‘Make it go away! Make it go away! Make it go away!’
Strife cowered behind his uncle’s throne, tucked into a fetal position, hoping that he had escaped their notice. He covered his head and repeated his mantra, trying to take as much attention away from himself as possible. At any point his tormentors might grow bored with their games and leave him in peace, but they could just as easily decide to seek him out to include him in their sport. Over and over he prayed for the former. Surely they had no interest in the area shadowed by the unyielding stone throne of the God of War?
They had moved in en masse during his sojourn in Hades and their numbers had increased that they could collectively be called ‘Legion.’ They were demons, imps from Tartarus who tormented him daily with their howls and sneers and screeches. There was no escape! Their bodies easily slipped through cracks in the wall and the most secure door was no barrier if they were determined to enter a room. Most of the time they moved with soundless grace throughout his uncle’s temple, unless they decided to charge. Then their terrible claws scrabbled noisily on the marble floors as they rounded corners, trying to gain purchase on the cold stone. That was what they were doing now, racing through the different rooms, chasing each other, goading each other into ever more daring leaps and greater speeds.
Two of the creatures suddenly hurtled into view, locked together in mortal combat. They bit and clawed at each other, yelping as they each scored a hit on the other. Strife willed them to take their fight elsewhere, to not see him as he huddled in the shadows. To his relief, they did appear to be more interested in the amount of damage they could inflict on each other rather than on him, and they sprang apart, eyeing each other warily as they circled to continue their battle. Seconds later, the larger combatant, a sleek, muscular creature with fire in his vivid green eyes, made one prodigious leap straight up and away into the main room. Within moments he had disappeared. His opponent, smaller, slyer with bright yellow eyes, hissed in frustration and charged after him.
Strife sighed with relief. He was safe! At least for the moment, they were gone. Warily he uncurled himself and lowered his hands from his face to make sure the coast was clear.
Strife shrieked in alarm and stared at the space the two creatures had vacated seconds before. Sure enough, in their place sat another of their kind. It stared back at him with big, innocent golden eyes, its tiny head tilted to one side. Its short, fuzzy tail was curled around soft, dainty feet.
“Mew?” it repeated curiously.
“Go way! Go way!” Strife cried hoarsely. The kitten licked its lips and tilted its head to the other side. “Shoo! Shoo!” The little creature lifted one delicate paw and proceeded to wash its face. “Will you get outta here? Beat it!” Strife was having no effect on this tiny menace to his mental stability. It finished grooming behind its ears and yawned mightily, showing its mouth full of needle sharp teeth. At that, Strife lost all composure. “HEEEEELP!”
A puff of smoke and the smell of sulphur announced the arrival of the God of War. With a deep sigh of frustration he reached down and grabbed the kitten gently in one big hand. He smiled indulgently at the creature as it mewed in protest.
“Go catch a mouse,” he ordered, and set the kitten free with a nudge to its posterior to encourage it on its way. The little cat decided that its litter mates would be much more entertaining than either the sniveling Strife or the imposing War God, and scampered away.
Ares turned to where Strife was curled up in a corner, quaking in his terror. It had to have been hard on him, being dead for over a year. As a full god, Strife had never faced death. Suddenly, thanks to that maniac Calisto, he not only had to face it, he had to live with it every day. It was little wonder that Strife’s already present neuroses had been magnified and expanded. Ares had never had great patience with his nephew and the youth’s increased phobias and paranoias were increasingly difficult to deal with calmly. He always had the most compelling urge to break things after he talked to his nephew. But Asclepias had warned Ares that displays of anger would only make matters worse. Ares needed Strife to get better, to become more like his old self, therefore, he took firm hold of his anger and ruthlessly suppressed it. Schooling his dark features into a neutral position, he held out a hand to the unhinged youth.
“Get up, Strife,” he said calmly. “They won’t hurt you. They’re just the temple cats. Completely harmless.”
“Harmless!” Strife cried in disbelief. “You call that harmless? Have you seen their claws? And all those teeth? They’re menaces, that’s what they are! Have you seen the way they play with each other? And when they catch something - it’s - it’s - oh the humanity of it! Birds, mice, rabbits, it doesn’t matter to them, they treat them all the same way! Torture them for hours, then eat them raw! I don’t even want to tell you what they did to a squirrel that got in here the other day. Get rid of them, Unc! Please!” The wretched godling fell to his knees, imploring his uncle to banish the nightmare creatures as quickly as possible.
Two years previous, Strife would have had a completely different take on the situation. The inherent bloodthirstyness of hunting cats would have held endless fascination for the godling. Now, they were a source of terror. The kid had totally lost his edge. Ares wanted nothing more than to grab his nephew and shake him until his teeth rattled, but he had been assured that such an action would be counterproductive in bringing Strife back to full mental health. Instead he hauled the youth to his feet and looked deep into his eyes.
“The cats stay,” he said firmly. “I like ‘em, they pull their weight around here, and they take care of themselves. They’re a good object lesson.” Strife whimpered a little, but had no time for more protest because Ares suddenly grabbed him around the shoulders. “Come on, we’ve got things to do.”
“L - like what, Uncle?” Strife said timidly as he was steered toward a scrying pool.
“Like getting your groove back,” Ares answered. “I know it’s been rough for you the past year or so, but its time to move on. Get back up on the horse. Sharpen up those rusty skills of yours until you’re the good old Strife we all knew and mostly tolerated.”
“W-what did you have in m-mind?” Strife asked, his anxiety growing with every step. He had the sinking suspicion that his uncle was planning to make him leave the safe confines of the temple.
“Nothing too strenuous at first,” Ares assured him. “After all, you have to crawl before you can walk. You’ll take on a few easy targets first before I send you out after the big boys. So, take a look at this,” he said, directing Strife to the pool. With a wave of his hand it showed a rocky terrain. “It’s a good place to start.”
“Rocks,” Strife said. “Rocks? You want me to look at rocks?”
“Not rocks. Rock,” Ares corrected him. “A very specific rock, in fact. It’s in this quarry. I want you to go get it.”
Strife swallowed hard.
“Y-y-y-y-you m-m-m-mean l-l-l-l-leave the temple?” he managed to squeak. “Go outside? Be among p-p-p-p-p-p-people?”
“You won’t have to be with people,” Ares said reasonably. “I just want you to get me the rock. It couldn’t be a simpler assignment. No people involved, just a rock. Think you can do that?”
Strife thought about it. A rock. A plain old rock. Probably not so plain or so old if Ares was interested in it, but a rock just the same when all was said and done. How hard could it be? Find the rock, pick it up, bring it back. Simple. No people, no knives, no crazies, no fuss, no muss, no rough stuff. He swallowed hard and his head bobbed rapidly up and down on his skinny neck.
“I-I-I-I-I can do that!” he said as firmly as his damaged psyche would allow.
“Good, Strife, very good!” Ares said and clapped him hard on the back. “Now go to the quarry and find the rock I want. You’ll know it when you see it. Don’t touch it when you find it, just call my name and I’ll tell you what to do next. Got that?”
“Go to the quarry. Find a rock. Don’t touch it. Call you. Got it. Simple! I got it!” Strife smiled triumphantly. He could do this!
Ares smiled patiently at his nephew.
“Great! Now go!”
With a wave of his hand, Strife vanished from the temple and appeared at the quarry. He began to look eagerly around the quarry. Slowly a look of dismay came over him.
There had to be millions of rocks in this quarry! This could take years!
“Aaaaarrrrrreeeeeeessss!” he wailed to the sky. “Where do I start?”
The morning could not be more perfect.
Iolaus, former court jester to the ruthless Sovereign of Corinth in the Alternate Universe, came to that conclusion as he leaped up to grasp the lowest limb of the tree that had sheltered him as he slept. He began to pump his body to swing back and forth, gaining momentum with each pass. The air was slightly cold, although the day was shaping up to be a hot one, not so unusual for autumn. His forward swing brought his legs up almost even with the branch, and the resultant back swing gave him the energy to lift himself up above the branch so that he could balance on his hands. Birds were still singing, calling each other to start their long flight to winter nesting grounds far to the south. Iolaus swung his legs over the branch and caught an adjacent tree limb, parallel to the one he had already mounted. Gracefully, he swung from one branch to the other, back and forth in ever more intricate patterns. As always, his mind and body became one and he continued his routine without conscious thought. One movement flowed effortlessly into another.
On the ground below, Hercules the son of Zeus was awakened by the smell of wood smoke and something cooking. He rolled over until he could identify his own campfire, unattended at the moment. Steam arose from a pan set next to it on a flat rock. Something very good was going on there, he decided, at least, as far as his own nose could tell him. Movement from above his head caught his attention. He was just in time to see the jester swing off one of his branches, tuck himself into a ball, spin in mid air then land lightly on his feet beside the campfire, a huge smile spread across his handsome face.
“Hey, Buddy!” he greeted the demigod cheerfully. He began to swing his arms back and forth, up and down to stretch his muscles and cool down. “Boy there’s nothing like a little exercise in the morning to get the blood flowing, huh?” Without any obvious effort, he reached behind his head, grasped his foot in his hand and arched his back. Hercules winced as the stretch made joints audibly crack. It sounded painful, but Iolaus didn’t seem to feel it.
“Well, that’s kind of a switch,” Hercules said, sitting up and staring skeptically at his new friend. Something was definitely off, here. “Ummm, where did you learn to do that?”
“Ah, that’s nothin’!” Iolaus dismissed his display. “Any jester worth his salt is part acrobat. See?” Very nonchalantly, he sprang into a back flip that would have made Autolycus weep with envy.
Hercules sat up straighter and stretched a little himself. Iolaus’ good mood was as infectious as his enthusiasm for physical effort. Maybe, Hercules thought as he pulled himself to the fir, he could get in a few miles of road work before they headed out again.
“You know, I’m not used to seeing you so cheery,” he said conversationally.
Iolaus shrugged. He was more interested in whatever he had in the pan than his own problems at the moment.
“Yeah, I know,” he said. “I was a little depressing there for a while, wasn’t I?”
Hercules looked at him questioningly.
“A little depressing?” he said. “That has to be the understatement of the year.”
Iolaus was not about to argue the point.
“Okay, a lot depressing,” he conceded. “Here! Don’t talk! Eat!”
Deftly he flipped a sample of whatever was cooking in the pan in Hercules’ direction. Without thinking, Hercules reached out to catch it, and discovered that the pan had indeed been hot enough to cook something.
“Oo! Hot!” he said as he tossed the pastry from hand to hand until it was cool enough to bite without burning his tongue. Crisp on the outside, warm and soft on the inside, a texture treat he had always enjoyed. The taste was mealy, like soft bread, and slightly sweet. He savoured his first bite for a moment. ‘These’d go great with some honey,’ he thought. ‘Or maybe some stewed fruit.’ Even without embellishment, the thing tasted good, like everything his new friend cooked, and he happily finished the rest. “What is this? Are there more?”
Iolaus grinned, pleased at the compliment.
“Well, I call it a waffle,” he said, “and, yes, there is more. In fact, I can make as many as you want. I’ve got plenty of batter left.”
“A waffle?” Hercules said around a mouthful. “Why? What’s it mean?”
Iolaus blushed. He had hoped that Hercules would not ask that question.
“Weeeellll,” he began as he poured more batter into the pan. “I made these up one day when I was fooling around in the kitchen. They turned out pretty good and I tried to think what to call them. I couldn’t really decide between ‘pan pastry’ and ‘fried cake’. The whole thing kept me awake at night, so to get some rest I settled on calling them waffles.”
“O-kay, waffle it is, then!” Hercules said with a smile. “Doesn’t really matter, I guess. I just need a name to ask for when Iolaus gets back. He’ll love ‘em!”
Hercules happily finished one waffle and began on the next, unaware that Iolaus’ demeanor had changed. The former jester poked distractedly at the waffles in the pan, not really paying attention to what he was doing.
He had been living in this dimension for a while now. He generally slept through the night, untroubled by the nightmares that had plagued him for years. He no longer started at every sudden sound. It had become easier to laugh and joke naturally, no longer forcing himself to be funny. If Hercules made a sudden move or walked too close to him, he no longer flinched. His confidence in his ability to take care of himself was growing and he could look at his doppleganger without cringing. Slowly but surely he was finding his comfort zone in this new world.
Yet there was something still missing. Nothing he could put his finger on and say “That’s it!” with any conviction. It wasn’t just Nautica, although she occupied his thoughts more and more each day. He had friends in this dimension, friends he had learned to trust and depend upon, but they were not all that he needed to feel whole. What was it?
“You know, Herc,” he started tentatively, “these days I’m really starting to enjoy my life here. You and Iolaus have really shown me the way. I can’t thank you both enough for all your help.”
“Oh, please!” Hercules dismissed the thanks with a wave of his hand and a broad grin. “You’d have been just fine without us! Look how well you did on your own, and against Aphrodite of all the gods! Get Iolaus to tell you about the times he’s tangled with her and you’ll see how well you did. I gotta admit, I was impressed.”
Iolaus smiled shyly and blushed.
“That’s - that’s good to hear,” he said. “Still, I don’t think I could have got anywhere without you and Iolaus. I wish there was some way I could repay you both.”
“Seriously?” Hercules asked Iolaus nodded. “Keep making these things and we’ll call it even!” he said, indicating the waffles. “As soon as Iolaus has some he’ll say the same thing. Invent some way of making roots more palatable and we’ll be in your debt!”
As far as Hercules was concerned, the former jester was as brave, as honourable, and as stalwart as the Iolaus the demigod had known all his life. In addition, he was smart, innovative and creative. While his own Iolaus was no slouch in the brains department, the jester thought things through more than his look-alike, planned more deeply and took more factors into account when he wanted to accomplish something. There was so much this humble man could offer the people of Greece that had nothing to do with swinging a sword around or fighting people! His biggest problem was his lack of self confidence.
‘A lifetime dodging head shots from a psychopath will do that to you,’ Hercules thought.
“Really?” Iolaus said. “I mean - are you sure? Because I’ve got lots of ideas! In fact I was thinking the other day that if you slice up some of those big brown roots really thin and cook them in a lot of oil they’d taste really -“
The cry had sounded close, and desperate. Hercules leaped to his feet, ready to run to offer his aid, whatever the situation. He looked ruefully at his abandoned breakfast and sighed.
“It’s amazing. Everywhere I go!” he looked at Iolaus. “Is it too much to ask to finish a meal in peace just once?”
“Heeeeeelllllp meeeeee! “Pleeeeeeeeeaaaase! Help me!”
“Apparently so!” Iolaus said. He, too, was up and prepared to run.
“We’re on, then! Let’s go!” Hercules said and ran toward that piteous plea, the jester hot on his heels.
As soon as the two men disappeared over a rise, Strife manifested beside their fire. A sneer twisted his thin, pale face.
“Run, half god!” he taunted softly. “Run! Soon enough you’ll flee a terror both insidious and beyond your wildest imaginations!” He began to cackle with glee at his own joke.
He couldn’t believe how well everything was working these days. Ever since that fateful day when Ares had sent him to the quarry, his star had been on the rise. He had found the rock, set it in place, and whispered the appropriate warnings in the right ears. All of the ducks had been lined up in a row and now the mighty Hercules, defender of mankind, was reacting exactly as he should, running to save some stupid little mortal. Oh, was he in for a surprise! Strife clapped his hands vigorously and laughed harder.
Strife jumped straight up into the air, almost into the arms of a tree in his fright. What was that!? A monster? A Titan? Worse still - a cat?
As he came back down to earth and his heart stopped pounding in his ears, he whirled around to see Discord laughing contemptuously at him.
“Strife you are just too pathetic for words!” she sneered. “Still afraid of your own shadow! You’d think somebody who’d been dead for more than a year wouldn’t be scared by a little ‘boo’ every now and then. What are you up to anyway?”
Strife pulled together what little dignity he had left. He didn’t trust Discord, but he knew she wouldn’t dare cross their powerful uncle any more than he would.
“I’m on a mission for Ares!” he said smugly. “So you’d better not get in my way!”
Discord’s face twisted from a sneer to a deep scowl at this news. She suddenly grabbed her cousin by the throat and lifted him into the air. As a god, she could not do him permanent damage, which was frustrating. But she could hurt him, which was amusing in its way. She smiled nastily as he began to claw and kick to get away.
“Working for Ares! Really!” she said casually as Strife’s face turned purple. “Why do I find that so hard to believe? Could it be because he’d never stoop so low as to get help from a worm like you?”
A burst of flame and the God of War himself stood before her, his brawny arms crossed and his dark, handsome face glowering.
“Or it could be that you have an overly skeptical nature,” he said, anger simmering below the surface of his words. “Strife actually is handling something for me, something important, so do, please, drop him.”
“You heard him, Discord,” Strife croaked. “Drop me!”
With a flick of her wrist, Strife dropped to the ground like a stone. She ignored him now, sidling up to Ares as she slid her hand seductively across his shoulder and chest.
