Here There Be Dragons 1-13
Rain falls softly across the kingdom of Corinth. Not a gentle, cleansing rain, but a hard, cold, stinging silver rain. The cold crawls into bones and muscles, burrowing, twisting, refusing to leave. Low, flat, ominous clouds fill the gray sky, lurking from horizon to horizon. The sun has been absent for weeks, the formerly rich earth is turned to swamp and bog, and even the animals huddle together for warmth and comfort against the gray chill.
The great castle of Corinth, an ancient walled fortress, stands steadfast against the rain, gray stones covered with gray lichen, the skeletal arms of surrounding trees imploring the heavens for sun or light. Inside, booted footsteps echo on the gray flagstone floors, the sound reflecting off gray stone walls, occasionally absorbed by ancient and faded tapestries. The footsteps belong to Iphicles, King of Corinth, who wanders the halls aimlessly, his copper hair dull and tarnished, his golden tunic stained and spotted, his amber eyes clouded and haunted.
Two months previous
Braxis stood in the castle, shivering in her new body. She had been busily preparing a nest in the mountains when Zeus had appeared to her and told her that the strange bronze dragon had been an ensorcelled human, and he really was King Iphicles of Corinth. The King of the Gods had then offered her the chance to be a human, and Queen of Corinth. Well, to be quite honest, he hadn't exactly asked her, he'd informed her.
One minute she'd been a smallish dragon happily building a nest in the rocky crags of a mountain, the next minute she was in a strange body in a strange place, her senses assaulted with new and overwhelming stimuli. Dragons are, by nature, highly intelligent animals and highly adaptable, but this situation was far outside of anything Braxis had ever experienced in her short life. She fainted.
When she regained consciousness Braxis immediately knew that this was wrong. Her body felt strange and alien, and she didn't like it. Instead of four legs and two wings, she had only two short, stubby arms and two legs. No wings. Instead of her beautiful iridescent armor of scales, she was covered with something smooth, soft, and hairy. For the first time in her life she felt weak and defenseless. She opened her eyes tentatively and was shocked at how little she could see. Human eyes were obviously inferior to dragon eyes. She sniffed, but there were no scents. There was no way to tell if danger lurked or strangers approached.
She looked around in panic and saw a human male next to the bed. She had to squint her eyes to focus, unused to the way they worked. The human was dressed in gold and copper, and she somehow sensed that this was her bronze dragon. He looked at her and she recognized the sad, somewhat mad eyes, and knew.
"Iphicles?" Her human voice was soft and weak. She didn't like it.
He looked at her, his expression unreadable. Of course, she had little idea how to read human expressions in general, but she could tell it was neither happy nor sad nor afraid.
"Hello, Braxis. How do you feel?" He towered over the former dragon, who suddenly felt afraid. This human was much bigger than she was, and she no longer had her claws to defend herself, or her scales to protect her. Looking down at herself, she cringed in revulsion. She had only this soft, pinkish, squishy flesh, and she knew from experience that it was easily pierced and torn and damaged. Her small, weak hands were trembling and she pulled back as he reached out and touched her wrist. She reacted instinctively, pulling the arm away and raking at his face with her nonexistent claws, but he easily caught her wrist and held it in his big hand.
The human king spoke softly, looking into her eyes. "I know you're scared, and I'm sorry. I'm going to try to get you out of this, okay? Please try not to be afraid."
Braxis swallowed, trying to force down the fear. But she felt something twisting inside of her, forcing its way up, and suddenly she was choking and her throat was burning, and she felt a slimy and foul mess force its way out from inside her as she turned and threw up all over the king. Her stomach continued to twist and churn and force liquid out of her, spasming without relief until tears streamed down her face and she was gasping for breath, her nose running and yellowish liquid staining her face.
She continued to gasp, sickened, her stomach still trying to force out more as her breathing slowly returned to normal. She looked up at the king through a haze of tears. "Am I dying?" She barely managed to croak out the question, her throat was so sore that it hurt to even speak.
"No, you're not dying." Iphicles carried a washbasin and cloth to the table next to the bed and began to clean the mess. "You're pregnant."
"I don't understand." Braxis moaned and rubbed the heels of her hands against her eyes to clear the tears, but only managed to smear them. She still couldn't see properly and her eyes were drifting shut. This damn body was so weak; it couldn't handle the stress.
The king sat the washbasin on the floor and gave her a serious look. "Braxis, we're both in very, very big trouble." She didn't hear anything else as she drifted into an exhausted sleep.
In Thrace, in the main temple of Ares, God of War, two warlords and several priests waited for their god. Agathon of Boeotia and Pelios of Thrace were both tall and broad-shouldered. Agathon wore a beard to cover the scars on his face and his armor was dented and stained. Pelios displayed his scars with pride and stood straight, his armor polished until it glowed. The two were complete opposites, but had a common goal. They had been planning a daring raid on Leuctra for weeks, with help from Ares, who promised them his support and great reward if they succeeded. He was to provide weapons and troops, and while both men realized the god was using them for some purpose of his own, neither cared. They would get weapons, men, and victory, what else mattered? Ares had ordered them to be at his temple this day, and both arrived at the appointed time. But the god didn't. The priests quietly speculated that the God was in a bad mood, which never boded well, and so they went about their duties with increased zeal.
Day passed into night, and the God of War never appeared.
Iolaus waited at an inn outside Amphipolis, drinking his third mug of wine, feeling slightly light-headed. He and Hercules had arranged to meet here, but the demigod was late. Iolaus frowned, more petulant than worried. Herc could take care of himself. He was probably helping someone with a broken wagon or repairing a fence, being his usual helpful self. The hunter just wished his lover would hurry up about it. They'd been apart for over a week, and he'd been eagerly anticipating their reunion.
Iolaus waited until dark, drinking until he could barely stagger up the stairs to the room he had rented. Hercules never arrived.
Aphrodite appeared in her home temple in a blaze of light so bright that any mortal looking at her would have been blinded. She threw her head back and screamed, a sound so loud and full of anger that any mortal who heard it would have been rendered deaf. She raised her deceptively delicate hands and formed them into fists, nails cutting into the flesh of her palms, pounding them into the white marble wall with such strength that the columns shuddered and dust fell from the ceiling.
Hephaestus arrived immediately, feeling his wife's overwhelming rage. He found himself before a goddess who was blazing with fury; her pacing throwing up sparks behind her heels, her blonde hair wild and her eyes glowing with her power.
"'Dite?" Hephaestus had seen similar displays from his mother and brother, but never from his wife. "What's wrong?"
The Goddess of Love spun toward her husband, her hands still clenched into fists, her beautiful face set into a snarl. "Ares and Zeus. They *interfered*." She drew the word out, spitting the last syllable. "Now I have to fix the mess they made before everyone involved ends up dead, or worse."
Hephaestus felt a sudden chill. He walked forward hesitantly, afraid to touch Aphrodite. "What can I do?"
Aphrodite pointed at a white statue, light glinting off her pink manicured fingernails, and blasted it into dust. "Find Iolaus and bring him here. I'm gonna need all the help I can get, and he'll come in handy."
Hephaestus nodded and disappeared, glad to be away.
Braxis opened her eyes and shivered, wakened by the cold. It hadn't been a nightmare. She was still trapped in an alien body. She sat up slightly and looked around. The room was made of stone and had a fireplace; it appeared tiny and cramped to a creature accustomed to living in majestic caves and in the open wilderness. She was lying in a bed that was too soft and her lower back ached; dragons prefer sleeping on hard surfaces.
Throwing back the covers, she placed one foot on the floor, trying not to look at the misshapen appendage. The floor was cold and she instinctively prepared to blow a fireball to warm it, staring in momentary puzzlement when nothing happened. Of course, she realized, humans don't breathe fire. She placed both feet on the floor and stood, swaying, as another bout of nausea attacked her. She doubled over, her stomach again spasming and her breathing becoming ragged. But her stomach was empty, so she merely spat out bile, wiping her mouth with a trembling hand to try to clear the foul acidic taste.
