron WAS the Academy and nobody wanted to see him go.
Jason joined the centaur on the platform and held up a hand to silence the buzz that was beginning in the ranks.
“First of all, let me just say how proud and unbelievably honored I am to have been offered this position. I promise to do everything in my power to try and uphold the standards that Cheiron set when he first opened this Academy. And I’m sure you’ll all be glad to know that he’ll be here to keep me in line if I stray. Cheiron has agreed to stay on as my advisor and your teacher.”
At that announcement, the crowd erupted in cheers and Jason had to wave them silent once more.
“And while we’re making introductions, let me introduce you to your new drill instructor. The lovely and lethal, Lilith.” The new headmaster let them all applaud for a moment before continuing. “And to help with the young ones and to teach horticulture to anyone wanting to learn, my beautiful wife, Alcmene.”
She joined her husband on the platform and he hugged her as the kids went wild. When Cheiron had offered Jason the position, he had put the centaur off while he had a long, private discussion with his wife. But Alcmene could see how badly he wanted to take the job. He vowed that he never regretted giving up his crown for her and she believed him, but she also knew retirement wasn’t suited for a man of action. For a former king, the man who twice sailed after the golden fleece, it was only natural he’d get restless puttering around Thebes. Alcmene simply couldn’t deny the man she loved the happiness she knew he’d find at the chance to be active and have a purpose again. Nor could she deny all the future classes of students the chance to learn from Jason’s wisdom and experience. And if she was completely honest with herself, she was a little bit excited at the thought of have children around to “mother” again. It wasn’t where either of them had ever dreamed they be at this stage in their lives, but both Jason and Alcmene knew that it didn’t meant it wasn’t where they were supposed to be. The decision to stay just felt right, and both of them were looking forward to the challenge.
“We have a lot of work to do,” Jason continued. “And a lot of restructuring ahead. I welcome input from each and every one of you. My door is always open, and I want you all to feel free to come and talk to me about any problems or concerns or suggestions you might have. Tabor and I had a little chat this morning about an idea he had, and I thought it was such a good one I’m making it our first class project. We’re going to build on an addition so things aren’t quite so cramped in the dorms.”
“All right, everybody,” Lilith interjected over the renewed cheers. “Go grab some breakfast and then we’ll get started on cleaning this place up after yesterday’s excitement.”
The students began dispersing, most of them hurrying toward the dining hall, jostling each other for a spot near the head of the line. Iolaus escorted Alcmene along, while Hercules watched in amusement as the former jester ushered his young charges forward. They clearly had grown very fond of him, and although he mostly likely wouldn’t have admitted it, the demigod suspected Iolaus reciprocated their affections.
“I think they’re going to miss you,” Hercules told his friend.
“Nope,” Iolaus replied with strained patience as he wiped the remains of a well aimed projectile from his face. “They never miss.”
“Well, we’re leaving in the morning,” the demigod reminded him. “You’ll be safe from the little monsters and back to dealing with the big ones.”
“Yeah, about that. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately and... Hercules, will you teach me how to fight?”
“You don’t have to do that, you know,” Hercules said gently, worried that the former jester was still hung up on trying to be something he wasn’t.
“I know, but I want to,” Iolaus explained. “Being here these last few days inspired me. I don’t think I’m cut out to be a hero, like you and Iolaus and Jason. But I don’t want to be a helpless coward, either. If one of those creatures had gotten inside, I would have tried to protect those kids but in the end there wouldn’t have been much I could have done. I don’t want to go out looking for fights, but I’d like to be able to protect myself, and anyone else that needs it, when the fights find me. Do you think you could teach me that much?”
“Absolutely,” the demigod promised, slinging an arm around his friend. “And I think you’ll be a natural. But first, let’s go grab some food before these young appetites make short work of it.”
“Oat porridge?” the smaller man denounced, wrinkling up his nose. “Forget it. Let’s detour by the kitchen and I’ll make us some omelettes.”
“I like the way you think, my friend!”
Hercules waved to Jason, his sign language indicating the change of breakfast plans as he and Iolaus headed for the kitchen. But one cadet still lingered behind, clearing his throat softly as he approached Jason and Cheiron.
“Excuse me, sirs. Can I have a word with you?”
“Of course, Zylus,” Jason told him amiably.
