Iphicles strode down the unevenly torchlit streets, not sure where he was going other than Away. He hated the effect Herc had on him, even understood a great portion of it, but it never stopped it from happening. Yes, he'd been overly critical, overly ready to start yet another fight, but he had reasons, damn it! And call him immature, but now he wanted a fucking drink more than he wanted anything else in his life.
As if by magic, the soft, beery light of a tavern appeared in front of him. Well far be it rom Iphiclces to ignore a Divine Suggestion... He entered the anterooom of the 'Frog and Cow', reveling in the sounds of casual conversation that had nothing to do with Hercules.
"I'm telling you, it was unnachural, it was. They looked *happy*. Well, in a relative sort of way..."
"Did not. Not the ones *I* heered aboot. All spread out like some kind of medicinal lesson. Can't tell me they was happy aboot *that*.
"Wasn't like that a'tall. Only certain bits missing, not all laid oot like. What you heered was nothin' but talk, mark my words. They was happy, they was. Well, aside from the missing bits."
"The bits WASN'T missing! They was right there aside the gels!"
"Gels? Wasn't no gels. 'Twas lads, it was. I *knows*."
As Iphicles ordered a nice *large* beer, the first speaker (a tall old man with wisps of beard floating from his chin and neck) drained his beer and slammed the mug on the bar. "'Notherun, Nate! And nosso weak this time!" He turned back to his short, stockier adversary. "WAS gels. Heared it from Poke. Poke never lies."
The smaller man snorted derisively, a punctuational bit of mucous flying out of his generous nose. The taller man ignored it (or at least that's what Iphicles chose to think). "POKE?! Thad son uva whore? Aye, he dun't lie, but he dun't check his sources too careful either. I'm tellin' ye it was lads. Heard it from Nobby, an' he's a *conshable*, he is."
"Poke sawr it," the tall one reiterated sulkily.
"So'd Nobby. An' he din't see no gels."
"Don' mean Poke din't see whad he sawr."
The smaller one snorted again, mercifully without physical accompaniment. "Day I start believin' HIM..."
"Coulda been they was both right."
"HOW, you doss coont? They don't match up! Lads all happy an' gels laid oot like a anotomy exshersise." The smaller man took a large gulp of his ale. "Iss not th' same... moedius operandee."
"Whadda *you* know aboot operandees?"
"More'n you ever will."
"'Scuse me, mates." Iphicles stepped between them, knowing he was taking a chance that they'd turn on him, but hoping both friendliness and the fact that he could clearly flatten them both would work in his favour. "Couldn't help overhearing. You talking about the recent atrocities?"
"'Oo's arskin'?" both men said simultaneously.
"Name's Malek," Iphicles improvised as he signalled the bartender over again. "Did some merc work during this war. Heard some things I don't quite believe, but I got some family members missing. Aye, bartender, why don't you bring me a pitcher of ale for these fine gentlemen!"
That drew bright smiles from both his drunken informants, along with a snort from the bartender. "'Ey, that's right nice of you, mate!" said the taller one.
""Ver' shivillized," agreed the smaller one. "Said you was lookin' fer fambly?"
Iphicles nodded seriously as the bartender parceled out the drinks, pouring each of them a glass of beer from the pitcher. "A niece and a nephew. My brother and his wife haven't been able to find them since the fighting slowed to a crawl."
"Best off if ye dun't," the tall one muttered, long wisps of chin hair floating hypnotically as he took several long swallows from his mug of beer.
"I *need* to though," Iphicles pressed as the smaller man's drink disappeared down his throat.
"*I'll* tell ye, lad," the man gave him him a gap-toothed grin. "'Least what I *h-* urrrrrrrrrrrrp!- *-eard*. It's likely nae a story ye'll 'ave 'eard afore."
"Naught but lies," the taller one opined.
"Yew SHUT yer bleedin' *hole*!" The smaller man threw an ineffective punch at his compatriot. "Malek 'ere wannns ta talk ta me, an' thass a fact. 'Cause I'll tell 'im the troof."
The taller man snorted and turned back to his drink.
Iphicles leaned towards the shorter man. "And what would that be, Mr....?"
"Willum," the man replied with drunken dignity.
"Well, Willum," Iphicles clapped a comradely arm around the man's shoulder. "What say we find ourselves a table and a few more drinks and you can tell me about it?"
They settled at a table in the back of the inn, the erstwhile Willum beaming happily at the pitcher Iphicles set in front of him. "So what's this all about, Willum?" He smiled ingratiatingly.
"'Ave a drink."
Willum topped off his nearly-full mug. "I don't drink alone. S'not comradely. So 'ave a drink."
Iphicles took a drink. "Glad to. Now... the murders?"
Willum took another drink and belched operatically. "Good on ye that ye din't lissen to ol' Jarvus there. 'E don't know 'is 'ead from 'is arse, him. Dunno what this talk aboot gels is aboot. Way *I* haerd -- an' this is from Nobby, he's a conshable -- was two, mebbe three lads. All dead as yer aunt Helen, an' all lookin' 'appy as mud. *'Ceptin'!* He took another drink then leaned forward in boozy confidentiality. Iphicles moved close enough to smell the apalling halitosis under the haze of alcohol. "'Ceptin'... Ye likely won't b'lieve me 'ere... They 'ad no *eyes*!"
"No... eyes? What do you mean?"
Willum's voice dropped to a loud whisper. "They's eyes... they was gone. Plucked oot. Just big bloody holes where they was. Swear to Zeus. 'S been goin' on fer awhile now, ever since Corinth started winnin' the war. But never so much as ye'd notice a con-conexshun. Just one here, a few there... but mark my words, 'tis Corinth that spawned it." He drained his glass and looked at Iphicles expectantly.
"What makes you say that?" Iphicles obligingly refilled it, taking a small sip out of his own mug.
"Well just wot I sed, ye daft bastard," Willum snorted, taking another drink. "Wasn't till they started winning this bugger started up. Wouldn't find no Messilanians goin' aboot hackin' young fightin' lads' eyes oot."
Iphicles nodded. "You have a point there, Willum."
"Damn right," his companion agreed, draining his beer with almost surreal speed then looking suspiciously into the depths of the cup.
"Tell you what," Iphicles half-stood, pushing his half-pitcher to the older man's side of the table. "I have to go, and I'd hate for this to go to waste, so why don't you take it. On me."
Willum gave him a gap-toothed grin. "Now, that's right nice of you, Malek-me- lad! And as one loyal Messilanian to anovver, I'll acshept that! Best of in findin' your kinfolk!"
Iphicles nodded his thanks and left the tavern. Outside the confines of the building, the night was so crystal clear that there was a distinct chill to the air, a preternatural light pervading the small city thanks to the nearly full moon above. He heard snatches of conversation and music from the inns and pubs he walked by, and farther off a few diffuse shouts of revelry or perhaps fear, but the area he was walking through was surprisingly empty. After a short while, he realized he'd been expecting Ares to show up. And even more annoying, he was at some level dismayed that the dark god hadn't. //Maybe there's a war somewhere that needs tending to? Hah. More like *I'm* the *least* of his concerns. Well... fuck him. I can do this on my own. I know a fuck of alot more than Little Brother does now.//
And comforting himself with these half-truths, he had a few more quiet drinks at inns whose patrons had *no* information, then entered the next decent-looking inn he passed and got himself a room for the night.
It held nothing to the Palace at Corinth, but as rooms went it was nearly luxurious. A large bed, an actual closet, a seperate small alcove for washing-up, even its own small fireplace. Still feeling the chill of the small hours of the night, Iphicles lit the fire with the flint provided and, once the fire was crackling merrily, sending strange but comforting shapes dancing in the shadows of the room, unstrapped his boots and traveling gear, collapsing back on the bed with a sigh. He should have asked the innkeeper for a pitcher of-
**FLASH** "Cold water?"
Iphicles took the proffered pitcher with an ironic smile, pouring himself a glass as he said, "Just can't resist a dramatic entrance, can you?"
