Meanwhile...Back in Greece

by Barbara

The sun glinted off the water, nearly blinding in its intensity as the small ship skimmed the surface of the waves, dancing before a hearty breeze. She seemed almost eager to reach her destination and discharge the disquieting passenger on board.

Said passenger leaned over the rail near the bow, hair momentarily blown forward, hiding his eyes as the wind at his back propelled him toward Greece. He was barely into his plan and everything was coming together nicely. Oh, there’d been glitches, but nothing that couldn’t be twisted to fit his destiny. Delays had been minor and he’d been waiting for so long now, a few days, weeks, months, were as nothing.

The wind whipped through his hair, not the dark hair he’d planned on having, but golden curls that defied taming. Perhaps it was more fitting this way. Golden sunlight to usher in the dark of his rule. Greece wouldn’t know what hit it.

The Greeks had suffered from plague in the south before he’d stolen this body that walked the ship’s decks. Now they would see illnesses they had never seen in all of Greece’s rich history. The Greek gods might have defeated his first venture at a strike through their half mortal hero, but the second had been more successful than he’d expected. Hercules was gone, broken, leaving Greece ripe for the harvest. The Fates would be snipping more threads this season than they had in decades.

Dahak smiled as he ambled to the middle of the ship’s deck. It was his ship, his followers manning the sails. No one questioned him or what he now did. He made a gesture in the air, the passing of his fingers leaving an oily smoke in their wake. A symbol appeared and as it faded, a figure on horseback took form. Wrapped in bandages and cloths, like a leper, the humanoid creature bowed to Dahak from atop its horse. The animal was eerily calm on the swaying deck, its body riddled with sores, a green, viscous mucus running from its eyes and nose. This was Pestilence and it would serve him well to weaken the Greeks.

“Go, do as I bid. Plague the people of Greece.”

The hideous figure pulled on the reins of its mount and the horse turned and walked away, fading from view only a few paces across the deck.

It started on the coast and spread inward. The weak, the old, the very young seemed more susceptible to this disease that left oozing sores, general weakness, aching bodies. Healers were unable to halt its progress and found no remedy other than to let it take its course and hope the victims survived.

Aesclepius’ temples were filled with the sick and distraught, begging for a miracle. Unfortunately, the god was currently out of favor with Zeus and as a mortal once more, could only offer advice in hygiene to prevent further spread of the plague and new herbal concoctions to treat the symptoms. Many were the fathers and mothers who left angry that nothing could be done to save their daughters, sons, and aging parents.

When Zeus finally relented and gave back Aesclepius’ godhood, it was too late for many. Even those helped were left with scars from their bout of illness. And while the plague abated somewhat, it still lingered, becoming more tenacious among those who caught it.

The ship rocked in the waters, the breeze gone, as if the god responsible for fair sailing sought to delay the passengers from reaching their goal. Dahak had pitched a fit at first, but when the captain of the ship suggested they go to port and take on a few more sailors to man their oars, he readily agreed. Their headway was slow, but still they advanced on Greece.

Dahak called forth another servant to prepare their way. The rider facing him was gaunt, its armor slipping from bony shoulders, its helmet askew. Cheekbones jutted so sharply from the skull that it was a wonder they didn’t poke through what flesh rode its bones. The mount was pitiful to behold. Ribs pushed through the fur, the mane and tail limp and brittle. A brief lethargic shake of the tail sent coarse hair flying across the deck.

Dahak lifted his hand and waved the creature out of his sight with these words: “Go, do as I bid. I want to hear the people of Greece cry out in hunger.”

Demeter could not keep the land’s riches thriving, no matter what she tried. Persephone was with her, yet nothing she did stopped the dry, ugly brown of dying foliage from spreading across Greece’s once verdant fields. Her worshipers cried out, begging for help. When nothing came, they grew angry, and many accused her of playing games with Hades. He’d met his bargain and given her Persephone, but she was holding out for longer visitation. They stopped coming to her temples and harassed her priests and priestesses.

In desperation, Demeter turned to Gaea, who only shook her head and offered to give surrounding countries better crops to help Greece trade for what they needed. The rulers of Greece opened their granaries to help soften the effect of the blight. Only a stop-gap measure, it put pressure on the kings and nobles of Greece, who feared their coffers would soon empty as they attempted to feed their people by purchasing food from their trade partners across the seas.

Even fisherman felt the impact as their nets came up empty or filled with rotting fish, as if the sea itself had turned from them. Cries to Poseidon did not fall on deaf ears and the gods began to gather in twos and threes to discuss what was happening. Why were their powers failing to stop the plagues and famine now threatening their worshipers?

The ship put into the last port before it would reach Greece, to take on supplies. There, Dahak began gathering soldiers whose loyalty could be bought as well as refugees from Greece who were easily swayed by his words of a better Greece free from famine and plague.

While there, in the dead of the night, with none to see, Dahak called up his last two dire allies. The first wore elaborate armor and helm that rivaled Ares’ own. Its sword was a good foot longer than most and its blade half a hand broader. Its steed was blacker than night, its mane and tail rich and full. It snorted smoke as iron shod feet pawed the ground, eager to trample the small figure before them.

The second creature was cowled in a dull gray, dusty robe. The stench of the grave wafted about it and its equally dusty mount. Its weapon was a long scythe, the blade gleaming wickedly. Its face could not be seen, but perhaps it was better that way. Its very proximity caused anything living to shudder and shy away. Even Dahak had to force himself to ignore the creature’s nature.

Dahak gestured at them and pointed toward Greece. As the two turned as one, he intoned, “Go, do as I bid. Bring Greece to its knees.”

All chaos broke out. The city states of Greece began to turn on one another as small, desperate bands of villagers and soldiers crossed borders to raid their neighbors. The battles were often short and bitter, the poorly armed farmers and villagers falling easily to the better armed soldiers of the kings and noble families.

In desperation, allies called on allies, trusting them more than the gods who had failed them all.

In turn, the gods began to feel the absence of their followers. Their power, always tied to the strength of their believers, was now at an all time low. Even the simplest tasks were a struggle for some. A few didn’t suffer as much. Zeus, as king of the gods, had more resilience. Hades’ job, by its very nature, assured him of plenty of followers still loyal to him. Aphrodite faired well enough, though love was difficult under such trying conditions. Poseidon, though not in favor with the fishermen, still commanded the attention of the merchant ships and war fleets of the port cities.

The war gods, however, thrived as war broke out between the city states. Ares, Discord, and Deimos, having ingratiated himself with Ares, were full of energy in comparison. For Discord and Deimos, this was a banquet; and while Ares enjoyed the flow of followers through his temples, something didn’t sit right with him. A quick visit to the Oracle of Delphi spurred his unease further.

“’Dark days’---why can’t an Oracle simply say here’s the culprit or this is the reason it’s happening? I hate vagaries,” Ares groused as he took his seat in his favorite temple, pondering the Oracle’s words. “The ‘high and mighty brought to their knees’…it doesn’t take Athena to figure out that the ‘high and mighty’ aren’t just mortal kings.”

Further thought was interrupted by the clatter of hooves. Wondering what idiot had brought a horse into his temple, he looked up, ready to lambaste-literally-the fool who’d interrupted him. What he saw made his jaw drop. Pegasus stood before him, wings settling carefully over his back. Sitting astride the steed was Hermes.

“What in-“

“Ares, Zeus commands your presence in Olympus.” The god of thieves and messengers sighed at the incredulous look on Ares’ face. “Hey, whatever is affecting the gods seems to come and go with me. Rather than fall out of the sky on my way here-which wouldn’t kill me, but sure as Tartarus would hurt-I borrowed Pegasus to guarantee I arrived in one piece.”

Ares had heard the rumors and complaints from the other gods over the past few weeks. At first he’d ignored them, basking in the surge of power the wars were bringing him. But as he realized that he had had nothing to do with the fights breaking out, he’d become uneasy, hence the visit to the Oracle.

“So the Old Man wants to see me. Why?” He pasted a sneer on his lips. It wouldn’t do to show anyone that he was eager to find the answers as well.

“I’m just the messenger, you know that. Do you need a ride? I had to give one to Demeter. She can’t get anywhere on her own anymore unless she hoofs it. Pegasus can handle the extra load.”

“Unlike Demeter or you, I don’t have any problems getting anywhere. Tell Zeus I’ll be there by sun fall, assuming Apollo doesn’t fall out of his chariot. I have a few things to do first.” Never let the enemy-or Zeus-know you were eager. His father was well versed in manipulating people and gods into doing what he wanted.

Hermes nodded and guided Pegasus out of the temple. Ares stayed seated until he could no longer hear the beat of wings before he finally rose. He’d begun pacing only to be interrupted by Discord’s appearance.

