Hercules waited with increasing impatience as the light rain turned the stableyard into a slowly evolving mire of mud. While he knew he *had* slept last night, he didn't feel like it. He'd felt restless and half-awake all night, and the only times he'd known for sure he was asleep were the times he'd jerked himself out of that state due to a particularly bad dream. And now Iphicles was late. And his brother's *horse* was more comfortable than he was.
//Probably lying in bed thinking-// Herc's admittedly uncharitable thoughts were cut short as Iphicles strode a bit unsteadily through the gates, looking even more exhausted than he was.
They checked out with alacrity, a large lunch the innkeeper's wife had thrust upon Herc free of charge in Iphicles' saddlebags. For once neither Iphy nor Herc had objected to the largesse. The former capitol wasn't far when you looked at a map, but the treacherous terrain was one of the reasons Messilania had held its borders as long as it had, despite its known aspirations to usurp Corinth. Corinth had triumphed, but that made the terrain no less treacherous.
Under a sullen grey sky, they set out for the Messilanian capitol, Telesta.
The king settled a little more firmly in the saddle, looking critically at the overhanging rocks of the pass they were going through.
He reined in Ransom just a bit, reaching back to dig through his saddlebags to see what sort of lunch they had.
"What?" he said in admittedly snotty tones.
"Let's... stop. Okay?" Hercules caught up, looking frustrated and winded. "Have lunch? Half of those supplies *are* mine, you know..."
"Mph," Iphicles grunted, but reined in Ransom nonetheless. In short order he had lunch out of the saddlebags and spread on a conveniently flat rock at the roadside, Ransom happily cropping scrub grass a few meters away.
Silence reigned while they ate, Iphicles looking preoccupied, Herc darting curious, baffled glances at his brother. Finally he could stand it no more. "Iphicles."
The king looked up, one cheek chipmunklike as he chewed the last of his food, eyes still disconcertingly preoccupied. "Hnh?," he grunted, still chewing.
"Before we set out again, let's... talk. Hm?" Herc put on his best guileless Look.
Iphicles shrugged eloquently. //Whatever you want// that shrug said //I couldn't care less//. Swallowing deliberately, he reached for the waterskin, taking a long drink before setting it down and looking at the demigod expressionlessly. Waiting.
Waiting for Herc to make the opening gambit in that Talk he'd requested.
With an internal sigh, Hercules spoke. "Iph... I... know we haven't had the... closest of relationships-"
Iphicles gave a grunt of agreement, rolling his eyes.
"But not only do we *need* to communicate, I... thought this might be a chance for us *to* communicate. That maybe we could talk. Fix some of the shit from our past." He gave Iphicles a half-challenging/half-questioning look.
Iphicles' dark eyes met him levelly. "Go right ahead. Talk. Tell me what you want to fix."
Hercules forcibly clamped down on the exasperation Iphicles seemed to be able to make him feel effortlessly. "You. Me. *Us*. This-this ri*dic*ulous sibling rivalry that's still going on between us."
His brother looked thoughtful for an eternity of a moment. "You sure that's what you want to talk about?"
Again shoving the sarcastic retort that wanted to come out deep into the recesses of his mind, Hercules said sincerely, "Yes. This has gone on too long, brother. And I don't know about you, but for me it's been interfering with what we're trying to do here."
Iphicles gave him an overly-bland stare. "What's interfering?"
And Herc's irritation came roaring back. "YOU."
Iphicles gave an annoying little shrug. "What the fuck am *I* doing?"
"What- you- what are you-" Hercules leapt up and started pacing, afraid if he didn't he'd punch him so hard he'd splash down somewhere in the Aegean Sea. "You've *avoided* me, you won't *talk* to me when you *do* see me, you've been rude, argumentative, *secretive*, every time I've *tried* to drop the adolescent bullshit and treat you as a friend you- you act like I'm either annoying you or UP to something... Your HORSE has been better company than you have!"
He spun around glaring as Iphicles tried to stifle a snort of laughter. "WHAT?"
Obviously fighting back a snicker, the king murmured, "I didn't know the two of you had gotten so close..."
The demigod groaned at the implication, a small part of him finding it just as humourous as his brother did. "Be serious, Iph. Gods, do you realize that's about the friendliest you've been to me so far?"
Iphicles sighed. "You know, not everything I've been thinking and feeling on this trip has to do with *you*."
"I never said-"
The king looked at him steadily, sitting forward to rest his elbows on his knees. "Yes you did, Herc. Just now. You told me all the things I've been doing with the assumption that every bit of it is somehow directed at you."
"And you're saying it isn't." The demigod's voice was flatly skeptical.
"No. Some of it was. Siddown, for Zeus' sake."