Plopping on the bed next to him, Ares shrugged. "Hey, it goes-"
"-With the job," Iphicles finished for him. "I wonder about that, but thank you, regardless." He drank the entire glass of icy water and poured himself another. "So were you looking in tonight?"
"Here and there," Ares acknowledged, "but I had some things to attend to. I'm sorry I missed the fight."
"The one you and Mr. Perfect had."
"If you missed it, how do you know we *had* a fight?"
The god raised one dark eyebrow at him. "Well. You're here in this inn. He's not; he's at the one your horse is stabled at. And given your track record it doesn't take a Euclid to figure it out."
Iphicles set the pitcher and glass down with a sigh and settled back on the bed. "Okay, you're right. We fought. I left. But I didn't waste the entire night."
Ares' eyes raked him up and down, taking in the bloodshot eyes and disheveled appearence. "Oh, *obviously* not! From what I saw when I looked in, you sampled the wares of half the taverns in the city!"
The king glared at his so-called ally, enunciating with exaggerated clarity. "For your information, I may have a lead on the atrocities that have you so worried, *mister* omnipotent."
The god smirked. "Sarcasm works better when you know the right words. Omnipotent and omiscient are two different things. So *do* tell, my little drunken king."
Iphicles restrained himself from saying or doing something stupid, not trusting himself to talk though his eyes glared daggers. Finally he rolled over on the bed, pointedly turning his back on the god with a muttered, "Fuck you."
A warm weight settled against his back, breath warm in his ear. "*Iph*icles..."
"Go 'way. I'm tired."
"Come on. I was just busting your balls a little. You know I didn't mean it." A hand slid up to knead his shoulder.
Iphicles gritted his teeth. "You should've thought of that. Go bust someone else's balls. I've had enough of that today."
Sharp teeth nibbled delicately at his throat, sending little frissons of pleasure down his nerve endings, then soft, full lips traced the same path as that dulcet voice rumbled, "You don't mean that. Any more than I did. I can't help it. I'm the god of War. I do conflict. This... mutual respect thing is new to me. You *know* I didn't mean it."
"Areeeeeeees..." He meant it to be stern, but to his dismay it came out as more of a plea.
The hand worked its sensuous way down his shoulder and arm to twine with his right hand. "See?" Curls and soft breath tickled his ear. "You *know* I'm with you, Iphicles." Soft purr as the hard warmth of Ares' body pressed more insistently against his. "Talk to me. You notice our *brother* didn't come looking for you..."
Iphicles snorted, pulling his hand firmly away. "Like *that's* something new and different. Just let me sleep, okay?"
Ares gritted his teeth. //Damn. Wrong tactic. Fuck, he's stubborn for a mortal. But he *is* just a mortal...// Doing his best to sound apologetic, he said, "Sorry. No more about the world's most celebrated bastard. Just talk."
Iphicles words came back muffled and alcoholically truculent. "Don't *wanna* talk."
Ares allowed himself a grin. "That's fine. We don't *have* to talk yet." He squeezed the king's firm ass as puctuation.
Iphicles gave a non-commital grunt.
"You don't *really* want to go to sleep yet, do you?" Ares purred into his right ear, voice as smooth as honey.
"You're just trying to ge- *keep* me up. Awake. For you, not for me."
Ares bit back on the irritated sarcasm his mouth wanted to spout, settled on rolling his eyes. //Oh GODS, he's going all angst-ridden again. What'd I do to deserve this?!// Essaying every bit of control he had in him, he kept his voice smooth and calm. "NO, Iphicles. Not for me. For *us*. If I didn't want to be with you you *know* I have other ways of finding out what I want to know, and easier ways of getting some." He squeezed the king's ass again, harder this time than he intended, but fortunately it seemed that met with the man's approval.
Iphicles gave a soft little moan. "True..." he admitted. Then he rolled over to face Ares, his eyes dancing with mischief as he smacked the god's ass *hard*. "So why don't you quit acting like our bleeding-heart brother and *get* some?"
For a long moment Ares just stared as the fact that the king had completely sucked him worked its way into his mind, then- "You BASTARD!" He threw himself on top of Iphicles, hands wrapping around wrists to imprison the mortal beneath him. "You- you didn't mean ANY of that! You took *advantage* of me!"
Iphicles snickered helplessly in the god's grasp. "Like you've never done the same? I know I know, you're a god and blah blah blah. Why don't you put some of that energy to good use, eh?"
With a growl and a mental =yank= Ares disappeared their clothes. "I INTEND to, mortal dog!"
Iphicles unbelievably gave him a snotty smirk. "My my... insulting *and* lazy."
"I've noticed that about you gods. Can't ever do something manually, always with the godlike powers." He sighed heavily. "I suppose next you'll overpower me, fuck me and make me love it, then disappear back to some temple and let a few of your priestesses have the honour of washing the sweat off you. All that potential but you're *so* unoriginal..."
"UN-" Ares stopped in mid-roar, glaring at Iphicles suspiciously, then with deepening annoyance. "You did it again. You're *doing* it again." He let go the king's wrists, rematerializing their clothes as he did, and sat back, still straddling the king but sitting back enough to allow Iphicles to lever himself up on his elbows. "All of a sudden, if I say *anything* about being a god or use my powers, I look like an idiot."
Iphicles gave him an Innocent look.
"But if I *leave* right now, I also look like an idiot."
Iphicles gave an awkward shrug.
Ares gave him a glare that didn't quite cover the tinge of interest in his eyes. "So what *do* you want?"
Iphicles looked at him measuringly. "Just... try something different for once."
Ares snorted. "Different? My dear, I've done things that would make 'different' run home screaming for its mother."
Iphicles didn't look impressed. "I'm not talking god things. I'm talking *really* different... for you anyway."
Ares wrinkled his nose, not sure what the man was getting at and very sure it wasn't going to be something he wanted to hear. "You're wasting valuable time. What?"
Iphicles gave him another one of those *looks* then said, "Just... try it the mortal way. Don't use your powers. Don't assume you're going to dominate it all, and that it's all just for you. No shortcuts. Be with me as your*self*, not as Ares God Of War."
Ares frowned in a way that had terrified legions of men. "Myself *is* Ares God of War."
Iphicles sighed. "I understand. If it scares you that much-" A large hand wrapped itself painfully in his hair.
"HEY. I am NOT scared. Understand THAT." Ares yanked.
Iphicles winced and grinned. "Of course. Silly suggestion. Curiosity has never been the gods' strong suit either." Then gasped at a new thrill of pain as Ares yanked again. //Gods, he keeps this up I'm gonna come before I talk him into *anything*!//
"YOU-" Ares sputtered, furious, and lapsed into momentary silence, eyes burning nearly red. "You-"
As Iphicles watched fascinated, he could almost *see* the moment the dark god's intelligence reasserted itself over his rage. The eyes slowly went back to their normal espresso-dark beauty, and the god smiled slowly. "You conniving mortal bastard. And everyone thinks Hercules is the smarter brother." He chuckled deeply, though there was an edge of threat to it. "All right then," he leaned in close to Iphicles, the hand still twined in the king's hair forcing his head back, "I'll play it your way. No powers. Just you and me. Ares and..." -grin- "Malek, wasn't it? That way there's no gods *or* kings involved."
Iphicles grinned back. "Malek it is. And you *may* find yourself enjoying this, you know."
Ares rolled off him and stood up next to the bed, a cocky look on his face. "I know. In fact, I'm sure of it. It's your move, boy..."