“Ares!” she purred. “If you wanted something - er - handled - why didn’t you come straight to me?” Her fingers traced a pattern across his skin. “You know I wouldn’t let you down!”
“I also know where your - talents - lie,” he answered, disengaging himself from her arms as they coiled about him. “It was important that Strife do this for me. He’s had a rough few months and I wanted to see if he still had it in him to be my second in command. He’s getting his groove back nicely, don’t you think?”
“Second in Command!” Discord shrieked angrily. “That’s my job!” “Not any more!” Strife crowed. “It’s mine now!”
Incensed, Discord grabbed him once again by the throat and lifted him high. Her dark eyes snapped fire as she squeezed her hand tight.
“Somebody talkin’ to you?” she snarled and shook him like a rag doll.
Ares, watching his minions, shook his head wearily.
“You both know how I hate these family conflicts,” he sighed.
What was he to do? The two godlings had never got along well. Even when newly created they had fought constantly. How could such well-matched entities, strife and discord, be at odds with each other as often as they were? Oh, well, he had always had a stock solution to that problem. One that worked every time. What was it, now?
The God of War backhanded both combatants hard enough to send them flying. To his immense satisfaction, the bickering instantly ceased as they lay moaning on the ground, too wrapped up in their own aches to care about each other. As they began to pick themselves up, he folded his brawny arms once more and fixed them with a stern, dark stare.
“You kids work this out,” he ordered in a voice that brooked no argument. “Either do it yourselves or I will. Permanently!” With no further comment, he disappeared in a burst of flame.
Discord knew that Ares never made idle threats. If she continued her fight with Strife, she ran the real risk of him petitioning Zeus to have her either banned from Olympus or face some dismal punishment in Tartarus somewhere, and neither prospect appealed to her. She’d had no use for Sisyphus, but, come on! Pushing a rock up a hill? If they could condemn mortals to such pointless toil, what would they do to gods they got ticked at? It didn’t bear thinking about! With a monumental effort she swallowed her fury at her cousin, promising herself that she would exact payment for his insults, sooner or later. Still seething, she turned to where Strife was dusting down his clothes.
Gods! He was annoying! Tall, skinny, snivelling, pallid, and a toady to anyone more powerful than himself. How could Ares even consider him as a second in command? Especially when she was eminently more qualified. There was only one thing for it: make sure he fell flat on his face. To do that, she’d have to find out more about what he was up to, then twist things to her advantage. Shuddering with revulsion, she sidled up to her cousin.
“So,” she said with an ingratiating smile, “tell me what’s going on.”
A mob scene greeted Hercules and Iolaus as they rushed to where they had heard the cry for help. A lone figure, deeply hooded and fully cloaked, ran as fast as he could toward a barrier across the main thoroughfare of the village, barely ahead of angry men and women who relentlessly pursued him. The villagers threw rocks and sticks at him, occasionally landing one on his back or legs.
Panting, weakened by the run for his life, the figure reached the barricade and began to climb. For a moment it looked like he was going to get away, for he had managed to get too high to be reached. But the villagers were not to be denied their kill, and a large rock thrown by one of the local men clipped him on the head. With a cry he fell from his precarious perch and tumbled to the ground where he lay still.
Hercules was incensed. It was one thing to join in the hue and cry for a known felon. It was something very different to hunt down and murder an unarmed, innocent man. This situation definitely resembled the latter, rather than the former, and he’d be damned if it was allowed to go any further.
“Leave that man alone!” he roared, running as fast as he could to come to the fugitive’s aid.
His words made no difference. The villagers either did not hear him or chose to ignore him, and closed in on their target, ready to tear the poor man apart. Iolaus had never felt more helpless. A man was about to be beaten to death before his eyes and he could do nothing to stop it happening. It was all too much like what he had known under the Sovereign.
“What’ll we do?” he cried. “They’ll kill him!”
“No they won’t!” Hercules said determinedly.
He had seen a solution and now acted upon it as quickly as he could. A large cart stood at the side of the road. It was rickety, probably on its way to becoming fire wood, but it would do. The demigod grabbed it by the tongue and began to heave it toward the mob.
“Get out of the way!” he bellowed. “Look out! Move it! Move it!”
The rattle of the cart and the angry, commanding voice finally broke through the mob mentality. First one, then another realized that their immediate danger lay in the crazy man about to ram them with a heavy cart, and they screamed and scrambled for safety, falling over each other in an effort to save themselves. The cart gathered momentum under Hercules’ strength and, as soon as everyone was clear, he let it go to crash into the barricade. As it splintered into kindling, he and Iolaus ran to the side of the fallen man.
Strife, watching the scene from the safety of a nearby building roof, laughed maniacally. This was too good! He could not wait for the next part of the plan to play out! He clapped his hands and jumped up and down in his excitement.
“So what’s this mission got to do with Hercules?” Discord asked him as she appeared at his side. She still couldn’t see it. A rock? Throw it at Hercules’ head and he’d either catch it, or shrug off any injury it may inflict on impact. Even if it did have certain powers, how could it do anything to the half god that everyone hadn’t already tried?
“Hercules!” Strife chortled. “By the time ol’ Ares and I are finished with him, the world won’t be seeing much more of Hercules!”
Iolaus and the half god in question knelt beside the erstwhile victim and gently lifted him. By the slight build and light weight, Hercules could now see it was only a boy, not a man. It strengthened his resolve to give the villagers a piece of his mind! How dare they threaten a child! But for now, he concentrated his efforts on securing help for the boy. He suppressed his rage and spoke gently.
“Don’t be afraid,” he said. “They won’t hurt you now. Tell us where you’re from and we’ll take you home.”
The boy’s reply shocked and puzzled both men. He threw his arms over his face and curled away from them.
“Please!” he begged fearfully. “Don’t look at me!”
Hercules and Iolaus stared open mouthed at the boy.
“Are you not seeing what I’m not seeing?” Hercules asked.
Iolaus gulped. This was weird even for him.
“No,” he replied. “I’m not.”
As the boy moved, the hood covering his head slipped back and revealed his face ...
...which was - gone. They could see the shape of his head under the cloth of his hood, but the features of his face were faded almost to invisibility.
Hercules had to believe the evidence of his own eyes.
“Me neither,” he said.
The two men walked through the deserted streets of the quarantined portion of the village. Hercules carried the boy, who had fainted from his injuries. It was mid morning, a time when people should have been everywhere going about their daily business. The streets of a town like this should be alive with movement and sound. Instead the two men were greeted by an eerie silence.
“Place looks deserted,” Iolaus commented, looking around as he walked. This place gave him the creeps! The falling down buildings, the red x’s splashed on the doorways and the wind whistling through the streets all reminded him of a village where the Sovereign had ordered everyone killed because they had too many people who played the pan pipes and not the lyre. He shuddered.
“Looks can be deceiving,” Hercules said.
He, too, felt uncomfortable in this place, but he had spotted a few people, all hooded and cloaked like the boy, darting into doorways, flitting through alleys and generally making themselves scarce as he and Iolaus approached. There were definitely more people around somewhere, but they weren’t showing themselves. In fact, they were actively avoiding any contact. What was going on?
They came to a large building, probably the local meeting hall or court house. In times of disaster or disease, people tended to group together for mutual support and aid, the mob outside the barricade notwithstanding. It was logical to assume that if there were any answers to be had, this was the place to find them. They pushed open the door and entered.
As their eyes adjusted to the lower light, they saw more people, some covered in cloaks, some wrapped in bandages like lepers, and some just hunched over to hide themselves. As the light from outside flooded in through the door, most scurried into the shadow like rats running to their holes.
“Strangers!” someone cried in alarm. There was a chorus of voices echoing his fear. “Oh, no!” Please don’t hurt us!” “Oh, Gods above! Go away!”
Hercules felt his heart clench with pity for these people. He tried to calm them.
“It’s all right!” he said. “We’re here to help!”
“Listen to him,” Iolaus said, speaking around his own fears. “This is Hercules!” No one replied beyond the people going further into the shadows. “I’ve never seen anything like this!” Hercules cut him a look and Iolaus smiled sheepishly. “No pun intended.”
“Leave us alone!” a wavering voice called harshly. “We are cursed! Go away!”
Hercules gently lay the injured boy on an empty cot and covered him with a threadbare blanket.
“We’re not going anywhere until we’ve found out what’s happening here,” he said firmly. “And if there’s anything I can do to help, that’s what I’ll do!”
He rose to his full height as a short figure approached tentatively. A ghostly hand was raised to push back the hood that covered her pale, transparent face. She stood for a moment, allowing the two men to get a good look at her. She had heard tales of Hercules and his exploits against the gods. Mostly they spoke of his refusal to give up in the face of overwhelming odds. It was an encouraging thought, but in this instance it was a misplaced sentiment.
“No one can help us, Hercules,” she said sadly. “Not even you.”
Hercules reached out to take her hands, thought better of it, then tried to touch her shoulder and decided that was no good, either. In the end he figured that direct actions would speak much louder than any futile gesture of comfort. He squared his shoulders.
“We’ll see about that!” he said stoutly. “No pun intended,” he added with a grin.
A hint of a smile played across the woman’s face. She raised her hand and beckoned her friends to come out of hiding. Shyly, they began to approach.
Over the next few hours, Hercules learned a great deal. The woman was named Ria. She pointed out different cases and told them their symptoms, how long each person had been ‘fading’ and who else in their family had suffered the same fate. Sometimes one member of a family became infected and all his relatives succumbed. In other families, one person would get sick and no one else. In one case, every member had either faded or died except for one small girl. There was no pattern than anyone could discern. The puzzle deepened.
“People fade away, bit by bit,” said Ria, shaking her head sadly. “Eventually, they vanish completely and then they die.”
“Does it hurt?” Iolaus asked. “I mean, does anything ache or tingle or - anything?”
“Not that we’ve noticed, unless you count the pain we all feel that we’ve been abandoned by those not infected”
“How long does it take?” Hercules asked. “You say people fade until they vanish. Have you noticed any pattern?”
Ria shrugged her thin shoulders.
“My husband was a big, strong man, but he was one of the first to fade,” she said. “Gone in less than a day, he was. Not even a body to bury. Others took longer, several days, sometimes. Again there’s no pattern. Some children have hung on longer than grown men. Physical strength doesn’t seem to be a factor. I’ve been fading for nearly three days. My husband always did say I was a stubborn woman,” she added with a rueful smile. At last she sighed, her eyes distant and sad. “I don’t know how much longer I can hold out. Our neighbours shun us. Our friends and families desert us. There doesn’t seem to be a lot to live for.”
“Don’t give up just yet, Ria,” Hercules said. “We’re not going anywhere until we’ve got to the bottom of this. But help me now. Think back. You say this started after the harvest?”
“Yes, it was market day,” Ria said. “I don’t think I’ll ever forget that day. My husband had brought our crops into town to be sold and stored.”
“There’s a big building in the centre of town. It’s the one with the double doors and a ramp instead of steps. You can’t miss it.”
“Good! That’s a good place to start looking for clues. Iolaus, you go see what you can find in the storehouse. I’m gonna see what the mob is up to. I can’t believe they’ve given up this easy.”
Iolaus hesitated. He wanted to be brave and heroic, traits he admired in both Hercules and his partner, but the thought of being alone in that storehouse, with the Gods knew what kind of monster rattled him to his core.
“You’ll be all right,” Hercules said, as if reading the other man’s mind. “I’d back you against whatever is out there any day.”
Iolaus grinned shyly. It was encouraging to have a man like Hercules express his belief in one’s abilities. He was determined to live up to the demigod’s endorsement. Swallowing the enormous lump in his throat, he left the building repeating to himself: ‘I can do this! I can do this!’
Hercules turned to Ria and took her hand.
“You have my word,” he said solemnly. “What happened to your husband won’t happen to you. Or to anyone else. Will you hold on until I can find a solution?”
Slowly, daring to hope, she nodded.
“I - I’ll try,” she said.
“That’s all I can ask for,” Hercules said. “Now, I think it’s time for me to check up on our friends on the other side of the barricade.”
From that direction there came the faint, steady beat of a drum. Something was brewing out there and it didn’t sound like ale and cakes.
“Keep your chin up!” he said to Ria. “I’ll be back!”
A crowd of people had begun to gather outside the barrier, summoned by the drumbeats, and more were arriving by the minute. Arguments were breaking out regarding what to do next. Many people wanted to set fire to the afflicted area to destroy the plague, and to save those still unaffected. However, there were just as many who counselled caution. Fire could be just as deadly as the plague itself. There had to be a better way! What about flooding the area? What if they left those afflicted alone and let nature take its course? If they kept the barrier intact, would the rest of them be safe? It was a situation that needed leadership and guidance, along with a concrete plan for the next few days or weeks or however long it took for all the sick people to die.
Invisible to mortal eyes, Strife and Discord watched the crowd and felt them slipping away from the path they needed to take if Ares’ plans were to go as he wanted them. Strife nervously bit his fingernails, a habit he had picked up in the underworld and still showed up when he was particularly disturbed. If the crowd chose to help their neighbours, or to let nature take its course, all of his efforts would be for nothing. Ares would never forgive him if he’d gone to all this trouble for a few lousy peasants to fade away and die. But what was he going to do to put things back on course? A cold touch on his shoulder made him jump.
“Worried about something?” Discord sneered. As much fun as it was to tease this new aspect of Strife, she had her own agenda and part of it was to have Ares’ plan pan out, at least to a certain extent. She had to prod her cousin into action.
“Nnnnnnnnnnnnooooooooo-“ Strife mumbled around a mouth full of fingers. What was he gonna do? How mad was Ares gonna get?
Mad. Real mad. Madder than that.
“Look, Cuz,” Discord laid a companionable arm across Strife’s trembling shoulder. “I know you’re incompetent. You know you’re incompetent. But we don’t want Ares to know you’re incompetent. Am I right or am I right?”
Strife shrugged. He didn’t altogether trust his cousin, especially when she was acting all helpful and supportive, but she did have a point.
“Yeah, well, sure,” he said uncertainly, gnawing industriously on his pinkie. “I guess. If you put it that - OW!”
Discord rolled her eyes and sighed with frustration. Strife had actually bitten his own finger! What a dope! Instead of slapping him, she tightened her grip on him and spoke softly.
“There aren’t any secrets among family,” she cooed. “I can’t help you out if I don’t know the problem. Now, tell your cousin what’s wrong and let me see what I can do.”
Strife slumped where he stood. Why did everything have to go south now? Things had been going so well for him lately! He sighed deeply.
“All right, I’ll tell you everything,” he said resignedly. “I set a trap for Hercules and his little friend is about to ruin it! Oh, it is just not fair! I worked so hard on that trap and it was perfect! Perfect!” To Discord’s surprise he suddenly dropped to his knees and flung his arms around her waist, burying his face in her bosom for comfort. “Discord you’ve gotta help me! Please! Ares is gonna fry me for this! I don’t know what to do now! ”
Discord smiled smugly. She had him! Now to reel him in.
“There, there, it’ll be all right,” she soothed, stroking his hair. ‘I can always wash my hand later.’ she thought. “All this takes is a little creative thinking. Here’s what we’re gonna do ...”
Marcus had been Head Man of this village for five years and he was proud of his position and what he had been able to accomplish during his tenure. He was a good leader, if a little lacking in creativity and insight. Whenever problems had arisen, he had come up with solid, workable solutions. He tried to keep things as uncomplicated as possible, and his leadership style tended to be direct and straight forward. The threat posed by the Faders he considered a no brainer, and now all he needed to do was make sure everyone was working from the same scroll. Simple enough, right?.
The drum had succeeded in summoning everyone together. Nervous men and women milled about, talking in low voices and whispers, discussing the latest crisis in their midst. Who would be next to fall under the curse? Would it spread to those outside the barricade or gradually burn itself out among those already afflicted. What were they to do? Marcus called them to order by clapping his hands as loud as he could. They settled into an uneasy silence.
“You all know why we’re here!” Marcus began, looking around at his frightened neighbours. “You all know what we have to do. A plague is in our village and it must be stopped, before what has happened to the Faders, happens to us all! For the safety and future of everyone else, the Faders must die!”
There was a collective gasp from the assembled villagers. The unspoken had been said, the unthinkable expressed. Everyone looked guiltily at his neighbour.
“This was not an easy decision to make,” Marcus continued. “But we all saw what happened after the harvest.” People were nodding, their faces grim. They had indeed seen what happened, and they were frightened. The same thing was not going to happen to them! Marcus felt them hanging on his every word. “I know there are women and children behind that barrier. It seems the plague is no respecter of innocence! How long before it catches one of us?” His voice began to rise to a crescendo. “I say we stop it now, before it’s too late! I say - PUT THEM TO THE FIRE!
It was all the people needed to send them into a frenzy. They shouted and yelled their agreement. Marcus was right! They needed to protect themselves! Death to the Faders! Get the torches! Burn out the plague!
“AND I SAY NOT A CHANCE!”