Hercules sat. He'd never seen Iphicles act this way before. Calm. Controlled. Adult, he realized with some surprise.
"I won't kid you, Herc. You piss me off. You have ever since you were born." Iphicles shifted into a slightly more comfortable position on the rock he was sitting on, obviously settling in, his expression surprisingly calm and frank. "Before you came along I had mother *and* father, and even though he was away at war a lot, he always came back, and they both loved me. Father especially. Then he went away and *didn't* come back. And then *you* showed up, and it turned out you weren't even father's child. But if he'd favoured me, well, to mother the sun rose and set on you. From the day you were born. Even before that, it seemed to me."
"But that wasn't my fault," Hercules said softly.
"No, of course it wasn't. But I was still a child myself. And the parent who I'd idolized, the parent who'd loved me best, was gone, and all I was left with was mother, who may have loved me, but never with the bond I'd had with father. And instead of paying *more* attention to me after we'd lost him, she went and had *you*, and you were everything she'd ever dreamed of, and the son of a god on top of it. And I hated you for it."
Iphicles pinned him with an ironic smile. "Do you know what nearly happened to you when you were only a few months old?"
Hercules blinked and mutely shook his head.
"I was maybe... what? Five? Six? Anyway, mother was out tending the garden. She'd gotten angry with me over something or other and told me I couldn't do whatever I'd wanted to do that day; I had to watch you while she was busy. You were in your crib. All fresh and pink and new. You didn't even have any hair to speak of, I remember that. Just a weak little baby who looked like every other baby. I stood over your crib watching you for... well it seemed like hours; gods know how long it really was. And I thought very seriously about how *easy* it would be to kill you. I could've just held a pillow over your face till you'd stopped breathing. Mother would never have known. Babies die for no reason all the time. And the longer I watched you, the less human you looked. All small and pudgy and hairless, limbs waving and twitching randomly like some sort of undersea creature dying on a beach, drooling toothless mouth making strange, mindless sounds... The longer I looked the more alien and repulsive you became... and it offended me to the very core that mother should dote so much on you."
Hercules suppressed an internal shudder, appalled and a little unsettled that his brother could have had such thoughts... and that he remembered them so clearly to this day.
"But you know what stopped me?" Iphicles continued, smiling softly.
Herc shook his head mutely.
"I remembered father saying - *stressing* - that there was no honour in killing someone who was unable to defend themselves against you, that that was the difference between a soldier and a base murderer, and murderers belonged in the worst circles of Tartarus because they were *without* honour." Iphicles sat back, taking a pull off the waterskin. "So you see, even though you never knew him, you owe father your life. Because if it hadn't been for his words I may well have killed you that day."
Hercules took the waterskin his brother silently offered and drank, a little awed at the enormity of what his brother had just told him. He knew, of course, how cruel and selfish children could be but... "You know I looked up to you, Iph. I loved you..."
Iphicles nodded. "I remember that. But then your strength started to manifest, and you were the golden boy not just in mother's eyes, but everyone else's too. And if that weren't enough, you were precocious. And kind, and loving, and selfless. Always doing good, even back then." He smiled wryly. "Think about it, Herc. There were plenty of kids who were compared to their older sibs and always found wanting, but *I* was being compared to my younger half-brother, and there was no way I could live up to you, *especially* with mother being your number one fan."
"Funny. I'll always remember Ares saying 'Dad always liked you better'," Herc murmured with a twinge of guilt.
"Yeah, well *mom* always liked you better too, and you know it."
"But I didn't TRY-" Hercules began.
"I KNOW you didn't try!" Iphicles cut in harshly. "And that only made it worse! W-*I* could knock myself *out* trying to do well and barely get an approving nod, whereas *you* just sailed though life being perfect without even *thinking* about it!"
"I was *hardly* perfect," Herc countered.
"Oh sure, you got into boyish scrapes of the demigod variety, but you were *always* just so intrinsically *good*... it made me want to puke. So I left as soon as I could. Found myself a war and got apprenticed to a merc. It was better than living in my little brother's considerable shadow."
"Iphicles..." Herc moaned, not even sure what he intended to say.
The king shook his head abortively. "Don't worry about it. We're grownups now. I've been in a state of... arrested adolescence too long. I'll get over it." He smiled slightly. "Though I may not ever be entirely comfortable around you. I know I tend to lapse back, Herc, but to be fair, so do you."
Hercules grinned. "I know. You can make me crazy faster than anyone else I know."
Iphicles chuckled. "At least that's proof you're *not* perfect. But you have to believe me, brother, the way I've been acting on this little fact-finding mission of ours has *very* little to do with you."