Iphicles surged off the bed still grinning, pulling close to Ares' leather-clad form, enjoying the fact that he could look his lover in the eyes effortlessly. "Then it's time to try something new, war god. Did it ever occur to you-" he slid a hand inside Ares' vest, fingers playing teasingly through the hair on the god's chest as they crept to tease at a
nipple, "-that the act of removing your partner's clothes and having your own removed could be impossibly erotic?" Reaching his goal, he first ran a battle-callused thumb across the sensitive flesh, then pinched it soft but insistently.
"N-no," Ares admitted. "Clothing was never an issue."
Iphicles worked the nipple into a hard nub, alternating between strokes and hard pinches, then worked his way down, loosening clothing as he went. "Well then..." He slid the vest off Ares' shoulders, to fall unheeded to the floor. "Perhaps you should sample its intrigue for yourself." He leaned in to flick his tongue over the ready-sensitized nipple, eliciting a soft, quickly-supressed groan from Ares.
"Perhaps I should..." Moving with unaccustomed patience, Ares worked open the laces on Iphicles' loose shirt, almost fascinated as more and more of the muscular torso appeared. Resisting the urge to tear and have done with it, he slid the fabric off powerful shoulders, laying his lover's upper body bare in degrees, and he had to admit it was all the more beautiful for the wait, smooth, perfect movement of muscle in concert with bone reavealed as that talented mortal tongue drew shuddering sensation from his nipples, his centre still held in exquisite near-painful check by the leather trousers he'd rashly promised *not* to banish with a thought.
As though his thoughts were transparent, that talented tongue slid away from its hot, nipping torture of his nipples to trace its way down his chest and abdomen, leaving a trail of shuddering cold in the wake of tongue and teeth. Ares sighed and dug his nails into Iphicles' strong shoulders.
The king reciprocated with a concerted attack on Ares' navel, tongue swirling and darting like an adder as his own nails raked the god's back viciously, the trails of pain/pleasure making Ares arch into it uncontrollably, a low groan ripped from him at the pure sensation of it all.
The god's cock and balls were throbbing heavily, painfully in the confines of his leather pants, and it took every bit of willpower he had not to force the king to free him from them at *once*, but he'd agreed to this game and damned if he was going to be seen as weak.
Fortunately, Iphicles seemed to be going there without any coercion. While his tongue was still giving Ares shudderingly new levels of feeling, those clever fingers were working his pants open, releasing him torturously slow, but with every small move that much more heightened for the wait. He literally groaned as the pants opened enough to give him some relief from the painful pressure, missing Iphicles' words. "Hunh?"
"I said sit back. I need to get your boots off."
Ares fell on the bed, and felt a thrill of control as the king bent before him to pull his heavy riding boots off. His leather pants followed shortly after, and before Iphicles could go back to driving him wild, he grabbed the younger man, pulling him commandingly close. "My turn."
Not waiting for Iphicles' consent, he all but tore the soft leather breeches and underthings off the man, pulling him onto the bed and into a roll that finished with Ares on top. A manic grin on his face, he growled, "There, we did it your way. And we're right back where we were in the first place. So it's MY turn."
Iphicles looked surprisingly unperturbed. "Yes and no. You promised no powers. So *I* say this is where things get interesting."
Ares grinned ferally. "Believe it, mortal." He thrust his hips against the mortal's, could feel in exquisite detail that Iphicles' cock was as hard as his own. Again, he wrapped his hand tight and painful in Iphicles' hair, clenching and watching with pleasure the pained wince on the handsome face beneath him. "Powers or no, I *will* overcome you, and I will fuck you, and you *will* love every minute of it." He gave the other man a brief smirk. "But after those remarks of yours, *you* can have the honour of wiping the sweat off me." He yanked hair and thrust his hips and Iphicles writhed satisfyingly underneath him. For a breath of a moment he relaxed, glorying in his *him*ness.
It was in that moment that the king somehow *twisted* beneath him, moving with the quick, vicious sinuousness of a wolverine to throw him on *his* back, the blade of a small, wicked knife glittering at his throat. "Not so fast, Ares..." Iphicles' eyes glittered with arousal and a supressed amusement. "The real point to a good game is you never know if or how long you're in control. As a god you've got a rigged game going. Still gonna play fair now?"
Ares grinned in response.
The small sharp knife descended slowly, biting into the flesh just below Ares' collarbone, traced a path down the left side of his chest, stopping just short of the nipple. The god grinned madly. "Feels good. Do some more." He lifted his left arm, pointed. "There. Cut me. You think you know weapons. Just do it right."
The blade bit, another thin trail of blood following in its wake. Ares gasped, the blood-scent driving him wild. "I hope you want me to reciprocate..."
Bite of fire-and-ice in response, this time following the line of his hip, and this time it's too much. All feeling now, he *twists*, draws this mad lover to him, teeth rending a path for lips to comfort as they writhe together, blood slicking their bodies and Ares wrests the knife away, reciprocating expertly, cutting just deep enough for the blood and sensation to slam into Iphicles and they move against each other, cocks rubbing in unison against blood-and-sweat-slicked flesh, pain and pleasure all one now, and he thinks he's won as always until Iphicles' voice, rough with pain and passion, growls, "You still *OWE* me!" And he feels oil-slicked fingers entering him, preparing him, and he's too far gone in the moment to resist; no matter what his mind does his body bucks into those fingers patiently preparing him, relaxing him, working him open, and he actually *responds* to the yank on his thick curls, the soft request to acommodate Iphicles. And yes, enjoys the feeling of the king pounding into him, filling him even as his nails draw blood from the muscular back. Is thrilled as Iphicles takes his cock, pumping it in sympathy to his thrusts, burys his head in his shoulder as Ares comes and joins him as the muscles in Ares' ass milk his own orgasm, shuddering all the more vehemently as the god's teeth sink into the soft flesh where shoulder meets neck, drawing agony and blood and so much more in one perfect crescendo...
And the god has to admit to himself that he still loves it as he pulls the king close, nuzzling together, unwilling to give up the warmth and closeness. Not that he'd say such a thing to the mortal. This was purely physical. And intellectual, given the challenge that'd brought this on. He looks at the deep marks their passion left on the human's flesh and smiles contentedly. Yes, this was a good game the mortal had come up with. //Except// he amends //next time *I* do the fucking...//
Once both passion and its aftermath were sorted out and the first faint hints of dawn were creeping in the window, Ares asked, "So, what'd you find out?"
"Hunh?" Iphicles yawned.
"For fuck's sake, don't go all tired and mortal on me now. What'd you find out?"
"Find out?" Iphicles blinked at him owlishly. "Uhm... that I should remember gods heal from knife wounds a fuck of alot faster than mortals?"
Ares smirked. "Just remember who introduced the knife in the first place." He let that sink in, then just before that annoyingly angsty pout surfaced, dove in again. "But that's not what I'm talking about. What'd you find out about the atrocities?"
"The-" it took a moment for Iphicles to switch gears, but even the thought of what he'd learned energized him slightly. "OH. Oh fuck. You weren't watching?"
"Would I ASK you if I was watching?!"
"You might," the king shot back.
"Well I didn't. So spill it and I'll let you get some sleep."
So Iphicles told the dark god what he'd learned, and Ares' mien grew unsettlingly introspective and... unsettled as he listened.
"-and that's it," Iphicles finished. "So do you know what it is? *Is* it a god?"
Ares gave a noncommital grunt. "Can't really say yet. You did good work, Iph. Better get some sleep now. You're supposed to compare notes with Little Brother this morning, remember." Impetuously, he pulled the king into a fierce kiss, releasing him with a quick caress and a muttered, "What *ever* possessed you to allow that dye job...", then, while Iphicles was still trying to remember how to breathe, said, "I'll be in touch," and disappeared in a flash of electric blue.
Iphicles stopped in mid-yelp, realizing he was suddenly conversing with an empty room, and decided sleep was the most sensible option at the moment.