The loud, authoritative voice had come from the back of the crowd, cutting through the hysterics and silencing all opposition. Everyone turned to stare at the lone man who stood tall and straight, his arms folded across his broad chest and a scowl marring his handsome features. He caught the eyes of different villagers and glared at them until they looked away with shame. Clearly, the only way anyone was going to burn out anyone else was to go through him. Not an easy option.
Marcus, however, was not cowed. He was peeved. He’d had these people in the palm of his hand and they had been ready to go to the wall for him when this guy had butted in and ruined everything!
“Who do you think you are?” he demanded of the tall stranger.
“I’m Hercules,” Hercules said, his anger growing. Did they really think he was going to let them set fire to helpless people?
“Hercules, huh?” Marcus sneered. “Well, this is none of your business, Hercules. We’ve got things under control. Back off.”
“It’s everyone’s business!” Hercules said through gritted teeth. “How dare you? Those people are your neighbours, your friends, some of them may even be your family! You’ve known them all your lives! They’ve been as much a part of this village as all of you, possibly more so, and all you can think to do when they need you the most is to kill them? Would you want them to do the same thing if your positions were reversed? Or would you want them to help you? I know you’re frightened, and in a way I don’t blame you for that, but there has got to be another way!”
“There is no other way!” cried a voice. “We’re all at risk! What else can we do but save ourselves?”
“You can help them survive until we find out exactly what happened here,” Hercules said. “You can keep those people who are fading from losing all hope. Right now they’re a lot more scared than you and with a lot better reason! Don’t you think they have enough to worry about without wondering whether the people they’ve always counted on were plotting to kill them?”
The villagers were stunned. Up to now they had only considered their own fears and worries, but Hercules was right. True, they had something to fear, but so far nothing had happened to them. Those who were already afflicted must be terrified! How horrible it must be to watch yourself slowly disappear and never know why it was happening or how to stop it. How lonely and helpless they must already feel!
Marcus felt the will of his people shift. He could try, he supposed, to swing them back to their original course, but it would take a lot of shouting on his part and he could never be sure of the outcome. He wasn’t charismatic enough for an argument against the mighty hero of Greece. With an inward shrug, he decided to go with the obvious flow.
“What do you want us to do?” he asked.
In an instant, Hercules sized up this young leader. Not overly bright, but honest enough and genuinely concerned for his people. Apt to run with the first solution that came to him, no matter how ill considerred. However, with a little experience, he’d do all right in the long run. Right now, a little guidance would go a long way to make this man a good leader.
“For starters,” Hercules said, “let’s clean up this mess. After that, we’ll figure this out together and bring your friends and families home where they belong.”
He bent to start clearing away some of the heavier debris, and it wasn’t long before a man from the crowd came forward to help. Slowly, others stepped up to pick up part of the barrier and carried it out of the way. Hercules smiled inwardly. These weren’t bad people, but they were afraid and were likely to act out of their own fear. Calm them down and they could always find the more peaceful solution. This was going to work out better than he’d thought.
“Noble words and fine sentiments,” said a sneering voice. “But noble words are of no use to the dead!”
Hercules’ head snapped up, looking for the speaker.
‘Damn!’ he thought. ‘I know there is one, but why does there have to be one in every crowd?’
An old man, his own arms folded over an ample belly, stood to one side of the crowd.
“Make no mistake, my friends,” he continued smugly, “death is the real issue here!”
“Death?” “Who said anything about death?” “What’s he talking about?” “I thought they were just fading!” “Well, where did you think they faded to?”
With a few well chosen words, one old man had turned a promising situation into a very bad one. Hercules rushed to allay the growing fears of the crowd.
“Nobody has to die!” he shouted above the rising clamour. “That doesn’t have to be the end to this! Listen to me!”
But the old fears were rising again, and the old man seemed more than happy to egg them on.
“You may not fear death, Half God,” he jeered. “But we do! I, for one, am in no hurry to meet my ancestors in the Underworld! But we’re getting closer to that every day that we let this go on! The gods have cursed this village! That’s what’s happening here and that’s what we have to contend with! A curse!”
“You don’t know that!” Hercules shouted desperately. People were already starting to throw things back on the barricade. Any minute now somebody was going to grab a torch and some oil and then all Hades would literally break out.
“And you know different?” the old man challenged. “Mark my words, my friends! Work the will of the Gods and you may live another day! But defy them and you will surely die! Is that what you want?”
“No!” “Never!” “I don’t wanna die!” “Let’s get them before they get us!” “Get some torches!” “Bring the oil!”
‘When did I lose control?’ Hercules mused, kicking himself that he had allowed things to go this far. He had to stop this quickly before someone got hurt.
Marcus seized his opportunity to assert himself once more.
“The old man is right!” he shouted. “We have to kill the Faders before they infect us! Get the fire ready! Who’s with me?” A score of voices shouted their loyalty and the crowd became a mob with a single intent: death.
As the mob advanced on the barricade with lighted torches and jugs of oil, the old man began to laugh with unholy glee at their antics. The laugh turned into a demonic cackle that rose up to the sky and startled the birds out of the trees. Hercules heard that sound and his blood ran cold.
Strife! Somehow that sneaky, snivelling little cretin had escaped from Hades’ realm and was up to his old tricks, this time sporting the guise of an old coot with too much opinion. Hercules hesitated a moment, his hands clenched into fists of rage. How he longed to wipe that sneer off that face! However, if he wasted time venting his ire on Strife, as satisfying as that might be, innocent people were going to die. Promising himself the pleasure of manhandling his divine relative as soon as the opportunity presented itself, the half god swung into action.
People were beginning to climb the barricade, torches and small amphorae of oil clutched in their fists. As dry as things were in the segregated part of the village, it wouldn’t take much to start a fire that would kill everyone trapped there. Hercules had little time for elaborate planning, so settled on the most expedient course. He plowed through the knots of people clambering to mount the barricade, tossing them aside if they got in his way. As soon as he could reach it, he grabbed the same wagon he had used to good effect earlier in the day. With one mighty heave, the wagon came loose and rolled away. The barricade, already shaking from the efforts of the villagers, was undermined and began to crumble. As it came down, people began to fall. One after another tumbled to the ground and found themselves splashed with oil and dangerously close to burning torches. The frenzy then became one to extinguish the fires before their own clothes caught and burned. For the moment, a disaster had been averted.
The old man was now laughing so hard that he could barely stand. His whole plan seemed to be crumbling before his eyes but he hadn’t had this much fun in months. Look at those fools! One false step and they’d immolate themselves! That’d be a laugh and a half for sure! Hang on a minute - where’s Hercules? The old man had been concentrating so hard on the hapless villagers that he had forgotten the very pissed off half god. Bad move. Time to move on, and the faster the better. He turned to run off.
“Nice try, Strife,” growled a deep voice in his ear as a big hand grabbed him by the scruff of his clothes with a grip of iron. “But that laugh of yours makes you about as subtle as one of Zeus’ thunderbolts.”
Hercules raised the old man enough that his feet were no longer touching the ground. Separated from the earth, Strife could no longer hold his disguise and quickly reverted to his true form. His insane giggle turned into his trademark cackle. It was so much fun to see the demigod frustrated and nothing he could do about it. He laughed until Hercules shook him to make him stop.
“Aw, you ruin all my fun,” Strife whined.
Hercules shook him again, this time a little harder because he was becoming very annoyed indeed.
“That’s not all I plan to ruin, you little twerp,” Hercules said, his face thunderous enough to cow the godling into silence. “Tell me why these people are fading or you’ll be the next one to disappear.”
Iolaus cautiously poked his head through the door of the village store house, expecting any moment to meet a fist or a stick or a knife. When nothing threatening appeared, he called to anyone who might be listening.
“Hallllloooooooooo!” he called. Silence greeted him. “Anybody home?” He paused and listened, but heard nothing. “Guess not.”
Emboldened by the lack of resistence, he entered and looked around as his eyes adjusted to the lower light. Produce of every kind was laid out in baskets and nets in neat rows. Most of it looked undisturbed from the time it had been brought in from the harvest. What could possibly be wrong? What could have affected everyone? Disease? Plague? Mushrooms? Nothing made any sense yet, least of all Hercules’ direction to check out the storage area for possible answers to the villagers’ problem.
“I don’t even know what I’m looking for,” Iolaus grumbled as he peered into another basket. “How’m I supposed to find anything?”
He moved aimlessly from shelf to shelf to bushel to basket, emptying things out as he went along. Frustrated that his search was fruitless, he negligently tossed a shiny red apple away, and was surprised when he heard a sudden exclamation from a pile of hay where the fruit landed. To his amazement, a lovely young woman pushed through the hay and sat staring at him. For a moment they eyed each other warily, until the girl flashed a dazzling smile.
“You’re the first person I’ve seen in two days who’s not a Fader,” she said. “You’re not going to disappear on me, are you?”
“No, no,” Iolaus stammered. “I’m here to stay. But - what are you doing here? I mean, everybody else is staying as far away from here as they can.”
“Can you think of a better place to hide?” she said. “Everybody out there has gone crazy!”
“Yeah! Tell me about it!” Iolaus said with a smirk as he helped the girl out of the hay. She was very pretty, with long blond hair and deep blue eyes. Not a patch on Nautica, but very easy on the eyes all the same. “Umm - I’m Iolaus,” he added shyly.
“I’m Lechise,” she answered, giving him an appraising look. “It’s nice to meet you, Iolaus.”
“Yeah! You too!” Iolaus said, and he meant it. It was pleasant to be able to talk to a pretty girl and not be afraid for his life. However, he had business to attend to. “Well, Lechise, I’d love to stay and chat but I’m a little busy. How’d you like to, you know, help me out a little? It might take your mind off the crazies.”
“Okay!” she said eagerly. “What do you want me to do? What are you looking for?”
Iolaus’ smile immediately dropped away. He shrugged helplessly.
“I don’t really know,” he said. “There’s something here that has contaminated all the food, but I don’t know what it is or what it might look like. Hercules said I’d know it when I found it.”
“That’s pretty vague,” Lechise said doubtfully.
“I know,” Iolaus admitted. “But it’s the best I can do for now.” He dumped another basket of food and watched the tubers spill across the floor. They all looked pretty normal to him. “Nothing there.”
Lechise copied him, letting a bushel of apples roll haphazardly away.
“Nothing here, either.”
“Well, keep looking. It’s gotta be somewhere.”
Together they emptied more baskets, spreading a lot of foodstuffs around but finding nothing more threatening than a wormy apple or two.
“Where next?” Lechise asked. They had overturned everything on one side of the building with nothing to show for it but a mountain of dusty vegetables.
“Let’s try over here,” Iolaus sighed as he started in on a new row of bushels. He was beginning to feel discouraged. This was taking far too long and they were still no closer to figuring out what they were looking for in the first place.
The first basket he tried was filled with thick root vegetables and heavier than the rest. He couldn’t budge it until Lechise took one side and they pushed it over together. The roots tumbled across the floor and with them, a large gray rock.
It glowed with a sickly, evil green light. On its surface someone or something had etched the crude rendering of an eye. It was definitely a rock, but the eye on it seemed to follow movement, almost as if it were alive.
“Looks like we’ve found what we’re looking for!” Iolaus said, awed into horrified fascination with this thing before him. He reached out to take it in his hand.
“Better not touch it,” Lechise warned. “It could be dangerous. Look what it did to the food supply.”
“You’re right,” Iolaus said. “But I have to get it to Hercules. He’ll know what to do with it.” He looked around the room and spotted some fishing gear in a corner. A net was leaning against a wall. “And I think I just found the best way to carry it around!” he said with a triumphant smile.
Hercules tightened his grip on Strife’s collar, shaking the godling as they walked. The little creep was probably responsible for all the suffering of the villagers. Thanks to him, ordinary citizens were lurking through the streets, ready to commit violence on their nearest and dearest, while others were dying a slow, horrible death. Then again, Strife had been murdered, something no one ever believed possible, then had spent the better part of a year in the underworld, never a very pleasant place. Maybe he had earned a little consideration.
Nah. Hercules dragged him all the way from the barricade to the meeting house where most of the Faders had taken refuge. The two men burst through the door, scattering frightened people like leaves before the wind.
“Look at them, Strife!” Hercules demanded. Strife smirked and giggled. Hercules grabbed him by the jaw and forced him to look at the pitiful remains of good people. “Look at them! They didn’t deserve this from the likes of you! Now end this or I swear I’ll end you!”
Strife couldn’t help himself. He began to laugh again, his insane cackle filling the meeting house like a ghastly creature. It was all just too funny! He couldn’t wait until the final act of this play.
His reaction, however, was the last straw for Hercules.
“That’s it! Now I’m mad!” he declared. With one fluid movement, he scooped Strife up off his feet and held him suspended in mid air.
“Your call, Strife!” Hercules said through gritted teeth. “You can either go head first through the wall or through the floor. I’m good either way. Or you can end this now and I’ll only pound you until you stop liking it. What’s it gonna be?”
It finally dawned on Strife that he was in serious trouble. Hercules had every intention of carrying out his threat to do him harm.
“You can’t kill me!” he squeaked. “Zeus’d have a fit!”
“Tell somebody who cares!” Hercules snarled. “Now help these people or so help me I’ll squash you like a bug!”
“I can’t!” Strife cried desperately.
“Wrong answer!” Hercules roared.
Strife struggled to break the hold on him and failed. He had to think fast and all he could come up with was the truth.
“I swear I can’t do anything without the rock!” he shrieked.
“What rock?” Hercules demanded.
“This rock!” Iolaus declared as he and Lechise rushed into the building.
Hercules immediately focused his attention on the jester. The smaller man stood with a fishing net in his hands and, suspended within it, was a gray rock that glowed with an evil green light. Hercules stared at the rock, at first not comprehending what he was seeing. Slowly a memory surfaced in his mind, the memory of a story told him long ago about punishment and revenge and a curse to destroy all responsible. He shook his head.
“Man, are we in trouble now!”
“It’s a rock,” Lechise said. “How much trouble can it be? I mean, you throw it around in a pottery shop and I admit you’ve got a problem, but it is just a rock. Isn’t it?”
“Not quite,” Hercules said. With a negligent shrug he let go of Strife who fell gracelessly to the floor. “That’s the Rock of Argys.” “The Rock of Ages?” Iolaus asked. He was sure he hadn’t heard that one right.
“No, no, Argys,” Hercules corrected him. “He was a cyclops. When he and his brothers rebelled against the gods, Zeus turned their eyes to stone.” He sighed heavily. “Good ol’ dad! The master of overkill.”
Strife picked himself up slowly from the floor. This was all working out even better than he’d hoped! All he had to do now was set things up the way Ares had instructed him, and they’d finally win!
“When the cyclops died,” he explained excitedly, “they cursed their blind stone eyes! That must have been awesome! They said, and I quote, “Let those with sight be taken from sight as sight was taken from us!”
He could not contain his glee and cackled like a fiend. They were so close! Just one more step and they had this whole plan in the bag!
Iolaus eyed the rock dubiously. Aside from its glow, it seemed to be just an ordinary rock that someone had used for a really bad art project.
“What are you gonna do now?” he asked Hercules. “I mean, even with the rock, how can we use it to help all these people?”
“Break the rock, break the curse,” he said, reaching for the net.
Iolaus held it away from him.
“Right,” he said. “Break the rock, break the curse. No way. It can’t be that easy!”
“You’re right. It isn’t,” Hercules said grimly. “If I break that rock, the curse falls on me. So that’s what its down to. I can either waste time trying to reason with Zeus to lift the curse, in which case all these people die. Or I can destroy the rock and they all live while I fade away to nothing.”
“What kind of a choice is that?” Iolaus demanded, although he could already guess what his friend would do.
“It’s the only choice he’s got if he wants to save the villagers!” Strife crowed. “Quite a dilemma, ain’t it? You live, they die! You die, they live! Dontcha love it?” He began to laugh maniacally.
“Shut up, Strife,” Hercules muttered and smacked him hard enough to send him reeling.
It was a pointless gesture and he knew it. Strife was everything that Hercules despised in the gods, and probably behind everything that these people had suffered, but he was also right. There was no other choice. If he wanted the villagers to live, he would have to break the curse. He took the net from Iolaus’ hands and carefully set the rock down on the stone floor. Quickly, before he could think about it too much, he raised his right fist and smashed it down on the Rock of Argys with all his strength, reducing the rock to sand and a hand full of gravel. Hercules rose to his full height.
“Now we wait and see,” he said. “This shouldn’t take long.”
A mist rose from the remains of the rock. It began to undulate and writhe, as if it were a living thing, until it coalesced into the crude figure of a tall thin humanoid. The face, a caricature of anything human, opened its lipless mouth and began to scream in silent torment. Suddenly the figure soared into the air until it touched the ceiling, then began to zoom around the building, touching each of the Faders briefly with its cold hands. Each person it touched cried out in alarm as the curse was pulled from their pale bodies, and the figure became bigger and more solid with each part of the curse it absorbed. When it was finished with the villagers, it poised at the top of the ceiling, screamed silent defiance at the people as they regained their lives, and plunged headlong into the half god who had broken the stone.