“What did Hermes want?” The dark and deadly goddess leaned nonchalantly against the altar brimming with gifts left by would-be warriors. “And did you see him take that chalice full of coins?”

Ares shrugged. “He’s either slipping or even the god of thieves is having a rough time.” Ares gestured at the middle of the temple’s floor. “Look at this.” The stone was replaced by a detailed topography of Greece. Soldiers the size of ants struggled in battle with one another and sometimes with peasants. Their tiny cries floated up to the gods’ ears. All over the map of Greece, similar scenarios played out.

“Yeah, wonderful, isn’t it? I hardly have to lift a finger to get them to go at each others’ throats,” Discord gloated. “Hey, look, there’s Deimos-“ Her pointing finger was slapped away by Ares.

“That’s the point. We aren’t doing anything to instigate this. The mortals appear to be doing it all on their own,” Ares pointed out.

“Well, I thought you liked enterprising warlords.” She put a pout on her lips as she leaned over the map and tried to spy out individual followers she favored.

“Enterprising is one thing. This is-is mass hysteria. Look. Hardly any place is without strife-no pun intended.”

At Ares words, Discord took her attention away from an individual warlord and really looked at the big picture. Ares was right. Well, almost. Corinth seemed fairly peaceful and Orestes’ kingdom, Attica, was only having trouble along one of its borders but seemed to be settling the matter with words, not war.

“And watch this,” Ares told her as he passed a hand over the map, causing it to enlarge and focus onto a port city. She stared at it blankly as a scene unfolded before her. A ship docked and a small contingent of mercenaries got off, crowding around one man.

“Isn’t that Curly-I mean Hercules’ shadow? Ithicus or Iago or something like that?” Discord didn’t like the little blond, but she had to privately agree with Aphrodite. His hair made a woman, god or mortal, want to run her hands through it.

“Iolaus of Thebes. He’d have made a wonderful follower if my weak-minded brother hadn’t twisted his mind with all that goody-goody talk of his.” Ares frowned, then shook such inconsequential thoughts away. This happened a week ago. Traveling back in time was difficult at best. Spying on the past, on the other hand, was much easier, especially with all the energy the wars provided. Iolaus and his apparent followers debarked in Patrae. “Watch.”

Discord looked askance and then focused her eyes on the miniature tableau. She saw Iolaus disperse the men about the port city. The mercenaries, for such they had to be, all wearing different armor and not quite operating as a cohesive group, gathered townsfolk into the square. There, Iolaus waited for them and began a speech about how he’d heard that Greece was suffering and that Hercules had chosen to forsake them and pursue his own business. However, he could not, would not, turn his heart from his homeland. He would help Greece get back on its feet and bring order from chaos. The speech was a lot longer than that, with lots of promises and interruptions as questions were asked, but that was the upshot of it.

“I didn’t know he had it in him,” Discord grudgingly commented.

“Oh, he could have been a great general or warlord. Unfortunately-“ Ares shrugged, “he’s dead.”

“Dead? But-“

Ares smiled grimly at Discord’s confusion. “Yes, interesting, isn’t it? Now watch again.” The map progressed through the nights and days and Iolaus and his men gathered more followers and warriors, building a small army. People hung on his every word. He made himself available to the very great and the very poor, thriving on their homage. “He’s good, I’ll give him that.”

“So, what’s this got to do with us?” Discord chewed on her lower lip as she tried to figure out what was so important about this and how a dead man was leading an army. If Ares was right, and she’d no reason to believe otherwise, she was pretty sure that Hades wasn’t going to allow Iolaus off the hook again, yet there he was, big as life.

“I don’t know yet, except that Iolaus isn’t with my brother and he’s acting on his own. He’s practically criticized Hercules in front of everyone he’s met with, and that’s unusual. He’s my brother’s shadow, his obedient dog. This doesn’t-“ Ares’ voice drifted away as the little show displayed several skirmishes being fought by Iolaus’ soldiers and the enemies defeated or absorbed into the small army. “It’s like an amoeba, reaching out and swallowing its prey and growing larger with each meal. His arrival rings too fortuitous. ‘Dark days’…” Iolaus’ reach spread from Patrae to Panormos, the next port city. Everything was happening too quickly for his taste. His natural paranoia prickled up his spine and lodged within his mind. Too quick, too fortuitous, too convenient; we didn’t stop it with Hera’s banishment, or Callisto’s defeat. This is it, what all Olympus has felt.

“I’m going to Olympus and you’re coming with me. Zeus has called a meeting of the gods. We’ll leave Deimos to keep an eye on things. Go, tell him.” Before the startled goddess could leave, Ares raised a finger in warning. “Tell him if he does more than watch, I’ll feed his balls to Cerberus.

Discord gave a smirk and disappeared in a cascade of black and silver sparkles. Ares’ steepled his fingers together and touched the tips to his lower lip as he studied the map before him, trying to find the connections between what plagued Greece and Iolaus’ arrival.

Ares and Discord arrived to find Olympus in disarray. The place seemed crowded as not just the Olympians arrived, but some of the lesser gods as well. Even Gaea had put in an appearance, with Demeter and Persephone fluttering about her, voicing either complaints or entreaties. Ares wasn’t sure which and didn’t particularly care, except that it only added to the cacophony of the moment. He couldn’t help but notice that the walls of the throne room looked less than pristine, the flowers arranged artfully in vases along the walls beginning to wilt. He wondered if Demeter had lost her touch or this was yet another sign of what plagued Greece and her gods.

“What is going on?” Discord moved a little closer to Ares, as if to use him as a shield from the chaos.

“How should I know? I just got here, remember? But my guess is this isn’t a party.” Ares spied Zeus, Hades, and surprise, surprise, Poseidon. The three brothers were huddled in a corner in deep discussion, or argument, it was hard to say. Poseidon was punctuating nearly everything he said with his trident, waving it about and nearly decapitating Hades, who had a dour look on his face. Zeus seemed alternately bemused and exasperated.

“Well, everyone who is anyone, and even the no ones are here,” Discord muttered.

“Find out what you can. I’ll be over there, blocking the trident. Oh, and try to be discreet,” Ares ordered his cohort.

“I don’t think anyone would notice indiscreet at this juncture, but don’t worry. I know how to blend in.” Discord walked off with a sway of her hips that left Ares doubting she knew anything of the sort. However, he didn’t have time to spare worrying over her now. He headed to the corner of the room to join his father and uncles.

"So, father dearest, I'm here," Ares interrupted. All three gods turned and looked at him, varying expressions on their faces. Only Zeus seemed glad to see him.

"Good, good," Zeus placed a hand on Ares shoulder as if forgetful that the last time they'd spoken had ended in a shouting match and thrown lightning bolts. "I'm sure you're aware of our recent troubles."

"I don't have any troubles." Ares wanted to see his father squirm a bit. Neglect could work both ways, and Zeus had for too long favored a halfling over his purebred son. Either Zeus was losing his edge, or it was more serious than he thought, as the king of the gods sighed, his smile sliding from his lips.

"Perhaps not yet, but I don't doubt that eventually you too will feel the pinch."

Ares wasn't one to have patience with political maneuverings among the gods. He much preferred the straight blow for a vital spot. "How much are you three weakened by all this?" He was satisfied by Hades' frown, Poseidon's stammer for words, and Zeus' sudden poker face.

“Not enough to keep any of us from putting you in your place,” Poseidon finally got out. Hades laid a hand on the sea god’s shoulder, whether in support or warning, it was hard to say.

“This chaos can’t go on,” Hades interrupted. “I’m backlogged into next year and at this rate, I’ll have souls line up to cross the Styx until the next decade!”

He quieted as Zeus raised a hand, signaling silence. “We can jockey for position all night, Ares, but that won’t solve the problem. Something is attacking us, indirectly, but attacking nonetheless. We’ve been hit with plagues, famine, war, and death among the mortals, all in a short span of time. And none of us have been the cause. Demeter can’t counteract the famine, the plagues change just as Aesclepius figures out a cure for them. Our temples are being destroyed by angry mortals who see no end of this mess in sight. Our followers are breaking faith and weakening us even as we speak. This is too organized to be coincidence. Some kind of intelligence is driving this.”

“Are you responsible for all the wars breaking out?” Poseidon demanded to know, glaring at Ares.

Ares stared at his uncle for a moment before replying. “I wish I could take all the credit, but I can’t. In case you haven’t noticed, there’s an interesting event taking place on the northern shores of Greece.” He was quite satisfied to see he had all their attention now. “Hercules’ little buddy is back and he’s rallied an army around himself and taken two port cities as of yesterday. He has the people flocking to his beck and call, promising them whatever they want to hear-“ He stopped, considered what he’d just said, and nodded to himself. That’s what was wrong with the little mortal’s behavior. He’d never seen Iolaus promise anything he might not be able to deliver, yet now he was promising an end to things he couldn’t possibly control, like plague and famine. Things only a god could cause or end.