The sun was already high overhead as Iphicles dragged himself into the common room of the inn. Unsurprisingly, Hercules was parked at a table, clearly waiting for him. He took a perverse - and admittedly immature - pleasure in taking time to place his order for breakfast before he made his way to the table, thunking tiredly into the chair in the back corner and sipping at his drink. "You know," he mused, "this 'kaffe' alone is reason enough to have annexed Messilania."
"I'll take your word for it," Hercules said mildly. "So. Have a good night?"
"As a matter of fact, I did," Iphicles replied with the same mild good humour. "How's Ransom?"
"Fine. You know you could have *told* me you'd be staying here."
"Didn't know this was where I'd be staying. Besides, you found me."
"Well now that I *have*-" Hercules stopped short as the innkeeper's daughter arrived and deposited a plate of food in front of Iphicles, then waited until his brother had clearly ground down to the end of his meal. "Can we
Iphicles nodded as he wiped a last bit of egg up with the final snippet of fresh-made bread.
"I found out some things about the atrocities last night, after you left."
Iphicles took a sip of 'kaffe' and raised his eyebrows. "Really? So did I. But go ahead."
"It isn't pleasant."
"I know." He gave Herc a brief smile. "At least I've already eaten. Tell me what you've learned, then we can compare notes. It's about time we found something concrete."
Hercules nodded, looking pleased at his brother's expansive mood. "At least we agree. Well. After you left, I went downstairs to the common room. It took a bit of liquor to loosen people's tongues, but there have been real, apparently non-war-related atrocities here within the last fortnight."
Iphicles nodded as he sipped. "Are you *sure* they not realated to the war?"
"Reasonably," Herc conceded. "They seem to have followed in the wake of the war, but the... mode of operation is all wrong. There have been a series of murders in this city. Unthinkably brutal ones, but there have been no witnesses; no one's so much as *heard* anything."
"That meshes with what I've heard," Iphicles agreed.
"The pattern is the same for every one," Herc continued. "A young woman leaves with an unidentified man, and hours later is found dead." He paused, taking a deep breath, then plunged on. "Not just dead. *Horribly* dead. Sexually defiled while alive, then further defiled either as part of or after the murder."
"Defiled how?" Iphicles asked.
"The- they had certain organs removed."
Feeling suddenly like he'd taken a kick of adrenalin, Iphicles said, "Organs? Eyes by any chance?"
Hercules blinked at him, upset and confused. "No. No, not eyes. These girls were opened like animals. Each one of them had heart, lungs, stomach and kidneys set out next to them like an anatomy lesson. Theory is they left the intestines where they were because there was no way to stop them from spreading over too large an area once they were removed from the abdomen. There was no evidence of the tools he used to do it, but there was blood everywhere. Gods, some of them were taken apart like that in their own homes."
Iphicles drank his 'kaffe' slowly, digesting this. "Herc... that isn't the story I heard at all. *My* killer is going after young men. They wind up just as dead, but... he takes their eyes..."
The half-brothers exchanged a serious, perfectly understood look. "So what we may be looking at here-" Hercules ventured.
"-Is *two* killers," Iphicles finished. "Perhaps taking advantage of the war-"
"Perhaps spawned by it." Hercules signalled the innkeeper's daughter. "But the question is, are they working together?"
"And are they working *for* someone." Iphicles asked the girl for more 'kaffe'; Herc uncharacteristically ordered a beer. "So where do we go from here?"
"Stay here another day or two," Herc said decisively. "Follow up on the stories we've heard. See if we can see the bodies. Learn all the *truth* that we can."
"Follow the trail. There's bound to be one."
Iphicles nodded. "Makes sense. One thing you should know -- *my* killer seems to be alleged to hail from Corinth."
"That... *might* be a problem."
"Uh-hunh. So I'm thinking... maybe I should stay at arm's length from you and keep my Malek identity for the time being. Hercules can go anywhere. The king of Corinth is not particularly popular here."
Hercules nodded. "You're right. Maybe you should stay at this inn while we're in town. We can meet again tomorrow, and make our plans according to what we discover."
"Sounds good to me. Same time tomorrow morning then?"
"Same time. What about your horse? You want to keep him at the inn?" Hercules nodded his thanks to the serving wench and gave her nearly a full dinar more than the ale was worth, waving away her attempts to give him change and smiling indulgently as she skipped away.
"We'll only be here a few more days at the most. I doubt anyone will notice." Iphicles reached over to clasp Hercules' forearm. "I never thought I'd say this, but it's nice to be working with you."
Hercules grinned, his own hand grasping Iphicles' forearm tightly. "Likewise. I know the circumstances are grim, but we should have done this a long time ago. You're... a very different man than the one I remember, Iphicles."
Iphicles raised an eyebrow, gave his half-brother an ironic smile. "I *think* I'll take that as a compliment. See you tomorrow, brother."
Feeling a little stunned at the sudden dismissal, Hercules raised his mug amiably as Iphicles left the table and disappeared upstairs. //Well, it's progress. I wonder, could he be right about there being *two* killers? It's a mad thought, but... while he may be annoying as Tartarus, Iphy's never been delusional... Guess we'll have to see.//
Iphicles returned to his room and, feeling a bit foolish, called, "Ares?" There was no answer. Of course.
//*He's* probably still sleeping it off! If gods sleep...//
There was so little he knew about his dark lover. But the minutae could wait. He had a mystery to solve, hopefully before Herc could steal the limelight.
//To Tartarus with that. I need to solve it for Corinth, for myself and for Ares. Herc has nothing to do with it.// He strapped on his sword and left, paying the innkeeper for another two nights on his way out. Herc was already gone.
He strode out into the well-trodden road leading to the town common and suddenly found himself at a loss. He certainly couldn't go striding into the square waving his sword about and announcing he was King of Corinth. Neither could he pass himself off as a recently returned local; the city wasn't quite big enough for that kind of anonymity. But that left...
"Just be friendly."
Iphicles glared at the dark god. "Yeah, right. Just walk up to perfect strangers who've probably talked to Herc twelve seconds before. I notice *you've* never been famous for your social skills."
Ares shrugged nonchalantly. "Even if I *have* those skills, do you really think they'd be reported? War is an unpopular but necessary reality, Iph, just as *I* am a rather unpopular but necessary god. People *and* gods don't understand the importance of my station, and even those that do don't play it up too much; it might endanger their own positions." He leaned close to murmur confidentially into Iphicles' ear, "You know more about me than most of *they* do, Iphicles. Follow my lead, trust your feelings and *talk* to people. You can do it as well if not better than Little Brother. So quit obsessing on him and do it."
Iphicles stopped himself in mid-nod, giving the god an eloquent Look. "Do *what*?"
"Find out about the dead guys," Ares shrugged. "How hard could it be?"
"*You're* the god," Iphicles shot back. "Why don't you just *tell* me?"
"I don't *know* anything about it. I'm the god of war. Murder isn't my thing."
Iphicles rolled his eyes. "Oh, great. So what use *are* you then?"
"I have a god's insight-"
Iphicles snorted. "Forgive me if I sound like Herkarrhoid, but from what *I've* seen that's about as useful as an ingrown toenail on a thirty-league hike."
Ares glared at him. "Shows what a philistine *you* are."
"What a *what*?"
"Never mind. I wasn't finished anyway. I can *also* go places you can't." He threw a comradely arm around the king. "You *need* me."
Iphicles did his best to ignore the tickle of the dark god's goatee against his throat, the close proximity of that body, keeping his tone skeptical as he said, "For this investigation? I still don't see how."
Ares pulled back, the picture of indignance. "Well if you want to do it on your own far be it from *me* to stop you. I sure as Tartarus have better things to do than chase around after some egomaniacal mortal."