All around the room, those who had been doomed to die an ignominious death began to feel the hope of life returning. Quickly, eagerly, they unbound their hands and faces, their cries changing from alarm to delight as they saw their features and those of their friends return to visibility.
Strife began to laugh again, this time because everything Ares had predicted - the effect of the Rock of Argys, the reactions of the villagers and the choice Hercules would make - had come true. He had done it! Despite every neurosis he’d accumulated from his sojourn in Hades he had done it! He had defeated the mighty Hercules and now the world was going to be his oyster!
At least, until Ares said it wasn’t any more.
For the moment, however, he was willing to savour the victory he had built. He controlled his laughter long enough to gloat.
“Heroes don’t always die in battle or in bed, Hercules!” he taunted the half god.
To everyone’s surprise, Lachise suddenly threw her lovely head back and began to laugh as well. She sauntered over to where Strife stood with his arms folded over his thin chest. With a toss of her blond curls, she closed her eyes and transformed herself into her true identity - Discord. She turned her attention to Hercules.
“Sometimes they just - fade away!” she finished her cousin’s thought.
At that, both godlings broke into cruel laughter that echoed around the room, then, with a contemptuous sneer, they both disappeared.
Hercules was uninterested in the antics of his divine relations. Instead he watched as the villagers rediscovered the joy of being alive. Some of them were weeping with happiness, some were holding each other as if they would never let go. People were coming together in groups to stroke each other’s hands and faces, marveling at the look and feel of solid flesh and bone. Hercules smiled to himself.
‘No matter what happens from now on,’ he thought, ‘this has all been worthwhile just to see them happy again!’
A worried voice broke into his musing.
“Oh, no!” Iolaus said. “Hercules! Look at your hands! Your feet! By the gods! You’re disappearing!”
Sure enough, the tall figure of the demigod was slowly, from the ground up, dissolving into thin air. Hercules watched in horrified fascination as his legs disappeared along with his hands. Very soon he would be completely gone.
‘This sorta sucks,’ he thought. Out loud he said, “Look on the bright side. The village is safe and I can sneak into the theatres without paying for my ticket. Think of the money I’ll save! By the way, am I being unclear?” he finished with a wide grin.
Iolaus stared at him, dumbfounded.
“You’re kidding!” he gasped. “How can you joke at a time like this? This is serious!”
“So I’m seriously joking,” Hercules said with a shrug. “Lighten up, Iolaus! I certainly am, although I think you can see through any posing I might do.”
“Hercules!” Iolaus pleaded, wringing his hands in distress. “What are you - what are we - going to do?”
Hercules sighed. Enough levity. Time to get serious.
“I’ve got an idea,” he said, eyeing a row of amphorae along one of the walls.
Determinedly he approached one of the biggest and ran his invisible hand over its surface. It was smooth and cool, probably made to hold water so it would be thick. Exactly what he wanted. He concentrated hard on his hands. He couldn’t see them, but he could feel them curling into fists and he wanted every ounce of his power right where his knuckles would connect with anything solid. With a loud battle cry he punched the amphora with all his strength. The clay vessel smashed into a thousand pieces and Hercules miraculously reappeared.
Iolaus felt like cheering.
“Hercules!” he cried with delight. “You’re OK! This is great! I knew you’d save the day somehow!” There was, however, one burning question as yet unanswered. “So how did you save the day today?”
Hercules shook out his hand. ‘Oooo! That smarts!’
“I didn’t,” he said out loud. “At least, I didn’t permanently.”
“But - but I can see you!” Iolaus protested. Wasn’t this ever going to end?
“It’s a little trick Iolaus taught me a long time ago,” Hercules explained. “Mind over matter. As long as I can convince my mind that I’m still here, then I won’t fade away, but I can’t keep it up for long. We have to find another way!” He turned to where Ria was hugging one of her neighbours, delighted to be in the land of the living once more. “Where did your husband get the crops he brought into town?”
“From our farm north of the river,” Ria said. “But we’ve been on that farm for years. Nothing like this has ever happened before.”
“Did he break new ground this year?”
Ria thought for a moment.
“Yes, as a matter of fact he did! He plowed a new field close to the old quarry!”
“Then that’s where we’re going!” Hercules declared. “Obviously, that’s where Argys and his brothers were buried. Three blind cyclops, three stone eyes.”
Iolaus began to get excited. There was a way to lift this curse! It was probably a long shot, but well worth the effort if it meant getting Hercules back!
“One down, two to go!” he said, his blue eyes shining. “So we go to the quarry, get another stone eye ...”
“And hopefully take the curse off me before it’s too late,” Hercules finished. “The candle’s dripping! Let’s go!”
Ares hadn’t felt this good in years.
Strife was getting his old groove back and coming along nicely in his new duties. An age old curse had been used to good effect, and Hercules was no more. Poof. Gone. Met his demise. From here on in, re the metabolic processes, he’d had his lot. He was an ex-demigod. Ares felt like skipping.
He loved it when a plan came together!
Now, he walked in his temple, his arm companionably draped over Strife’s shoulder. He wanted to hear every delicious detail of his despised half-brother’s ending.
“So what now for dear old Hercules,” he asked. “Does he rattle his chains? Hang around like a bad memory moaning into the wind? I think I’d actually pay gold to see that! Maybe I should find him a nice villa to haunt.”
“No, no, no, you’re not getting it,” Strife said. “Out of sight, out of mind, remember? Slowly, he’s fading away, like a bad painting. By the end of the day, he’ll be gone for good. No deposit, no returns!”
Ares laughed uproariously at his nephew’s description. It was good to have him back! Now they could really shake things up in the mortal world, especially with Hercules out of the way.
“Ah, Strife,” he said as he dropped into his dark throne. “I had my doubts about you. I was afraid your little vacation in the Underworld had blunted your edge, made you too twitchy to be the God of Terror. But, I gotta say, you proved me wrong.”
Strife was touched. Praise from Ares was rare. It was something to be savoured as much as the victory itself.
“Why, thankyou, Uncle,” he said, displaying no false modesty. “Thankyou.” ‘And you better believe I deserve that and more!’ he thought smugly to himself.
“Now, ordinarily,” Ares continued conversationally, “somebody proves me wrong I gotta hurt ‘em.”
“Yeah!” Strife said, still in his daydream of rich reward from his grateful uncle. Wait a minute! “What?”
“But I’m in such a good mood, I’m prepared to let this slip just once,” Ares said magnanimously. “Don’t let it happen again. Anyway, congratulations! You are my new Number Two!”
Jackpot! Strife shrieked with glee and clapped his hands together, jumping up and down like a child on Solstice morning.
“Oh, Uncle!” he gushed. Rich rewards! Just like he’d wanted and planned and schemed. Now to butter the dark god up until he thought of some other little trinket to add to the pot. “This is such an honour! I don’t know what to say but yeeeeeeeooooooooowwww!”
A fire ball had appeared out of nowhere, struck him full force in the stomach and hurtled him back into a wall. Ares was too filled with visions of mayhem to notice, but he did notice the unusual tribute paid to him by his obsequious nephew. “Yeeeeeeeoooooooowww?” he repeated. “A simple thankyou would have been fine.”
A screaming flame boiled up in front of him and Discord appeared, fury evident in every fibre of her being.
“I can’t believe this!” she cried angrilly, her little fists perched on her hips. “How can you make him your Number Two? It was a team effort!”
“Oh, pul-lease!” Strife sneered as he pushed her out of the way. “I did all the work!”
“That’s it!” they chorused and grabbed each other by the front of their clothes, raised their fists and prepared to pummel each other.
Ares shook his head and sighed wearily at these two nit wits. When would they ever learn? However, he was not in the mood to clean up after one of their petty squabbles.
“Stop!” he said half heartedly. “Please, children, stop! You’ll make a mess! I mean, I love a good internecine blood bath as much as the next War God, but, really, I just had the rugs cleaned. At least have the decency to take this outside.”
Discord was not to be dissuaded from trouncing her idiot cousin. She had lost a sweet position because of him and she intended to exact payment.
“Do you think you really made Hercules disappear?” she snarled. “Think again!”
“I did so!” Strife whined, stung that anyone doubted the power he had unleashed with the Rock of Argys. “He’s the answer that’s blowin’ in the wind even as we speak!”
“Oh yeah?” Discord derided him. “Then how do you explain this?” She marched to Ares’ scrying pond and waved her hand over the waters. Immediately a scene appeared. Hercules, fully formed and very visible, was walking through the woods with that pathetic little jester from the alternate universe. He looked awfully solid as he pushed aside branches and lifted rocks out of his way. “Wha’ d’ ya’ say, Strife? This oughta be good!”
Strife stared open mouthed at the scene. No! It wasn’t possible! Hercules was done for! He looked first at Ares and wished with all his cowardly little heart that he hadn’t. The War God’s face had turned thunderous, a clear sign that some one was about to land in a world of hurt. Strife swallowed hard. It didn’t take a genius to know who that someone would be. He looked pleadingly at Discord.
“I - I don’t understand!” he stammered. “Everything we did! Everything went off like we’d planned! Us! Together! What do you say, Discord? Friends? Truce, hmm? Go team?” Strife tried to add a little laugh but it came out as a dismal squeak.
“Bite me, Baby!” Discord said, her lip curled in disgust. Strife was such a loser! How could Ares not see that? “Ares, your new Number Two is definitely - a number Two! Good luck with him!”
With that she disappeared.
Ares rounded on his incompetent nephew, his dark eyes flashing fire and his face threatening murder.
“You find out what went wrong!” he roared. There was nothing else to say. No instructions were necessary except to say, “You fix it!”
The War God had never been so angry before. He knew that if he stayed in the same universe as Strife for one second longer, he would do something that he would later regret. Therefore, he flashed himself out of his temple and back to Olympus. At least there he could do something to make himself calm down until Strife came up with some kind of remedy for his screw up. Hmm, Apollo seemed to be busy with his chariot and team and Athena was in conference with Zeus over some stupid innovation to a war machine. No help there. He wondered where Aphrodite might be hanging out these days? Now there was an idea. He flashed away to find her.
Back in the great temple, Strife stood bewildered and terrified. Ares would literally have him flayed alive if Hercules lived to see the sunset of this day! How had they lifted the curse so fast? What was going on? He had to get back and make sure the annoying demigod was gone once and for all!
“Don’t worry, Uncle Ares!” he promised the empty temple. “I’m all over this like green on olives!”
Marcus wandered through the village, trying to look like the Head Man he was. Since no one was asking his advice on anything and no one seemed to care what he did or said, it wasn’t an easy task. Somehow he had to reestablish his authority, show everyone that he was still large and in charge. But how? How had he lost control in the first place?
“Hercules treated you like a child, frightened by the dark,” a sneering voice said in his ear.
‘Doesn’t anybody know the meaning of ‘rhetorical question?’ he thought.
Marcus found the owner of the voice, the same old man who had tried to incite a riot earlier in the day. The same old man who had got them all bested by the demigod.
“Leave me alone,” he growled at the old man. “Haven’t you done enough for one day?”
“You had good reason to be afraid,” the old coot continued as if Marcus had not spoken. “You still do.”
“Go away!” Marcus said angrily. “It’s over! The Faders are all cured, and nobody else is gonna die because of that rock or curse or whatever it was.”
“I wish I had your confidence,” the old man sighed.
“Give it a rest, will you?” Marcus said wearily.
“Rest!” the old man barked a laugh. “Rest indeed! You’ll all rest - permanently! - in Hades’ realm if you’re not careful! Mark my words, the worst is yet to come!”
Marcus rounded on the old man.
“What are you talking about?” he demanded. “Hercules broke that rock, the spell was lifted. Problem solved.”
“Oh, you’d like to think that, I’m sure,” the old man said with a knowing smile. “But what do you think will happen when Hercules and his little friend find another stone? That’s what they’re doing right now, headed for the old quarry to root out another cyclops eye.”
“So? He finds another one, has someone else break it and gets the curse lifted off himself before he disappears. What’s that got to do with us? It’s Hercules’ problem now.”
The old man clicked his tongue and shook his head, saddened by the naivete of his neighbour.
“If only that were true!” he sighed sadly. “Hercules is a son of Zeus. Do you really think the king of the Gods will just let this curse on his favourite son slide? I tell you, my friend, once that stone is smashed, it will unleash forces beyond your comprehension!”
This was an angle that Marcus had never considered before. True, Hercules was reputed to be at odds with his father. But - blood was blood. Zeus would not let something like this go unanswered.
“What do you think he’ll do?” Marcus asked nervously. He was no coward, but even the bravest man would think twice before invoking the wrath of the King of the Gods.
“Do you really want to speculate on that?” Strife, in his guise, could feel Marcus’ uncertainty. “Zeus’ powers are unlimited. He could do anything he wants if he decided to seek revenge. I wouldn’t put it past him to wipe this whole town and everything around it off the map. Think about it! Nobody left. Nobody!” Oh, yes! The godling could feel Marcus sway under his influence. All it would take now was a little fine tuning, and the mortal would be putty in his hands. “Think of your responsibilities to the town! You want to keep it safe, don’t you? Keep it prosperous and healthy? But above all, safe! Think of your neighbours and what they would say if they knew you’d let danger come upon them when you could have prevented it!” Almost there! Strife needed just one more little push and -
A group of children ran past, intent on their play. They had been kept indoors for a long time, their mothers fearful that they might contract the fading sickness. Now their youthful energy was spilling over as they raced from place to place, happy to be free. Normally, Strife despised children, but he knew that mortals put great store in the concept of ‘innocence’ and ‘youth.’ It was the very tool he needed for his plan. He leaned in close to Marcus to whisper in his ear.
“Think of the children!”
Marcus swallowed hard. The children! Of course he would do anything to protect the children of the village. It was what he had been trying to do all along. He would save the children! He would be a hero to his neighbours and friends and they would keep him as Head Man forever!
“You’re right!” he shouted. “For the children! Hercules must be stopped! Even if it means killing him!”
Without looking back Marcus ran off to find men to form a posse and hunt down the demigod. This time, neither Hercules nor his friend would escape. They would both die to save this beloved little town!
Strife cackled with glee and transformed back into his own shape. This had been unbelievably easy! Mortals were so much fun to lead around by the nose! He’d have to do this again some time soon. But, oh! Was Hercules in for a surprise when that idiot caught up with him! It was too much! Strife doubled over with laughter.
Discord suddenly appeared in front of him, scowling with disgust. Strife was too surprised to see her at all to decide if her presence were a good or bad thing. Too late, he figured on the latter, but not before the angry little goddess had caught him with a creditable roundhouse right to his glass jaw. Strife went down as though pole axed and Discord stood over his prone body, her arms crossed over her chest.
“Hmph!” she said smugly. “Do me out of a position, will you? We’ll see about that!”
Hercules and the Jester spoke little as they trudged through the forest on their way to the quarry. The demigod had to concentrate on staying visible and felt little inclination to talk. Iolaus was afraid that if he broke his friend’s concentration, Hercules would vanish - poof! - in a cloud of smoke.
Hercules stared straight ahead, totally focused on staying visible while he put one foot in front of the other. He was determined to get to the quarry, find another Eye and somehow take this terrible curse off himself. Come Hades or high water, Strife and Discord would not win! He was concentrating so hard on the task ahead that he did not notice a dip in the trail until too late. He stepped down hard, lost his balance and stumbled. It was not a big tumble, only a slight variation in the rhythm of his stride, but it was enough that, for a second or two, his outline wavered.
Iolaus was instantly alarmed.
“Hercules, how long can you keep this up?” he said worriedly. “It’s been hours since you broke the stone. How much more can you take?”
“As much and as long as I have to,” Hercules answered grimly. “It’s a bit early in the game to give in, don’t you think?”
“But Ria said that her husband faded in less than a day!” Iolaus said. “Even factoring in your half god-ness, you haven’t got a whole lot of time left. Can you hold out long enough to find another stone?”
Hercules wiped his arm across his brow. He could hear the rising alarm in Iolaus’ voice and tried to allay the man’s growing panic.
“I’ll be all right,” he said with a weary smile. “Don’t worry about me! Think about the positive side of this.”
Iolaus tried to think of something encouraging to say, but nothing occurred to him. There just wasn’t an up side that he could see about Hercules fading away to nothing. He glanced at his friend as they walked. Hercules tried to hide his fatigue, but the evidence was pouring down his face.
“You’re sweating!” Iolaus said nervously. “You never sweat! Oh, man, this pulling yourself together is killing you!”
Hercules conceded the point with a shrug.
“Not pulling myself together would kill me, too,” he said calmly. “If I do nothing, I die. If I keep going and find the quarry, I might not die. Not too much of a choice. Either way, I’m not too pleased about this.”
“I should never have given you that rock!” Iolaus said miserably as he stomped along the path. “I should have known you’d do something really noble and heroic. I should have known you wouldn’t spare yourself!”
“Yeah, I’m kinda funny that way,” Hercules said with a wry smile. “But you did the right thing, Iolaus whether you know it or not. Those people would be gone by now if you hadn’t. It was a fair trade.”