“Hercules is back?” Zeus looked surprised, perhaps sure he’d have known if his son had returned.

“Hardly. That’s another thing I don’t get. His little friend is back without Hercules, and apparently acting on his own. It’s almost as if he’s disowned the big chump. Not that I can blame him. All that goody-goody-“

“That can’t be right…Iolaus died in Sumeria.” Hades muttered. He paused, apparently casting that part of himself throughout Greece that had ties with his followers or those he favored. “I have no sense of the one mortal who has made the afterlife a personal revolving door. I don’t feel Iolaus any more than I do Hercules. And considering all his visits to the Underworld, I should. He’s not in the Elysian Fields, it’s true, but he’s certainly not on the mortal plane, which means his soul is probably on the paths between life and death, hopefully on its way to Elysium. Are you sure it’s him?”

Ares huffed. “He has his face, walks like him, acts like him, talks like him-except for the veiled criticisms of Hercules. If not him, who?”

“Dahak.” That one word from Zeus confirmed Ares’ suspicions about the man wearing Iolaus’ face. Everyone gave Zeus their full attention.

“No.” Poseidon broke the silence, denying what the gods had feared these past months.

“’A time of great darkness is upon us. Dahak, Dahak!’ That’s what every soothsayer and oracle I’ve spoken to has said.” Zeus replied. He almost looked his age, eyes downcast, hands suddenly clutched together in front of him. “This creature, this thing, it calls itself Dahak. I believe it is possibly demonic and definitely not of Greek origin. And more than a match for any one god.” He looked up, his expression clearing up, becoming once again the face that Ares had grown up seeing every day of his childhood. Strong, determined. “You said he was gathering an army?”

“Yes, and a rather efficient one by the looks of it.”

“Ares, why would he want an army?” Zeus questioned him, a thoughtful look on his face. “Every move the usurper has made has been from behind the scenes.”

“What anyone would want an army for: protection or conquering, and he’s doing that. He’s quelled the unrest in Patrae and Panormos and appears to be setting his sights south. I thought demons thrived on chaos?”

“Perhaps like us, its strength is tied to its followers. With each new believer, it grows in power and spreads like leprosy upon a mortal’s skin,” Zeus mused. “You don’t need chaos if you can be fed by the gullible.”

Ares frowned. “Are you sure it’s a demon? It most definitely has all the mannerisms of Iolaus of Thebes, if you discount the building of an army and not hanging on my half-brother’s shirt tails. Perhaps the reason Iolaus isn’t in the afterlife is because he’s made common cause with this foreign entity and been resurrected.”

“No, it’s definitely not Iolaus,” Hades replied.

“Either it’s simply wearing Iolaus’ face, or it’s possessed the mortal, hiding it from Hades’ view,” mused Zeus.

“Or stolen his body,” Hades muttered, a troubled frown on his face.

“Well, Iolaus or Dahak, does it matter?” Ares looked at the three other gods, commanding their attention with his next words. “Not that I have anything against a good, all-out war, but this has gone beyond that. I don’t think we can count on anything good coming from this, whether it is a possessed mortal, or a demon wearing a face the mortals have associated with a hero. However, I think we can count on Corinth and from the looks of it, Attica, to bring stability back. The two have been allies for a number of years and Megaris, since it falls between the two more powerful city states, will follow suit. There is where an army can be raised to quell the riots about them and restore order. And go after this demon.” Ares didn’t bother calling for peace. After all, he was a war god, and loved a good battle. He just intensely disliked being on the outside of the action.

The gathering didn’t last long after that. Zeus called an end to the current proceedings, assigning ‘jobs’ to most of the Olympians. First and foremost, they needed more information. Athena was assigned to check on Athens in Attica and see if they were ripe for a stronger presence on the battlefield. Poseidon was to monitor the seas and make sure that Greece’s enemies didn’t decide now was a good time to strike. However, the god of the sea wasn’t about to commit himself in any venture beyond information. He wasn’t suffering near as much as the gods of the land.

Ares sent Discord to spy on ‘Iolaus’ and his new army, while Hades left to question the souls of those who’d died in the recent march of Iolaus’ troops to Panormos. The god of the Underworld had looked thoughtful as he’d left, muttering something about it couldn’t possibly be a possessed Iolaus.

Ares promised to approach Iphicles of Corinth and suggested they meet back in two days time. As for the other gods, they refused to leave Olympus until Zeus could provide them with assurances that this dark time in Greece’s history would pass, and quickly.

Ares didn’t waste time. He appeared in the inner rooms of the king of Corinth that very evening to find Iphicles in a night robe, but not ready for bed. He sat at a table, pouring over maps and muttering to himself as he wrote notes on a piece of parchment.

“You favor your father.” Ares took perverse satisfaction in watching Iphicles, formerly of Thebes, leap to his feet and brandish a knife that hadn’t been visible before.

“Who-?!” He stopped short when he saw the God of War. Slowly, recognition dawned on the man’s face. Ares noted that he didn’t put the knife away. Brave man, or foolish like his half brother. But few fools became kings and this one wasn’t born to power. Brave, then. He could respect that.

“Iphicles.”

“Ares.”

“It’s been a long time since you’ve come to my temple. I’ve missed you.” Ares gave him a smile.

“Somehow, I doubt that,” was the rueful response. This startled a laugh from the God of War.

“You sound like your brother. I promise not to hold that against you.” It was the closest Ares would ever get to a peace offering.

“Lucky me,” mumbled Corinth’s king. “To what do I owe this…pleasure?”

“Greece is coming apart at the seams and it’s time to stop it.” Ever the blunt one, Ares sat down on the edge of the room’s bed. “Hmmm…comfy.” He crossed a leg over his knee and rested an arm on his self-made brace as he leaned forward, eyes intent on the mortal before him. “Let us be blunt for time’s sake. What is happening in Greece is affecting more than mere mortals. It’s reached the gods’ as well. Something, or someone, is trying to bring down Greece and her gods.”

Iphicles snorted as he finally secreted the knife away in his robe’s sleeve. “And the gods who can’t handle it want our help?”

“Not want. Need.” The sharp look Iphicles gave him made Ares pause and wonder if he was being too blunt. “I’m not suffering. After all, there’s plenty of war breaking out all over. However, Demeter and some of the others can’t counteract the famine and plagues. Everything they do is countered, as if another intelligence is driving what should come from the gods. Not only that, forces are coming into play that are, well, unusual enough to make me suspicious.”

“What forces?” It was obvious he had Iphicles’ full attention now.

Ares waved a hand and the king’s table became a map of Greece. He took perverse pleasure in seeing Iphicles’ eyes widen at the beautifully rendered topography and the miniature warriors in full battle across the country. “As you see, only the land from Corinth through Attica is relatively battle-free. A few border skirmishes, but nothing you can’t handle.” Truth be told, if the two kings hadn’t had such well stocked granaries, their people would be in revolt as well. “However, you will be a target from less forward thinking kingdoms.”

“You haven’t told me anything I don’t already know. When Hercules became a god, he told us about a ‘foreign’ influence, something that wanted to take over Greece. The same thing that tried to destroy my mother.”

Ares watched the tightening of the jaw that was the only sign on Iphicles’ face that that episode in his life was still a fresh wound. Appealing to a son’s outrage might do the trick if mere logic didn’t sway him.

“Your brother’s buddy is back in Greece, without Hercules.” He watched the first shoe drop as Iphicles made a startled sound at the news. “And he’s raised an army and is marching south.” The second shoe fell into total silence. “See?” Ares pointed at the northern shore of Greece. “Patrae, Panormos-“ He looked closer. There was more movement, outriders going south from Panormos, as well as along the coast in both directions. “Oooh, he’s good. Consolidating and spreading quickly, taking advantage of the chaos and desperation, like a good parasite.”

“Parasite? What-“

“Figure of speech.” Ares shrugged, but for the life of him, couldn’t shake the notion that that best described Iolaus and his army. “It’s one of the unknown forces I was talking about. Iolaus without Hercules, acting, well, un-Iolaus-like. I always knew he had it in him, but my brother kept him under his thumb. Of course, there is the theory that this isn’t Iolaus, but a look-alike. Especially since the little man is supposedly dead. Or there’s the one about a demon that’s either possessed Iolaus, stolen his body, or maybe they’re just allies and Hercules’ little partner is off his rocker.” The whole demon angle bothered Ares. They were second rate creatures. They shouldn’t be able to make fools of the gods. Which meant that this thing was a god, perhaps a chaos god from one of those primitive, backwards countries.