Hercules nodded, then said pointedly, "Would you mind telling me what it *does* have to do with? If you honestly haven't been making up this killer you're after - the one with the eye fetish - then we have *two* monsters of the human variety on our hands and not a lot of time to compare notes and decide what to do with them.
Iphicles stood up, stretching until his back and shoulders gave an audible series of pops that made Hercules wince in sympathy. "I'm *not* making up the eye guy - and for the moment I won't even ask why you'd think I was - and you're right. We don't have time on our side. So why don't we get moving again and compare notes on the way." He caught the pinched look on Herc's face. "Don't worry, I won't ride off on you." Taking Ransom's reins lightly in one hand, he mounted with easy grace, adding with a slight smirk, "Yet."
Herc snorted, gathering the detritus of their lunch. "I notice you left me to get rid of this."
Iphicles shrugged and smiled sweetly. "You've had so much more *experience* at it than I have."
Ares paced. He didn't pace for the joy of it, or even because it made him look good (though it did). He paced because he was waiting. Impatiently. What the FUCK was keeping him? It wasn't like he didn't have better things to do. There were wars to oversee, wars to start, wars to finish, he had to check with Hephaestus on that new knife design he'd come up with, a million things he needed to do. //So why are you waiting for him?// Banishing the thought with an impatient grunt, Ares paced.
Iphicles found himself engaging Herc in idle chatter, partly out of the novelty of being able to *talk* to his brother, partly to delay the inevitable meeting with his dark lover and the inevitable questions about what held him up. It didn't take a professional Philosopher to guess what Ares would think about this fragile detante. Besides, idle talk was easy to keep up while he thought.
Normally it was Hercules that sent his emotions into a spinning dive, those old childhood impulses warring with what he knew was right, but this... thing he had with the War God made the other look simplistic. The things he'd felt, the things he'd *done* with Ares... were they the simple quicksilver of passion, or were they more? They *felt* like more. But did they feel like more to Ares? He was sure Ares could ape sincerity with literally inhuman skill, so how could he tell? What he felt for the War God was real.
(And what was that? Love? He wasn't sure, but it was something unique and almost frighteningly intense.)
But was it reciprocated, or merely a means to an end? He already knew that even an inkling of what was going on between him and Ares - gods, even the suggestion that Ares was *involved* with this - would be an indictment of complete negation as far as his half-brother was concerned. Herc wouldn't believe another word of *anything* he said or *had* said. And that couldn't happen.
The murders were real. The murderers were real. And he needed Herc *and* Ares to clear this up. Right now he needed to see Ares...
"-now that I think about it, Iolaus became my closest friend *after* you left." Herc was saying.
Just a little extra guilt to add to the fire. Well, in for a sheep, in for the flock. Iphicles’ subtlety dug a heel into Ransom's side. The horse bucked restively under the prodding. "Um, Herc? Sorry, but I need to give Ransom a run. I've held him at a walk since we- since lunch. Meet you in an hour?"
Herc nodded. "An hour. I'll catch up with you."
Iphicles grinned at him; the first honest grin he'd given his brother in years. "We'll be waiting," and let Ransom have his head as they sped off down the trail that led to the former capitol of Messilania and the darkness that waited.
Of course, first there was his own personal patch of darkness to deal with, pacing and glowering stormily as he rounded a bend that opened on a clearing some miles from where he'd left Herc.
Ares froze as he reined in Ransom, a human-shaped exclamation point of irritation. "WELL?"
"Well what?" Iphicles busied himself with dismounting, pretending not to notice the heavy, almost electrical feeling surrounding the dark god. //Like the air gets moments before a lightning storm...// He watched Ransom wander a few yards away to crop the lush grass growing at the edge of the clearing, then finally turned to face Ares.
"What took you so long," the god growled.
//Even his voice sounds like thunder.// His eyes flicked above Ares' head, half expecting to see a dark little cloud forming there. The thought nearly made him laugh, but he bit it back with effort and concentrated on trying to look contrite and the tiniest bit confused. "What do you mean? I got here as quickly as I could."
"It never took you this long before," Ares snapped.
Ares moved in threateningly; the air really *was* crackling around him. "I do NOT like to be kept *WAITING*... HUMAN!"
"Ar-" A hand reached behind him to twine itself in his hair, yanking hard enough to make him wince.
"You know, I think I've been too indulgent with you, little king," Ares breathed in his ear in his patented dangerous purr. "You seem to be suffering under the delusion that we're equals... that you can talk back to me... that you can keep." His voice rose a notch. "Me." Another notch, then, "WAITING!" he roared, letting go of Iphicles' hair and backhanding him hard enough to send him stumbling back a few paces. "I am NOT one of your palace LACKEYS!" He punctuated his statement with a blue bolt of electric fire that flew across the path to vaporize small outcropping of rock.