The open window and clean air beckoned. Braxis walked cautiously to the window and looked outside, leaning against the stone wall, shivering as the stone chilled her skin. The day was overcast and visibility was limited, but it reminded her of freedom. The wind blew in her hair and she gritted her teeth, feeling her stringy human hair whip against her face, stinging her eyes. For the first time, she realized just how pathetic this new body was. She could barely see, and those colors she saw were muted and flat, the world somehow muddy and distorted. Her new ears were as stunted as her eyes; she could barely make out noises and those she heard were muffled instead of clear. As for the scents - there were none.
As a dragon she could smell all living beings surrounding her, as well as their emotions. She could smell the unconcerned self-absorption of cows grazing. She could smell the fear of the rabbit dashing through the woods, the excitement of the fox on the chase. But now, there was nothing. This body was able to experience only a fraction of a dragon's world. She felt alone, isolated from her senses, as if she were suddenly blind and deaf and mute, a helpless prisoner of this strange flesh.
The door creaked and Braxis jumped, her new body emitting a high-pitched squeak that she despised for the weakness it conveyed. Of course, she reflected, humans were weak, especially when compared with dragons. She'd have to adjust. She had no choice. She had to adjust or die. Her eyes struggled to focus in the dim light as she saw Iphicles walking slowly toward her, a steaming bowl in his hand.
"I brought you some food." He sat the bowl down on the bedside table as Braxis fatalistically noted that she could barely smell the odors wafting from the food within. "Feeling any better?"
"No." Her voice was a whisper, her throat still raw. She leaned against the wall, continuing to look out the window, longing to fly free.
"I'm sorry." He sighed. "We're stuck in this together, at least for the meantime. Hopefully it'll be over soon. Hercules said he'd help take care of things; he's probably working hard at it right now. I know Herc, he won't let us down."
Braxis slid into the bed, burrowing under the covers for warmth. "I don't understand any of this."
The king pulled up a chair and sat, his shoulders stooped as he explained. "First, Zeus changed me back to a human, obviously. He found out about you and transformed you into a human. Maybe it was his idea of helping, I don't know. The gods don't really seem to care much about what we think."
"I noticed." Braxis shivered, still unable to get warm. "I was building a nest, high in the mountains, when he appeared. He told me that you really were a human who'd been transformed. I'm sorry I thought you were insane."
Iphicles' laugh was bitter. "Yeah, well, you're not the only one, believe me."
The former dragon continued. "I was flying, high in the clouds, looking for wood and plants to make the nest. It was a good day for flying. Lots of air currents to glide upon, lots of sun to bask in." She trailed off for a moment, looking wistful. "I love flying."
"I think that's part of what I liked best about being a dragon. Well, that and swimming. And the power. And breathing fire, that was a rush." Iphicles stopped, chagrined. "Sorry to interrupt you..." The king motioned her to continue.
"Anyhow, Zeus told me you really were the King of Corinth and he was going to turn me into a human so I could be your Queen. And then he did."
"And now your troubles are just starting." Iphicles reached for the bowl of soup and began feeding Braxis, who made a face and spat it out.
"That's disgusting!" She wiped at her mouth, trying to deal with the salt and spices. Her stomach lurched and she turned pale, holding her breath, tasting acid in her mouth once more. "Why does this keep happening?"
"Because you're pregnant."
"You keep saying that." Braxis was becoming irritated. "I don't understand."
Iphicles put the soup back and stretched, his back popping as Braxis winced in sympathy. It sounded painful. "It's called morning sickness, but as my late wife said, it should be called 'all day sickness'. It's part of being pregnant for many human females."
Braxis shuddered. "I don't like it. Dragons don't have this problem. How soon do I lay the eggs and get this over with?"
"Um." Iphicles was stumped. "Humans don't lay eggs. They give birth to live young."
"They do what?" Braxis grew pale. She'd seen a cow give birth once, and it was a revolting sight. All the slime, and the awful scents, and the blood and moans of pain. "Well, how soon do I get it over with?"
"From the way you look, I'd say about six months."
Braxis blinked at Iphicles, the world spinning and the edges of her vision turning to black tendrils of smoke. She couldn't have heard that right. "What did you say?" She heard the quiver in her voice and wished she could still roar. She wished she would wake up and find this was all a nightmare.
Iphicles looked at the floor. "I'm not an expert or anything, but I'd guess six months or around that. I think that what Zeus did was to take how far along you were as a dragon and put you in the same time frame as a human, if you know what I mean. How long does it take for dragons to, you know, lay eggs?"
"About six weeks. We lay the eggs, keep them warm for about two weeks, then they hatch. We spend about a month teaching them and then off they go."
"Oh boy." The king leaned back. "Humans are extremely different."
"I gathered that." The former dragon's head was spinning. Her life had been so simple just yesterday, and now it loomed ahead of her, a vast unknown that made her dizzy with terror and apprehension.
The king pinched the bridge of his nose, wincing against his headache. It seemed to be permanent lately. "Gestation in humans takes about nine months. After that, the young have to be cared for for at least ten years."
"What?" Braxis' throat was still raw and the scream hurt, but she couldn't help it. Ten years? How did they do it? How did this pathetic race survive? How would she survive so long?
Iphicles slipped out of the guest chamber and walked past the guard, turning the corner before leaning against the cool stone wall in exhaustion. The past days had left him emotionally drained, feeling like a damp rag that had been wrung out. He closed his eyes for a few moments, but quickly opened them. He couldn't drift off, not now. He had to stay focused to get himself and the dragon in the guest room out of this damn situation.
The king schooled his expression into a neutral mask and strode through the hallway, his footsteps echoing around him. He turned left as he reached the main corridor, nodding politely at the people who stopped and bowed obsequiously to him. Rumors and whispers were already starting. Everyone had heard that a dragon had eaten the king, but the next day he appeared out of the air, a beautiful naked woman in his arms.
No one knew who the woman was or where she came from. The king let no one near her and kept a guard posted at the door to her room. Some said Zeus had commanded the king to take the woman as a Queen. Some whispered snidely that she had been his mistress for years. He was, after all, a commoner, what did he know of protocol? Others whispered that she was a kidnapped princess, forced to marry him against her will. Darker voices whispered that she was his prisoner, a kidnapped peasant, driven insane by the king.
Whispers filled the halls, surrounding Iphicles. He didn't notice, his thoughts churning madly as he drowned in guilt for getting the innocent creature involved in this situation. He hadn't thought about the consequences, as usual. Just like with Rena. He walked, lost in his own mind, as people moved out of his way, avoiding standing too close.
The kitchen in the castle was large and bustling with energy. Cooks stirred pots and assistants chopped vegetables, while children ran madly from one end of the room to the other fetching utensils and ingredients. The cooks joked and sang, sweating in the heat from the many fires. And then the king entered, and the room fell silent, motion stilled. All heads turned to watch as the monarch silently walked through the room, picking up the bloody carcass of a skinned and gutted rabbit, then turning and vanishing out the door. Once he left, the whispers began.
Iphicles knocked on Braxis' door out of courtesy, but entered quickly, his bloody hand slipping on the doorknob. His guest was sitting up in bed, still looking pale. She was pretty, he mused, but not spectacular. She looked like the kind of farm girl Hercules probably met all the time. Her skin was pale, her bone structure fragile, like a bird, her hair a quite ordinary mouselike brown color. But her eyes, her eyes belonged to a wild animal, and he could see something in them that frightened him. Animals didn't like being trapped. It made them dangerous.
Braxis looked up, a shudder rippling through her frame as she saw the king. He held up the rabbit for her inspection. "I thought maybe you might prefer this for dinner."
Her smile was feral as she reached for the rabbit. She held the carcass clumsily, unused to her new hands, and bit into the chest, happily tearing off chunks of flesh as best she could with her weaker teeth. Blood stained her face, chin and hands, smearing her with gore.
Iphicles watched, fascinated. He remembered the pleasure of his fangs tearing into flesh, feeling it rend under his power. He'd always considered food to be merely a necessity, fuel that allowed him to get through the day. But as a dragon, he'd found that the act of tearing into a living being, ripping it with his claws, slicing it with his fangs, made eating a sensual experience.