“Easy to say. Harder to accept!” Iolaus said angrily. “The cost was your life, and I’m not sure I’m ready to pay that price for doing right. Everything I’ve learned about courage and bravery in this world I learned from you and Iolaus. Oh, gods above! How am I ever going to explain this to him? He’ll never forgive me if he finds out it was my fault that you - that you -“
“Lost a lot of weight all of a sudden?” Hercules said, teasing the jester a little. “Look, don’t worry about Iolaus . If our positions were reversed he would have done the same thing. And whether you know it or not, so would you.”
Iolaus hung his head.
“I’d never be able to do what you’re doing,” he said, ashamed of his own cowardice. “I’m only a jester. A clown, a fool, a buffoon! You guys are the real heros.”
In the midst of all his troubles, Hercules felt only concern for the unhappy man in front of him. Ever since the jester had made the journey to this dimension, he had consciously tried to accept that he was no longer the beaten down whipping boy of a sadistic psychopath. Much of that was an uphill battle. He had made some significant progress, but there was a long way to go before he could believe his true nature.
“You’re as much a hero as Iolaus and I,” Hercules said sincerely. “You’ve seen yourself as a jester for so long that you’re beginning to believe that’s the only thing you are. But it took real courage to leave your old life behind and start all over in a new place. That courage has carried you through your whole life, made you what you are. Iolaus and I have always seen you as a hero who just didn’t know it yet. Once you see yourself that way, that’s what you will become. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that we are who we perceive ourselves to be.”
He began to sway where he stood. The effort to keep himself visible was becoming more strenuous by the minute, especially when his attention was distracted. But he could not allow the Jester to think that he was less than the man Hercules knew him to be.
A chill wind began to blow through Hercules’ frame. He felt himself become lighter, less substantial. His outline wavered, flickered, and finally disappeared entirely. With a cry of “Iolaus!” he was gone.
Iolaus stood with his mouth gaping. What was he to do now?
“Hercules?” he called. “How about perceiving yourself as a person who’s here?” He began to wave his arms through the air, searching for some sign of the demigod’s life. There was nothing.
“Hercules!” he cried, his panic growing by the second. “Where are you? Nonononononono! This is not happening! HERCULES!”
Iolaus cast frantically through the air, trying to find some trace of the vanished man. For several minutes he called and waved his arms because he could not think of anything else to do and he could not stand idle. At last he took firm hold of himself, forced down his panic, and tried to think logically through this problem.
“Okay!” he began. “I gotta think! What did Hercules say to do? Look on the bright side, he said. I can do that! There’s gotta be one, somewhere! Things can’t be all bad, can they? HERRRRRRC! You know what the bright side is? It couldn’t possibly get any worse!”
“Think again, little man!”
Marcus and his henchmen, six men in all, armed with clubs and pitchforks, pushed through the trees to stand in a semicircle around the bewildered jester. They brandished their weapons and made it very clear that they intended to use them, mostly to inflict grievous bodily harm.
Iolaus glanced from man to man, stepping back out of their reach. They advanced on him, never letting him get too far away.
Things were about to get very ugly.
“Me and my big mouth!” he muttered.
Marcus slapped the club he carried against his wide palm. This little worm would not give them much trouble. A few swings with a club, a poke or two with a pitch fork and that would be that. They’d make him give up the half god before he died, though. Again, he did not see any problem. The Jester was afraid of his own shadow.
“Where’s Hercules?” he demanded with a menacing snarl. “Tell us where he is and you’ll die quick. Keep it a secret and this could take a very long time.” He signalled his men to move in closer.
Iolaus thought fast. He had learned to think on his feet around men with weapons, especially when those weapons were about to land on his own head. The best thing to do, he remembered, was to try and diffuse the situation. Get them on his side. Amuse them, maybe. Encourage them to do something positive and helpful.
“You know,” he began conversationally, “I’ve been wondering that myself since he disappeared. Hey! I know! Why don’t we all go and find him?” He smiled widely, nodding his head and catching each man’s eye. He was met with black scowls and angry glares.
This wasn’t working. Time for plan beta: running in terror.
“You guys go that way,” he said, pointing back through the woods as he edged further down the trail, “and I’ll go this way. Whoever finds him first, give a big yell!”
Quick as lightning he turned and ran. Marcus, enraged that their quarry was escaping, let out a battle cry to signal his men to attack. Iolaus, meanwhile, had realized too late that he had run down a false trail and come face to face with a huge dead fall. If he took the time to climb over or work his way around the obstruction, he’d be caught. His only option was to turn and fight, and his only defense was to make them think that he had a defense at all.
“All right!” he cried, turning at bay and taking what he hoped was a fighter’s stance. “You wanna play rough? Bring it on! That’s right! I’m talkin’ a’ you! I’ll take youse all on one at a time!”
He raised his fists, ready to meet the first assailant with as much force as he ever had used in his life. He wouldn’t last more than one punch before they squashed him like a bug, but he’d go down fighting!
One man came within reach. Iolaus squeezed his eyes shut and swung wildly with his right fist. He knew he’d struck nothing but air, because he whirled with the force of his own momentum after meeting no resistance. As he completed his full turn he fully expected to see his opponent advancing on him, murder in his eyes. But what he saw was the first man landing hard on his back, as if some mighty hand had lifted him up and thrown him down. What had happened?
The rest of the posse began swinging and stabbing their weapons. They, too, began to fly through the air, propelled by some unseen force. One man was thrown up into a tree. Another had the club yanked out of his hands, then turned against him. He landed in a heap and lay still. Something was fighting the men. It was stronger, faster, smarter and better trained than they and within a few minutes, all of the assailants lay moaning on the ground, their weapons and their egos broken beyond repair.
Iolaus had watched as this drubbing took place and wondered how he was doing this. There was no one else in the clearing, so he assumed that he was doing the beating. But, if he wasn’t swinging, wasn’t touching anyone and wasn’t moving from where he’d started, how was he doing this? Perhaps this was the work of one of the gods, something like what Aphrodite had done before, but why would they bother? No matter. The thugs were suddenly all taken care of and no one was interested in killing him any more. Time to stop looking that gift horse in the mouth.
“All right, then,” he said, dusting off his hands when the fight was finished. “And let that be a lesson to you all! Don’t mess with me!” The hurt men groaned and moaned where they had landed. All they wanted was for this whole mess to be over.
Iolaus began to pick his way through the fallen men. He could at least give them first aid. Some of them looked as though they’d need at least that.
“Nice work, Buddy!” said a cheerful voice in his ear.
“Thanks,” Iolaus mumbled.
“Hercules?” he asked fearfully. “Is that you?”
“In the flesh,” Hercules answered cheerfully. “Well, sorta,” he corrected himself.
Iolaus began sweeping his arms through the air once more. After all, if he could hear Hercules, then the half god had to be there somewhere.
“Where are you?” he asked.
“Right in front of you. No, a little more to your right. Your other right! That’s it, just a little more , and you’re there.”
“Hercules!” Iolaus said, his relief palpable as he found and grasped the demigod’s hand. “That was you beating up those thugs! I wasn’t imagining things! You really are here! I mean - aren’t you? You’re not - you’re not - I mean, you’re invisible! But I can hear you!”
“Yeah, it sorta looks that way, doesn’t it?” Hercules quipped.
Somehow, it was the wrong thing to say, because Iolaus assumed the worst. Hercules was dead and had come back to haunt him and the rest of humanity until the end of time! Iolaus thought about ghosts and ghouls and things with axes stuck in their craniums. Around and around his head the images whirled until they overwhelmed him and he fainted.
The invisible Hercules looked down at his fallen comrade and shook his unseen head.
“Hmm,” he said. “All things considered, I’d say he took that pretty well.”
Only the birds and beasts witnessed what must have been, particularly to them, a strange sight. A man floated through the air, neither by flapping wings nor through the benefit of any branch or vine. Two foxes, a squirrel and a family of hedgehogs took one look at this curious spectacle and darted into their respective abodes. Their world had shifted into the realm of too weird for them. “You know Iolaus,” Hercules said as he shifted his burden into a more comfortable position, “I think you better lay off the waffles for a while. You’re gettin’ kinda hefty.”
“Come on, Discord!” Strife whined. “Fun’s fun, but this is enough. Let me down!”
Discord sat on a boulder watching as her cousin swayed in the slight breeze. He was suspended from a convenient branch, tied hand and foot and upside down about four feet from the ground. She couldn’t think of a better position for him to be in at that moment.
“Hmmm,” she said, trying to decide. “How can I put this so you’ll understand? No! Not a chance!”
‘But I’m not your enemy!” he cried desperately. He struggled in his bonds but the rope Discord used had been twisted by Hephaestus. His only chance at escape was through the angry little goddess, and he had already tried every trick he could think of.
So far, he was failing dismally.
“Oh really!” Discord said sarcastically. “You’re not my enemy, huh?” She hopped down from the rock and stared angrilly into his face. “Let’s review the facts here, shall we? Somebody, who shall remain forever nameless, is trying to take over my position as Ares’ Number Two. That same somebody took my help and never gave me a word of credit to Ares. And last, but far from least, that very same somebody is a total loser who thinks he’s got enough stuff in him to be second in command to the God of War! Now, I’ll give you three guesses who that somebody might be, and, because I know what an idiot you are, the first two won’t count. You can’t say fairer than that! What’s that? Speak up, don’t be shy! That’s right! It’s you! Strife! So don’t even think that I’m gonna let you go!”
“But I don’t care about Ares!” Strife pleaded. “I just want to get the old me back! I want to be feared and respected the way I used to be before that crazoid Calisto shanked me.”
“Here’s a news flash for you, Strife,” she said wearily. “Nobody ever feared or respected you! And, what’s more, nobody ever will!”
“Discoooooorrrrrrrd!” Strife whined. “Lemme doooooooowwwwwwnnnnn!”
“Who’s gonna make me?” Discord challenged.
Strife was beginning to get frightened. If Discord refused to release him, he might have to stay out in the woods, by himself, all night. Fear of being alone in the dark made him angry enough to try and threaten Discord with the one name to which she might respond. “So help me, Discord, if you don’t let me down right now, I’m telling Ares on you! When he hears about this - he’ll -- he’ll --“
“He’ll what?” Discord demanded smugly.
“He’ll -“ Strife wracked his brains to think just what Ares would do to his annoying cousin. Ares would not take the situation lying down, of that Strife was certain. But, off hand, with his head pointed at the ground, he couldn’t think of anything bad enough that would actually frighten her. He decided to bluff. “I don’t know what he’ll do! But it’s gonna hurt, okay? Just think about that!”
‘That’s tellin’ ‘er!’ he thought.
Discord laughed nastily.
“Strife, you are so pathetic!” she sneered. “I can’t believe you’re such a wuss! I’ve got you tied upside down from a tree branch, and you didn’t put up any more fight than some useless mortal! When Ares finds you, you’ll be lucky if he lets you wash out the latrines in his temple!”
“Nooooooo!” Strife howled. “Discord! Don’t leave me here! Gimme a chance to show you how much we can cooperate! I’ll give you top billing! I’ll be a silent partner! You’ll be the power behind the throne! What more could you want?”
Discord thought about her answer before she gave it.
“I want to see Ares’ face when he finds you like this,” she said. “One look at you trussed up like an amphora on a boat and he’ll send you right back where you belong - running Charon’s boat! In the mean time, somebody has to make sure Hercules stays gone. And if you’re gonna hang around here all day, that somebody will have to be me! How ‘bout that?”
She laughed cruelly and vanished in a cloud of acrid smoke.
Strife felt helpless. He could not break his bonds and he could not slip through the loops holding his arms or legs. Only another god as powerful as Hephaestus could destroy these ropes, and none of them were exactly at Strife’s beck and call. Fearfully he looked around, hoping to catch a sight of his cousin lurking around, gloating over her victory. Nothing. She was gone and he was up a tree.
Although tormenting her cousin had been fun, it had not solved Discord’s immediate problem. In all likelihood, Ares would not change his mind about making Strife his Number Two. That scrawny little pipsqueak was totally wrong for the part, everybody knew that but Ares, so how could she convince him to dump the fool and pick her?
Carefully, she planned her next move. She needed an ally, one that Strife would not expect, therefore could not neutralize before she had him in place. One name came immediately to mind, a man who definitely had a real grudge against both Ares and Strife. He’d be only too happy to mess up their plans, given the chance. Mind you, he had a tendency to play fair and see things in a positive light, two traits that made her grind her teeth in frustration. Moreover, he despised her almost as much as he did Ares and Strife.
However, for Discord to get everything she wanted, she could think of no better ally, in terms of intelligence, strength, persistence, and imagination than her half mortal cousin, Hercules, the son of Zeus.
Now all she had to do was find him and convince him to work with her.
Piece o’ baklava!
“Come on, Iolaus!” Hercules called cheerfully as he gently slapped his unconscious friend. “Rise and shine!”
He had found a grassy patch for the fallen man to lie on, and now he was using the slaps to wake him up. Hercules would have been happy to let him nap out all day, except that time was wasting and he needed the other man’s help.
Slowly, Iolaus regained consciousness.
“OK! OK!” he grumbled testily. “I’m awake! Stop it!”
He rolled over on his side and assessed his physical condition. All digits and limbs present and accounted for. Check. All vital organs functioning. Check. Clothes, boots, belt still available. Check. Aches, pains, minor concussions. Yep, all here.
“Ow,” he said.
“How’s your head?” Hercules asked solicitously. “You got a pretty nasty bump when you fell.”
Actually, his head was pounding like a drum, but the jester rarely complained of physical discomfort.
“It’s all right,” he said off handedly. “It’ll be fine.” All things considered, his head was a minor problem compared with what his friend must be going through. “How about you, Hercules? Are you OK?” A big log floated nonchalantly through the air and came to rest opposite Iolaus. It wobbled and rocked, as the weight of a man settled on it.
“Other than being invisible, I’m fine!” Hercules answered.
“You don’t have much time, do you?” Iolaus asked gently.
He heard the half god sigh.
“Probably not,” Hercules admitted. “That curse was pretty powerful. Dad never did do things by halves when it came to revenge. One of his less endearing traits. Even my heritage won’t be proof against the curse for much longer. Tell you the truth, Iolaus, I’m not so sure I’m gonna get out of this one.”
Iolaus sat up in alarm. He had never heard Hercules talk like this. Ever.
“Hey!” he said with mock sternness. “I’m the one who’s supposed to be negative, remember? You can’t just give up like this!”
“I’m not giving up,” Hercules assured him. “But I also have to know that every time I throw caution to the wind I have to be prepared for the possibility that this could be the last time for me.”
Iolaus cocked his head to one side. Something was off kilter here and he thought he knew what.
“Are you making fun of me?” he asked.
“Maybe,” Hercules said, and Iolaus could hear the smile behind the words. “A little.”
“Good!” Iolaus exclaimed cheerfully. “I’m glad to see you haven’t lost your sense of humour!”
“Umm,” Hercules answered distractedly.
His attention had been caught by something not quite right. The clearing was empty of anyone other than himself and Iolaus, at least to the naked eye, but he knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, they were not alone.
There was a god close by, he could feel it. Where? Aha! Over behind those rocks, creeping up on them, invisible to mortal eyes, but very plain to anyone of divine or semi-divine blood.
Discord! She was playing some sort of twisted game, he was sure. She could watch them from afar and they’d never be the wiser, but this close she must know that he could sense her presence. Whatever she was up to, it meant trouble for him and Iolaus. His best course of action would be to make sure she could not work against them.
“Iolaus,” he said quietly, “keep talking. Pretend I’m still here.”
The log wobbled slightly as Hercules rose from his seat. Iolaus had no idea what was going on, but trusted his friend had good reason for his request. Mentally the former jester shrugged his shoulders and continued his conversation.
“Indubitably, Hercules,” he said, “it would be really difficult to get to sleep when you could see right through your eyelids.”
Discord had worked her way quietly to where she could see and hear everything the two men did. The curse of the cyclops’ eye was such that even a full god could not see the afflicted victim, but she could see that Iolaus was talking animatedly to a log on the ground, and she assumed that Hercules was occupying that space. What was he talking about? Eyelids? What did that have to do with anything? What were those two twits doing about -
“Hey!” Discord cried out as a vicelike grip descended on her arm.
“Hel-lo, Beautiful!” Hercules said as he hauled her to her feet. “Going my way?”
“What are you doing?” Discord struggled uselessly. “Let me go!”
“No,” Hercules said and began to drag her toward where Iolaus sat. He saw no need to be gentle about it, either.
“Lemme go!” Discord had tried to scratch and claw at the big man’s arms, so he had grabbed both of her skinny wrists in one huge hand as he dragged her along. The little goddess’ anger grew the further her cousin forced her to go. How dare he lay hands on her when she had come here to help him! She’d make him pay for this insult! “Let! Me! Go!”
Hercules pushed her the last few steps into the clearing. She stumbled slightly, regained her balance and found herself face to face with Iolaus, who recognized her immediately.