Iphicles rubbed his jaw, wondering if the backhand had left a mark. It *felt* like he'd been kicked by a horse. "You done?"
Ares thought it over. "Yeah."
"Good." Iphicles sat down on a fallen log at the back of the clearing. "Feel better?"
Ares gave him a dark look, trying to decide whether the mortal was making fun of him, then shrugged. "A bit." He strode over and sat next to Iphicles, making sure his section of log was a bit higher than his companion's. "So what took you? I was waiting for hours."
Iphicles raised an eyebrow. "*Hours*?"
"Well it might as well have been," Ares prevaricated. "Now stop avoiding the subject."
The king sighed. //Tread carefully, Iph...// "I was talking to Herc."
That stormy expression reappeared on Ares' expressive face. "Talking to *Herc*? He's 'Herc' now, is he?"
Iphicles gave him a put-upon look that wasn't entirely contrived. "Ares. Like it or not, I'm supposed to be *working* with him. And as far as he knows, *just* him. Now, I've already fucked off on him at almost every given opportunity, to the point where he's wondering what I'm up to. If you want this to *work*, I'm going to *have* to talk to him on occasion. If he suspects for one second you're involved with me or in this, he's going to assume that *you're* responsible for these monsters we've been tracking and you can say goodbye to finding out what's *really* going on. And if that happens, whatever's been unsettling you about these murders isn't going to go away."
For an eternity of moments, Ares just looked at him, dark eyes unreadable, face expressionless. Finally he grunted reluctantly, "I suppose you do have a point."
Iphicles relaxed. "He's also keeping track of the one that's not bothering you as much, remember."
"Like it or not, he's a valuable resource."
"Well, just don't start *liking* the son of a bitch."
"Hey!" Iphicles punched the god's shoulder, "That 'bitch' is my *mother*." He smirked. "Your old man is the inveterate slut."
Ares laughed. "It's part of the job description. Old bastard."
Iphicles smiled wryly then got serious. "So do you have any ideas what exactly we may be up against when we reach the capitol?"
Frustrated, Ares shook his head. "Not a thing. I've tried. I've scryed, I've questioned everyone who might have a vested interest in something like this, even mortals. Nothing. That's what convinces me it's something outside even our... domain."
"Which means either these Fallen or Endless you've spoken of."
Iphicles found it somewhat unsettling that there *were* things older and more powerful than the gods. All his life he'd been told that the gods were the last word in power. He suppressed a shudder. "So where does that leave us?"
Iphicles looked at him blankly.
"The capitol," the war god explained.
"Oh. Yeah," he said, feeling vaguely stupid.
Ares shrugged. "We play it by ear. Be careful. Compare notes with Mister Perfect. And hope we're smarter and stronger than whatever it is we're up against."
Iphicles looked at him incredulously. "That's IT?!"
"That's it," Ares agreed flatly.
"But- but you're a *god*..."
Those darkdark eyes flashed fiercely. "And I told you *quite* some time ago that this is *beyond* the gods. So STOP making me reiterate."
Iphicles exhaled shudderingly. "Sorry. I know. I guess old habits are hard to break. I was- all my life I was told that the gods were... that there was nothing higher, more powerful than you were. It's still a... difficult concept to wrap my mind around."
"Yeah, well don't go spreading it around," Ares said, only half joking.
"What *are* they, these others?"
"They..." Ares paused, searching for something the mortal could understand. "They're entities from the moment of beginning."
"Beginning? Beginning of what?"
"Of- of *everything*. Of life. *Any* life. In the case of the Fallen, *before* life. With the Endless, from the first moment of consciousness in the universe."
"But weren't the gods-"
Ares gave him an unreadable Look. "This world is much younger than the universe."
Iphicles opened his mouth to continue, but stopped. He wanted to ask what Ares meant by 'the Universe', but on some deep level felt he may not want to know. Instead he said, "Well, then we'll just deal with the problem before us."
Now Ares relaxed. "That's right. Glad we have that sorted out. There is *one* thing though."
Iphicles started. "One thing? What?"
Ares grinned complacently. "You owe me."
"*Owe* you!" Iphicles frowned. "For what?!"
"For making me wait."
Iphicles stood up. "You agreed I had a perfectly good reason!"
Ares nodded and grinned. "Nevertheless, I *am* the god, and you made me wait. You owe me."
Incredulously, "I owe you..."
"Glad you agree." Ares snapped his fingers and Iphicles' clothes disappeared.
"You object?" Ares said mildly.
"YES I object!"
Ares looked pointedly at him. "*Part* of you doesn't..."
Iphicles looked down in dismay to see his cock bobbing happily at attention. //traitor...// "Well... but... we don't have a lot of time..."