When Braxis finished her meal the bed was littered with bones, tissue and blood. Dried blood matted in her hair and stained her face and body, but she appeared sated. Iphicles reached for the bones to begin cleaning, but she growled at him, clutching the gore to her chest as he backed down.
"Mine," she growled, "for my nest."
"Humans don't build nests." He reminded her gently.
Her dark green eyes misted with tears, Braxis continued to clutch the bones and tissue. "I'm not a human. I'm a dragon."
Iphicles nodded, understanding completely.
Aphrodite's temple was a shambles. Statues had been pulverized, columns were cracked, furniture was broken and feathers fluttered in the wind. A confused Iolaus gasped at the damage and turned to Hephaestus.
"What happened here? Was it Ares? Is Aphrodite all right?" He clenched his teeth, recognizing Ares' handiwork and fearing for the helpless goddess.
Hephaestus merely shook his head, then gestured toward a corner of the temple. As they walked forward, Iolaus could see Aphrodite standing in the shadows, her head bowed as if in despair. There were rips in her gauzy pink gown and dirt stains on her arms.
"Aphrodite?" Iolaus whispered her name, afraid that something horrible had happened. While she was an interfering busybody, Aphrodite never meant any harm, and she had brought him a fair amount of laughter and joy in his life.
He was shocked when the goddess turned to face him, her hands clenched into fists, her eyes glowing blue with anger. Her beautiful face was twisted into a mask of rage that reminded him of Ares, but was much more frightening on the Goddess of Love. He instinctively took a step back as Aphrodite stalked toward him, sparks arcing from the floor where she walked.
"Aphrodite?" Iolaus gulped, taking another step back. "Um, Hep said you needed my help?" The silent goddess continued to advance as Iolaus scrambled backward. "'Dite, what's gotten into you?"
Aphrodite stopped and shook her head, clearing it. The glow in her eyes dimmed as she relaxed, beginning to look more like herself. Iolaus relaxed fractionally, still on edge.
"Sorry 'bout that, Curly." She shook her head as she patted her hair back into place. "I don't like people seeing me like that. I don't like *being* like that, but this time," the angry glow returned to her eyes and her voice changed subtly, "they went too far."
"W-who?" Iolaus stammered at her, Hephaestus fading into the background. Neither had ever imagined being afraid of Aphrodite.
"Ares and Zeus." The goddess' voice dripped with venom. "They interfered with my work and they've caused damage that I may not be able to repair." The glow disappeared again, and suddenly Aphrodite looked very, very tired. "It's like I'm standing here, watching these chariots rush toward each other and I know they're gonna wreck, but there's nothing I can do about it." She hugged herself, looking small and sad. "And I'm the one who set it in motion. It was supposed to have a happy ending, but now... now they're all gonna be lucky to walk away at all."
"Would you please just explain this to me?" Iolaus snapped, his exasperation and confusion getting the best of him.
"First let me show you something, okay?" Aphrodite held out her hand and Iolaus took it, still slightly suspicious. The goddess then transported them someplace else...
The Halls of War
Iolaus dropped Aphrodite's hand and looked around. They were in Ares' throne room, but the black throne stood empty and silent, looming over the room. The fire was unlit and the room was dim. It felt somehow still and abandoned, like a crypt. Iolaus shivered. The Goddess of Love motioned him to follow her as she began to glide down the black hallways like a butterfly in the night, her diaphanous pink gown fluttering behind her.
They passed several closed doors, but Iolaus heard nothing behind any of them and still saw no signs of life. His apprehension, his sense of wrongness, grew in the dark silence. Finally, Aphrodite stopped and put her finger to her lips.
"Stay quiet, Curly. I'm hiding us, but they can still hear us." She opened the door and slipped inside, Iolaus behind her. His jaw dropped at the sight before him.
The bed was easily the largest that Iolaus had ever seen, draped in red and black silk, covers in disarray. In the middle of the bed he saw Hercules, his lover, in another man's arms. Iolaus began to have trouble breathing past the pain in his stomach, as if someone had punched him in the gut. Hercules was whispering into the other man's ear, a lazy, loving smile playing about his lips. Iolaus swallowed, difficult as it was with the rapidly swelling lump in his throat.
Then it all went to Tartarus. The stranger turned over and Iolaus could see that Hercules was in bed with Ares. Ares, the god who had spent decades trying to torture and kill Iolaus, Jason, and everyone who Hercules cared for. Ares, who the demigod claimed to hate.
They were kissing, softly, sweetly, lips barely brushing at first, then mouths opening for tongues to twine together. Hercules gently ran a finger down his brother's chest, softly rubbing a nipple, as he whispered in the war god's ear. The brothers gazed deep into each others' eyes, lost in a love that even Iolaus could feel emanating from them.
He felt small, used, a forgotten discard. Hercules had said he loved him. Hercules had said that he'd never love anyone like he loved Iolaus. Hercules had lied. It was apparent that the brothers had a long and deep relationship, based on the way they were touching and looking at each other. Iolaus pressed his arm into his stomach, trying in vain to keep the pain inside, as the evidence of his lover's betrayal continued before his eyes.
He said nothing, following quietly, his head bent and his shoulders stooped, as Aphrodite led him out of the room and transported them back to her temple.
Iphicles sat in the dark in his bed chamber. He rarely slept any more. He could only stay awake and stare at the ceiling, lost in memories. He would sometimes drift off into a light sleep, but even the softest noise awoke him. It had started when Rena died, as had his loss of appetite and the fuzziness in his head. He sometimes worried that he had lost a part of his mind as well as his heart when she had died. The only nights he was able to sleep were the nights his brother came to visit, when Hercules lay beside him, holding him in his arms.
When they were children Hercules had been nothing but a pain as far as Iphicles was concerned. He'd tried to please his mother, but nothing he did could measure up to his younger brother's success. He always tried too hard, became too intense, lost his temper and sabotaged his own efforts.
As he grew older, Iphicles developed a festering hatred toward his younger brother. For years after he left home he had fantasized about finding Hercules doing something horrible and killing him; he, Iphicles, would return home the hero, and everyone would be sorry they had ignored him for so long.
Sometimes he just fantasized about killing Hercules, or raping him, pounding his hatred into his brother, spilling his own anger and corruption into him. He would lie in bed, his hard cock in his hand, stroking himself as he imagined beating his brother's face in, their bodies smeared with blood as Hercules begged him to stop.
Rena had lanced that wound inside his soul and allowed him to let go of the hatred. Their love had filled the hole left when the hate drained out of him. But now that she was gone, there was a black void inside of him, and sometimes Iphicles was afraid that it would swallow him up completely. He wondered if anyone would notice.
The king lay on the bed, fully clothed, shivering a little in the chill. He stared at the ceiling in the dark, unblinking. Hercules would come soon, and they'd fix this mess. After all, Hercules had already promised him they'd fix it, and irritating though he might be, Hercules didn't lie.
He closed his eyes, trying to shut out the unwelcome image his mind was painting; his brother and Ares, together, loving each other. Hercules taking off, leaving him behind without a backward glance. Hercules proclaiming his love to the God of War.
He bit his lip until it bled, trying to hold the blazing hatred away, struggling with himself. It wasn't like Hercules had stolen Ares from him; there had only been a few dreams, longings, half-formed hopes between himself and the War God. But Hercules already had Iolaus, now he had Ares. And Iphicles had no one, especially now, just a dragon trapped in the wrong body to care for. Another responsibility added to his long list of responsibilities.
The King of Corinth lay in the darkness, staring at the ceiling, waiting for his brother. And he remembered the joy of flying.
The Halls of War
Ares and Hercules lounged in Ares' great bed. The luxurious black silk sheets had been stained and twisted by their lovemaking, pillows scattered to the floor. Ares lay on his back, staring at the ceiling, feeling a warm contentment spreading through his body and soul. He gazed upon his sleeping brother, taking in the perfect face, the perfect body, and he sighed in contentment. He belonged to Hercules. He loved Hercules. They would be together forever. He was happy.