“Discord!” he snarled. “I should have known it was you! If you weren’t a goddess, I’d - I’d tear out your hair by the roots!”
Discord righted herself and smoothed down her disheveled clothes and hair. She sniffed with disdain at Iolaus’ righteous anger.
“Oh, pul-lease!” she said with a sneer. “Tell me you’re not still mad about that little mix up with Triton’s daughter! Get over it! She’s a fish!”
“Nautica is not a fish!” Iolaus retorted, stung at the implied slight to the one woman he had ever loved. “FYI, she’s a mermaid! And what’s more, I loved her! And she loved me and you ruined everything!”
The memory of his hurt over the lovely Nautica was too much and he could not stop himself from lunging at Discord, determined to wipe the sneer off her face. A strong arm caught him in mid flight.
“We don’t have time for this,” Hercules said firmly. “We have to get that stone before too long. Believe me I know how you feel, but for now it is not worth the effort.”
“But Hercules -“
“For crying out loud!” Discord said disgustedly. “Will you get with the program? If I hadn’t given her legs, you never would have met her in the first place! I did you a favour! Speaking of which, I’m here to do you another one. Tell this dimwit I’m on your side!” she said to Hercules.
“The only side you’re on is your own,” Hercules said coldly. “Why should we trust you?”
“Usually true!” Discord conceded the point. “But this time we share an enemy. Strife wants to destroy you to win points with Ares. I want Strife out of the way so I can have more power. So we have a common goal - get rid of Strife!”
“All right, suppose that’s true,” Hercules said, not convinced of anything yet. “What are you offering?”
Iolaus was suspicious of anything offered by Discord.
“Hercules, we don’t need her help!” he said sharply. “We can handle this by ourselves.”
“I know where Strife found the Rock of Argys,” she said. “I can take you right to the place.”
“Bully for you,” Hercules answered. “So can we.”
“Yeah, we figured that out hours ago,” Iolaus added. “See? We don’t need you!”
“Oh, well!” Discord said sarcastically. “Throw off the help of a full goddess against another full god! I’m sure you’ll do just fine! See ya round, Suckers!”
She began to walk away, but Hercules caught her arm once more.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “You may not be much in the way of help, but you’re coming with us anyway.”
“Hercules we can’t trust her!” Iolaus said, alarmed that his friend was serious about including Discord on there expedition.
“All the more reason to keep her where we can see her,” Hercules said as he again dragged Discord, this time to follow the path leading to the quarry. “The quarry’s on the other side of this hill, so come on. The sun’s going down and I don’t think I’ve got much longer than dusk to get another stone eye!”
Strife was becoming more and more desperate. Discord was gone, Ares was nowhere to be found and it was getting darker by the minute. What was he going to do?
“Diiiiiissssscoooooorrrrrd,” he called softly. No answer. “Oh, Diiiiiisssscoooooorrrrd! Come baaaaaaaaack! I’ve got some new ideeeeeaaaaaas!”
His only reply was a breeze that played through his unruly hair.
“DISCORD!” he yelled, trying to sound as decisive as Ares. It didn’t work, but he couldn’t stop himself now. “Get back here this instant and let me down!”
There was still no answer. Strife tried being very quiet for a while, hoping that his cousin was merely hiding and a chance shift in her position would give her away. He listened hard for a full candle mark, but heard nothing.
Wait! Not nothing! But not Discord, either. Something was approaching him, picking its way carefully through the bracken. Something with more than two feet. He twisted his head around and came nose to nose with a doe.
She stared into his eyes, curious about this strange being hanging from a tree. Her black nose twitched as she sniffed him.
“Shoo!” Strife called. The deer leaned closer to him. “Shoo! Beat it! Don’t you do that! No!”
The creature decided the only way to really tell what this thing was, was to taste it. She reached out her head and carefully ran her long tongue over the pink part of the thing. It was interesting, kind of salty. She licked it again.
“Eeeewwwww!” Strife screamed. “Go away! Stop it! Heeeeelllp! Dis! Cord!”
The deer, unconcerned by this diatribe, carefully cleaned all of the salt from Strife’s face that she could reach.
“Will you let go of me?” Discord said, very tired of being manhandled by her brawny cousin. She didn’t like to admit it, but his strength was a bit frightening to her, as well as somewhat exciting. If only he didn’t have that decency thing going on, he’d be someone she could definitely get interested in. “I’m not going anywhere! I told you, I’m on your side and I want to help!”
“Yeah, I know,” Hercules said. “I’m just making sure that it’s us you help and not yourself at our expense. It’s not that I don’t trust you, it’s just that - well - I don’t trust you.”
“Thanks a lot!” Discord said sourly.
“Oh, stop complaining,” Iolaus said. “If we don’t trust you, it’s your own fault! Besides, we’ll let you go once we’ve found another rock and got Hercules back in living colour.”
“That’s the general idea,” Hercules agreed.
“Finding a rock in a quarry!” Discord said sarcastically. “That’s like looking for hay in a haystack! Nothin’ to it!”
“Hey! I thought you were trying to work with us!” Iolaus said accusingly. “What’s with all this negativity? You need to be more of a team player if you want to get along with us.”
Discord shook her head in disgust. This guy could not be for real!
“What is with this ‘team player’ crap?” she cried. “You kidnapped me!”
Iolaus started to snap something back, then thought better of it. She had a point.
“Well - if you want to get technical -“ he began.
Hercules forced down an urge to crack both their heads together. They still had a long way to go and this bickering was using up extra energy they didn’t have.
“Enough!” he shouted.
Discord shut up immediately, then glared mulishly at her cousin. It was not an encouraging sign, Hercules thought. Less so was the indignation evident in Iolaus’ demeanor. This trip was going to be a long one.
“You two are becoming a big fat pain in my invisibility,” he grumbled.
Strife could not get the doe to go away. No matter what he did or said, she was singularly unimpressed. She systematically slurped his face, unconcerned with his dignity or his station in life. He had a taste that pleased her, and that was all she needed to know. She licked his neck and he giggled helplessly as it tickled.
“Stop that! No fair! Woo hoo! Don’t do that! Wait! Stop! Not there! Not there! Not there! Ares! Help! Heeeeeeelllllppp!”
At his summons, Ares appeared in a flash of flame. His fists were resting on his hips and he glared at his stupid fool of a nephew. For a moment he considered throwing fire ball, but it might hit the doe and Ares had a soft spot heart for female deer. Gently, he pushed the animal’s head away from Strife and directed it toward the woods. There were some choice greens growing further under the trees. He gave her the picture in her mind and she happily trotted off to find them. He smiled indulgently at the woodland creature as it disappeared in the shadows.
“Oh, thanks, Uncle!” Strife said, his words tumbling out in his gratitude. “That beast was about to charge me, I just know it! There’s no telling what might have happened when she got really worked up! Now, once I’m down from here -“
“SHUT UP YOU MISERABLE FOOL!” Ares thundered. He shot out a fireball at the godling. It engulfed him, zapping him into silence and destroying the rope in the process. As soon as the glow of the fire ball diminished, Strife plummeted to the ground, head first.
Ares grabbed his nephew by the scruff and hauled him to his feet.
“You said Hercules would be gone by now!” he growled warningly as he heaved Strife away. “Start talking and this better be good!”
“You mean he isn’t?” Strife asked, spitting grass and dirt out and trying to clear mud from his face and eyes. “I mean, Hercules got hit with the curse smack between the eyes! It has to work!”
“Oh, really?” Ares answered, his thick arms folded over his massive chest. “Then what’s that?”
With a wave of his hand, a window appeared that showed Hercules’ recent battle with Marcus and his posse. Strife stared unbelievingly as the invisible demigod waded through the men as if they were not there.
“That’s impossible!” he finally managed to squeak out. “That’s Hercules! And he’s tossing those chumps like yesterday’s lunch!”
“No! Really?” Ares grabbed Strife by the neck. “I am not in the mood for games!” he roared and tossed Strife head first into a tree trunk.
Strife sank to the ground with a groan. This day had started out so well. What had gone wrong? He shook his head to clear it, looked up and saw Ares readying another fireball. Not good!
“Waitwaitwait!” he shouted desperately. “It takes time to fade away completely, even for a mortal! Hercules has the strength of a half god, so it’s taking longer than usual. But don’t worry! It won’t last!” Strife ducked and threw his arms over his head for protection. He peeked out to see Ares watching him warily.
“Are you stalling me?” the war god asked. “I don’t appreciate being stalled, and right now I don’t know anybody who deserves to be fried more than you! Care to comment?”
“Nonononononono!” Strife begged for mercy. Those fire balls couldn’t kill him, but they did hurt. “I mean it! Hercules doesn’t stand a chance! Out of sight, out of mind, remember? He’ll be gone by nightfall! Even if he gets to the quarry, he’ll never find another stone! It took me days to find one and I’m a full god!”
“Yeah, well,” Ares was mollified enough to crumple the fireball into cosmic dust and throw it to the universe. “But don’t forget that Hercules is not alone. He’s got that annoying little clown with him. I don’t much like him, but I’ve got to admit, he’s useful in his way.”
“Then I’ll get rid of him!” Strife said eagerly. “Yeah! That’s what I’ll do! I’ll grab him! I’ll smash him! I’ll tear him apart! I’ll rip out his eyeballs and suck out his brain!”
Ares considered his options for a moment.
“Hmmm,” he said thoughtfully. “I like that last one. Yeah, do that. The brain sucking thing. Promise?” Strife nodded enthusiastically. “Good. Go.”
The two gods smiled conspiratorially at each other, then disappeared.
It was the last leg of their journey and the most difficult. The quarry was at the bottom of a valley, but to reach the top of the valley they had to use a rocky path that snaked up a steep incline. There were few hand holds and the rocks underfoot slid and rolled alarmingly.
Discord had used her powers to easily skip up the path. She now sat at the top, jeering at Iolaus who found the climb more arduous than a full day’s worth of stunts for the Sovereign’s pleasure.
“I shouldn’t be doing this with my delicate nature,” he grumbled. “Any minute now I’m gonna fall and break my neck.”
“The quarry’s just over this ridge,” Discord called down to him. “Keep going, you’ll make it.”
“I could use a hand, here,” Iolaus called up. “How about making yourself useful?”
“What do I look like to you?” Discord snorted. “A social worker? Move your ass, lazy bones!”
Iolaus reached out to grab a rock for support, missed and began to slide down hill. Frantically, he scrabbled at the slope, trying to gain purchase, but he only slid faster on the loose gravel. Suddenly strong hands caught his tunic and pulled him up.
“Up we go!” Hercules said encouragingly. “Not far now. You’re almost there. Just test each foot and hand hold before you move on.” “Thanks,” Iolaus said as they reached the top. He couldn’t see his friend, but Hercules’ presence was enough to give him the determination to keep going. “I could have killed myself back there!”
“You were doing fine without me,” Hercules said. “Just don’t let her get to you. It gives her more power over you than she deserves.”
“See?” Discord chided Iolaus. “Told you you could do it yourself. And look! The quarry, right where you both said it would be and bigger than life. Now all we have to do is find another stone eye! Shouldn’t be too hard, right?”
Hercules’ voice was flat as he surveyed the quarry. It was big, bigger than he had imagined.
“Looks like we came to the right place,” he said.
Iolaus stood beside him, staring out over the acres of rocks and stones. His heart sank How were they ever going to find the right ones amongst all those wrong ones?
“Yeah,” he said grimly. “It’s the right place all right. Couldn’t be more right if it tried. Well, let’s get started!” He clapped his hands and began to climb down towards the quarry. “Man, just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse!” he muttered.
But Discord heard him and inwardly cheered at her triumph.
“They do!” she crowed. “Told ya so!”
Marcus limped toward his home, followed by his posse. Of the six, only one was not limping and that was because they had been obliged to carry him, unconscious, on a litter. He had learned the hard way that even invisible demigods do not like being hit from behind with a club. Nope, they didn’t like it at all. They tended to hit really hard when you did that. Klytus was likely to be out of commission for a week.
The Head Man looked back at his followers and shook his head in sympathy. All any of them wanted right now was to forget this whole incident. Hercules was gone, the curse was lifted, and their little village could get back to normal. People would pick up the pieces of their lives, forgiveness would be asked and granted, and life would go on.
They were only a few miles from home when a familiar voice accosted them from the side of the dirt track.
“Crawling back with your tails between your legs, I see!” sneered the old man. “You again!” Marcus said disgustedly. “Go away!”
“I don’t think so!” the old man huffed. “Hercules and his little friend are still alive. It’s only a matter of time before they find the cyclops’ eyes and bring the curse down on you all!”
But Marcus had promised himself and the others that they would not tangle with the demigod again. So far they had aches, sprains, bruises and a few black eyes. Except for the hapless Klytus, nobody had suffered anything too serious. One more encounter with semi-divine strength and all that could change in a big hurry. No way.
“Forget it,” he growled. “We’ve had enough. My head hurts, and everybody else is in just as bad shape. We just want to go home. It’s over.”
“Then you’re doomed!” the old man shrieked. “Doomed to fade away until there’s nothing left of you but the crying wind! There won’t even be anybody left to tell the tale! You’ll all be gone and forgotten! And what’s worse, you’ll have no one to blame but yourselves!”
Marcus froze. The men following him came to an uneasy stop. They glanced at each other nervously. All of them had seen at least one of their neighbours slowly disappear and none of them wished to suffer the same fate.
Strife in his guise felt the elation of knowing he had them. He pressed his advantage.
“Is that how you want to die?” he shrilled. “To become less than a ghost? A lonely spirit in the underworld?”
The men shifted uncomfortably and didn’t seem to know what to do with their hands. Such an ignominious death would never do. How would Hades receive them? Surely they would not get to the Elysian Fields if death by disappearing was their fate. There had to be something they could do. One by one they looked to Marcus for guidance.
Marcus squirmed under their scrutiny. Was there some way he could restore their honour, defeat the demigod and negate the curse all at once? He didn’t think so, but the old man, who had been goading them all day, seemed to know a lot. Marcus eyed the chubby little man suspiciously. Maybe this annoying gadfly could earn his keep by advising them on their next move.
“Less than ghosts, huh?” he said. The old man nodded eagerly. Marcus squared his shoulders and pulled himself to his full height.
“Where are they?”
“Is it done?”
Ares sat sprawled on his throne, one arm draped over the arm of the chair. A big black cat sat curled on his lap and purred loudly as the God of War stroked its glossy fur. Ares had discovered that sitting like that helped him to think. The steady rumbles of the cat’s purring and the soft texture of its fur helped to calm his nerves. He always came away from a session of cat stroking feeling relaxed and focused. Afterward he could plan battles for hours without losing his concentration once.
‘Useful creatures, cats. Why didn’t I get them in here years ago? Can’t understand Strife’s problems with them.’
Strife appeared in his guise as the old man, but swiftly transformed into the youthful image he preferred. He felt pretty good, all things considered. It had been surprisingly easy to persuade Marcus and his little buddies to back track to the old quarry and off Hercules. Thinking about the whole incident had given him one of his rare moments of insight.
“I think I’m beginning to understand mortal men!” he announced to his uncle. “They are such simple creatures, I can’t think why I didn’t get this before. All you have to do is call their pride or their ego or their masculinity into question and they’re putty in your hands! You can make them do anything if they think it’ll make them look more manly!”
Ares gently lifted the cat from his lap and placed it on the floor as he rose from his seat. He sighed ruefully. ‘No duh!’ he thought.
“Very good, Strife,” he said out loud as he dusted off his hands. “It’s only taken you about a thousand seasons to figure that one out. But do keep working at it. Just think, in another millennium or two you might even be ready to tackle dog training.”
But Strife was not listening. He was staring off into the distance, pondering his new-found knowledge. Mortal men really were easy targets, once you got the formula down pat. However, there was something else about mortals that had him stumped.
“Now mortal women,” he said, as if his uncle had not spoken. “Mortal women don’t fit into any pattern that I’ve ever been able to pin down. They’re an entirely different story. One minute they’re on your side, can’t do enough for you. The next they tear your throat out with their finger nails. I’ve tried and I’ve tried to make sense of them, but nothing adds up!” He frowned in frustration, and finally threw back his head and wailed, “I Just Don’t Get It!”
“Ah, Strife,” his uncle’s sympathetic voice was in his ear as a companionable arm draped across his shoulder. “Don’t sell yourself short on this one. You don’t get any women, mortal or divine!”
Strife was cut to the quick. He wasn’t that bad, was he? He drew himself stiffly to his full height. “All right Mr Big Bad God of War!” he began with mock reverence. “If you understand women so well, you explain them!” Too late Strife recognized that his tone was none too respectful. Too late he remembered that one did not taunt the God of War with impunity. He hoped that it was not too late to make amends.
“That is - I mean - Mr. God of War - Sir! Your Powerfulness!” In desperation, Strife kowtowed low, trembling all over as he fully expected to be blasted through the closest wall. Ares was a volatile type and techy when it came to proper forms of address.