Ares smiled indulgently as he stood up. "It won't take a lot of time." He twitched his right hand showily and Ransom's saddle was suddenly transported from the horse's back to straddle the section of log Iphicles had just vacated. "Just bend over that." The self-centered horse never even stopped cropping the foliage.
Iphicles eyed Ares' fully-clothed form. "What about you?"
Ares grinned. "Like I said, you *owe* me. You're going to leave me waiting like some lovelorn wench, then *you* get to play the wench. Now bend over."
Though part of him thrilled to do just that, Iphicles still balked. "But what if Hercules comes?"
Ares grinned widely. "If he does I will delight in the knowledge that he will go to sleep guilt-ridden and disgusted with himself for getting off on the sight of me fucking you. Now... assume the position."
Stubbornly, Iphicles tried one last time. "But the oil is in my saddlebags."
Ares laughed richly. "*Iph*icles! I'm a *god*! We don't need your pathetic mortal saddlebags! We're lubed and ready. Now do your part." He gave Iphicles a shove, and Iphicles complied, leaning over the saddle, feeling exposed and appalled and incredibly aroused.
Ares moved forward, gripping his hips. Iphicles felt Ares' cock pressing against him insistently, slowly, inexorably opening him. It seemed Ares *had* taken care of the lubrication problem. A momentary spasm of bright/sweet pain and Ares was in him, moving slowly at first as his muscles relaxed to take in the powerful essence of his dark lover, then as soon as that critical period had passed, so did delicate consideration. It was without foreplay, without finesse, just the steady hard length of the dark god pounding into him, increasingly heavy, increasingly fast, and he didn't care, wanted it, wanted that liquid fire of feeling that every stroke brought to him, reducing him to animal moans as he pushed back to meet every thrust, and soon - OH too soon! - his lover's hips losing their steadyhard rhythm as he came with gasping urgency...
A minute or century later, Ares pulled out of him, and a minute or century later Iphicles levered himself to something resembling a standing position, cock still achingly hard, even though all evidence of their tryst had disappeared with Ares' withdrawal. The god in question already had those tight leather pants re-fastened and was looking at him with amusement. "Something bothering you?" the god grinned.
"Ares... I could use some help here..." his voice sounded overly whiny even to him.
Ares quirked an eyebrow at him. "As the saying goes, help yourself." He sat down, looking entirely too comfortable. "I'll watch."
"You'll-" Iphicles couldn't even think what to say. "**ARES!**"
"Now now," Ares shook a finger at him, "Remember, you owed *me*. So go ahead." His expression suddenly grew threatening. "I want to see you."
Feeling both pressured and incredibly horny, Iphicles gave a mental shrug and sat down on the displaced saddle, trying to jerk himself off in the most utilitarian manner possible... at least 'til Ares intervened.
"What the fuck is that?! I want to see you enjoy yourself!"
So he tried to forget about Ares (well, except for the fact the sheer exhibitionism turned him on) and get into it. Somehow jerking himself off with such an attentive audience was amazingly stimulating. Moaning, he pinched his nipples hard with his left hand as his right hand tended to business, working harder and faster as he teased himself into shuddering orgasm.
Ares applauded. "OH WELL done!" He gestured. "There's your clothes. Hercules will be here in about five minutes, you'd better get dressed!" and blinked out in a flash of cheery blue flame.
Even after defeat at the hands of Corinth, Khavas, the capitol city of Messilania, was a vibrant, sprawling metropolis. Its bustling port, rich agricultural lands outside its walls, and control of mineral wealth in the nearby low mountains ensured its prosperity would be relatively unchanged no matter who professed to rule it. Khavas lacked the fame of Athens - or even Corinth - and its more renowned counterparts looked down upon it as a tidepool that accepted every fringe element the known world had produced, but Khavas made up for it with sheer energy and diversity. Artists, poets, rulers and warriors had lived on its mean streets when they were still young and unhoned in their craft, and what they learned went unacknowledged once they'd risen to more civilized climes, but Khavas remembered and took a certain pride in itself. In Khavas, all bets were off; you lived or died by the wit and talent you brought with you. And the city thrived.
Dusk saw Hercules and his brother entering Khavas' western gates, waved on by a guard who showed just a spark of interest at Herc's name, but would have been *very* interested if he'd known the true name of the demigod's companion.
Once they'd drawn away from the gates, Iphicles deemed it safe to speak. "So have you been here before?"
Herc shook his head. "Passed *by* it once, but this is my first time in the city. You?"
"The same." The streets stretched before them in colourful confusion. "I'd say the first order of business is to find an inn to stay at."
"Somewhere near the entertainment district," Herc concurred. "Which way do you think?"