“Where’s Hercules?”

“Don’t know, don’t particularly care. Maybe some of this chaos is his fault for not being here and keeping some of the wilder elements in line. It doesn’t matter. You don’t need him. We are going to deal with it. Whatever is trying to drive us to self-destruction is going to meet with resistance, starting with you and Attica.”

Iphicles pulled away from the god. “What makes you think I’ll take orders from you?”

“Your kingdom’s safety and your natural desire to show Hercules you don’t need his help to rule and keep your people safe. You don’t need him, you know. You have me and your own proven ability to lead. You’ll also have the help of my allies and Attica if Athena can convince Orestes that action is needed now, not words.” Ares eyed the mortal king, taking his measure. He was right about Iphicles’ competitive streak where Hercules was concerned. He suffered a little from it himself, though he’d never admit it.

“What about this…this demon with Iolaus’ face?”

“I have him being watched. This is too coincidental for my tastes. If Zeus is wrong and he’s legit somehow, then we pull him into the alliance we’ll forge. If he’s not, if he’s the cause of all our troubles, then he’ll just have to go down.”

“If he’s possessed, then it would still be Iolaus, wouldn’t it?” Iphicles looked like he was having some difficulty wrapping his mind around the idea of slaying something with his friend’s face. “We might be able to-“

Ares cut off whatever he was going to suggest. “It wouldn’t be the first time a hero went bad. Either way, bad, possessed, insane, you are Corinth’s ruler. It’s your responsibility to keep her safe.”

Iphicles looked back at the battlefields before him, the tiny cries of the dying reaching even his ears. He looked at the relatively peaceful eastern portion of Greece, from Corinth, through Megaris to Attica. He glanced at the god.

Ares pointed out, “So many lives have already been lost in a matter of weeks. This can’t go on. You’re a king and sometimes that requires making decisions for the good of the many, not the few.” He watched Iphicles rub at his temple, as if trying to stave off a headache. “You know I’m right.”

“Fine. I’ll shore up my western borders. Get Orestes here and we’ll talk.”

Four days later didn’t improve anything for Greece overall, at least not in the plague, famine, and war categories. On the brighter side, Ares reflected, Orestes was willing to help shore up Corinth’s borders in a show of solidarity and had verbally muscled Megaris into going along for the ride. By using Hermes and Pegasus, they’d brought Orestes to Megaris’ king and then to Iphicles’ chambers to broker the deal. Orestes’ had returned to his kingdom and begun by putting his queen in charge in his absence as he gathered his army for the march to Corinth’s western borders. They’d start with light cavalry, the slower foot soldiers to follow. Megaris was sending a token force with the foot soldiers, their own army being reserved for civil unrest if needed. Iphicles had already sent a contingent of his own cavalry to meet them and guide them through Corinth and reassure his people that it wasn’t an invasion in this time of turmoil.

Ares sat in counsel with the other Olympian gods, having let Discord give the report on Dahak’s army’s movements before leaving to meet with one of their spies. After hours of complaints from the other gods about ruined temples and lack of power to do the simplest thing, he’d almost told them all to get off their asses and walk to their destination if teleporting wasn’t an option, but that wouldn’t have won him any support for his ideas. And he had plenty of them, especially after the news from Discord that ‘Iolaus’ was openly denouncing Hercules’ absence, as well as the gods’ inability to help their followers. He’d gone so far as to suggest that people not bother going to the temples, including Ares’ own.

Not that that would make much of a bite in his power. After all, warriors carried a form of his temple in their hearts, and with each sword thrust, bolstered his own power. Plus many of them were a superstitious lot and wouldn’t want to hedge their bets by alienating their patron. They’d still worship him, just surreptitiously.

Ares was slowly digesting the possibility that Zeus was right and that this new warlord was not Iolaus, but Dahak. The thing he’d been preparing to face down to save Olympus, himself, his followers, it was carrying the battle to him. He hated all that waiting before a battle. Finally, his wait was over. He’d begun to mentally rearrange his ideas based around a demonic presence in Greece, and not something more nebulous as to the cause of the famines, plagues and wars. It would be easier to end the catastrophe if it was simply a demon too big for its britches. Take it down, and everything would return to normal.

“I think the first thing to do is shore up our own defenses. Scattered as we are, we lessen our very power. I want every Olympian here on mount Olympus, with the exception of Poseidon, Hades, and Ares,” Zeus announced. Poseidon wasn’t there, being adamant that he wasn’t going to put a foot out for them other than keeping an ear open for rumors and news. He’d always been an isolationist, Ares reflected. Hermes protested and offered to run messages between the armies, with or without Pegasus. He’d also put his own temples and followers at Ares’ disposal.

“So we’re turning tail and running?” Apollo asked. His news of the Oracle of Delphi’s predictions hadn’t been comforting at all.

“Hardly,” Ares commented. “You’ll be cowering here while I and mine take to the field. I’ll be manning my loyal warlords and an army of the lesser gods. We have mortal support in the form of Corinth and her allies. They’ll be our point to launch a counter offensive against whatever is plaguing us, no pun intended.”

His arrogance did not go unnoticed by the gods. There were angry looks and not too few mutters.

“Don’t be cocky, nephew,” Hades dared to reprimand him. Like Ares, his power hadn’t waned noticeably. He had his own army of dead to command and would make a good rapid strike force against mortal and immortal alike if that’s what showed its hand. “We still don’t know for sure what we’re up against.”

“I think it’s becoming more obvious that this Dahak is going to be a thorn in our side, whether he’s responsible for our other troubles or not. I sent Deimos there this morning to see if he can tell if it’s a possessed mortal or not, and he claims that he couldn’t get within a spear’s throw of the man. It was as if there was some barrier that didn’t allow him to teleport within speaking distance. Something is protecting this thing. I’d say Zeus has it right. This isn’t simply a mortal gone bad. He’s finding followers far too rapidly. More so than my eloquent brother, Hercules.”

“Humans are sheep,” Apollo protested. “They’ll follow anyone who throws them a bone.”

“You have a mixed metaphor going,” Athena rejoined. “Still, some are easily swayed, but not all. I hate to agree with Ares, but this doesn’t sit right. They usually take more than a single speech to jump into line where war is involved. These aren’t all warriors following Iolaus-“ she sighed, then corrected herself. “-Dahak either. He appears charming, but not that charming. Perhaps he’s found patronage from or an alliance with foreign gods.” That didn’t sit well with anyone. There was an unwritten rule among all gods about poking their noses in each others’ business, at least, not so blatantly.

“I agree with Zeus, this is something closer to a demon than a possessed mortal,” Hades added. “It’s like there’s a pocket of nothingness there.”

Ares shrugged. “I’d say we are in agreement. It’s a demon pretending to be a man to win the mortals’ support.” None of them could admit that what they faced might well be a god in search of a new home. “We can’t trust the little bugger and must make plans accordingly.” They were interrupted as Discord appeared beside Ares and leaned down to whisper in his ear. At his raised eyebrow and whispered response, she gave a humorless laugh, shrugged her shoulders, and disappeared. “Oh, he’s definitely on our hit list.”

This earned a volley of questions from the gods gathered at the war table. He raised his hand for silence, looking more like his father than the God of War in that one instant. “We lost one of our spies. Apparently this Dahak figured out he wasn’t going unnoticed, or my man was sloppy. My spy’s feeding Poseidon’s fish now. However, before he headed to the Styx, he got word to us that Dahak has sent a contingent across the Gulf of Calydon to Naupactus. I can only assume he’s planning on getting a foothold in Aetolia and from there, move down to take Coronea, Plataea, and then Thebes. That will put him at Attica’s back door. I’ll be instructing Iphicles of Corinth to get his ships into their gulf to patrol possible attack by sea. Discord has gone to warn Orestes and his queen.”

“And what of Sparta? Will they join Corinth?” Athena broke her silence at the sobering news.

Ares shrugged. “Sparta will hold Sparta. You know how they can be.”

“That’s not all bad. At least we don’t have to contend with an army marching from the south to plague our allies,” Zeus said. He gave a sigh and then rose. “We all have our parts to play. Let’s to it then. Ares, keep us apprised. When the mortal armies are assembled at Corinth’s borders, and yours as well, I will join you.”

Some of the gods protested that, no doubt fearing for their safety if Zeus wasn’t there to protect them. He mimicked Ares’ earlier gesture, raising his hand. “Silence! Have you forgotten I am a storm god? I command the lightning and I have fought and defeated the Titans! It is my people and my family at stake. I will not hide from war.” The silence was uncomfortable and stretched for some time as Zeus glared at them.