Something itched at the back of his mind, something that should be important. It whispered that something was wrong, but how could anything be wrong when he was lying in bed next to his one true love? The warm, fuzzy feeling that had dominated his being for the past day banished the nagging suspicion, encouraging him to reach out and trace the curve of his lover's jaw, tickling his lover's ear, making him smile and glow with joy as Hercules gazed deep into his eyes.
Hercules, his master, kissed him, and the God of War was warm and happy.
Aphrodite looked on as Iolaus tried to pull himself together. She could feel the heartbreak emanating from him, and she could feel that far-off loneliness calling to her, that loneliness that had started this entire mess. It was getting worse. She stamped her delicate pink-clad foot in frustration.
Iolaus moved toward the remains of a ruined loveseat, feathers landing in his hair as he sat on the pink satin cushion. He was hunched over, his chest resting on his knees, eyes shut to hold in the emotion.
The goddess placed a gentle hand on his shoulder and squeezed, hoping to offer some comfort. Iolaus didn't respond, so she sank to her knees in front of him, taking his hands in her own.
"It's not his fault." She whispered, trying to coax a reaction out of the mortal. "It's a love spell. That's part of what's wrong."
Iolaus finally looked up, his eyes bright with unshed tears and suppressed anger. "You did this to him?"
"No, not me. Ares. The other Ares. He hit them both with a really strong spell. Now do you understand?"
"No. But I'll listen." The hunter slowly uncurled, taking a few deep breaths to center himself. "So you're saying that Ares, the God of Love from the Sovereign's world did this? Mister 'I'm a lover, not a fighter'?"
"Yeah." Aphrodite nodded eagerly. "And when I get my hands on him," she mimed wringing a neck, "he's gonna be sorry he ever messed up one of my plans."
"Okay, okay," Iolaus motioned frantically with his hands, "back up. Start from the beginning. What started all of this?"
Aphrodite stood and waved her arms in the air. "Look, it's way too complicated. But here's the important part. I'm in the middle of something and then Mr. Love God shows up and says he's visiting and can he tag along. So I'm like 'sure, why not, this one's a piece of cake', right? But there was a teeny little snag and Ares, the love Ares that is, was helpful and all, so he threw me off guard, right? Okay." She paused for breath as Iolaus crossed his legs, trying to relax.
"So, he's being all helpful and all sorts of stuff's happening, and so stupid ol' me, I don't notice when he puts what has to be this totally major spell on Herc and Ares. I mean, at first they were just fucking around, which is fine."
"Fine? What's fine about it?" Iolaus spoke up jealously.
The goddess raised an eyebrow at him. "Oh, come on Iolaus. Like you're telling me you've never noticed those two just ooze sexual tension."
The hunter had to admit she was right. "Yeah, well, they didn't have to *act* on it." He spoke sullenly, not happy about sharing his lover with Ares of all people.
Aphrodite rolled her eyes. "Whatever. Look, it was just sex, okay? And they needed to get it out of their systems. So, anyhow, they're having fun blowing off steam and all, and I'm just happy everything looks like it's working out. That's when that back-stabbing lowlife cast what had to be a major strength love-whammy on Herc and Ares."
A puzzled Iolaus mouthed 'major strength love-whammy?' to himself, shaking his head. Sometimes he wished his lover were just a simple farmer, or maybe a farrier or a banker. And he definitely wished Herc had a nice, normal family full of people who spoke plain Greek and didn't try to kill them on a regular basis.
Aphrodite looked distressed and spoke quickly. "Then Zeus showed up and I had to cover, cause I didn't want him to know what I was up to. So I put on my airhead routine and he fell for it, but then he went and did some things that you don't need to know the details about cause they aren't directly related to the Herc and Ares mess, but he made things even worse for two more involved parties." She ran her hand through her disheveled hair, tired. "And now I have to clean up after both of them, cause Olympus forbid Zeus should clean up his own messes and Ares, the other Ares, zapped himself back home right after all of this." She finished her tirade with a loud exhalation as Iolaus looked on, his mouth open.
Iolaus had what he considered a reasonable question. "So, why didn't you just take the spell off Herc and Ares?"
"Like, duh, because I can't! Ares cast it, he has to remove it."
The goddess and mortal sat and regarded each other, neither noticing Hephaestus cleaning the debris in the temple until he tripped on the amputated arm of a statue. Aphrodite lazily stretched out her hand and a golden light flowed from her, pink and white hearts dancing in the glow, restoring the room to its previous glory. Once finished, she looked around in satisfaction before addressing Iolaus.
"So you see, you have to get Ares and bring him back to undo the spell before it's too late."
The phrasing caught Iolaus' attention. "What exactly do you mean when you say 'before it's too late'? Is there a frog clause or something?"
Aphrodite was serious. "Based on what I could see, the spell increases exponentially over time. It started out as a mutual desire, then it turned into a mutual love. Soon it'll be a mutual obsession. If it doesn't stop they're going to become so obsessed with each other that neither will be able to function at all. Herc'll forget to eat, Ares won't do his job." Understanding dawned in her eyes. "Which is why Zeus let that slimy lounge lizard get away with it. If Ares can't do his job, Zeus can kill him. That's it."
Hephaestus sat next to Iolaus, focusing on his wife; Iolaus watched as Aphrodite paced, awed at the fact that wheels were turning in her head. "You lost me again. Why would Zeus want to kill Ares?"
This time Hephaestus answered, looking into Iolaus' eyes as he spoke. "Dahak. The episode where he shut us all up into that globe. And don't forget that patricide runs in the family." He shrugged. "Not that Zeus ever really needs a reason for anything he does, but take your pick of those."
The Goddess of Love turned to them, her face animated and her hands waving in the air. "Zeus wants Ares dead, but he can't just kill him. I mean, he's the one who made that 'no killing other gods' rule, and he'd lose face if he just broke it. But if Ares isn't doing his job, that gives Zeus a reason to kill him. Plus, if this obsession means Herc starves to death while he and Ares are lovers, Zeus can say that Ares killed Herc and off him for that." She stomped her foot and looked simultaneously angry and admiring.
"You know, Blondie, if anyone ever tells you Ares gets his manipulative nature from Hera, don't you believe it. It comes straight from daddy dearest."
Of course, Iolaus mused, there was a flaw in Aphrodite's thinking and he helpfully pointed it out. "Zeus wouldn't let Herc die."
"Don't be so naive." Aphrodite tilted her head toward the hunter. "You don't think Zeus really cares about Herc, do you? Herc's just a pawn, that's all he's ever been. He's a tool for Zeus to use against Ares and Hera, just like Ares is a tool for Hera to use against Zeus. I can't believe what a warped family I married into." She looked briefly disgusted. "I'm glad you don't play their little games, sweetie." She leaned over and kissed Hephaestos on his forehead.
Iolaus stood and stretched. "Okay. I go, I find Ares, I bring him back. Does that about cover it?"
"About. But you can't let him know why you're there. He won't want to come back and undo the spell."
"Why not? No, don't answer that, my head hurts enough as it is."
Aphrodite motioned to Hephaestus, who stood up. "Look, there's two things to keep in mind here. First, he may dress in white and sashay around, but that's just on the outside. On the inside he's still Ares, and he's still a manipulative son of a bitch. Don't underestimate him like I did. Second, he threw that spell for a reason, and whatever it was, it was malicious. He's got an agenda, so look out. Use your heartbreak and pain; that should draw in the emotional leech."
The two gods raised their arms and focused their power, bolts of energy flowing from each of them until Iolaus saw the familiar blue vortex before him, the wind blowing his hair into his face. He advanced on it, his arm in front of his eyes to protect them from debris, and turned around to wave goodbye.
Hephaestus stood beside his wife and nodded his encouragement. Aphrodite waved a pink scarf at him, her blonde hair blowing in the wind. "Be careful, Sweet Cheeks! And hurry back, for Herc!"
Iolaus clutched the image of Hercules and Ares in bed to his heart, deliberately reopening the wound and drawing blood as he hurried through the vortex.