Watching the patterns of the other latecomers streaming through the gates, Iphicles hazarded, "Left?"
"Left it is." The demigod set the pace, Iphicles keeping Ransom to a walk as they traversed the crowded, twisting streets, keeping an eye on a small group of mercenary-looking men in front of them. It wasn't long before their 'leaders' found their way to a seamy tavern and disappeared. The brothers didn't mind. They'd found the core of the city, and went a little further to find an inn that looked satisfactory.
"What if one of them's somewhere else?"
"They're not, Herc. They're here. Both of them."
Hercules regarded him levelly. "You’re sure there really *are* two killers?
Iphicles met his brother's blue-eyed gaze unflinchingly. "I know it. And so do you."
Hercules plopped on the bed with a sigh, looking uncomfortable. "I... *think* I know that. It certainly seems that way. But..."
"Well, what if we're being played for fools? What if this is some game one of the gods has cooked up?"
Iphicles snorted laughter. "Herc, you're in a better position then *I* to know that no god would be this subtle. If a *god* wants your attention he or she won't bother with a string of single murders; they'd wipe out a *city* or three. Or kill the crops. Or give everyone boils."
Herc nodded reluctantly. "I know... But this is... I've never *seen* anything like this before. The depravity... it can't be human." He looked at Iphicles almost pleadingly. "There's *always* a god behind the sort of savagery I've seen. Unless it's in war, and the war is *over*. People are cruel, and people are cruel for trivial reasons, I know that. But this... this can't be the work of a human."
"You mean your ripper, or my eye guy?"
"Both." His voice lowered, smoothed, as though he were repeating a mantra. "Depravity of that level is only indulged in by the gods."
Iphicles chuckles humourlessly as he sat next to his brother. "You really think that? I suppose I can't blame you."
The demigod's blue eyes looked at him blankly.
"Hercules." Iphicles deliberately used his brother's full name as he set a hand on his shoulder. "You've seen more than your share of the savage nature of man, I know. Both monsters and human monsters have challenged you and lost. But how often have you faced the *casual* sickness of humanity? You're always- ALWAYS respected to a point *because* you're Hercules. There's a whole *world* of sickness and cruelty that you've never been shown."
Herc bristled slightly. "Iph, contrary to what you seem to think I've *not* been sheltered-"
"Yes you HAVE," Iphicles said fiercely, then visibly collected himself. "Not from the levels that gods play on, but from mortal life you have. It's not your fault. It's because of what and who you *are*. Even when they're trying to kill you, people defer to you, act differently. Because you *are* Hercules. No matter how hard you try to be the 'common man', you're *not*, and people *know* that. Even the thugs are on their best behaviour around you. The acts of casual cruelty I saw when I was young..."
Iphicles shook his head abruptly. "I don't want to get into it. Suffice to say we can be more cruel to each other than anything the gods could ever come up with. Which leads me to our quarry. Keep up the same routine? I do the eye guy while you do the ripper?"
Hercules took the hint. "Of course. When do you want to meet?"
"Morning. Whoever wakes up first wakes the other."
"Just don't do that pissing and moaning you did as a kid if I wake you up too early."
A rare smile. "Promise."
He breathes deeply, sweet scent of leather and flesh, sweat and spice, love and lust, fear and anticipation and indifference blending into one. Torchlight throws wild shadows against the walls, flickering feeding frenzy of things better left unknown.
The darkness and shadows don't bother him. Exhilarate him. He weaves a path through the writhing bodies to the bar, orders something strong and bitter. He hardly needs it; travelling incognito amidst so much *life* is a drunk on its own. But there, in riotous fireflame, he sees -- slender, dark wild hair, cheekbones you could hone a razor on; not *him*, but so like him as to be his human twin... Taking his drink, he slides through the crowd as smooth and cool as a snake. This is too good to be true in this city of no law, and he draws in close...
This city. It is the perfect area to bring your mercy. You lean in close, a charming smile on your nondescript face. "A bit more, my dear?"
She giggles. *Genuinely* giggles, all artifice lost. "I won't say no, but there's no need to get me drunk, m'lord."
"Is that so..?" He pours more wine in her glass regardless.
"Oh *yes*." She takes a sip, face flushed and animated. "No one's ever been so kind, so *gentlemanly* as you. It reminds me of..." She trails off, clearly unsettled.
"Go ahead, my dear." You watch her young, hurt eyes meet yours. So much like- Clamp down on the thought. Remember, she's unclean. Anyone who would deign to be with you, treat you with such supposed regard is unclean and not to be trusted. You learned that long ago. Equilibrium restored, you feign interest in what she's saying. But you hear nothing.
The moment Hercules could be heard going down the stairs, Ares appeared in a blue flash that looked oddly subdued. "Iphicles."