“I know that I deserve to be expelled and I wouldn’t blame you if you did kick me out,” the boy began. “But I’d like to stay on and I’m hoping you’ll give me another chance.” He paused and they could see the conversation was hard for him, but he was also showing the first bit of true sincerity since he’d come to the Academy. “I spent my whole life worshiping my father,” Zylus continued softly, meeting their gazes. “But everything about him was a lie. I don’t want to be a con like him. You both showed me more about honor in one day than he did in his lifetime. That’s what I’d like to be. A warrior with honor, and I’m willing to listen and learn from you both. What I did was unforgivable, but I’m willing to do whatever it takes to try and make up for it and earn your trust and respect again.”
“Nothing is unforgivable,” Cheiron assured the boy, “as long as the transgressed have forgiving hearts.”
Zylus blinked in confusion, then glanced at Jason, hoping for clarification.
“What he means is, we’ll give you another chance,” the Argonaut told him with a grin.
“Thank you,” the boy sighed in relief.
“Go get something to eat,” Jason said warmly. “Then you can start making things up to us by leading a crew to start tearing down that shed that seems to be damaged beyond repair.”
“Yes, sir,” Zylus exclaimed enthusiastically, giving them a small salute before he turned and trotted off.
“Our next diamond in the rough?” Cheiron asked innocently.
“You never know,” Jason replied. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go grab some chow before Iolaus eats my share.”
He started for the dining hall, finding that Lilith and Seska were waiting for him.
“You know we can’t go easy on you just because you’re our daughter,” Jason teased the girl.
“I know, I know. But nothing says that you guys can’t give me a little extra training and teach me a few tricks here and there, right?”
“She already has her eye on the Decuda,” Lilith grinned.
“Wait. ‘You guys’?” Jason repeated. “As in both of us?”
“Sure,” Seska told him, with a somewhat sheepish smile. “I might have been raised an Amazon, but I guess there are still things I can learn from my dad. And yesterday proves that maybe I just might need you from time to time after all.”
“And I promise I’ll be there if you ever do,” Jason vowed, slipping an arm around her shoulders. She hugged him back, and he looped his free arm around Lilith as the three of them headed off to breakfast.
Hercules easily scaled the wall surrounding the Academy, swinging his long legs over and perching himself on the edge to sit next to his best friend, who was already sitting cross legged and watching the sunset.
“It’s going to be a nice night,” the demigod commented.
“Yep,” the hunter answered distractedly.
“What are you thinking about?” Hercules asked him, taking in the distant look on his partner’s face.
“Well, a lot of things. But one of them is that I owe you a great big ‘thank you’,” Iolaus replied with a chuckle.
“What do you mean?”
“Being back here has brought back a lot of memories,” the hunter explained. “And most of what I remember involves me coming up with one harebrained scheme after another. But no matter what craziness I got myself into, you were always there to cover for me or to bail me out. I took that for granted, I guess, but I know I must have driven you nuts sometimes and I want to say thanks for standing by me even when you know I was doing something incredibly stupid.”
“Its no less than you ever did for me,” Hercules pointed out quietly.
“Ok, maybe you had your moments, but generally your common sense prevailed, Herc. Mine didn’t kick in until long after we graduated.”
“If at all.”
“But that’s not what I was talking about,” the demigod clarified. “I was referring to the way you always stood by me whenever the gods got bored and decided I’d make for good amusement.”
“That’s not the same thing.”
“Maybe not in your eyes, but it meant everything to me at the time.” Hercules was silent for a moment, his gaze fixed on the golden setting sun but his eyes looking at something in the distant past. “It was hard, Iolaus. I mean, it was bad enough having to grow up stuck between two worlds and never really fitting into either one. But then to be made into a constant target, never really understanding what I did to deserve it, besides being born as Zeus’ son. Just being a teenager and trying to find your way is hard enough. But having to do it with a price on your head... Let’s just say that having my mother and you and Jason and Lilith around were all that kept me sane some days.”
“You underestimate yourself, Herc,” Iolaus told him. “You’ve got true strength and I don’t just mean physically. You got through the insanity better than anyone else could have. And as for us, well, we were just protecting our grade. Cheiron would have failed us for sure if we didn’t stand up for one of our own.”
“I’m serious,” Hercules told his friend quietly, not in the mood for jokes. “Remember when Apollo attacked the Academy? The rest of the cadets were ready to feed me to him because they were tired of all the trouble my war with the gods brought. And I couldn’t blame them. Strife unleashing the north wind on us, Ares making Cyane and the Amazons attack us, Morpheus sucking everyone into a dreamscape... the list was endless.”
“Those things weren’t your fault, Herc.”