Finally, Athena cleared her throat and rose. “Father, I shall protect Olympus in your absence.”

The glare was replaced with a smile as Zeus’ anger disappeared like a break in the thunder clouds. “Good. Good! Then let us adjourn.”

“Grandstander,” Ares grunted to himself as he rose to return to Corinth and Iphicles’ side.

Ares stood before his generals and their men, the clink of armor offset by the whisper of leaves as dryads and nymphs mingled within the mortal army. No few men looked askance at the fleeting glimpses they got as the nymphs darted around, curious about the mortals’ weapons. A flighty lot, Ares hoped they could focus when battle began. The dryads he was sure would fight well enough, tending to be territorial about their woods. Mingled in smaller numbers were the lesser of the gods. They hadn’t gone to Olympus, not just because they weren’t invited, but because all-in-all, they were closer to man and the mortal world. They were defending their homes and lives as much as the mortals gathered before him.

Just as he was about to speak, there was a disturbance within the ground at his very feet. Dirt erupted and a figure of sticks and leaves rose. Ares already had his sword out and to the ready before he realized it was one of Gaea’s own. Sliding his sword back in its scabbard, he signaled the closest of his soldiers to re-sheath their own weapons.

The humanoid shape of sticks, dirt and leaves shifted and molded eventually into an auburn-haired androgynous creature in brown leather and bronze armor. He vaguely remembered training him some years past at Gaea’s request. The godling had insisted on throwing mud balls instead of the more effective fire balls he’d shown him.

“Ares, God of War, Gaea can’t be here in person, there’s too much happening throughout Greece, and the land cries out for her intervention, but she sent me in her stead to do as you command.” It sounded like a memorized speech, but at least it was brief and to the point. Gaea tended to be nearly as vague as the Oracle at times.

Ares hoped that this didn’t mean mud fights. “Fine. I’ll put you on fortification detail. And keep your ear to the ground. You can hear an army on the march, can’t you?”

The young lesser god nodded, taking his place with the others awaiting Ares’ commands.

The God of War looked out over his troops of satyrs, gods, nymphs, dryads, and even centaurs mixed in with the mortal soldiers and smiled. Ragtag though they were, they worshiped him. They would fight for their homes, their families, and their lands.

No one got the better of Ares.

Iphicles entered the tent that housed his ally, Orestes. The king of Attica was seated on a simple camp stool, surrounded by several guards, Hector, his general, and a few of his more brave advisers. He looked up as the Corinthian king entered and nodded a greeting. They’d met briefly the day before when Orestes had first arrived, but both had been busy setting up camp and fortifications to bolster the border where Arcadia, Achaia, and Argolis’ met. Since then, Iphicles had been fielding messages sent from his generals and the scouts as to what was transpiring outside of their realm.

It wasn’t good. Iolaus and his army kept moving, widening his hold on the people. It didn’t make sense. Hercules’ friend-his friend-had never been one to take the lead unless no one else stepped up. Perhaps that’s why he’d done this; there was no Hercules trying to right the mess Greece had become in his absence. Still, Iolaus commanding an army was an alien concept at best. Iphicles had sent several messages to the man, but none had been answered yet. He suspected they never would for if Ares was correct, and it wasn’t Iolaus, but this Dahak, this demon, then all bets were off. He sincerely hoped it was the case. He didn’t want to have to explain to Hercules why he’d killed the demigod’s resurrected best friend.

“I received all your reports,” Orestes opened the conversation. Iphicles had had every scout and general reporting to him relay the same information to his ally.

“The one that most concerns me is that it appears Iolaus is trying to gain a foothold behind Attica,” Iphicles commented as one of Orestes’ soldiers set another stool down for the Corinthian king. He didn’t realize he’d slipped and referred to the demon as Iolaus until Orestes spoke.

“My cousin has long been a friend to us. It’s hard to imagine he would consider violence against his own cousin.” Orestes looked troubled, as well he might. However, it wouldn’t be the first time family turned on family in Greece, especially where royalty was involved.

“He doesn’t answer my messages,” Iphicles point out. He’d explained before to Orestes that Iolaus wasn’t his cousin, but something dark and evil wearing his cousin’s face. “Iolaus would have responded, even if it was to simply tell us to not get in his way.”

Orestes, disturbingly looking like a very tidy Iolaus, nodded. “I know. Mine go unanswered as well. But are we sure your source of information is correct?” He didn’t appear to want to actually say he doubted the God of War’s word, but with Greece’s past experience with gods in general, the doubt was understandable.

“We have to assume the worst, I fear,” Iphicles put in. “I’ve increased patrols along our border and sent more scouts ahead as well as messages to those possible allies between us and Iolaus’ army.” He silently thanked Hermes for the use of his messenger service. They were still loyal to their god. “No, let us call him Dahak till we have irrefutable proof otherwise.”

Orestes nodded agreement. “I’ll send some troops to bolster your numbers on the border. That way they’ll also learn the lay of the land.”

Anything they’d have said further was silenced with the sudden appearance of the God of War in their midst.

Hector was first to have his sword drawn, followed within seconds by the kings’ bodyguards. Ares nodded approvingly, not in the least put out by such aggression toward himself.

“Ares.” Iphicles rose and gave a slight bow, Orestes scrambling up in amazement and following suit with a deeper bow. His ally wasn’t used to gods appearing before him, not even after several visits from Discord. Iphicles found it ironic that it had become old hat of late. He’d seen the god nearly every day since his first appearance to propose an alliance.

“I’ve moved my army northward, past where you’ve drawn your line,” Ares began, not bothering with a greeting. “My troups are building fortifications not only for protection, but to funnel any army to a battleground of our choosing.”

Orestes hesitated, as if afraid to directly address a god, then gave a slight shrug, perhaps coming to a decision that current circumstances overrode any customary dealings with the gods. “Are you so sure that my cous-Dahak-will attack?”

“He hasn’t stopped his march. He’s grown bold and denounces the gods openly. His followers are destroying our temples.”

Iphicles snorted. “That’s nothing new. He is pretending to be my brother’s friend, after all. He’d keep up the ruse of being Iolaus to gain and keep the people’s trust.”

Ares gave a knowing smile. “He’s just as vociferous about denouncing Hercules as a coward for abandoning Greece in her time of need.”

Iphicles stared at Ares. “That’s not the Iolaus I know. The people should know that as well.”

“Who it really is doesn’t seem to matter. Many of his followers are desperate and willing to follow any hope. Greece is in disarray and the attack on her gods isn’t abating. And Dahak’s army’s ranks are swelling daily. That is the truth we can’t deny.”

Orestes bowed his head for a moment then looked up at the god and Iphicles. “Then I suggest we begin our plans for war.”

He tried not to think of the part he’d played in freeing Dahak upon the earth. He tried not to think of Hercules’ sad face, the lost look in his eyes when they’d said their final goodbyes before he returned to these paths and their confusing turns. He tried to think of ways to help Hercules still. So far he’d only come up with the idea of asking Hades for help. What he could barter in return, he had no idea. Maybe Persephone would be there and he could get her to help convince the rather reclusive god to step out of his kingdom and lend a hand.

Iolaus was glad he was dead if only for the reason his feet didn’t hurt as he continued to wander the forest, looking for the Elysian Fields. At this point, he would have been happy to find any afterlife if only to break up the monotony of nothing but overgrown path and trees, endless trees, all the same type of trees.

As if to grant his wish, he rounded another protrusion of brush to find the path occupied. Or at least, the side of the path was occupied. Sitting on a fallen log, one leg stretched out in front of him, the other propped up, one arm slung across the knee, was none other than Gilgamesh.

“I take that back. I’d rather be alone with the trees,” Iolaus muttered.

The former king looked up at Iolaus, then stood. “Iolaus.”

“Gilgamesh.” If there was a touch of bitterness to his tone, even the former Sumerian king couldn’t fault him for it.

“Michael sent me.”

Iolaus didn’t hide the skepticism in his voice. “I thought you two didn’t get along.”

Gilgamesh shook his head. “That wasn’t me. It was Dahak, trying to trick you.”

“Wait a minute; are you saying Dahak is running around here pretending to be you as well? How do I know you aren’t Dahak and that was really you-Gilgamesh-you know what I mean!” Iolaus had assumed a stance more suited for taking quick action such as fight or even flight if needed.

“He was and I am Gilgamesh. Tell me, how did you feel around him then and here with me now? Can’t you feel the difference?”

Iolaus paused in thought. That was an interesting question. It wasn’t the rich, deep voice that put him at ease. The first Gilgamesh had sounded the same. It wasn’t how he carried himself. Both stood straight, with an air of command about them that spoke of generations of leaders bred into the blood. No, it was the eyes. Something about the eyes…they weren’t hungry, boring into him as if to consume him down to the last bit of bone, body and soul.