Outside, the ever-present rain falls. Inside, the Halls of War are still dark and cold. The flames from the fire lick up the black walls, throwing shadows that writhe and twist, like tortured souls in Tartarus. The floor is awash with blood; fresh blood runs in rivulets, while old dried blood crusts in ice crystal-like patterns. In the center of the room is a massive black throne. On this throne sits Ares, God of War, his eyes glowing red with a rage that will not be quenched, no matter how much blood is spilt. His black leathers are saturated scarlet, his hair is crusted with gore, and still he sits, motionless, pondering, waiting. He needs more blood, more death, more pain, to purge the memories; to cauterize the wound, to sterilize his soul. He stands, the motion fluid, as he licks his lips, tasting the coppery tang on his tongue. There is a flash of blue light as the God of War disappears, on his way to Corinth.
One Month Previous
The great throne room of Corinth's castle was filled with people. Dressed warmly, they huddled together, still shivering from the cold, water dripping from their sodden clothing forming muddy puddles on the inlaid tile floor, obscuring the intricate designs. At the front of the room, surrounded by guards, Iphicles sat in his throne, golden crown upon his head, and listened to the arguments and tales of the petitioners before him. He smiled, nodded his head in the right places and made decisions that most agreed were just, but he actually paid very little attention.
In his mind, Iphicles was flying. He stretched his leather wings, catching an updraft, gliding effortlessly upon the wind, basking in the sunlight. He looked around the court, seeing it through dragon's eyes in his mind.
A dragon wouldn't sit here all day in this hard cold throne, listening as humans squabbled and whined over petty concerns. A dragon would stand tall and proud, stalking through the room, smelling the respect and fear. A dragon would be concerned only with itself, not caring how others saw it, what they thought of it. A dragon would not be judged.
He shook his head, startled out of his reverie as a particularly irate man with foul breath smelling of garlic and onions began shouting and pointing. Iphicles squinted, hand rubbing his forehead to relieve his headache as he listened to the man shout about his neighbor's dog attacking and eating cattle.
The king sighed, imagining sweeping down upon the man's farm, grabbing a cow in his massive claws and flying off with it; perhaps even eating the farmer while he was at it. He smiled to himself, imagining suddenly being transformed into a dragon and setting the court on fire. The flames would devour the tapestries, the people would run screaming, and he would be free to do as he pleased.
It wasn't to be. He was a human, and a king at that. He had responsibilities. Those responsibilities weighed as heavily on his soul as the golden crown weighed upon his head. It crushed him down, constricting him, squeezing his skull; sometimes he imagined the crown growing smaller and smaller, until it split his skull and his brains oozed out, covering the golden circlet. The crown would lurk, almost pulsing with malevolence, as it waited for another victim.
Iphicles winced and rubbed the back of his neck. His mood was growing worse; if this continued he wouldn't be able to function. He waved at the magistrate to indicate that the day's petitions were done, striding out of the room oblivious to the man's objections.
These sorts of moods had struck more often of late. He found that he spent most of his time drifting in a gray cloud in his mind, living more in imagination and wishes than in reality. He had no one to talk to, no one to listen; not since Rena died and Hercules left him. He thought of his brother, who had promised to stay and help, and lied. The hatred burned inside of him like acid, carving hot trails within his heart.
The king walked to the great meeting room where his advisors awaited him. He heard murmurs from within the room, but silence descended as he entered. Looking around he saw expressions quickly mutating from fear and anger into neutral, blank, empty masks. He nodded and took his seat at the head of the great walnut table as the others sat, clustered at the opposite end of the room.
Argeus, a gray-haired healer, stood and addressed the king, his eyes focused on a point on the wall behind Iphicles, never quite meeting his eyes.
"Your Highness, the council would like to again address the issue of your...Queen." He flinched as he said the word, and Iphicles sighed.
"Gentlemen, nothing has changed. Nothing *will* change. At least, not for the better." Iphicles slouched, dangling one leg over the massive carved arm of the chair.
"But Highness," Argeus continued undaunted, "the people are talking. Rumors are spreading like wildfire, and I don't have to tell you that they are *most* uncomplimentary."
"I understand that." Iphicles nodded at the older man. "And I appreciate it. But it doesn't change anything." The pounding in his head was msking the king testy.
Argeus took a deep breath, determined to charge ahead. "Not per se, no. But the rumors are becoming more outlandish. Everyone knows you have a woman imprisoned in the castle. They also know that Zeus said she is to be your Queen. If you don't show her in public, that lends more weight to the rumors that you've kidnapped a young woman. Every peasant with a missing daughter will suspect you and hate you."
Iphicles leaned forward, forehead creased. "And if I *do* show her in public, what then? We all know how well she dresses and comports herself."
The advisors looked at each other uneasily. Some had been there, some had not, when Braxis had first arrived at the castle. She had arrived naked and refused to wear clothing, claiming it was restrictive and uncomfortable. One of the court ladies, Phoebe, had decided that Braxis just needed some encouragement. Phoebe had insisted that the former dragon wear 'proper' garments and even tried to force her into a gown. Braxis had panicked and fought back like the animal she was.
Phoebe survived, but lost one eye and would carry the scars on her face for the rest of her life.
Iphicles nodded, seeing the fear in their eyes, imagining he could smell it, remembering the pungent, heady scent of terror. He pressed his point, drawling sarcastically to the council. "Of course, we could always have lots of guards around her. I'm sure that'd go over well."
Several of the men paled at the pointed remark. No one knew the details, no one ever would. All Iphicles knew was that several weeks earlier, when he visited the dragon, he had found her door unguarded. Opening the door he had found the guard inside; what was left of him, that is.
Braxis said he had entered the room, no one knew why. She had broken a pitcher over his head and neatly snapped his neck when he fell. She had then taken a broken shard of pottery and used it to cut him open. When Iphicles found her she had been happily devouring the guard's entrails, which the dragon regarded as a great treat.
Many advised the king to kill her, but he refused. She was a dragon, after all, and merely behaving as dragons do. Who were they to judge a dragon?
The Halls of War
Hercules stirred, looking down at the body snuggled against his. Ares. His beautiful lover, his soul mate, the one being in all of creation who could complete him. Ares stirred but didn't wake as Hercules took the opportunity to let his eyes wander over the hard muscles, the raven hair, the talented mouth. He couldn't remember ever being happier, not even with...
His mind jumped to a different subject as he completely forgot his previous train of thought.
The room smelled of incense, musk and sex. They hadn't moved from the bed in the past week. Ares had materialized food for his mortal lover, and they had sat in bed and eaten between lovemaking sessions. Hercules found that merely being near Ares made him hard, no matter how many times he had come already. He loved his brother, needed him with a desire that was never sated.
Rolling Ares over, Hercules parted his lover's ass cheeks and slowly, deliberately slid in, the way already lubricated by semen from their last session. Ares moaned his pleasure as Hercules began to thrust gently, each whispering endearments.
"Mine, Ares. You're mine."
"Yours. I'm yours, always. Forever. Loveyouloveyouloveyou..."
Aphrodite paced, walking in neat circles, contemplating the pink-veined marble floor of her temple. How had the situation turned so bad so quickly, she wondered. She had spent the past month trying to understand, trying to pinpoint the exact moment when the other Ares had cast his spell. More than that, she wanted to understand why he had done it. She had her suspicions, but wanted confirmation. Never again, the goddess vowed, would she let another god interfere with one of her plans.
She just wished that Iolaus would hurry up. She'd known that Ares would be in hiding, that it would take time to coax him out and allow Iolaus to gain his trust, but this was ridiculous. She was continuing to perform her duties, acting as if nothing had happened, but worry gnawed at her innards.
People were noticing that Hercules was gone, and that Ares wasn't doing his job. There were whispers, that Ares had killed the hero, that Hercules had killed Ares, that they had killed each other. So many whispers, and Zeus tried to look concerned, but she saw his smug smirk lurking beneath the wise and compassionate facade.
A noise, similar to the roar of rushing water or an approaching funnel cloud alerted her. Straightening, she faced the swirling vortex, anxiously peering into the azure mist. Two familiar figures approached and the goddess sighed in relief. Finally.