//Says the egomaniacal god...//
But somehow Iphicles stopped himself from saying it, knowing *too* much baiting really would drive the god away. He gave Ares his best kicked-puppy Look. "I'm sorry, Ares... I was out of line. Of *course* I want your help. I value your opinion and I know you can find out more than I could. I just... wanted to get the information before Herc does."
"Oh don't worry..." Ares smiled nastily. "You will. By the way-" his mien shifted mercurially to one of utmost innocence, "-you should be careful where you talk to me."
Iphicles blinked, confused. "Whadda you mean, Ares..?"
"Well, just that I've kept myself invisible to everyone but you. As far as anyone can see, you've been carrying on an argument with yourself."
"You-" Iphicles looked about wildly, noting that every townsperson in sight seemed to be concentrating on Not Looking At him. "You smug *bastard!" Fuming, he stepped into a nearby alleyway, pulling Ares after him, and hissed, "Look, you wanna work together, you'd better start acting like it. If we're having a conversation, be *visible* for it!"
"But if I materialize for the general public they either want to vilify me or they want autographs," Ares objected.
"NOT if you don't show up as- as YOU," Iphicles gave a strangled yelp.
"Who'm I *going* to show up as?"
Iphicles counted to ten. Twice. "Just. PRETEND. To be. MORTAL. Tone it down a little. If someone accuses you of being Ares, *deny* it. Change your appearence a little."
"A little HOW?" Ares demanded.
"Just mask the godly aura. *I* don't know."
"I'm not wearing colours. Don't even ASK me to wear colours," the god sulked.
"You can wear black. You can even keep the leathers. Just *tone it down*. And use a different name."
"A different name?" Ares' expression went from offended to thoughtful. "And pretend I'm human? Hm."
Iphicles waited, shifting a little nervously from foot to foot.
Finally the god brightened. "I *like* it. Okay, I'll be... Vajna."
"Vine-ah?" Iphicles wrapped the unfamiliar word around his mouth. "Why that?"
Ares grinned. "It's me."
The king grunted noncommitally. "Fine. Now just promise me you'll matter when I'm talking to you."
"I *always* matter."
"You know what I mean."
Ares sighed. "All right, yes. I will materialize when we're talking publically. Happy?"
"Overcome," Iphicles overstated. "Now shall we?"
Ares smiled happily. "Let's. Whadda we do first?"
"And there they be, sir. Just call me if you find yourself in need of assistance." The city undertaker backed unobtrusively out of the room, leaving his visitor with the remains.
Hercules looked sadly at the amphorae holding the organs removed from the three women lying cold and lost on the tables before him, then turned to the grim task of examining the bodies.
"Oh, I can only allow that if it were a relative, m'lord."
"I think I may be," Iphicles reiterated. "*Please*, if I could just see them..."
Sighing, the undertaker relented. "It's against policy, you know, but you seem like an honest lad. This way..."
He was led down a flight of stairs to the bowels of the undertaker's domain, then left down a stone corridor to a shadowy room dominated by the three still shapes under sheets on utilitarian tables. "Them's the lads, my boy. You tell me if one of 'em's your brother."
"I will," Iphicles nodded, moving towards the bodies with a sick sense of fascination. He dimly heard the door close behind him as he lifted the first sheet.
"Do... any of these girls have families here?"
The undertaker shook his head mournfully. "We haven't had one relative come forward, Hercules. I'm afraid they're all young girls come to town from the farming communities around here. Do you think you can help? Find the killer and give these poor young lasses some peace?"
Hercules frowned, still shaken by the clinical brutality of what he'd seen. "I'll do my best, Mortus. I'll do everything I can."
He lifted the sheet slowly... fair, longish hair, unlined brow... and where the eyes should be, two gaping holes in an otherwise flawless face. A face with high cheekbones, lush lips... Gods...
"That number one?"
Iphicles couldn't control the start of surprise. "ARES. Don't DO that!"
"Sorry," the dark god apologized with an utter lack of sincerety. "So is it?"
"Mm hm". Iphicles moved to the second sheet. Same thing, except this boy had dark hair, olive skin and the look of a fallen angel. His eyelids had drooped over the now-empty sockets, giving him a look of ghoulish peace.
"When you talk to the undertaker again?"
"Yeah?" Iphicles found himself oddly fascinated by those delicate half-moons of sunken flesh, how the long eyelashes still rested so soft against the marble cheeks...
"Ask him where the eyes are."
Following the undertaker's directions, Hercules walked towards the small city's red light district, afraid that the beast he sought ws already long gone, but knowing he had to try...
"The eyes? Oh, they're gone, my boy."
"Gone? Gone where?"
Mortus looked at him mournfully. "Gods only know. They were gone when they were found. I'm *so* sorry. Was any of them your brother?"
"Br- No. No, they weren't. But I'm very worried about him. Is there...do you know if there's an area I could go to find out what happened?"
The undertaker was reluctant, but finally gave Iphicles the names of a few inns to start with. As the sun set, the king followed those all-too-vague instructions, his god/lover no more noticeable than a stray current of air by his side...
He walks in the inn and the music throbs, the three outlander percussionists making it bestial, welcoming... better than the last place. Better than the last *town*... //This world needs more cities// flits across his mind. Lanternlight throws phantasmgorical images on the walls, but that reminds him too much of home. Better to let the beat carry him, so he allows it. Walking into the maelstrom, all sex and sensuality and the heady *reality* ofitall... Here, blond locks brush against eyes of ice-blue as passion dances, but this one is taken judging by the possessive glare of the dark-haired man moving aggressively near him... no problem. Move on, find the lost ones, the ones with soul and hunger in their eyes. There. Perfect. Long-lashed green eyes cleave his soul, the body/soul they're attached to leaning against the bar with studied indifference. Young, strong, all animal grace and naive attempt at calculation. He moves forward, all bored charm and confidence, fixed on those slices of glittering emerald and knows tonight will be a dream...
Iphicles took a sip of his ale and drummed his fingers on the table with ill-concealed impatience. So far the men he'd talked to had a combined intellect that would come out somewhere *below* his shoe size and pickup lines he would have found embarrassing at thirteen. His quest had been so unsuccessful he couldn't even enjoy his drunk. //Fucking Ares... yep, a real blessing having a god on your side...// He snorted sourly as he gave a
dirty look to the sallow young blonde currently eyeing him. //Probably pulls those disappearing acts to go fuck his temple priestesses...// He pulled his attention back to the present as the boy approached him.
"Hey, you busy?"
"Not really, no..."
"I'm Levaris. Wanna dance?" the boy's pale blue eyes took him in hungrily.
"No," Iphicles answered automatically, then remembered what he was trying to accomplish and tried to look accommodating. "Have a seat if you like, though."
The boy gave him a wounded look but sat. "You could at *least* buy me a drink."
"Of course." Iphicles signalled the serving wench, ordered both the boy and himself another ale, then turned back to Levaris, sipping his drink as he considered how to broach the subject of the dead men without scaring the boy off.
Levaris stared back, waiting for the older man to say *something*, and finally grew impatient. "So you don't wanna dance, you don't *seem* to want sex... what *do* you want?"
"I-" Iphicles gave another mental shout for Ares. As usual, it went unheeded. // But you watch -- the *second* I'm asleep and comfortable he'll show up wanting to TALK...// "I just want to talk. Do- did you know a man c-" he paused again as the girl gave them their drinks, pausing a little longer to appreciate the contours of her firm, athletic form as she walked away. The boy sighed pointedly. "Sorry." Iphicles turned his gaze back to his table-mate. "Do you know a man named Dimi?"
"I know half a dozen guys named Dimi, and I'm not going to fix you up with any of them." He started to rise from his chair.
"Wait!" Iphicles grasped the boy's forearm. "Please. I'm sorry. I've given you the wrong impression. Just- hear me out, will you?"