Iolaus strongly believed in and relied on his hunter’s and warrior’s instincts. They’d kept him alive-relatively-all these years of facing monsters, warlords, and gods. He’d be damned if he didn’t trust them now, after death.

“Okay. Say I believe you-and I’m not saying I do-what does Michael want?”

“He wants me to help you get to the Elysian Fields,” Gilgamesh answered.

“Uh huh. Right. And why would you do that for him?” Skepticism was his middle name and he wasn’t changing it for anyone until satisfied.

“He made me an offer I couldn’t refuse,” was the answer.

That made sense. It had been nearly the same for him. An offer he couldn’t-yet did-refuse. “What was it?”

“Michael brokered a deal with Dumuzi. My exile will be lifted and I can end this wandering and go to my afterlife. However, it all rests with you.”

Iolaus wrinkled his nose in disgust. “Why am I not surprised? I pissed Michael off, right?”

“On the contrary. Michael appears to believe you have a chance to defeat Dahak. I need to make sure you get to your Greek afterlife. He thinks you are the catalyst for Dahak’s downfall and it starts with you being in the right place at the right time.”

“That’s it? No instructions other than ‘get Iolaus to the Elysian Fields’?”

“He was vague on details. But with two of us traveling, it’s added protection should Dahak try to trick you with my façade again,” Gilgamesh replied.

Minutes passed as Iolaus stared at Gilgamesh and ran various scenarios through his head. Either Gilgamesh was lying, or he was telling the truth. If he was lying, then he was either Dahak, or something else trying to trip him up or delay him at the very least. If so, what was he? And why? If he was telling the truth-ugh! I never did do well with logic problems at the academy. Okay, it’s back to old hunter’s tricks and gut instinct. I just won’t mention how I arrived at this to Herc when I see him next.

“Fine. Say I believe you-for now. Anything else I need to know?”

“Not that I was informed of. I’m sorry, Iolaus, truly sorry. I destroyed your life and let something loose that may destroy our world. Anything you need from me, it’s yours,” Gilgamesh said, holding out his hand.

Iolaus brushed past it, ignoring the gesture. “You just remember that. And I’m leading the way.” Trust would only go so far and once burned, twice shy.

He heard Gilgamesh fall in behind him as he continued his journey down the choked path, hoping he wasn’t making another mistake.

Hours, or days, later, the forest began to break up a bit, the trees further spaced apart, more brush between, and some patches of wildflowers starting to add colors other than green to the landscape. Even the types of trees began to change.

Iolaus didn’t know if it was that, or if something else was happening, but he began to feel less real, less a part of his surroundings. It was almost like being lightheaded. When he seemed to be short of breath, he stopped and was perversely glad to see Gilgamesh wasn’t fairing any better.

The Sumerian leaned up against a tree, or tried to, only to fall through it. Stumbling backward, he involuntarily cried out. Iolaus moved quickly and caught one of the flailing arms to steady him. Once that was done, he reached out to touch the tree and watched as his hand passed through it.

“Illusion?” Gilgamesh whispered.

“I don’t know. Let me try something.” Iolaus had noted that it was a tree native to Greece. The ones that had lined the path exclusively earlier on had been a species he wasn’t familiar with. He approached one of those and his hand made contact with the rough bark. “Okay.” Then he tried another tree that was native to his homeland. Once again, his hand passed through it. “I think I get it.”

When he didn’t elaborate but kept touching-or trying to touch-various shrubs and trees, Gilgamesh made an impatient noise. “Well? Care to elaborate?”

“I could be wrong, but I think we’re in a place that coincides with the living world. Sort of both the land of spirits and that of the living are, um, overlapping each other. We’re like ghosts, passing through things in the living world.” He giggled a bit, stopping at the expression on Gilgamesh’s face.

“That’s not very reassuring,” Gilgamesh frowned.

Not sure if he meant his words or the laughter, Iolaus grew serious. “No, no, this could be good. Michael didn’t say how I’d get to the Elysian Fields, only that this was the route to take.”

“But your afterlife isn’t in the world of the living,” Gilgamesh pointed out.

“No, but there are places-back doors really-that can lead to it. Hercules knew of one and he told me. He even showed me the entrance once, but he wouldn’t let me go exploring. He’s kind of funny about that.” Iolaus tried to ignore the look Gilgamesh gave him. It rather resembled Hercules’ expression the time he said he wanted to explore it.

“Well, let’s get going. I think I can find the doorway.” That said, he took off through the woods, dodging the afterlife trees and brush and simply walking through the living world’s foliage. He admitted to getting a perverse pleasure as he noticed Gilgamesh still trying to dodge every obstacle in their paths.

“So why don’t we sink into the ground?”

Iolaus gave Gilgamesh a confused look. They’d stopped briefly while Iolaus got his bearings. The land was beginning to look familiar if he ignored the afterlife’s trees. “What?”

“Why don’t we sink? If this is the living world, why can we walk on it, but not touch the trees?”

“How should I know?! It’s not like I’m an expert or anything about being dead!” Iolaus ignored the skeptical look he received. It was too similar to Hercules’ looks when he’d said something the demigod doubted. Maybe it was a demigod thing. He shook his head. “I admit I’ve been dead before, okay, maybe several times, but this is all different. It’s the first time I’ve died outside of Greece. Maybe different rules apply. Hades likes his rules, you know.” Okay, that look Gilgamesh gave him plainly said the Sumerian thought he was several stones shy of a temple. “Maybe we’re floating or something. Or the ground in both places coincides. As long as we don’t sink, I don’t plan on worrying about it.”

Gilgamesh shrugged. “I was just curious.”

“Yeah, well, keep your curiosity in check. We have enough to worry about.” He took off, Sumerian in tow. Time was running out. They couldn’t help anyone if they didn’t get to the Elysian Fields.

When time seemed nonexistent, it was hard to tell when they reached the hidden opening Iolaus had been searching for. There was the crooked tree that had survived a lightning strike some years ago, and there the rock formation that resembled a short, pot-bellied satyr. Iolaus signaled Gilgamesh off the deer path they’d been following and toward a brush and vine-covered cliff face.

“It’s here somewhere.” He hadn’t ever seen the actual opening as Hercules had simply gestured in its general direction. It took several minutes of pulling vines aside-apparently they were at least present in their afterlife existence-and wading through brush to find the man-size hole.

“That’s a little disappointing,” Iolaus muttered. “I thought maybe there’d be a gold arch, maybe some cryptic writing, at the very least a gate. And stop giving me those looks!”

Gilgamesh looked away from Iolaus and back to the cave entrance. “I’d think you’d be glad there wasn’t more to impede us.”

“You know, you and your gods are so boring,” Iolaus muttered. “As much as ours are a pain in the butt, at least they know how to show off.” He shoved another vine to the side and entered the cave entrance. Waiting for his eyes to adjust to the gloom, he looked around curiously. No writings. No gold. No monsters waiting to pounce on a trespasser, which was a good thing, all-in-all. Once he could see well enough to traverse the rocky floor, he gestured Gilgamesh to follow.

The cavern soon narrowed into a passage that seemed to have a steady decline to it. One thing about being dead, his eyesight seemed a lot better in the dark than his living self could lay claim to. Neither men broke the silence as they descended into what Iolaus hoped would be the entrance to Hade’s realm as Hercules had claimed. He hoped he hadn’t led them to a normal cave and wasted precious time.

His worries were assuaged as the sound of swiftly flowing water began to echo against the rock walls of the passage they eased down. Soon they rounded a curve and the opening was filled with the sight of the river Styx lit by phosphorescent lichen on the cavern’s ceiling. Large, it sported a rocky ‘beach’ that led to the shallower portion of the river. A small dock, looking neglected, jutted out into the water. The fast flowing river disappeared down its large channel to be lost in the dim distance. He couldn’t be sure, but it looked like the walls of the cave narrowed, eating away at what passed for a beach, and leaving only a tunnel for the water to pass through.

“What now?” Gilgamesh questioned.

“This is the Styx. Normally, we’d arrive in a huge chamber and there’d be this line of dead people waiting for the ferryman to take them to the other side. But according to Hercules this is upriver from there. So, we either try to swim down there, or we wait and hope Charon shows up. I think Herc mentioned that the old geezer comes here sometimes on his break.”

“He gets a break?” Gilgamesh looked like he found the Greek afterlife totally bewildering.

“Yeah, Hades isn’t as tough as he pretends to be. He’s okay, for a god.” Iolaus edged out onto the dock and settled down, swinging his feet over the edge. “I think we can wait a short while, see if he shows up. I don’t particularly relish trying to swim the Styx. I’m pretty sure I saw something swimming in it the last time I was here.”