Aphrodite straightened her shoulders and rolled her head, trying to relax. As the two figures emerged from the vortex she smiled her brightest and most vacant smile, hoping it was convincing. She squealed and jumped up and down, waving, deliberately giving an appreciative Ares a generous view of her cleavage as she waved.
"Ares! Sweet Cheeks!" She made sure her voice squeaked as she hit the high notes, but warned herself not to overdo the airhead act. Ares was much more intelligent than he looked.
The God of Love strode forward, a bright yet vacant smile on his face, and embraced Aphrodite, holding her close and inhaling the scent of her hair.
"Ares!" She pulled back, remaining in his arms, as she looked into his midnight black eyes. "You came back for another visit! This is so totally cool. You did, like, so great last time."
Ares smiled at her, and she saw something coiled behind his eyes, a serpent preparing to strike. "I had so much fun the last time, I just *had* to come back and check up on everyone. Besides," his full lips shaped into an insincere pout, "Iolaus was just so sad, I had to try and make it better for him." Aphrodite saw crocodile tears glistening in his eyes and mentally awarded him bonus points.
The goddess pulled away, but latched her arm through Ares', patting his hand as they walked into her temple, a dejected Iolaus following. Aphrodite turned to Iolaus, still holding on to Ares.
"Sweet Cheeks? You doing better?" She spoke as if addressing a favorite pet.
Iolaus nodded. He looked tired, sad, thinner than when he'd left. "Yeah. Traveling helped. And it took me a while to find Ares. That gave me time to think, sort things out in my head, you know?"
Aphrodite nodded as she saw the look of steely determination on the hunter's face. "Why don't you go get some sleep in one of the back rooms? You still look totally bummed." Iolaus nodded and left them. Turning once more to Ares, the goddess played the airhead hostess.
"So, what's up? Were you hiding from Curly?" She tried to make it sound light, teasing. "Or do you have a secret lover you ran off to be with?" The darkness twisted behind Ares' eyes again, and Aphrodite knew she had found a weakness. "You know, Hephy and I are just, like, so happy! It's amazing, isn't it? Being in love?" She smiled to herself as she saw pain flit across Ares' face.
They entered the back room of the temple and Aphrodite motioned toward a settee, indicating that Ares should sit. He lazily reclined onto the pink satin, chin propped in his hand as he blessed her with a beatific smile.
"So, fill me in on the gossip. What'd I miss?" Ares looked like he was waiting for good news, and Aphrodite measured her words carefully, positioning herself behind the Love God's head, idly running her fingers through his hair as he sighed in pleasure.
"Well." She lowered her voice confidentially. "Zeus and Hera are fighting again, but that's old news. He threw her back into one of the deeper pits of Tartarus, you'd think he'd get a *little* more creative."
"At his age, what do you expect?" Ares sounded catty, she mused.
"Let's see... oh, yeah...." Aphrodite lowered her voice further and leaned forward, breathing into Ares' ear, her tongue gently licking around the outside before she started speaking. "You remember how Herc and our Ares got together right before you left? That big orgy in the sky?"
"Yes?" Ares' eagerness gave him away.
"Well, no one's seen either of them for, like, a month." She waited a few beats. "No one but me, that is." The trap was set, but would the mouse take the bait?
The God of Love turned to look at her, a mask of indifference upon his face. "And what, exactly, are they up to?"
Aphrodite leaned forward, exposing more cleavage as she placed her finger in front of her lips, leaning close enough to Ares that they were almost kissing. "It's a secret." She giggled. "I could take you there and show you," she whispered, "they put on *quite* a show."
Ares licked his full lips, his tongue almost caressing her mouth, his voice low-pitched and throaty. "Oh, that sounds like such fun. I'd *love* to watch!" Aphrodite saw self-congratulations behind his eyes, and suddenly she saw the similarities between the two Ares. She'd have to be careful, very careful.
"Okay, but let's not tell Curly, okay?" She looked sympathetic. "I don't wanna depress the little guy any more than he is already, ya know?"
Ares nodded his agreement and stood, brushing his thighs, trying to hide his impatience. "Poor Iolaus." He sighed theatrically. "It's just not fair that he should be left all alone." Aphrodite saw the darkness writhing behind the god's eyes and almost felt sorry for him; until she remembered her Ares and Hercules.
The Goddess of Love giggled prettily. "Well then, what're we waiting for, silly? Let's do it!" She took Ares' hand in her own and squeezed it, leering at her counterpart and lowering her voice. "You know, even you might pick up a tip or two from them."
They disappeared in a shower of pink and white hearts and golden energy.
Braxis leaned against the cold stone wall, gazing out the window. She spent most of her time before the window, watching, yearning. The nausea had become part of her existence, the taste of acid in her mouth never dissipating. She was wrapped in a thick, rough woolen blanket for warmth, although she was never warm any more.
The blanket itched. Everything itched her sensitive new flesh. She had clawed and bitten herself until she drew blood, but she always felt it, small creatures crawling on her skin, biting and sucking, the texture of the coarse material. It was all unbearable.
Her claws tapped an erratic beat on the stone. Braxis had learned that human fingernails grow quickly. She had allowed hers to grow and filed them into sharp, deadly points. At least now she had weapons, of a sort, although they were good only for close quarters.
A mourning dove landed on the sill just outside the window, its gray feathers blending easily into the gray stone and the gray sky. It shook itself briefly in an attempt to dislodge the worst of the water. It then began fluffing and grooming itself; beak nuzzling quickly between feathers as it pulled and arranged, much as Braxis had once done with her scales.
The dove looked around in sudden panic and exploded into motion and flight, winging its way into the sky, into the unknown. Into freedom. Braxis sighed, longing with all of her being for the ability to fly away like the lowly gray bird.
She heard the familiar knock at the door and turned to see Iphicles enter. He carried two pheasant carcasses, one for each of them. The king rarely ate prepared food anymore, preferring instead to take his meals with the dragon. While she ate her food raw and bloody, he cooked his over the fireplace, although he had tried eating the meat raw upon occasion. She didn't quite understand why, but she had noticed that he cooked the meat less and less as time passed.
Iphicles nodded to her, but Braxis ignored him. As usual, he placed her meal on a plate. She didn't understand why he did this, but he seemed to be a creature of habit. Based on what the king had told her, humans in general seemed to be creatures of habit. They were herd animals, actions dictated by others and by 'custom', which meant they never questioned why they did what they did. They placed high regard upon what others thought of them, how others saw them. They were pathetic.
Braxis continued to gaze out the window, her weak human eyes searching the clouded skies for solace. She heard Iphicles preparing his pheasant, smelled the meat cooking, heard the fat pop and hiss as it dripped into the fire, but she steadfastly ignored him.
Iphicles was her keeper. She had quickly learned that any threat against him would be met with pain for herself. She smiled grimly to herself, wondering if that were still true. She had bitten him once, and the guard had decided to 'teach her a lesson'. Iphicles had been so horrified to find her eating the guard that she still laughed as she pictured his face.
The king removed his pheasant from the roughly made spit and walked to the opposite side of the room, setting his dinner on the table and preparing to eat. As he cut the meat with his knife, Braxis saw clear juices and blood, pink flesh under the skin. How she longed for that knife! But Iphicles knew this and never let her near. Sighing, the dragon entered her nest to begin eating her dinner.
Braxis had refused to sleep in the bed, so Iphicles had finally removed it. She made herself a nest of blankets and bones and scraps of wood in front of the fire, part of her eternal quest for warmth. The king had brought her jewels, gold, and baubles to decorate the nest, but still, it brought her no joy.
She examined the pheasant carcass, lying on its wooden plate. Iphicles no longer allowed her anything that could be broken or used as a weapon. She smiled to herself, glad the king didn't know about the bones she had patiently sharpened in her nest.
The dragon bit into her dinner, which still wasn't fresh enough for her taste, wincing as her new, weak incisors struggled to tear the skin. Her hands grew slippery with fluids, making it more difficult to grip the carcass tightly. She focused on the task at hand and was started when Iphicles spoke.
"They're talking about making it formal again."