Levaris sat again, affecting utter boredom. "I'm listening. What didn't I understand?"
"My name is Malek. Dimi - the one I'm asking after - was a friend. He was murdered. Here, in this city. I was just hoping you may have seen, heard something. I want to know who killed him." He'd seen a flash of what could have been recognition in the boy's eyes before his expression shut down, turning blankly guarded.
"What makes you think I know anything."
"I don't," Iphicles said clamly. "Remember *you* approached *me*. Look, I'm not with the Guard or anyone else. I just want to know what happened to my friend." He gave Levaris the Look that seemed to work so well on Ares, and damned if the boy didn't thaw a bit.
"Well... I don't know a *lot* but..." Levaris waved his empty beer mug in Iphicles' face.
Iphicles nodded cynically, signalling the table wench for another round. Once they were served, he dove back in. "So c'mon. I've been fair to you..."
The boy nodded a bit reluctantly. "Okay. Look, I really *don't* know that much. If it's the guy I'm thinking of, he wasn't from here. Tried to make out like he was real cosmopolitan, but I figure he was from the next town over, y'know?"
Iphicles nodded encouragingly.
"He mainly stood around trying to look like he was better than all of us. Went out with a few of the older guys, played head games with the younger ones. What else do you want to know?"
"You do know he's dead, don't you?" Iphicles watched the boy's face carefully.
Levaris took a drink, looking studiously at the table. "I'd heard that." His eyes met Iphicles', intense and a little wild. "It wasn't ME-"
"I know," Iphicles said soothingly. "I was just hoping you might have seen something. That you may have been here the night he died, seen who he'd left with."
The boy shrugged, all the fire gone from him. "Can't say for *sure*... coulda been..."
Iphicles waited impatiently, finally prodding, "Who?"
Another shrug. "Never caught his name. I think he was from Corinth, but he dressed kind of Roman too. He was older, had *real* class, y'know? I haven't seen him for over a week now."
"Do you remember what he looks like?"
A shy smile. "He looked *good*. Different. You could tell *he'd* been around. Wore those... those Roman things over his eyes. Dressed like a... like a warrior if warriors had *style*."
Iphicles bit down on a snicker. "What 'Roman things'?"
Shrug. "You know..." the boy made circular motions in front of his eyes, then abruptly stood up. "Now I'm sorry, but if that's all you want, I'm gonna go. The night isn't getting any younger." He strode off before Iphicles could even formulate an objection.
"And do you find yourself occupied at this particular moment, my dear?"
She giggles in a way she probably considers demure. "No, I'm frightfully *un*occupied..." giving you a knowing look at the double entendre.
Giving her your best gentlemanly smile and an answering wink, you offer her your arm. "Then perhaps I can take you from this drear place and drearier company, the better to ... occupy you."
She giggles again, taking your arm with decayed coquettishness. "So rare to meet a gentleman here." It's only the reminder of what's to come that keeps you from shaking her off.
"And even rarer to meet a Lady." Your meaning flies over her head, of course, and she follows you into the night, all trust and avaricious corruption...
"She was the light of my life," Beras sobbed into his hands.
Hercules laid a comforting hand on the old man's shoulder. "I'm so sorry, Beras. Are you sure you can't remember anything about that night?"
"Only... only that she was so excited that a real gentleman from Athens was going to take her out." Beras' grief-glazed eyes bore into Herc's, the old man's soul flayed beyond the reach of comfort. "I was *happy* for her, Hercules! You should have seen her, glowing with life and excitement, telling me this was the first time someone had liked her for her*self*. I should have- I should have known. I should have stopped her, but she was so happy... so happy..."
"Thank you, Beras," Hercules said softly as he let himself out of the small house. There were times when no words were enough.
"Not much luck, eh?"
Iphicles nearly jumped out of his skin. "Ares! I-" the words he was about to say tripped and fell off the end of his tongue as he turned and saw the man sitting next to him. "ARES?!"
"Shhhhhhh!" Ares put a finger up to his lips. "Not Ares. Vajna, remember?"
"But..." Iphicles knew he was staring stupidly but couldn't help it.
"You *said* I should look different," Ares smirked.
"I know, I just... You know, it looks *good*."
"Of course it does." Ares raked a hand through his close-cropped hair. "Wanna feel it?"
Iphicles' hand was stroking the velvet nap of Ares' hair before he could even formulate an answer. "Amazing. Feels like velvet, it's so short. But what's with the beard?"
"It's what they'll call a 'Riker'," Ares grinned. "You like?"
"I don't know. I think I need more time to get used to it."
"You'll get the opportunity, " the dark god purred, "I've decided it's my mortal look."
"Very convincing," Iphicles said wryly.
"You said 'tone it down' so I did."
"You still look like *you* though."
The god glared at him imperiously. "To YOU maybe. Is Ares not known for his *long* hair?"
"I rest my case. Or did you only want me for the hair?"
"NO!" Iphicles immediately kicked himself for being that emphatic. "I just want you. I want to be with you again."
Ares grinned, started to say something, then stopped, an oddly attentive look crossing his face. "You will. But for now, what'd you find out?"
"Only that our killer is long gone, and he could be from either Corinth or Rome."
Ares nodded. "I'll get more details from you later. Little Brother is coming this way, *fast*," and diappeared in a subdued flash of blue fire as Hercules came throught he door and made a beeline to Iphicles' table.
"Herc." Iphicles raised his beer in his brother's general direction and took a sip. "Get anywhere?"
"Far enough to know we have a real problem on our hands." Hercules ordered a beer from the suddenly-attentive serving wench with a self-deprecating smile, then turned his attention back to Iphicles. "You?"
"The same. We're on the trail of a monster."
Hercules nodded glumly. "I talked to Beras tonight-"
"The grandfather of one of the girls-"
"Girls?" Iphicles looked at his half-brother quizzically. "What girls?"
Herc gave him a disbelieving snort, then turned a dazzling smile on the serving wench as he took his beer. He took a drink and looked back at his brother with weary patience. "The *dead* girls. What'd you think I've been chasing after all day?"
"Dead *boys*," Iphicles countered. "Three of them in this town alone. And the killer's long gone."
"Killer..." Herc looked up at him balefully. "Or killer*s*.
"I thought that. It seems we're chasing two different beasts. That may be working together."
"And they're no longer here."
Iphicles took a drink. "That's about it. You wanna stay here another day, or follow the trail? Can we work together as well as they do?"
"It's never been *me*," Herc muttered a little too loudly.
Loudly enough that it rang every bell from Iphicles' past. "Of COURSE it was never you, Herc. You've *always* been innocent." A million scenarios were warring in his head, twenty-year-old memories of his mother excusing everything Hercules ever did with 'He's *just* a little boy' and the more recent praises of Hercules as the saviour of humankind... Grinding his teeth, he tried to stay calm. "Just... let's sleep on it tonight, okay? We'll head out tomorrow."
"Fine with me," Hercules said flatly. "First light?"
"No. No need. If you've truly done your homework you know where they've gone."
Of course he'd figured it out. "Then let's aim for noon. I'll see you then."
"Good enough." Herc extended an arm and Iphicles had no choice but to take it, clasping forearms with his brother.
"See you tomorrow then." He wasn't sorry to see the demigod disappear out the door.
Iphicles schlepped back to the inn he was calling 'home' on his own, a light mist of rain starting to drizzle as he entered the common room and passed though, heading directly to his room. At least he'd talked Herc out of heading out at the crack of dawn. But....
"But what?" Ares appeared in a particularly extravagant flash of blue, his long hair and dashing goatee restored.
This time Iphicles didn't even jump. //What does it say about me that I'm getting *used* to this??// "Your hair's back," he observed.
"I told you the other is my mortal look... *specifically* requested by *you* if you remember."