As Gilgamesh settled down beside Iolaus, the blond warrior was certain he heard him mutter, “You are a strange man.”

Their patience was rewarded some time later when they heard this awful warbling echoing up the cavern walls and louder than the rushing water. Gilgamesh leapt to his feet, prepared to do battle with whatever monster made such a horrible sound.

“Relax. Charon thinks he can sing.” Iolaus rose, hands on hips as he waited impatiently for the ferryman to make an appearance. It wasn’t long before they saw a cloaked and hooded finger bent over a pole seeming to skim the dark waters toward them. Eventually it was close enough to make out that the figure didn’t stand on the water, but rather in a large, dark boat that had seen better days. The rising prow sported a lantern that was currently shuttered. This only confirmed Iolaus’ belief that Charon didn’t really need the light to see his watery path, but used it to assuage the newly dead’s fears of the dark passageway. Come to think of it, actually the light had cast creepy shadows on the cavern walls, so maybe it was to scare the poor souls into staying in the boat.

Charon kept up his warbling and didn’t look up until he was ready to angle the boat toward the warf. The ‘music’ died as he caught sight of the two figures waiting for him. Iolaus was ready to dive into the Styx after him if the ferryman changed directions, but he was spared a dunking as curiosity got the better of Charon and he resumed his progress toward them.

“Get lost! This is my dock!” were the first utterances from the gnarled and down right monstrous face. “Wait. It’s you.” This was said with loathing.

“Yeah, yeah, nice to see you too.”

“What did it this time? A hydra? Warlord? Another Enforcer?” The boat bumped up against the dock and Iolaus grabbed the rope coiled in the bow to tie it off.

“Knife to the heart,” Iolaus admitted.

“Ouch. Don’t you know better to dodge sharp things?” Charon’s bones creaked as he made his way to the bow and took Iolaus’ offered hand. Pulling himself up onto the dock, he turned his red-rimmed eyes on Gilgamesh who bravely stood his ground. “I don’t know him, but he’s not Greek. Shoo! Go to your afterlife. We’re too full to take in immigrants.” With that, he rudely pushed past the two warriors and proceeded up the dock to where a few large boulders provided impromptu seats.

Settling down on one, Charon opened a bag he’d carried with him from the boat and pulled out a haunch of meat. He then started his lunch, ignoring the two souls.

Gilgamesh started toward him, a stormy look on his face that reminded Iolaus of Hercules on a bad day. He reached out and caught Gilgamesh’s arm. “Let me handle this.” He didn’t need to get on the prickly ferryman’s bad side.

“Sorry for the, uh, backdoor entry, but we have a bit of a problem. Actually, it’s a huge problem,” Iolaus began.

“Don’t tell me. The world up there’s gone to Tartarus and a hand basket.” Charon spoke with his mouth full, spewing bits of ground up meat at the two warriors.

Iolaus and Gilgamesh shared worried glances before Iolaus tried again. “We need to get to Hades right away-“

“Can’t.” Charon swallowed his mouthful and took another bite of his lunch.

“I know I don’t have any dinars on me, but uh, Hercules will pay you back-“

“You never have money on you. Besides, you’ll probably go right back to the living world, so what’s the point of even going further down the Styx?”

“No, you see, I won’t this time. But that’s not important now. We need to see Hades about Dahak and Sumeria and their gods and what happened-“ Iolaus felt like he was babbling. It was too complicated to explain to Charon. He needed to talk to someone who might be able to help in some way.

“Can’t,” Charon reiterated.

“Look! I-“

Charon stood suddenly, and for the first time, Iolaus realized that the ferryman wasn’t just some pathetic peon forced to labor on the outskirts of the Elysian Fields, but a being of the gods. Crooked and bent though he seemed, Charon’s demeanor had suddenly taken on a menacing aura. He felt Gilgamesh shift beside him, no doubt taking a defensive stance.

“You. Can’t. Hades ain’t home.”

That took the sails right out from under him. Iolaus looked at the gnarled figure in confusion. “Not home? He’s on Mount Olympus?”

“Nope.”

“Visiting Demeter and Persephone?” That was unlikely, but stranger things had happened.

“Wrong!”

“Then where-?!”

One long, clawed finger pointed upwards. “Up above. He’s in the middle of a battle even as we speak.”

“Wh-what?” Iolaus felt like he was repeating himself fruitlessly.

“Yeah, that’s what I say. Damn mortals, causing more problems up there while we’re drowning down here, I tell ya’. Thank Hades he put Strife to helping me. That’s the only reason I’m getting a lunch break! I’ve got lines miles long of people waiting to cross the river and miles long on the other side waiting to check in. Persephone’s a nice goddess and all, great glams too, but she’s too slow on the books.” Charon shook his head. “First it was the famines, then it was plagues, and now war!”

Iolaus sat down unsteadily on one of the companion boulders. “War? When did this all start?” There had been no sense of time in the afterlife as they’d wandered here. He’d hoped he’d left Nebula and Hercules only a day or so ago. Now he began to wonder.

“Weeks and weeks ago. The war is newer, but there were already small battles going on before the gods got involved.” Charon waved a hand dismissively.

“I don’t feel so good,” Iolaus muttered to himself.

“The Greek gods?” Finally, Gilgamesh spoke up.

Charon gave the Sumerian an annoyed look. “Didn’t I tell you to scram? Who are you, anyway?”

Iolaus waved at his companion. “Gilgamesh, former king of Sumeria.

Gilgamesh nodded uneasily at the ferryman before turning to Iolaus. “If your gods are fighting, then maybe any chance Dahak has of causing further problems will be taken care of now.”

Charon choked on his food as he started to laugh. After coughing for a minute and pounding his chest, he finally swallowed his current bite the right way. “Half the pantheon is hiding up on Olympus, and Poseidon has his head hiding in the sands on the ocean floor. If it wasn’t for Ares and his war machine, Zeus, Hermes, and Hades and our army of the dead,” he shrugged, “the mortals would all be overrun by that look-alike of yours.”

“Now I know I don’t feel good. What look-alike?” But Iolaus knew.

“Some upstart warlord with your face and name. But Hades says it isn’t you. He’d know your soul anywhere. So how’d your body end up runnin’ around on its own?” Charon gave him a curious look.

“It’s a long story and the reason we need to see Hades. Look, Charon, I don’t have anything to bri-er, pay you with, but I promise I’ll get Hercules to pay you back. Say, a nice succulent pork dinner?” This caused Charon to perk up a little, greedy eyes flicking between Gilgamesh and Iolaus.

“Wait. Hercules has stiffed me before. He promised me a pig and then made off with it. I want three porkers.”

“Two pigs. I’ll make him bring you two pigs, and Alcmene’s recipe for pork dressing. It’s to die for, trust me. I’ll even nag him until he does,” Iolaus countered.

“Well…only trouble is that Hades ain’t available.”

“Just get me to Persephone. Let me speak to her. She can contact Hades for me or get him to return. I just need in!” He was desperate and afraid he’d be thwarted when he was now close enough to help. He could tell the gods what they were facing. Maybe join Hades’ dead army, then stand at Hercules’ back, even if it was at a distance.

Charon looked him over, eyes glittering. Then he sighed and put his half-eaten haunch back in his bag. “Fine. Two pigs and the recipe!” He rose and gestured to the boat. “Get in.”

As Gilgamesh made to follow, Charon put an arm out to block his way. “You stay here.”

The sounds of metal ringing on metal clashed with the cries of the dying and wounded. Ares strode through the melee, shouting encouragement to his men, taking out an enemy here, pulling a stunned soldier back to his feet there. How they’d managed to be outnumbered was beyond him. Unless troops had defected during battle, he could have sworn they’d been nearly even in numbers with Iolaus’ army.

A small voice niggled at the back of his mind, telling him something else was causing his army to fail. Maybe it had something to do with the figures he occasionally caught out of the corner of his eye. Vague, disturbing shapes, sometimes armored, sometimes dressed in rags on bare boned steeds.

No matter, he told himself. The God of War never retreats. Perhaps those were prophetic words, because before dusk, he was in the rather unique position of considering that option. Three days of fighting, with two calls for reinforcement from Orestes’ and Iphicles’ armies back on the border, had not improved their position any. Iolaus’ army was slowly but surely pushing them back. Fortifications that had seemed sturdy and strong had buckled, catching allies unaware and trapping no few of them beneath tons of earth and stone. The young earth god had been hard pressed to get them out while dryads and farmers-with pitchforks no less!-provided cover from the encroaching enemy.