"Um." Braxis made a neutral sound. What did she care?
"Some of them are talking about us getting married again."
She sighed. He was in one of those moods again. She had made it plain that she didn't want to talk or listen, but sometimes he insisted on talking, droning on about matters that didn't concern her. That was why she had bitten him.
"The rumors are getting worse."
"So?" She challenged him. Sometimes a challenge made him shut up.
The king paused, then changed his tack. "Don't your kind have any form of social order? Don't you follow any rules?" He sounded exasperated. She'd learned how that sounded.
Iphicles shook his head. "Then how do you get along? How do you cooperate?"
"We don't." Simple enough. "We're territorial. Dragons don't interact except during mating season. Otherwise we avoid each other."
"Don't you get lonely?" It seemed important to him. Not that she really cared.
The king's eyes clouded. "It's when you want someone to talk to, someone to hold, or just someone to be with."
Braxis shook her head. Humans were so strange. "We don't want that. We don't like other dragons."
Iphicles wasn't ready to give up. "Well, what if one of your children came to visit you?" He leaned forward, his hands clasped in his lap, knife left on the table.
"I'd kill it." The king sat back, staring, as the dragon continued. "You humans appear to be herd animals. You need each other. We aren't herd animals. We *eat* herd animals. Dragons don't need anyone else. We're self-reliant."
Iphicles picked up his knife, dashing her hopes, and left the room. Braxis returned to her window.
The rain continued to fall, turning into a stinging sheet that hammered at the castle's walls, the sounds of thunder rolling across the land drowning out all else. Lightning pierced the gray, bolts of electricity striking, burning, and Braxis remembered when she, too, had the power to burn. Throwing back her head, she screamed, giving voice to her pain and anger. The sound flowed over hills, amplified by the wind. And the people of Corinth shivered and shut their windows, huddling together by their fireplaces.
The Halls of War
The love gods arrived in the bedchamber, cloaked in invisibility. Hercules and Ares were in bed, the covers long gone, soaked through with semen and sweat. Aphrodite noticed that Hercules appeared thinner, somewhat drawn. He'd grown a beard and moustache during the period he was with Ares.
Hercules was lying on his back, Ares between his legs. Ares was licking Hercules' erection, running his tongue in circles, flicking to tease the sensitive underside, probing at the weeping slit. Hercules was moaning as Ares smiled. It was a warm, nice, loving smile. It made Aphrodite very uneasy. Looking at her companion, she saw that he was caught up in the show before them. His breathing had quickened, his pupils were dilated, and his tongue darted out to lick his full lips. Good.
As they watched, Hercules grabbed Ares' hair, close to the skull, in a grip that brought sympathetic tears to Aphrodite's eyes. He held Ares still and began pumping his hips rhythmically, brutally fucking Ares' mouth, ignoring the occasional sound of protest as he thrust too deeply. Ares appeared to love it.
The God of War reached for his own swollen cock, but Hercules roughly kicked his hand aside. When Hercules spoke, his voice was low and rough, with an unfamiliar edge.
"Just sit there and take it, slut." His head was thrown back, eyes closed, face twisted into an expression that could have been anger or ecstasy, the goddess wasn't sure which. They continued to watch as Hercules came in Ares' mouth, forcing the war god's head down at the last moment as he thrust madly, smiling as Ares choked, trying to swallow the semen and breathe.
The demigod didn't release his brother's hair, instead tightening his grip and pulling the god up until they were face to face, kissing him, plundering his mouth in dark triumph. Ares didn't protest. Hercules relaxed his grip, pushing Ares away contemptuously, a sneer on his face.
"I suppose you want that," he nodded at Ares' cock, swollen and purple, still untouched, "taken care of?"
Ares nodded, looking down at the bed. "Yes." His voice was low, breathy.
"Yes, what?" Hercules loomed over his brother, suddenly slapping Ares' face. Ares refused to look up.
"Yes, master." He emphasized the last word, drawing it out sensually.
Hercules quirked his mouth derisively. "Take care of it yourself. Why should I waste my time?"
Ares gaped for a moment, disappointment etched on his face, as he scooted to the head of the great bed and gripped his cock in his hand, jerking himself off roughly.
Aphrodite glanced at the God of Love, his eyes focused on Hercules, something swimming behind his eyes. She took a step, standing in front of him, her erect nipples brushing against his leather vest, his hard cock pressing into her belly. She tilted her head up and to the side, looking into his eyes and licking her lips slowly.
"They put on quite a show, don't they?" She whispered, low and husky.
The God of Love nodded, not bothering to look at her. The goddess reached up and put her arm behind his neck, drawing him down for a passionate kiss. He returned the kiss distractedly, pulling away to continue to watch Ares, flushed with humiliation as he stroked his own cock, and Hercules, who looked indifferent to his brother.
The Goddess of Love nodded to herself, satisfied. Stepping back, she looked up at the God of Love, one finger under her chin as she tilted her head, childlike and innocent.
"You know, they seem somehow familiar. They remind me of someone..." She trailed off, placing her hand on the love god's shoulder, tracing a path down his back as she strolled slowly behind him. "I know!" She exclaimed brightly as she slipped the manacles she had brought around the god's wrists. "They remind me of you and the Sovereign!" She snapped the cuffs shut with a sharp crack.
The God of Love twisted to face her, artless and trusting. "What are you doing?"
Aphrodite stood back, out of striking range, just in case. "Drop the act, funbuns. I'm on to you. I know what you did." She sneered, hands on her hips. "Did you *really* think you'd get away with it?"
The love god regarded her, raising an eyebrow in triumph. "I did, didn't I? You were so busy posing and flouncing you never even noticed, not until it was too late. And believe me, honey, it's *too late*."
"You better hope you're wrong, cause if it is, you're going to pay."
"Oh, I am *so* afraid of you." He rolled his eyes. "Not."
Aphrodite crossed her arms and began pacing around her prisoner, who turned to watch her. "You know, it was an interesting plan. You turned them into you and the Sovereign. It took me a while to realize that, but once Herc grew the fuzz it was obvious. You must've been working on it for a while now. Ever since Ares killed your lover?"
The white-clad god glared, his eyes glowing red as he strained against the manacles. The goddess let him struggle for a few moments before she became bored. "Oh, don't bother. Hephie made those, you can't get out of them. Trust me on this. We've tested them." She glanced at Hercules and the war god, her forehead furrowed, before turning back to the love god. "Now then, on to business. You're going to remove the spell." She looked him in the eyes, challenging him.
The God of Love growled, and once again Aphrodite saw the resemblance between him and the God of War. "No." His voice held no trace of its usual lightness.
Aphrodite moved closer, until she could feel his breath on her face, her eyes determined. "I'm not giving you a choice here, pal."
The malice in the love god's smile would have made the God of War proud. "And what can you do to me? Kill me? You kill him." He jerked his head toward the God of War, who was nearly finished. "Oh, by the way, they'll stay like that." He paused, considering her. "And you know, I just don't see you as the vicious type."
The Goddess of Love moved back, smiling. "You should know better than that, Ares. I work the same way you do. I get someone else to do my dirty work. In your case, you were going to have Zeus kill Ares for you while you skulked in that little hidey hole between our worlds, isn't that right?" He nodded, sullen.
"Well, you're not the only one who's been investigating other worlds, and I have a little something cooked up for you." She stepped forward again, cupping the god's chin in her hands and gazing into his eyes. "You see, I've heard all about your Cupid." The God of Love pulled back fractionally, his eyes narrowing. "He makes our Ares look, well, like you. He's a fucking lunatic. Uncontrollable. Unpredictable. He's a very bad boy."
Aphrodite pulled the God of Love down and kissed him quickly and gently on the mouth as her voice dropped and became softer, more lyrical. "I wonder what would happen if, say, someone were to put a spell on *him*? A lust spell. Not a love spell, that'd give you leeway to manipulate him, and I know how good you are at that."