Iphicles nodded. "I do remember. And it wasn't like it detracted from your looks at all. Thank you."
"So what's the problem?" Ares settled comfortably on the end of the bed.
Iphicles looked the dark god up and down before answering. "I... Why do you even *need* me? Herc *and* you can walk in anywhere you want and get the information I've gotten. I've left my kingdom in the hands of people I don't entirely trust to follow you on this trek into madness based on nothing more than your words and Hercules' accusations, and so far I've found *nothing* but you look just as good with short hair as you do with long!"
"You really think so?" Ares preened. "I wasn't sure about that..."
"ARES." Iphicles glared at him.
The dark god sighed, falling prone on the mattress dramatically. Looking up at Iphicles through long, coal-black lashes he sighed, "You want to talk, we'll talk. This mess *does* need you." He rolled onto his side, resting his head on his right hand. "What's going on here... Herc thinks it's deviant but of a *mortal* source. And he's right, for the most part. But what I've asked *you* to look into... It *isn't* a mortal. From what I can gather, it was never human. But it's working *with* a human."
"Herc's human. Partly," Iphicles filled in flatly.
"You got it."
"Well then why can't you - a GOD - deal with it?"
Ares actually looked uncomfortable. "Because what-or-WHOever it is, it's something... we gods may have no control over. There are... things that interact with mortals that... have little or nothing to do with us. Which means I need to be able to trust a mortal."
"And that's why you approached me? Because you needed a trustworthy *mortal*?" Iphicles snorted. "Another godly headgame. I should've known."
Ares groaned dramatically. "IPHicles! Save the angst for your fucking family, okay?!"
"Well technically speaking, aren't *you* fucking family?" Iphicles observed sulkily, then yelped as Ares reached out to cuff him upside the head. "What the FUCK-"
He looked up to see Ares, God of War glaring down (*down*?! He hadn't even seen the god leap off the bed) at him, canines gleaming sharply in the half-light of the room as Ares snarled, eyes glinting. "I've had about enough of this arrested adolescent act, *King* Iphicles. If you want out, I'll LET you out. NOW." With a rasp of steel-on-leather, he pulled a wickedly-honed dagger from the sheath at his waist. "I've been more than fair to you, trusted you where I needn't. If you're going to do nothing but sulk, go back to Corinth and deal with that Argosian bride of yours or let me put you out of your misery. Your choice."
For several long moments, arousal warred with a lifelong habit of self-pity in Iphicles' mind. Belatedly, some of the things Ares had just told him began to register through the haze along with a good bump of embarrassment at his behaviour this night. He raised his hands in supplication. "I'm... sorry, Ares. You're right. It's- having to work with Hercules like this, well... it's not bringing out the best in me." He pressed the tip of his right index finger to the tip of Ares' dagger, hard, until he felt it pierce the skin, then pulled it away, allowing the god to look at the drop of blood leaking from the small wound. "I don't want out. I'm with you to the end of this." He proffered the bleeding digit, felt the soft/hard rasp of tongue as Ares took it in his mouth, licking the blood off then slowly letting go, teeth raking sensuously along the length of it, hard enough to almost-hurt.
"Apology accepted," Ares murmured in husky baritone. "Though I'm by no means done with you."
Iphicles grinned slowly. "I was hoping you'd say that."
Ares gave him a decidedly arrogant smirk. "I know."
The king sat heavily on the bed, determinedly not rising to Ares' bait, and stared at the floor for several long moments.
Ares bit back a smirk. Mortals were *so* easy to manipulate. As the silence lengthened he became more amused. After his chastisement, Iphicles was trying to sulk silently. It was charmingly delicious. Toying with the dagger, he drifted into a pleasant daydream about how he intended to use his chagrined and somewhat reluctant cohort this night. Restraints were going to figure heavily in the picture. He'd clearly been too indulgent last time and-
"What sorts of things do the gods have no control over?"
Ares started, lip curling into a snarl at the sudden question, and the penetrating gaze Iphicles had turned on him. "What?"
"I said," he reiterated in overly-patient tones, "what sorts of things do you lot have no control over?"
"That's hardly any concern of yours, *mortal*," Ares snapped back, disconcerted and angry because he felt so off-balance.
"But it is, Ares." Iphicles' tone was calm but implacable.
//He picked a fuck of a time to learn to use that stubborness constructively// the god thought sourly as Iphicles continued. "You just told me *I'm* your best link to- to whatever it is that's killing people, *and* you told me it's something *you're* not even sure you can control. Not to mention you've been dancing around the issue of the real power of the Olympians for *days*." A wry smile flitted across his face. "In fact, the way you've been dancing would make that Widow Twanky green with professional envy."
"I'm not dancing around *anything*," Ares growled. He sounded unconvincing even to himself.
"Yes you are." Iphicles' eyes bored into him, still maddeningly calm. "Now, I'm more than willing to see this through, do the dirty work, whatever it takes. It's part of my duty as ruler of Corinth and its territories. But I can't do it if my main source of information on what appears to be a paranormal phenomenon insists on *holding out on me*." As his voice rose, so did the king, looking Ares fiercely in the face. His next words came out with a clipped, artificial sweetness. "So either tell me what I need to know, or send me back and solve this yourself. I may be mortal, with mortal flaws, but I won't be played the fool, Ares. Mortal and stupid are *not* synonymous, no matter what the opinion on Olympus may be." He crossed calmly to the room's only chair and sat in it, arms crossing over his chest, apparently prepared to wait for all eternity if necessary.
Once again Ares found himself simultaneously furious and impressed, and though most of his mind was frantically trying to decide on a course of action, he nearly burst out laughing as it occured to him that Iphicles and his despised half-brother Herc were far more alike than either of them realized. Only they had been able to evoke that infuriating duality of emotion in him. Not giving away an inkling of what he might be feeling to the stoically waiting mortal, he paced. Iphicles was right. He *did* need to know what they were up against. But the gods did *not* disclose the fact that they were not all-powerful to *any* mortal, and what the man needed to know went well beyond even that simple disclosure. It was an unwritten rule that such things were never mentioned. Unwritten because it was obvious what a complete knowledge of the truth would do to their power base. Other *gods* were an uncomfortable enough subject, let alone... Suddenly, like a bolt from Zeus (as if *that* dissolute old lecher would ever help him), the answer came to him, and it was all he could do not to giggle like a mischievous child. Schooling his features to a dark reluctance, he finally turned to the king. "All right. It goes against everything Olympus
decrees, but you do need to know." He settled on the bed. "Come over here, and I'll answer your questions."
Iphicles looked at him suspiciously. "Questions first. I won't be distracted."
Ares smiled disarmingly. "Of course." Then a bit irritably, "My word is good. Now c'mere."
Iphicles complied; the chair was poorly made and damned uncomfortable anyway. But he sat on the end of the bed and regarded Ares thoughtfully. "You've already said there are other gods, yes?"
With a purely mental sigh, Ares made himself comfortable. "Yes." He sneered, "Scads."
Ares shrugged. "Couldn't tell you. We don't socialize much. I know of several Northern gods; Egypt's are a crowd of old human/animal hybrids; there are more in the far East but they're a strange lot..." he smirked suddenly, "and Caesar's people think they're being original by giving us their own names. Even the barbarians have their gods, though they're hardly worthy of the name. Small gods for people with small minds."
Iphicles stared at him, baffled. "Small gods?"
"You wouldn't understand unless I talked for a fortnight. Suffice to say gods are... far more common than you've been led to believe."
Faced with a concept he couldn't entirely digest yet, Iphicles opted to switch to the specific. "But this... thing we're hunting. You said it's not mortal *or* of the gods." Ares nodded. "So what *is* it?"
"I won't know that until we see it."
"But what's beyond the *gods*?"
Ares started unconsciously toying with his dagger again. "Gods... don't *die* under normal circumstances, unless they choose to."