“Hmph!” Ares grunted, mollified by the display of obeisance. If there was one aspect of Strife that hadn’t been lost during his tenure in the Underworld, it was in his unerring ability to toady up to the boss.
“That’s better,” Ares said, dragging his nephew to his feet. “I suppose it’s time I did share some of my hard-won knowledge of mortal women. After all, one day you may actually meet one that can stand you for more than five minutes and you’d better be ready to step up to the plate. Can’t have you disgracing the family by a poor show.” He draped his arm once more across Strife’s shoulder, his fingers digging painfully into the younger god’s arm. “Now the secret to understanding women, specifically mortal women, is that they don’t actually need men. From everything I’ve ever observed, or experienced about them, they’re smarter, stronger, more logical and more creative than men will ever be. Are you with me so far?” Strife nodded his head vigorously. “Good! Now, if women ever figure this out, it will be a very sad day indeed because that will be the day that men lose the upper hand completely! Can you imagine a world in which women realize just how much they can do for themselves? If they were ever to figure out how capable they are? It’d be chaos!”
“How so?” Strife asked, confused. “I mean, if women are more capable than men, why not let them have at it? What harm could it do?”
Ares smacked him hard upside the head.
“Are you crazy?” he demanded. “We’d have women running the whole show! What would happen to armies if the generals actually gave serious thought to the consequences before going to war? That’s what would happen if they were all women! How could we have stable governments if there was actually a social conscience behind it? Women would introduce that big time! Men would never be able to rule the roost again! That’s not the world I want to be God of War in, no sirree Bob! So we must never - NEVER - let them use tools or take out the garbage or open their own doors! Do you get it now?”
Strife pondered all he had heard for a moment.
“I - I think so, Unc,” he said carefully. “So, that ‘s the secret? Keep them thinking they can’t do certain things so they won’t try?”
Ares shrugged his shoulders.
“Pretty much, yeah. Think you can handle it?”
“Keep ‘em where you want ‘em and never let ‘em know any different. Yeah, I think I can do that, no problem!”
“Good!” Ares said heartily and clapped Strife on the back. Suddenly he grabbed the godling by the chin and lifted him up with one mighty hand. His dark eyes glared daggers as Strife struggled to breath. “What I’ve just told you is to be kept to yourself. A secret to be guarded more closely than anything else in your miserable life! Nobody else would ever dare to let it slip, so if it ever gets out, I’ll know who told!” He gave his nephew a final shake before dropping him unceremoniously to the floor.
Strife sat up and met Ares’ stern face. He was still shaken by this sudden change in the tension of the room, but knew he had to comply with what was expected in this situation.
“My lips are sealed!” he assured his uncle, and pulled his forefinger and thumb across his tightly closed mouth for emphasis.
Ares nodded and folded his brawny arms.
“With something this big, they’d better be!”
“This is hopeless!” Discord whined. “There must be a million rocks here! We’ll never find the right one!”
She, Iolaus and Hercules had been searching for hours in the quarry, trying to spot the distinctive markings that identified the cyclops’ eyes. The rocks were becoming heavier and heavier the longer she worked, she had broken three fingernails and nobody seemed to care or notice that this was work more suited for a mortal peasant than a goddess. She growled with frustration when yet another nail snapped at the quick.
“This just keeps getting better and better,” she groused sourly.
Iolaus tried to encourage her. He didn’t like Discord, or trust her at all, but they were working together and that meant that he had to keep her going at her best effort.
“If Strife could find one, we can find one,” he stated firmly as he systematically worked through a pile of rocks in front of him.
“Who knows how long he looked?” Discord challenged. “And what if the one he found is the only one left intact after all this time? It’s been a long time since that rebellion. What if all the others were destroyed ages ago? What if this isn’t even the right place? What if -“
Discord had built up a full head of steam and was not about to be stopped with anything short of a divine blast. “What if you just shut up!” Iolaus shouted at her, goaded into exasperation with the little goddess. Before she could answer or make another comment, he continued. “Can you do that? Just shut completely up? You are the most negative person I’ve ever met! And coming from me, that’s saying a lot!”
“I’m not negative!” Discord protested, stung. “I’m realistic! Everything I’ve said is true! This is hopeless! There are a million rocks here! We don’t know how long Strife looked! What’s not the truth?”
Iolaus had taken all he was willing to take. Sometimes, you just had to put your foot down with some people or they’d walk all over you! If he didn’t find some way of shutting Discord up, she’d drive him crazy with her whining and complaining.
“Look,” he said. “You can sit here and gripe, or you can help me look for the stone. One or the other, not both. Either way, SHUT THE HECK UP!”
Discord sat back and pouted, her arms folded tightly against her chest, like a child refusing to eat vegetables.
“I’ll sit here and gripe, thankyouverymuch,” she sulked.
“Fine!” Iolaus shouted at her huffily, then went back to his search.
He figured he could get twice as much done without her help than he could with her not carrying half the load. She refused to do any work, no matter how important it might be. Even for a god, Discord was pretty nigh useless, he decided. Whiney, snivelling, lazy, mean spirited, bi-“
“OW!” he screamed as he accidently banged his finger between two rocks.
Discord shook her head and gazed heavenward with a long-suffering sigh.
“Why in the world did I ever agree to help you two bozos?”
Iolaus cradled his sore hand to his chest, waiting for the pain would pass. He dared not speak least his speech turn into more screams of pain, but as soon as he trusted himself to say something, he was going to give Discord a long over-due piece of his mind! Before he could utter a word, however, Hercules interrupted.
“Hey!” he called. “Over here!”
“Where?” Iolaus answered, looking all around. It was no picnic trying to hold a conversation with an invisible person.
“Heeeere!” Hercules called impatiently.
Iolaus and Discord exchanged glances. Discord shrugged. She couldn’t see the demigod either.
“Where here?” Iolaus demanded.
“Here here!” Hercules said. As he spoke, two rocks, each bearing the tell-tale, baleful eye, floated in front of his companions.
Iolaus whooped with triumph.
“Ha! Now who’s being a realist!” he cried. “You found them! How’d you do that?”
“Ah, ah!” Hercules pulled the stones away as Iolaus reached out to touch them. “Look, don’t touch. It doesn’t matter how I did it, only that I did it. What we have to do now is plan our next move.”
“Which is -“ Iolaus prompted.
“When Hercules smashed the rock of Argys he took on the cyclops’ curse,” Discord explained. “All we have to do now is find someone to do the same for him.”
“Oh,” Iolaus said, crestfallen.
“Just how good a friend are you?” Discord asked him snidely.
Before he could answer, Hercules spoke up.
“I won’t let anyone make that kind of trade,” he said firmly. “There has to be another way.”
“There is no other way!” Discord said. “The only way out of this for you is to put the curse on someone else.”
“Not an option.”
“That’s how it works. You either get someone else to take the fall or you fade away to nothing! Like you said, Zeus doesn’t do this kind of thing by half. If you’re not gonna play by the rules, it’s hopeless!”
“Come on, look at the bright side!” Iolaus interjected. He could feel Hercules suddenly fix him with a cynical look. Discord didn’t bother hiding her disdain for such naivete. “Hercules,” he said after an uncomfortable moment, “what is the bright side to this?”
“I’m thinkin’, I’m thinkin’!” Hercules said.
Pebbles and small stones began to slide down the hill all around the trio. Very quickly, the falling rocks were big enough to be dangerous and it was obvious that a major rock slide was imminent.
“Avalanche!” Iolaus called in alarm.
“Run for cover! Over there!” Hercules grabbed Discord and Iolaus by the arm and propelled them both toward an old mine shaft.
After that they needed little encouragement to move. The rocks were moving faster and the boulders were getting bigger. As he reached the shelter of the mine, Iolaus hoped that Hercules had been able to save himself. He suspected that invisibility did not protect against being smashed to pieces in a land slide. As soon as the ground had stopped sliding, he cautiously looked out to assess the damage.
“See anything?” Discord asked.
“Just a whole lot of new rocks,” Iolaus replied. “I don’t see Hercules anywhere.”
“Huh! Big surprise!”
“Will you stop it? Hey, wait a minute!”
“What are those guys doing here?”
He had been looking all around the quarry, trying to find some sign of Hercules and had happened to look up on top of the ridge.
“It’s those guys who attacked us on the road!” he exclaimed. “They’re the ones starting the rock slide! Why are they after us?”
A familiar voice next to him said,
“Maybe we should ask them?”
Discord had come out of the shelter and was looking up to where the townsmen had set up their camp. In amongst them was what appeared to be an elderly little man who was chivvying the rest of them to greater efforts in pushing rocks down the quarry walls. Discord clenched her little hands into tight fists. Oh, she was going to enjoy this! She reached out to take on of the rocks that Hercules held.
“Mind if I take one of those?” she said. Actually, whether he minded or not, she was going to snatch one away and use it against Strife. But Hercules jerked the stones away from her grasp.
“Ah, ah, ah!” he said. “Don’t touch!”
Discord stamped her foot and perched her fists on her hips.
“Look, Hercules,” she said impatiently. “We both know how much I hate you. But right now, stopping Strife is way more important to me. If I don’t act now, he’s going to get away. Now, gimme the damned rock!
Hercules hesitated for only a moment before he handed one of the Rocks of Argys to his cousin. She grabbed it with a cry of glee and disappeared.
“How could you trust her?” Iolaus demanded. “You know she’s up to something!”
“Yeah, I know,” Hercules replied and Iolaus could hear the shrug in his voice. “But you can always trust the gods to act in their own interests. She really does want to get back at Strife for something. Besides, I only need one stone to get what I want. Why don’t you wait here? And keep the last Rock of Argys safe. I’ll be right back.”
“Wait! Wait! Hercules!” Iolaus called frantically. He could no longer hear the demigod nearby and immediately felt vulnerable and unsafe. “Where are you going? What should I do?”
His answer came as rocks began to slide down the quarry again, and more were threatening to follow them.
“Run and hide!” Iolaus muttered. “Good plan!”
He turned to retreat further into the mine shaft, and ran smack into a large, immovable object. It was solid, covered in smooth skin and oddly yielding and warm to the touch. Iolaus felt his heart sink as he raised his face to see what he had run into. The skin he touched was distressingly akin to leather clothing. His eyes travelled upward, and he saw flashes of silver studs, set into the leather. At last he saw what he most dreaded: the swarthy, sneering face of the mighty God of War.
With a triumphant laugh, Ares grabbed the jester by the collar of his tunic and hoisted him effortlessly into the air until their eyes were level. Iolaus cringed at the unholy malice that met his gaze. Ares laughed harder and shook the helpless mortal in his grasp.
“Plans?” he sneered. “You want plans? Wait’ll you get a load of mine!”
Hercules could see Marcus and his posse on the top of the ridge, levering a boulder into position to drop it down on whoever happened to be below. He wished he could climb faster, but the pitch of the slope slowed his efforts. Every second he spent climbing brought disaster closer for his friend taking refuge in the mine shaft. If that boulder hit, Iolaus could not avoid it crushing him, or bringing down the weight of the whole cliffside in its wake (which would accomplish the same thing).
The trouble was that he could not see where his hands were, although he could feel them. He never realized just how much he depended on seeing where all his appendages were to pick out the best trail. By concentrating all his attention on what he was doing, he managed to keep from falling. But, since he was invisible, he kept missing the best handholds and footholds. Sometimes only by inches, but it was enough to make him slip and slide more than normal. Consequently, his climb was agonizingly slow.
He glanced up once more. To his alarm, the boulder was almost to the edge. With very little effort, the men working could tip it and Iolaus was doomed. Hercules redoubled his efforts.
Time was running out.
Strife, in his old man’s disguise, howled with laughter at the sight before him. Marcus and his band of halfwits were ready to drop a rock on the jester and (hopefully) Hercules. Even if they missed, Hercules himself was faded to invisibility and would shortly be just so much hot air. Ares had picked Strife over Discord to be his second in command and, as soon as the demigod was gone, would confirm that appointment. Discord herself was powerless to stop his rise to power.
“It doesn’t get any better than this!” he chortled as the mortal crew coaxed their boulder closer to the edge. He hugged himself tightly, unable to contain his glee any other way.
“You think so, huh?” Discord demanded as she manifested beside him. “Think again, airbrain!”
With surprising strength she grabbed her cousin by both shoulders and shook him until his teeth rattled and he morphed into his regular guise of a tall, skinny, sallow-faced youth. Discord shook him harder, until his head was waving back and forth on his scrawny neck as if there were no bones to hold it in place.
“Diiiiiiiissssscooooorrrrrrrddddd!” he tried to call to her, desperate to reason with her before she shook him apart. “Wwwwwwwwhaaaaaattttttttt aaaaaaaarrrrrrrre yyyyoooooooouuuuu dddddddoooooooiiiiiinnnnnnng?”
“Leveling the playing field!” she growled as she dropped him to his knees. “Hold this!”
The Rock of Argys was suddenly clutched in her hand and she threw it into Strife’s midriff hard enough to make him double over.
“Now, drop it!” she ordered, and backhanded him as hard as she could. (Way harder than she needed to, Strife thought later.)
Strife flew back and landed on his butt. The stone flew out of his hands and smashed against a stone anchored into the cliff side, shattering on impact. He stared in horror as the curse of the Rock, released to work its power, rose from the rubble and hovered in the air.
“NO! NOOOOOOOO!” he wailed as the ghostly apparition began to soar around the quarry, seeking its prey.
But his protest was too late. The curse, with unerring accuracy, homed in on Hercules and plowed into him with the force of a north wind. For a second, the demigod was bathed in an unholy light before his outline began to reappear. With a flash, the effect of the curse was lifted from him, and was reabsorbed by the demon from the Rock. It shrieked with rage, then zeroed in on the creature that had broken its grip and bore down on the hapless Strife.
Strife thought fast. There was no way to avoid the curse, it was directed by Zeus. It could be neither reasoned with nor stopped. Discord had probably been planning this end all along, and was even now laughing at him. Well, he’d see who had the last laugh. He launched himself at his cousin and wrapped his long arms around her in a tight bear hug.
“What are you doing!” Discord yelled, struggling to be free. “Let go of me! Get off! Lemme go!”
Strife hung on with grim determination until the curse struck them both with all its fury. They glowed fiercely for a second, then both winked out of sight. Strife finally began to cackle maniacally.
“It worked! It worked!” he gloated.
“Strife! You idiot!” Discord screamed.
But the crazed godling only laughed harder and all Discord could do was fume as she heard him dancing on the stones.
As soon as the curse had been lifted Hercules raced up the side of the cliff. He pulled himself over the edge of the quarry just in time to see Marcus and his posse about to tip the boulder down into the pit.
“This is gonna be close,” he muttered. “Better not spook them, though, they might do something rash.” He walked up behind Marcus and tapped him on the shoulder. Marcus thought it was one of his posse distracting him from his work and whirled to tell the man off, only to be met by the smiling face of none other than Hercules himself.
“Hi there!” he said cheerfully. “Can you see me?”
“Uuuuuhhh -“ Marcus began. He swallowed hard. “Y-y-y-y-y-yeah -“
“Ah!” Hercules nodded with satisfaction. “Just checking on that one. Were you guys really gonna try to drop that ol’ rock down on my head?”
“Er - well - that is -“ Marcus was still having trouble completing a sentence, especially face to face with the man he had been intent on killing not two minutes ago. It was one thing to rain death down on a faceless, invisible enemy. It was quite another to get up close and personal with that same enemy. Belatedly, he remembered that this same enemy was also a half god. Marcus had a very bad feeling about this.
Hercules leaned causally against the rock the henchmen were still pushing into position. The demigod was moving the rock where he wanted it without any visible effort on his part, while the other men, all strong men, were sweating and trembling from exertion and still losing ground.
“You know, that wasn’t a rhetorical question,” Hercules said as the rock slid further away from the edge. “I really do want to know what you guys were up to just now. So, were you really trying to push this rock down on my head?”
The men pushing against him were becoming more frightened by the moment. They had fought Hercules before and had escaped with some minor injuries and a few crushed egos. Word from the bards was that the demigod hit a lot harder if he had to fight you a second time. Something about having to repeat himself frustrated him to no end. The townsmen exchanged a few glances. As one, they looked into Hercules’ face and all shook their heads vigorously. Hercules smiled benignly at them.
“No?” he asked. “No, you weren’t contemplating murder? Or ‘No’ you don’t want me to roll this rock back over your bodies and crush you all into jelly?”
The men shook their heads until Hercules thought they’d detach from their bodies. He fought the urge to giggle at their antics. Bullies really were ridiculous creatures when their own skins were threatened. Ordinarily, he had little sympathy for them, but in this case, they were just a bunch of misled yahoos reacting to a crisis. He decided to cut them a break.
“I’ll give you a hint,” he said, leaning over the rock to whisper conspiratorially to them. “This is the part where you guys scream and run.”
The henchmen needed no further prompting. Seconds later, there was no one left at the cliff edge but Hercules and Marcus, who stood mouth agape, clenching and unclenching his fists in agitation. Hercules straightened up and dusted off his hands. Casually, he approached the trembling man.