“Maybe not directly, but if wasn’t for me, none of the gods would have paid any attention to the Academy. I was lying there on the ground and Apollo was about to blast me down to Hades, and everyone was just watching and for a second, I thought I deserved it. Then you jumped in front of me and told Apollo he’d have to go through you, first. And you inspired everyone else to rally and convince Apollo he wasn’t welcome. So in the face of that, having to suffer through a few of your youthful indiscretions was a small price to pay.”
“I guess that’s just what friends are for,” Iolaus grinned.
“Yep, guess so.” Hercules glanced at his friend and grinned back, but then his smile faded and he turned his suddenly sad blue eyes back to the horizon. “You’re not leaving with us in the morning, are you?”
The hunter sighed, realizing he should have known his partner would be able to tell what he was thinking, even if he hadn’t yet figured out how to voice it.
“I can’t, Herc,” he said softly, his tone pleading with his friend to understand.
“Why?” the demigod demanded.
“I... was dead,” Iolaus finally said, desperately trying to explain feelings that defied explanation. “For a long time. And I’d accepted it, and accepted the fact that I was going to stay dead. I wanted to come back and I don’t regret it, but the transition hasn’t been easy.”
“This isn’t the first time you’ve...” Hercules trailed off, not liking to think about the previous times his friend had died and one way or another returned to the living.
“I know, and that’s part of the problem,” the hunter continued. “Why me? Good people die every day, and it’s hard for me to just pick up and go on with my life when I know there are so many who deserve it that never get that chance. How do I embrace life when by all rights I should be dead? When people like Ania and my boys and Deianeira and the kids and Serena are all taken too soon? And people we don’t even know, but that are needed here and loved and missed and their loss felt when they’re gone? Why should I get a second and third and even fourth chance?”
“I don’t know,” Hercules whispered. “Maybe I’m just too selfish to ask those questions. All I know, Iolaus, is that you’re needed here. I think when your time truly comes, then there will be no bargain I can strike that will bring you back. But in the meantime, you are a force for everything good in this world, and I think that something beyond us or the gods wants you to hang around.”
“Maybe,” Iolaus said thoughtfully, remembering his time in Bliss and Michael’s offer to him to become a guardian, a protector of all. “It’s just hard for me to imagine that my life could have that much impact in the world.”
“You’d think that half of Greece professing its love for you would have convinced you, especially with every bard in the land telling and retelling your story,” the demigod teased. But he immediately sobered as he felt his friend stiffen beside him. “What is it?”
“Nothing. I just wish they’d find another tale to tell.”
“Why? I thought you’d be happy you’re finally getting your hero’s due. I know I am.”
“Because I’m not a hero, Herc,” Iolaus burst out in agitation. “I let Dahak into the world, remember? I put your life ahead of the greater good and look what happened. Whole cities burned. There was starvation and pestilence and suffering and scores of people were killed. We’ve got a whole Academy of children here that were orphaned because of what I unleashed to the world. I did it to save you, and may the gods forgive me, I’d do it again. But I’m not a hero just because I played a part in stopping a monster that never would have entered our world if I hadn’t let him.”
“Iolaus, if you hadn’t stopped Dahak from killing me, do you know what would have happened?” Hercules asked gently.
“Exactly. We don’t know the future or how things might have played out if you’d done something differently. For all we know, things could have turned out worse. Dahak could have taken control of me and maybe he would have been unstoppable and it would have been the end of our world as we know it. You can’t second guess yourself now. You did what you had to do at the time and then we dealt with the rest. You risked your soul to stop Dahak, Iolaus. That makes you a hero in anyone’s book, no matter what came before. I told you then that you were my hero, and I meant it. I still do.”
Both men were silent for long moments, watching as the sun slipped further down into the horizon and the shadows began to lengthen. The hunter, because he was unable to speak, and the demigod, wanting to give his friend a few minutes to absorb his words.
“I’m sorry, Iolaus,” Hercules said finally, reaching out to put a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Once Dahak was defeated and you were back, I just wanted to put everything behind us and move on and forget it ever happened. I guess that wasn’t possible for you, and I’m sorry we never talked through any of this.”
“Don’t apologize,” the hunter told him easily. “I wanted to put it all behind us, too. I didn’t even realize I needed to talk about it until I got here. When I realized that being back at the Academy was the first time I truly felt at peace since it all happened. I just feel like I’m doing good here. That I’m helping and giving something back, you know?”
“Yeah, I do,” the demigod replied. “But what can I do? To help you?”
“Just be patient with me,” Iolaus answered, nudging his friend gently in the ribs with his elbow. “I’ll be all right, Herc. I just need a little time. To work through everything that’s happened.”