"Or run into hind's blood?"
Ares grunted noncomittally. "Yeah. Here. But aside from that, gods don't die. But they- we derive our power from humans. Human belief. The stronger the belief, the stronger the god. But there are those... that don't have to depend on that. Because they are... the office-holders of basic, constant realities of life everywhere, on a level deeper than gods. And no god has power over them or their realms."
Iphicles slowly tried to wrap his mind around the concept. "So if they're not gods, what are they."
"Endless," Ares replied succinctly.
"And we're dealing with one of *them*?!"
Ares snorted. "No, of course not. But this thing isn't human or in my realm, and that leaves very few options. If it's not of the Endless it's of the Fallen."
"You don't want to know. But whichever camp or whatever Endless spawned it, it's not going to go with a wave of my hand. And because it's from a power beyond mine, I can't know what it is and where it's from until I see it. But given its origins, it's more likely that *you'll* be able to find it. It can hide from gods. It won't even *think* to hide from you."
Iphicles slumped onto the mattress, his head swimming. "This is... this is too much..."
"You wanted to know," Ares reminded him, letting himself enjoy the mortal's distress for a few moments. Comfort would mean *so* much more if he let Iphicles hurt for a time....
He sighs contentedly, thinking he's never had so much fun. Nothing like having one of those days where everything goes absolutely right. He looks fondly at this night's conquest, seeing the world through the boy's greengreen eyes for a few more moments before succumbing to his desire to eat. False dawn is already turning the sky darkly blue, and he wants to rest. Perhaps even sleep, if you could call it that. He smiles briefly, darkly, remembering that the boy talked to him about his dreams, wanted to compare notes. "I don't dream," he'd replied. And he was quite sure he didn't. Fairly sure he couldn't, though he'd occasionally had doubts. A snippet of song that was surely not of this world rose in his mind: "There is a dream within a dream/I'm wide awake the more I sleep/You'll understand when I'm dead..." For some reason the words send a slight shiver through him, all the more unwelcome for having come at the end of such a perfect night. //I don't die and I *don't* dream// he reassures himself. If it weren't so Lord Shaper would have found him already. He tousles the hair of his consort, unmoving beside him, and bites down, savouring the twin spurts of delicious liquid that trickle slowly down to his throat as he chews the soft casings, then settles back to lose himself in the dreamless darkness that could be called sleep...
Hercules lay in his darkened room, staring at the black void between him and the ceiling he knew was above him. He'd felt irritable but exhausted when he left Iphicles, but as soon as he put out the lamp and lay down, sleep had abandoned him. He had no idea how long he'd been waiting for Hypnos to come through, only that his mind was chasing the details of the last several days around and around in ever more pointless loops. He wished fruitlessly that Iolaus was there. The blonde warrior was invaluable for bouncing ideas off, especially in weird situations like this. He could have used Iolaus' ideas on who/what the killer - or killers - might be. And could have used his cheerful calm advice on how to deal with Iphicles. Though he'd been trying his best to suppress it, get past it, working this closely with his older brother had brought back all those old feelings of guilt/resentment/admiration/ exasperation and, yes, superiority that he'd had as a child. Both of them had known who Alcmene loved best, and while the selfish child in him gloried in it, he felt guilty at the same time. And angry at Alcmene for so clearly showing her partiality. And pity/resentment for Iphicles for seeing it so clearly that he left at the earliest opportunity, barely communicating with them in the intervening years, and for so clearly not getting over it himself.
Things were always... touchy when he and Iphicles got too close to each other, and that led to another thing that was keeping him awake. It *seemed* to him that Iphicles had... something going on that he was hiding. Pulling far enough away from him on the journey here that it took Herc an hour or more to catch up, deliberately staying at another inn, guarded looks when Herc *did* come around him... it was like he was hiding not just something but some*one* from him. //But it could just be that old resentment again too. He doesn't want to be around me any more than he has to.//
But what it wasn't that? He'd thought this might be a chance to bury some of those old feelings, forge a new, adult relationship with Iphicles, and his brother seemed to be going out of his way to make sure that *didn't* happen. //Or someone's making *sure* that doesn't happen...//
Oh, now *that* was one more thing to keep him awake. He wouldn't put it past one of his enemies to purposefully poison Iphicles against him *knowing* how important this quest could be in bringing the two of them together. //After all, with the resentment he already feels toward me, all it would take is a suggestion here, a push there...// A more sane part of his mind suggested that given what Iphicles had accomplished he could hardly be weak enough to fall for that sort of manipulation, but the only real images Herc held in his mind were from childhood and that time not so long ago when Iphy had impersonated *him*, proving how deep that weak, childish resentment went. //What if he *is* being manipulated? What if he's making up this other killer just to- to get to me, or make me look stupid in some mad way? Or whoever's manipulating him is leading him to *believe* there's another killer just to alienate him firther from me?//
What if, what if... Without even realizing it, Hercules slipped into an uneasy sleep...
"Lift you up like the sweetest angel... I'll tear you down like a whore..." Ares growled into his lover's ear as he sunk sharp nails into Iphicles' shoulders.
Iphicles groaned, writhing in his bonds, eyes glazed with arousal.
Ares raked his nails down the king's ribs, loving the way he squirmed, all wrapped in leather and suspended three feet off the floor. "You like that?"
An incoherent affirmative.
Left hand still raking, making angry red trails in the pale flesh, Ares brought his right hand between Iphicles' muscular thighs, stroking the perineum lightly, watching delightedly as the mortal quivered uncontrollably. "Tell me. Tell me how bad you want it."
"Oh- oh *gods* Ares, I want it SO bad! Pleeeeaaaase..." he moaned gutterally.
"Who do you want?" Running his hand teasingly up Iphicles' engorged cock, then back, as his left hand left off scoring his ribs to pinch and rub a nipple into screaming stiffness.
"You are the one I want. Please, Ares!"
"And what do you want?"
"Whatever you want to do to me!"
Ares grinned wolfishly, the words seeming to come out of nowhere, "I am the one you want and what you want is so unreal..."
"YES," Iphicles panted.
Eyes seeming to hold their own, lambent light, Ares unsheathed his dagger, holding it up so it glinted in the flickering light of the lantern. "You want this?"
Iphicles growled his assent...
Order. Order is everything. And you glory that you're doing your own little bit to restore Order to the Random. You unroll your instruments in their meticulously clean pouch, enjoying their sharp metallic glint for a few precious moments before going to work.
Grimacing a bit, you arrange the Corruption carefully, cutting the ephemerals away with quick efficiency so you can remove the Random from it, restore it to divine Order.
As you make the first cuts, you find yourself humming, a tune heard in better times before the gods made you aware of the evil that was destroying everything you held dear. You take it as a good omen, a sign that your mission is right and just.
Now the first deep incision. You even stop humming to hear the sound of blessed metal parting deflied flesh, and it feels like you're as hard as the cutting instrument, as though you and the small, sharp knife are resonating with each other. It amazes you that that indesrcibable happens every time, and is further proof that yours is indeed the righteous path.
With the smooth precision born of experience, you part the thick walls of flesh and reach in, caressing one of the deceptively smooth centres of those evil, corrupt humours. You pull it out of its safe haven with infinite care, then snip the lines connecting it to the rest of the already defiled body, depositing it meticulously on the white cloth you've laid on the floor. The Order of Benediction is always the same. First the kidneys, then turn her face up for liver, stomach, lungs and finally heart. And once they're removed and properly placed, the corrupt is once more pure, purged of the humours that led to corruption.
You continue, still humming the cheerful tune you remember, content to know you're doing the will of the gods, the work of the just.
"A lack of pain,
a lack of hope,
a lack of anything to say...
I'm on my way down now/I'd love to take you with me..."
Click here for more War Games