“Are you really gonna stand there and let me beat the crap out of you?” Hercules asked. “‘Cause that’s what I was planning to do to you. You did try to kill me, after all. But, I’m kinda tired from climbing that cliff so I’ll tell you what. You take off after your friends, screaming in terror, and we’ll call it a day. How about it?”
Marcus was no coward. He had gained his position as much for his courage as for his abilities as a leader. He was also stubborn and proud and he felt that his manhood was being called into question again. He raised his chin defiantly and stepped forward.
“You haven’t won, Half-god!” he declared. “I’ll be back! You won’t be dragging me and mine to the underworld with you! We’ll make sure that you -“
‘I really hate repeating myself,’ Hercules mused. Marcus was shouting threats and imprecations, shaking his fists in the air and generally making a spectacle of himself. ‘Don’t these guys ever learn?’
He backhanded Marcus hard enough to send the man sailing through the air to land with a thud against a flat rock some twenty paces away. He lay on the ground groaning about the deep bruises and addled wits he was suffering.
Hercules surveyed the scene carefully before he left to see how Iolaus was faring. There was no one left to offer any resistance or trouble, so it was safe to head back down the quarry. With the departure of the posse and their leader all busted up, the story seemed to have ended. The Faders were cured, their curse lifted, the only other Rock of Argys was safely in Iolaus’ possession and Strife and Discord were, for the moment at least, neutralized until they could petition Zeus to have the curse lifted. All in all, another job well done with no messy loose ends.
“HERCULES!” Iolaus cried frantically from the quarry. “We’ve got a problem here!”
Hercules paused before he began his descent.
“Okay. One messy loose end.”
Iolaus tried very hard not to struggle.
Not an easy task when he was dangling by the neck from the fist of a War God. He’d had time for one quick warning shout when Ares had grabbed him, but now he disciplined himself into being limp as a rag doll. What he wanted to do was to kick, scream, and tear at the hand that held him a prisoner until he gained his freedom. But years of experience with the violence-prone Sovereign had taught him that, in this situation, the less he fussed, the quicker the punishment ended. Ares was not the Sovereign, but he had that same, crazed expression in his dark brown eyes; the one that said, “I’m going to enjoy watching you die in a really painful manner.”
Ares raised the helpless jester higher and giggled evilly as the small man’s eyes began to pop from lack of air. This was kinda neat! Every time he tightened his fingers, the eyes bulged a little more. Of course, it would be more entertaining if the little jerk would start kicking and screaming, but for now this was good. Besides, very soon Hercules would be gone, gone, gone and Ares could finally rid his world of both Iolauses without any interruptions. After that the world was completely his oyster. Now that was cool! He laughed out loud at the thought. How could this day get any better?
“I want you to see this, Bro!” Ares called. “One flick of the wrist and your buddy’s neck snaps! Then we both get to watch him thrash around like a dead chicken. Now, as much fun as that would be for me, I’m willing to forego that pleasure in exchange for the Rock of Argys. I know you’ve got at least one of them, so hand it over and save your little friend!”
A heavy hand suddenly grabbed the War God’s shoulder and spun him around. Momentarily startled, he dropped his victim. At first, Ares thought it might be Discord horning in on his sport, and he was prepared to blast her for interrupting him. To his surprise, he found himself face to face with his hated half brother.
“Well, lookee who’s back!” he said sarcastically.
“With a vengeance,” Hercules growled. “I should have known you were behind all this. Strife isn’t smart enough and Discord hasn’t got the planning chops. This kind of cowardice has you stamped all over it!”
“Ah, now, Bro, don’t be like that,” Ares said, wheedling the half god to be reasonable. “The kids didn’t do that badly after all and they did get me most of what I wanted. Besides, I’m having such a good time!”
Like a snake striking out, Ares punched his brother hard enough to knock him back twenty paces.
“Hmph! How ‘bout that? It just got better!” he crowed as Hercules picked himself up from the ground.
“Prepare to have your perfect day spoiled!” he snarled.
Ares beckoned his half brother forward.
“Bring it on, Bro!”
The fight got dirty after that.
God and half-god traded punches, each one more powerful, more deadly than the last. Ares managed to kick Hercules’ legs out from under him, then began to rain blow after blow down on the fallen man’s head. It was several seconds before Hercules recovered enough to block the god’s flying fists and get in a few knocks of his own. When Ares tried to smash his head between two rocks, it was all Hercules could do to fend off the attack. At one point, he managed to catch hold of Ares’ arms, which gave Hercules the opportunity to throw him over his head and flat on his back.
As soon as he landed, Ares jack-knifed himself back to his feet then redoubled his attack. There was no way he was allowing anyone short of a Titan to throw him around like that! He picked up as big a boulder and lunged at Hercules, intent on squashing his head. Hercules was equally determined that he would not succumb to a divine attack. He bunched up his fist and drove it into the rock, shattering it into sand. With that out of the way, he followed up by punching Ares hard enough to send him sailing through the air.
It didn’t take Hercules long to realize that this fight could go on for ever. Neither he nor Ares had a clear advantage, for they were physical equals in strength. Both could give as good as they got and neither would give in. Where they differed was in stamina. As a god, Ares would not tire, whereas Hercules mortal blood would eventually render him too weary to continue. Then, Ares would move in for the kill.
‘How am I gonna win this one?’ Hercules thought desperately.
Brute strength alone would not win the day. He needed more strategy, less punches. When Ares threw a particularly telling jab, Hercules grabbed his arm and held on for all he was worth. Swiftly, he snatched up a fist-sized stone and began to flail with it at the War God. Again and again he struck Ares across the head, punishment that would leave an ordinary mortal dead. With one arm immobilized and the blows coming faster than he could avoid, Ares was disoriented. It was a fleeting advantage, but Hercules took what he could get. He put everything he had into one punch to Ares’ jaw, and the force of the blow threw the War God back against the rocks where he lay still.
As a full god, Ares could call upon powers that his half-brother simply did not have. If he were to use all he had against Hercules, Ares could kill him. All that prevented this was Zeus’ edict against one god killing another. However, whenever Ares and Hercules fought, Hercules invariably got angrier and angrier with each passing moment. The angrier he became, the more strength flowed through his muscles. It was a fact of life that the half god had long since learned to accept. It also meant that, eventually, he would meet and surpass his divine relative for physical power. Therefore, every time Hercules and Ares met in combat, Hercules would win.
For some reason that Hercules could not fathom, Ares had never put two and two together on that issue. It was enough to make the half god’s blood boil.
He tossed away the rock he had used and advanced to where his brother lay, intending to deliver the final blow. This time he was going to knock the War God into the moon!
“I am so sick and tired of wiping the floor with you, Ares!” he shouted angrily. “I’m beginning the think you’re some kind of masochist. Don’t you ever learn?”
Ares had pulled himself groggily to his feet. He stared at Hercules and his eyes suddenly narrowed.
“What did you call me?” he demanded.
“Jeez, Ares!” Hercules exclaimed. The guy couldn’t be that dumb! “You live on the same street as Athena! Borrow a few scrolls, for Zeus’ sake! Look it up! I called you a masochist!”
Ares stopped and pondered the epithet for a moment.
“Ya know?” he said thoughtfully, “I kinda like the sound of that! ‘Masochist’, huh? Any fun at parties?”
“You’re kidding me, right?” Hercules asked incredulously.
“Yeah, I am,” Ares admitted. Playfully he scooped up a fist sized rock and tossed it in the air. “Let’s rock!” he said with an evil smile.
Without warning he threw the rock at Hercules’ head. The demigod barely had time to snatch up a plank of wood and bat the rock away. Unfortunately, Ares seemed to have remembered that he had more than one power at his disposal, and was nonchalantly willing rocks to his hand and throwing them as fast as he could think, which was plenty fast enough, Hercules decided after he had batted a few more rapid fire pitches.
The tables had turned. Ares could keep up this game as long as he wanted. By using his godly powers to lift the stones and enhance his throw, he was expending minimal effort while demanding maximum effort from Hercules to counter his attack. With each pitch he advanced a step, closing the gap between himself and his hated half-brother. Once they were face to face, he could start doing some real damage without killing the body. The prospect made his smile broader as he stepped closer and closer.
Hercules backed up as much as he could, but he had limited room to maneuver. Neither did he dare to glance around to find a more defensible position. Ares’ aim with those stones was deadly accurate; if he missed hitting one, he would be seriously injured, probably maimed for life. Each and every stone had to be batted away. He knew he was strong, and getting stronger by the minute as his anger grew, but he also knew that he had a mortal streak in him that would eventually cause him to tire.
And at that point, he was dead.
Iolaus watched the battle from the sidelines, hidden behind a wall of rock. At first, it looked like Hercules was going to win. Ares was beaten back and facing Hercules in all his wrath. But just as the fight seemed to be finished, Ares rallied, and this time the odds were favouring him. With growing desperation the jester watched as the War God gained step after dangerous step on his brother. From everything he had seen and learned in this world, things would not turn out well for anyone if Ares destroyed Hercules.
But what could he, the court jester for the Sovereign, do to turn the tide? He was no warrior, had not learned the art of fighting. He couldn’t even deliver a decent punch without hurting his own hand. He was agile and quick, but had always known that fisticuffs were best left to those with more aggressive natures and bigger muscles.
Frantically Iolaus searched for something, anything, that he or Hercules had missed in the excitement of the moment that would help them. All he saw were rocks. Acres and acres of rocks. Big rocks, small rocks, gray rocks, pink rocks, pretty rocks, painted rocks . . .
Painted rocks! Or, to be exact, painted rock! The remaining Rock of Argys had rolled to one side, forgotten for the moment in the midst of an attempted fratricide. Iolaus pounced on it, kissed it soundly, then crept to a closer vantage point.
He was almost too late. Ares had closed the gap between himself and Hercules and his next stone was aimed at the demigod’s head. He threw, Hercules knocked it away and leaped back to a safer position. That was the signal for Iolaus to act.
“Hey! War God!” he shouted. Ares whirled on the jester, ready to blast him for his temerity. “Catch!”
Iolaus had always been good at ball games. He had learned to throw with accuracy to hit a target and in this case, the target was Ares’ hand.
Ares fielded the smooth stone easily. What a break! Even Hercules’ allies were turning against him now that he looked like losing the fight. Oh, this was gonna be sweet! He hefted the stone experimentally, laughing into Hercules’ eyes. Good weight to it, he decided, nice balance, too. Ought to make a very satisfying dent in a demigodly skull. He drew back his arm, ready to drill it at the man in front of him.
Hercules had seen what Ares held in his hand. For one fleeting second he thought to let the War God go ahead and smash it, then suffer the consequences. But he couldn’t do it. Not even Ares deserved to fade away to nothing.
“Ares! Don’t do it!” he shouted his warning.
Ares gave a short bark of laughter. “Seriously?” he said incredulously. “Hyah!”
With all his strength, Ares pitched the Rock of Argys. It soared through the air straight and true as an arrow. He waited breathlessly to see the carnage it would wreck when solid rock met smashable head.
Hercules had given himself just enough room to successfully duck the incoming missile. He threw himself to the ground as soon as he saw it leave Ares’ hand. The Rock of Argys whistled over his head and struck a boulder behind him, shattering into dust as it hit.
“Ares, you fool!” he called as he picked himself up. “I tried to warn you!”
Comprehension dawned on the War God with terrifying clarity. His face fell and he fixed Hercules with a credulous eye.
“Oh, no I ditn’t . . .” he began
“Yeah,” Hercules said, nodding ruefully. “You did.”
Ares thought, fleetingly, that he could run, or he could dematerialize, or he could disappear to his temple on Olympus. Futile as flight might be, he could do it. However, the curse, once released from the Rock, acted with incredible speed to find the one who had attracted its attention. The ghostly apparition flashed to where Strife and Discord scuffled together, each blaming the other for their misfortune. It enshrouded them in its eerie light, illuminating them for a moment before they reappeared. Finished with them, the curse sought out a new victim. Before Ares had a chance to act on his idea to split the scene, it was on him. To his credit, he fought the thing nobly, resisting its effect with all his will and power. However, the curse proved stronger, and Ares slowly faded until he could no longer be seen. The last anyone saw or heard of him was a very gross expletive as he disappeared.
Hercules dusted his hands as he rejoined Iolaus.
“I tried to warn him,” he said with a heavy sigh. “I’d’a told him what he was getting into if he’d just stopped and heard me out.”
“Don’t beat yourself up on that one,” Iolaus said. “Guys like that never listen. He probably wouldn’t have believed you anyway. Oh, great! Here comes trouble!”
Discord had skipped over to where they stood, a wide smile splitting her face as she studied her hands, now visible again.
“Now that was pretty cool!” she said with a satisfied smirk. “It looks like there’s an opening in the War God department. Who needs this Number Two stuff, anyway? I’m up for promotion to Numero Uno! Bye guys!”
With a flick of her wrist, she prepared to disappear.
“Wait!” Hercules stopped her. “Where’s Strife? I’ve got a few choice words for him!”
“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about him for a while,” Discord assured him. “He’s gonna be hanging out close to home for the next few months. See ya!”
Without another word she was gone.
“What do you suppose she meant?” Iolaus asked.
Hercules shrugged and placed a companionable arm across his shoulders.
“It’s probably best if we never find out,” he said.
Strife struggled to loosen the cords that bound him tightly in place. Discord had wasted no time in punishing her cousin for getting them both cursed. He was hanging from a hook in the temple ceiling, his head dangling only a few inches from the floor. He decided that this whole hang- Strife- upside- down- and- torture- him thing was getting old fast. In fact, truth be told, he really hated it. Really hated it.
“DISCORD!” he shouted. “GET ME DOWN! NOW!”
By all the gods, when he got out of these cords he was gonna do something to her! He’d - he’d - well, he’d do something! He wasn’t too sure what, but it wouldn’t be nice and he’d keep doing it until his bitchy cousin didn’t like it anymore!
It was then that he noticed the low bowl sitting on the floor near his head. It was full of a liquid that looked very wholesome and rich. In fact it looked a lot like -“
“DISCORD!” he bellowed. “GET THIS MILK OUTTA HERE RIGHT NOW!”
Very shortly he heard the soft padding of little paws as they trotted through the room to reach the treat laid out for them. Sleek, furry little bodies arranged themselves around the rim of the bowl and tiny pink tongues lapped happily at the milk. After they had finished, they carefully cleaned their faces then looked around for something to do. That, too, had been provided and the kittens were delighted to find a very large something dangling right at their level, waiting to be explored. They sniffed it, they poked at it with their soft little paws and they tasted it with their rough little tongues, wondering why it made so much noise.
“Shoo! Scat! Git, away!”
Strife tried every command he could think of to disperse the kittens from his vicinity, but the little creatures were too intrigued by him. They jumped at him, digging their claws in his clothes and hanging from his arms. They raced around his head until he was dizzy. They played with his hair, tangling themselves up in it, and yanking themselves free. What fun this toy was proving to be!
“DISSSSSCCCCOOOOOOORRRRRRRRRDDDD!” Strife wailed. “THEY’RE PLAYING WITH ME! GET ME OUTTA HERE! HEEELLLP! SOMEBODEEEEEEE! HEEEEEEEEEELLLLLLLP!”
A little kitten sat staring at him with big, innocent eyes, its head tilted to one side. It watched him struggle and scream for a little while, then tilted its head to the other side. Finally, it thought of an appropriate comment.
Strife lost all composure. His screams of terror and anguish echoed throughout the temple.
“Hercules, I gotta say it is really good to see you again,” Iolaus said heartily.
The two friends were walking on the road that lead to the Academy. It was finally time to rejoin Jason and Iolaus and catch up on their news. The campfire tonight was going to be interesting.
“I gotta say it’s really good to be seen!” Hercules answered. “And you know what? I was right all along!”
Iolaus looked up at him curiously.
“Right?” he said. “Right about what?”
“About you!” Hercules said. “Without me around you acted like a hero. Like the hero I’ve always known you were!”
Iolaus blushed at the compliment, although he was very pleased by it. He tried to deflect his urge to giggle and caper.
“What do you expect?” he asked casually. “I was taught by the best!”
It was Hercules’ turn to blush.
“The best! I don’t know about that!”
“Well, trust me, I do know! You are the best. Miles ahead of the competition. All the research points the same way.”
“Oh, yeah. I’ve done it all, so I know it’s accurate to within five points, plus or minus. Pie charts, bar graphs, independent polls - they all say the same thing. You’re at the top of almost all the categories.”
“Hey, wait a minute!” Hercules said menacingly. “Whadaya mean, ‘almost’? What’s with this ‘almost’ stuff?”
“Well, Iolaus runs a close second in some things, a close win in others.”
Iolaus shrugged as he walked.
“Nobody’s perfect, you know.”
Hercules laughed. The long road ahead had just become shorter for his new friend.
Disclaimer: No gods or other deities were killed during the production of this story. They just faded away.
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