“Talk to Cheiron,” Hercules suggested. “He can help you with that.”
“I know.” It was growing darker, but Iolaus could still make out his friend’s profile easily enough. He studied the demigod’s face, reading him effortlessly. “Are you upset?”
“No. Well, yeah, but not with you.” Hercules rubbed a hand over the back of his neck. “The thing is, Iolaus, that when you... died, in Sumeria, it almost destroyed me. Literally. Then when Hades agreed to let you come back... It was like I had come back to life, too. We were apart for so long and all I wanted was to be with you again. So now that you’re here, honestly it hurts that we’re not together.”
“I’m sorry,” the hunter whispered hoarsely, his heart breaking as he saw the pain his friend was feeling, knowing he was the cause.
“I don’t want you to be sorry,” the demigod continued, clearing his throat. “Because this isn’t about me. It took me awhile to figure that out, but I think I finally have. We’re partners, equal partners. And you need to do what you need to do. So take some time and do whatever you have to in order to make peace with yourself. If there’s anything I can do to help you, big or small, just let me know. And if not, well, I’ll be waiting for you when you’re ready to move on.”
“Thank you, Hercules,” Iolaus murmured. “That means a lot to me.”
“Take all the time you need,” the demigod told him, a waver in his voice. “Just promise me that you won’t take too long, ok?”
“I promise,” the hunter vowed, grinning even as he blinked back the moisture in his blue eyes.
They fell silent once more, content to spend companionable moments together watching the sun finally disappear and the glowing moon ascend. Both secretly glad Hecate seemed to be in a calm mood.
“Hey, Herc,” Iolaus said suddenly. “You know when you got taken up to Olympus to act as Ares’ defense when he was accused of trying to kill you?”
“That’s not one I’ll ever forget,” the demigod replied dryly.
“We thought you were dead,” the hunter recalled.
“I remember,” Hercules murmured. Jason had told him how Iolaus had spent the entire day pacing the length of the very wall on which they now sat. Challenging the gods, screaming at the sky until he had no voice left. “Jason said you tried to leave over it.”
“I felt like I failed you,” Iolaus explained. “I guess it was all that talk when we were kids about going out back to back. Then you needed me and I was no help. I felt like I just couldn’t go on here after that. I had a hard time fitting in here at first, but you always made me feel like I could measure up. I wasn’t sure I could do that without you. Besides, I thought it would be too hard to stay on here where there would always be constant reminders that you were gone.”
“I know how you felt,” the demigod said tightly.
“Cheiron told me something then. He said that you never really lose someone if you remain true to the dreams you shared.”
“Well, they convinced me to stay. I knew you wouldn’t want me to bail and break parole and end up in jail. And even if you weren’t there to share it with me, I knew I had to keep going and become all that we dreamed. It was the only way I had to keep part of you alive.”
They both remembered that time, and the joyous reconciliation they shared when Hercules returned to the Academy, alive and well. Not to mention the legendary party they’d held that night in celebration. But more than that, it was the first time that one of them had defied all the odds, and the very first time they had both felt that deep bond of friendship and brotherhood that was solid between them. And it wouldn’t be the last.
“Having recently returned from the dead, I’m not eager for a next time or anything. But when my time finally does come, do you still want to go out fighting back to back?”
Hercules turned to look at the silhouette of the man at his side. His partner, his friend, his brother in all but blood.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
They both leaned in and shared a tight hug, letting go of the residual Dahak fears and a lot of the hurts he’d caused, letting the love and support they had for each other wash over them in a healing wave.
“What do you say?” Iolaus asked with an impish grin as he pulled away. “Want to go to Kora’s?”
“Well, I know Mother wanted us all to have dinner,” Hercules hedged. But he never could resist his partner when he gave him *that* look. “But then again, it is our last night. One drink, for old time’s sake.”
As they looked at each other, time faded and for a brief moment they became two carefree young men again. Back in the days of, well, not quite innocence, but a time when they were largely untouched by evil and grief and worry.
“Race you!” they called out simultaneously as they both slid down from the wall. And for that night, at least, all was right with the world as Hercules and Iolaus sprinted up the road, laughing as they tripped and shoved each other in a vicious bid to be the first one to crash through Kora’s door.
Disclaimer: “Bunion Boy” did exact his revenge by telling the students many stories of his old friend’s less than legendary encounters, highlighting his petulant moments, posing au naturel for Salmoneus’s art fair, and being caught in a compromising position with the incomparable Widow Twanky.
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