The king, surprised that he *wasn't* surprised at the god's entrance, answered with careful calm. "Right here, Ares."
Ares turned to him, raking his hands through his thick black hair in a way Iphicles would have called nervous if his companion were human. "He's here."
"The eye guy?"
"I don't know." Ares started pacing, still playing with his hair. "In this area. Every time I try to pinpoint his location, he just slips through." He wheeled on Iphicles, looking in his frustration every bit as daemonic as the statues his most virulent detractors constructed of him. "YOU. Iphicles, you have to find him. Tonight."
Iphicles kept his voice steady. "I will. We'd already decided that. Remember? I'll find him."
"Tonight," Ares reiterated.
"Yes, tonight. And once I find him, you'll get rid of him."
"Get-" Ares wondered for a moment if his mortal had listened to one thing he'd said about this *thing* being something beyond the bailiwick of the gods, then told himself it was immaterial. At least the boy still considered him omnipotent. "Yes. I'll dispose of him. But first *you* need to find him."
Iphicles looked at him dumbly.
"So GO FIND HIM!" Ares roared.
Stung, Iphicles jumped off the bed, muttering, "That's just what I was *going* to do" as he went out the door.
Hercules strode down the torchlit streets of downtown Khavas, heading towards the most likely hunting grounds his prey might frequent, trying to keep an eye out for everything happening around him even though his mind was preoccupied. Was his brother right? *Was* he oddly sheltered? As much as he wanted to deny it, he couldn't help but think that Iphicles might be right. The simple fact that he was the - he mentally snorted - 'legendary' Hercules singled him out for special treatment. The moment his identity became known, the cocky ones tried to pick fights with him and everyone else tended to be on their best behaviour.
If there *was* such a thing as an intelligent, methodical murderer out there, how easy would it be for him to avoid Hercules? //Too easy//, he told himself grimly. One word that Hercules was in town and the murderer - assuming he *was* intelligent - would either lie low or leave town, leaving Hercules to contend with all the usual brigands and young thugs trying to prove themselves. //I should have done like Iph and given a false name at the Gates// he berated himself. As if he didn't feel idiotic enough, on his way into the first inn on his list he bashed into a well-dressed man who was exiting the place, causing him to drop his heavy leather purse.
"OH! Sorry!" Hercules bent to retrieve the purse, but the man beat him to it, gathering it up swiftly as the girl accompanying him giggled.
"No trouble," the man said, his expression suggesting otherwise.
"I... was woolgathering," Hercules offered lamely. "If there's anything-"
"Certainly not." The man smiled ingratiatingly. "It was an accident. Anyone could see that. A good night to you sir." He held out a gloved hand.
Hercules gripped his wrist and pumped it; a warrior's handshake. The man returned it firmly with a slight smile on his face. "And a good night to you, and the lady," Herc smiled.
The girl giggled again, cheeks going a delicate pink as she took the man's arm.
Fixing that unexpected image of civility in his mind, Hercules entered the inn's common room.
The streets of Khavas, it was said, never knew true darkness. Iphicles had always taken that statement to be an exaggeration, but now he was beginning to believe it was nothing more than truth. As he walked down the main strip of the heart of the city near midnight, it might well have been mid-*day*. The streets were lit with ingenious, long-burning street lanterns and the crowds were such that he at times had to push through clots of people to get to his admittedly vague destination. //This makes downtown Corinth look like a backwater// he marvelled, and made a mental note to tell his advisors and cabinet as much when he returned home. He was making his way to the area of town where men who desired other men frequented, the area the monster he pursued would hunt; he hadn't expected this amount of activity.
In what seemed like every doorway people were selling... things. Food, alcohol, drugs, games of chance, young children with oldold eyes, or themselves. He passed them all by, though the king in him wondered what could - or should - be done about them. If things were this chaotic on the main streets, gods only knew what was happening in the alleys just past the safe glow of the lamplight.
**Never mind that. Just go where you're going."**
//I AM//, Iphicles thought back at Ares. //If you're so worried why don't you pretend to be human again instead of doing your invisible thing?//
**I'm *with* you, aren't I?** the god replied a bit testily.
//Yehaw.// Iphicles entered the first of the many places he was expected to search tonight.
It wasn't as satisfying as he'd thought it would be.
For one thing, the eyes were deep, soulful brown, not black as the universe at the moment of its Creation. And the boy hadn't even seemed upset or surprised. He'd just regarded him with a look of... resignation. Like it was all he'd expected all along. He'd never experienced a look like that before he'd left. It was wrong to leave; he knew that. He wasn't meant to be in the world of the Waking, hadn't realized how tiring it was. Maybe he should... No. No going back. It was just his choice for the night that was bothering him. It was choosing someone who looked like Him that had been the mistake, had tainted the night. Tomorrow he'd find someone who was a diametric opposite of Him. Then these doubts would leave. He stopped chewing his snack, all the taste gone now, swallowed and rolled over to sleep.