“The very Fates are against us. They have to be,” he muttered to himself. How else could other gods be hurt and have to leave the battlefield? On the first day of engaging the enemy, Deimos had taken a blow that felled him and left him more addled than usual. He wouldn’t be back at the border if Discord hadn’t pulled him to safety. Though, come to think of it, with the goddess’ temper and disgust over having to drag him back, some of those wounds might not have come from the enemy.

Worse was losing Hermes the next day. He’d been knocked from Pegasus by a well-aimed catapult. The ammunition had been laced with Greek-fire or something like it and the hapless god had been singed nearly bald. It would take weeks if not months for him to recover. At least his followers had rallied in anger and not deserted the cause. Messages still flowed between all allies, albeit slower than before. Hermes now rested on Mount Olympus.

Ares flexed his arm and swung his sword, taking out three enemy warriors who’d managed to get past their fortifications. “Shore up that hole!” he shouted at his nearest warlord. As they hastened to do his bidding, Ares teleported to another spot and lent his aid to some hard-pressed Attican soldiers. They bore shields made by none other than Hephaestus, who labored under less than ideal conditions to get them armor and weapons that could withstand fierce battle. Even the God of the Forge was affected by the loss of worshippers. His armor and swords did not bear any special abilities, but they at least were better than those that were manmade.

Ares reached the forefront of the battle and bellowed a challenge at the enemy. If only that coward, Dahak, would show his face. He’d take him down a peg or two in one swing. Damn the creature!

As if in answer to his challenge, the earth shook beneath his feet. He thought at first that it was an earth quake, damning Gaea for her random acts of rearranging the earth like any mortal woman rearranging her home’s furniture. However, the vibration under his feet was too regular.

Ares started and nearly decapitated the little earth god who had appeared beside him and, neatly ducking under the swing of the sword, come up within Ares’ personal space.

“Giants, Ares! The enemy has the giants on its side!” His hand clutched the war god’s arm, ignoring proprieties in his distress.

“Well, bolster the fortifications!” This is what he got for having inexperienced help. And why hadn’t they gotten wind of the giants taking the enemy’s side? He watched the young god nod and crouch to touch the earth, creating his own tremor through the ground as he called on the earth to answer his need. That done, he disappeared from Ares’ side to reappear further from the fighting and take part in keeping the wounded behind a barricade of earth and rock. Ares noted Aesclepius moving among the dying and wounded, trying to repair what war had wrought.

He turned his attention away from what was behind him and concentrated on what lay before in the thick of the battle. The tops of shaggy heads rose above the hill beyond the battlefield and a dozen mountain giants, armed with large, spiked-studded clubs, entered the battle. A wale of dismay rose from his side at the sight of the behemoths and Ares groaned when he saw a Cyclops following behind the giants. Where in Tartarus had Dahak found, let alone convinced, a Cyclops to be his ally?

One swing of a large club took out three of his troops. Of course, being mountain giants, they weren’t too bright, and took out an enemy soldier as well. The human warriors were no match for the behemoths, so with a roar, Ares charged the nearest giant. As if thinking the same, he caught Hades out of the corner of his eye, driving his chariot at the Cyclops, his dead warriors streaming behind him like an invasion of black rats.

Ares didn’t have time for more as he engaged his chosen foe. He swung his sword and felt it bite deep into leg muscle. Jerking it out, he whirled and reversed the direction of the swing, letting it bite into the hamstring of the tree trunk sized leg before him. The giant’s first howl of pain was immediately followed by a second and then it dropped to one knee, its damaged leg no longer able to support its weight. Ares bellowed for back up. He’d bring them down and let the mortal warriors finish them off.

On his third giant, he heard a shrill scream he swore was Discord’s voice. Giving only momentary thought to the idea that she’d taken a direct hit, he didn’t stop but continued on to the next foe. Before he got more than ten paces, the dust from the newly fallen giant cleared and he saw before him Hades’ chariot, on its side, the legs of mangled horses sticking up at various angles like some black and bloody garden. The chariot itself was half crushed and Hades was tangled with it and the reins while Discord and several dead warriors tried to fend off two of the giants.

Ares noted that on the plus side, Hades had taken down the Cyclops before falling himself.

He joined the fray by leaping up onto the back of one of the giants and for the next few minutes struggled to hang on and position his sword for a death blow without cutting his own head off. He got unexpected help when the giant’s face suddenly sprouted a mud pack. As he swung back, he saw the earth god standing before the giant, another mud ball in hand, ready to be thrown. Ares swung his sword as the giant swung his club downward. As his weapon cleaved the giant’s head from its shoulder, the club smashed into the earth god and an explosion of dirt, sticks, and leaves flared up. As the giant’s headless body toppled, nothing remained of the young god. Ares leapt off, hoping that the young immortal could pull himself back together and rejoin the battle before it was too late.

Ares prepared to accost the other giant only to find that Discord and Hades’ troops had knocked it off its feet. As the dead warriors swarmed over the hapless giant, stabbing and clawing at it, Discord was struggling to get the god of the Underworld separated from his ruined transportation.

Gods could bleed. They could even die under the right circumstances and with the right weapons. Ares knew that well. And while Hades wouldn’t die-assuming the current state of affairs hadn’t affected him as bad as it had many of the Olympian gods-he wouldn’t be fighting more any time soon.

He helped Discord disentangle Hades, keeping an eye on the battle around them. As the goddess stood, supporting the wounded god, Ares ordered her to take him back to the Underworld.

“…no…I have to-“ Hades muttered, his eyes fogged with pain.

“You’re useless right now,” Ares interrupted him. “You’ll heal faster in your own realm. Transfer authority of your army to me and then go recover.”

Hades looked like he’d argue more, but a glare from Ares made him reluctantly nod. “They’re yours-for now. But I won’t leave here. I’ll retreat to the mortals’ camp. I can still give them advice.”

Ares gave him a bloody grin. Hades could be annoyingly picky about rules and regulations, but he hadn’t lost his fighting spirit. A war god could respect that. “Good. Discord, take him to Iphicles’ camp and return immediately,” Ares commanded, turning away.

“Like I could keep away,” was the goddess’ parting shot.

The battle didn’t improve. Granted they’d taken down all the giants, it was at a great cost. They’d lost two gods, several dozen mortals, half a dozen dryads and one nymph when a giant fell on her. Without the earth god, the fortifications were crumbling under repeated assault. Discord and Ares sported numerous scrapes, cuts and bruises. Zeus, who had remained their long distance fighter, hurling lightning bolts right and left, was the only one who appeared unscathed.

Ares was sure he hated him for it.

He did have some perverse satisfaction that the King of the Gods managed to appear a little winded from all his efforts. That disappeared when he realized it had to be due to the loss of worshipers.

Night was falling and the enemy didn’t appear to be letting up. They’d brought catapults into play and began to periodically hurl Greek Fire into the allies’ midst. Ares’ army was showing signs of strain. Morale was slipping.

“Ares.” Zeus interrupted his thoughts.

“What?” He hated it that he sounded sulky. Ares shook his own flagging optimism away.

“We must pull back,” Zeus quietly offered.

“No. We’re not turning tail.”

“We don’t have a choice. Our fortifications are failing; our stronger allies are out of the picture. We need to fall back and let our warriors rest and recoup. Iphicles-“

“Iphicles and his men are all mortal. If the gods can’t stand against this infernal army, what makes you think they can?” Harsh, but true words.

“Are you so concerned about their well-being, my son, or is it your pride that can’t take the beating?” Ancient eyes surveyed his face, wisdom offering the sane course.

“I hate you,” Ares offered in return. It had been a long time since Zeus had called him ‘my son’. It wasn’t playing fair and the old god knew it.

“We don’t have to totally pull back. I and a small contingent can remain behind and provide cover. You can take the main army back to the border and join Iphicles and Orestes there. We’ll fall back after we’re sure you’re safe.”

“A delaying tactic,” Ares nodded. He knew Zeus was right. They had to regroup and set up new barriers, spy out weaknesses in the enemy’s camp. “Maybe some troops to follow along, harass the edges of the enemy, fading back into the land. I could set some dryads and nymphs to do that. Centaur archers are good for that too.”

“Good man,” Zeus commented as Ares acquiesced to logic.

That didn’t mean he liked it. Inside, every instinct raged against retreat. But war wasn’t just about passion and anger. It was logic and strategy as well. He promised himself that when this was over, he’d have the balls of whoever was leading the enemy; Iolaus, or what wore his face. This wasn’t just about the gods, or just about the mortals. This thing was dark and no one was safe. It forced them to ally with former enemies, the weak, whatever it took to survive. Ares decided he’d even ally with his much hated brother to bring this enemy to its knees. Greece had to survive, its gods had to survive. Death wasn’t an option.

As he strode back to the front to give the orders to retreat, his own words haunted him.

The God of War never retreats.

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