All the juices sucked out, the tattered remnant of a soulful brown eye disappeared down the Corinthian's throat.
The entire night had been a colossal washout. Hercules rested his elbows heavily on the beer-soaked counter of the last bar he was up to canvassing tonight. In the last six hours he'd had countless drinks, a good fifty toasts raised to him (once the patrons had learned his name), seventeen propositions (nearly as many men as women), four minor fistfights and two major altercations that had caused property damage. And not *one* useful lead on the killer he was searching for.
//Iphicles was right. Everyone *does* behave differently around me. As long as I'm Hercules I'll never catch this animal. I'll be too busy accepting toasts and fighting wanna-be heroes.// He acknowledged the ale the bartender set before him with a vague nod as he rested his head in his hands. //Take that thought further. I've told myself I'm working to help the common man, but... could I be being arrogant at the same time? So complacent in the fact that I'm *Hercules* that I'm *not* seeing things I need to see? So smug that I'd belittle my brother because he's mortal and not as... celebrated as I am?? When I lost my strength... can I truly tell myself that I was happier with her, or would I have come to resent her for all I gave up for her if she hadn't died?// His thoughts chased him deeper and deeper, the need to blame others and the need to castigate himself warring, making it impossible to reach the happy medium of understanding. He drank, eyes gray and stormy as his thoughts, when a light touch caught his attention.
"I beg your pardon," the elegant man said, "but I believe we had a chance encounter earlier tonight, and I couldn't help noticing that you look a bit... out of sorts. Perhaps a bit of companionship would ease the strain?" He smiled charmingly, reminding Hercules of his father on his best behaviour. "My name is Tarchas" he proffered a well-manicured hand.
"I'm Hercules" He shook. Tarchas' hand was smooth and dry, his grip was firm. "Pleased to meet you."
"The pleasure's all mine," Tarchas beamed. "If you don't mind my asking... are you... *the* Hercules?"
Herc took a long drink and sighed. "Yes. I am." And braced himself for the usual onslaught of questions.
Instead, Tarchas nodded. "Fascinating. An honour to meet a living legend. Now if you'll excuse me, I've got my drink and I've had rather a long night." Tarchas rose.
Hercules gripped the older man's wrist. "That's it? Good night?"
"Should there be something else," the man asked mildly.
"Then good night. And may I suggest the lamb if you choose to eat at this establishment tomorrow; it's divine." Tarchas walked away, a small, trim man who moved with an admirable grace despite his years. Herc had always imagined that sort of taste and graciousness in his own father, but fact had never lived up to his dreams. He smiled sadly, glad to know there were such people, and pained to know it at the same time.
It was a test, and you passed. Hercules. You met the legendary hero tonight, and he was as blind as the local constabulary. Clearly the gods mean for this to be your journey, your purpose. You disrobe, setting your coat carefully aside, and rinse your hands and face in the washbasin. The room has a small fireplace, banked for you as requested. You throw a bit of kindling on the quietly smoldering fire and remove the heavy pan from your pack, adding a dash of oil from your supplies. Sweetbreads require tender care for optimum flavor.
//Toooooooo fugging late. Too man' drings.// Iphicles negotiated his way carefully up the stairs to his room, pulling out his key with exaggerated care. He aimed, missed, shook the hair out of his face and aimed again. The door suddenly opened and, happy to not have to negotiate the lock (it was making him slightly dizzy and a little nauseous) Iphicles entered, making a well-executed beeline to the bed where he sat down, uncomfortably upright since one abortive attempt at lying back had made the room spin sickeningly.
"Do you have anything to tell me?"
"Yeah. They don't water down the booze in this town." Iphicles tried to gently lower himself to the mattress, then sprung into a sitting position as the room whirled again.
"What about the eye guy?"
"Din't show," Iphicles managed. "Stayed there f'r hours. Nothin'. Foun' out he left right b'fore I got there. We're fucked f'r tanight."
"That's it?" Ares strode forward to grip the king's arms. "That all you got?"
He let Iphicles drop, chewing his lip in frustration. Nothing else would happen tonight, clearly. He should...
Ares' eyes drifted back to the slowly breathing form on the bed. He considered taking him right then and there, but there was something about this mortal that made the thought unappealing. Without pausing to consider his motivations, Ares accessed his powers, removing Iphicles' clothing and placing him properly in bed. Then he disrobed himself and climbed in next to his little king //just to see what mortals see in this...//
And for a few brief minutes, all of Khavas slept...