She dropped her voice again and leaned forward, balancing on her toes as she whispered into her prisoner's ear. "I'm talking about sheer, uncontrolled lust. Obsession. Possession. He'd stalk you, capture you, keep you. You may like it rough, but he'd make it *real*, not a game. And he'd never love you, he'd always hate you and feel nothing but contempt for you. You'd be nothing to him but an ass to fuck, and between fucking sessions he'd beat the shit out of you because he despises you. How's that sound?"
She stepped back, her breathing giving away her anger, eyes beginning to glow. "And don't think I won't do it. You've heard payback's a bitch, buddy, and you're looking at her. Remove the spell or I hand you over to your Cupid."
The God of Love swallowed and contemplated the ground before slowly nodding.
"All right." His voice was sullen. "But once I take off the spell, I'm out of here. I'm not dealing with your Ares. I get a head start, agreed?"
Aphrodite nodded, using her brightest smile. "We've got a deal." She held out her hand for a handshake, but pulled it back. "Oopsie, silly me. You're kind of tied up at the moment." She giggled at her own joke but quickly turned serious once again. "Take the spell off. Now. I had Heph set up those manacles so you could remove spells, but not cast any."
The love god rolled his eyes. "What, don't you trust me?"
"Ha ha. The spell."
Pink and white energy flowed from the love god, swirling around the figures on the bed, bathing them both in a haze of light.
Once the light dissipated, Hercules sat up straight, raising shaking hands to his face, feeling the beard and moustache, turning pale. He threw himself off the bed and crawled into the closest corner. The demigod then curled himself into a ball and began rocking, keening meaninglessly as he clawed at the hair on his cheeks and chin.
The God of War shook his head, momentarily confused. He threw back his head and screamed, a sound of pure fury that rocked the foundations of the temple, sending a large black candelabra clattering to the floor. He turned on Hercules, teeth clenched and eyes glowing pure red, a scarlet haze of energy surrounding him. Ares raised his hand and pointed it at his brother, a fireball forming, until Aphrodite removed her cloaking spell and yelled.
"Ares!" She yelled as loud as she could, and he slowly turned his red gaze on her. The goddess pushed the manacled God of Love forward. "Ar, it's not Herc's fault, it's his!" She pointed to her prisoner, who was turning toward her in panic. "He put a spell on you both. I just got him to take it off!"
Ares stalked toward his white-clad twin, his growl causing the floor to vibrate beneath their feet, and Aphrodite ran to Hercules, pulling him reluctantly to his feet. "Come on, Herc, we gotta go!" She threw one large arm around her shoulder and supported the demigod as best she could.
Meanwhile, the God of War was standing face to face with the God of Love, who was looking frantically at Aphrodite. "You said you'd give me a head start!" His voice squeaked, his eyes wide with terror.
Aphrodite tried to shrug, but it was impossible with the dead weight on her shoulder. "Hey, I lied. Sorry about that." She smiled chirpily and waved. "Toodles."
Aphrodite and Hercules disappeared in a shower of hearts, leaving the two Ares alone together.
Iphicles lay in his bed, fully clothed, staring at the ceiling. Two candles were lit and a fire blazed in the fireplace, their light reflected off the golden cups and plates, chains and coins that the king had collected. They lay in an untidy pile in front of the fireplace, a small nest of gold in his bed chamber.
Iphicles was proud of his little hoard. He felt it was quite dragonish. He lay in bed, watching the flames dance and bounce off his acquisitions for a few moments before his gaze was drawn, as always, to the ceiling.
He imagined there was no ceiling above him, only the deep blue of the night sky, stars shining down upon him. He would spread his wings and fly, reveling in the crisp snap of his wings, feeling the night air on his scales, smelling the nighttime scents, the world open to him.
Oh, to be a dragon again! He could no longer remember why he had wished to be changed back into a human, when dragons were so clearly superior. Why, he'd been given an incredible opportunity, the chance of a lifetime when Hera changed him. He had been powerful, fearsome, and free.
And then he had blown it. As usual. And why? Because he wanted Hercules. He wanted to feel his brother holding him, touching him, loving him. Iphicles snorted to himself. He was such a fucking loser. He gave up the best thing that had ever happened to him because his brother had taken pity on him after their mother died and fucked him. The nights spent in bed with Hercules hadn't meant anything to his brother, they'd merely been a duty to him. A way of keeping his idiot brother from doing anything too stupid or rash.
The king flushed with humiliation, remembering how Hercules had promised to be there for him, to try to help when the responsibility became too great. He'd lapped it up like a good little pet, like the stupid herd animal he was. It was a wonder his brother had kept a straight face.
Iphicles stared at the ceiling, wondering where Hercules was. As if he had to guess. Herc was probably off in bed with his lover. No, his lovers. Both Ares and Iolaus. They were probably making love, laughing, touching.
His brother had abandoned him, flying off, not looking back, not caring, taking Ares with him. They were together, loving each other, their love proclaimed to the world. He had to get over it and move on.
The hatred twisted and lashed in his stomach, burning him up from the inside.
In retrospect, he could see what he should have done while he was a dragon. First, he shouldn't have gone after the sand sharks. Like dragons, they were predators and deserved respect. He should have taken a cow. Cows were helpless, stupid herd animals. He wondered how it would feel to bite into a living beast, feeling hot blood in his mouth, bones crunching and poking his gums. He couldn't believe he had rejected the opportunity because of scruples about eating his subjects' livestock. Idiot.
Dragons didn't care about kingdoms, or subjects. Dragons didn't care about anyone but themselves.
His next mistake was in going to Hercules. He couldn't believe he'd gone running to his little brother for help yet again. He hadn't needed help! He was a dragon. Dragons didn't need anyone. Dragons were self-reliant. He'd just been confused. If he'd just flown off for a while instead of running to Hercules he would've been fine. He'd just needed time to adjust, that was all.
He should have waited, then searched for his brother. He should have taken Iolaus hostage, but not let him go. He remembered feeling the small, fragile human squirming in his huge claw, sensing the rapid heartbeat through his scales, smelling the terror emanating from the blonde. Instead of letting him go, he should have squeezed and squeezed, seeing if the skin popped, blood running over his claw as Iolaus died. Now that would have pissed Hercules off.
Then, he should have used his breath when Herc attacked, which he would have done, yelling self-righteously about his lover. Herc would've been upset if anything bad happened to Iolaus, because he loved Iolaus. He should have blown fire at Herc, watching him blaze, skin blackening and peeling back, tissue bubbling, screaming as he died. Yeah. That would've been good. Very dragon like. He sighed again. He was such a *fucking* idiot.
Iphicles watched the firelight reflecting off his hoard, teeth rattling in the cold. He could see his breath in the air, and imagined he was still able to breathe smoke.
He should have stayed a dragon. Dragons didn't need anyone. They didn't need to be loved. They didn't need to be held. They didn't need anyone to talk to, or look forward to a smile or a kiss or a simple walk while holding hands.
And dragons didn't lie in bed, crying.
Hercules sits in a large pink room, hiding in the shadows, head resting upon his knees. He feels he belongs in the shadows, in the darkness. He can no longer face the light, unable to look at his own face. He sits on the floor, curled upon himself, blood puddled beside him, slowly soaking the leather of his clothing. He looks at his arms, at the veins he'd opened, the blood running freely down his skin, and he thinks to himself that he's done the right thing. It's best this way, for everyone.
One Week Previous
The Halls of War
Ares slouched in his throne, sharpening his dagger, steadfastly ignoring the moans from the opposite side of the room. He glanced up as they became louder, quirking an eyebrow at his prisoner.
"Awake yet?" He sauntered to the bloody figure chained to the ceiling, stopping to draw his dagger gently along the muscled stomach, leaving a trail of ruby in its path. "How are we supposed to have any *fun* if you keep passing out on me?" He shook his head. "You know, I'm starting to take all of this personally."
The God of Love spat in his face.
The chains were forged by Hephaestus, designed to hold a god. The love god stood, naked, his arms pulled so taut that his shoulders were nearly dislocated, his legs held apart, dangling so that only his toes touched the cold hard floor. His body was festooned with black, purple, yellow and green bruises, deep red gashes ripped into his flesh. He stood in a rust puddle of his own dried blood. But he refused to break.
His back had been whipped, stripped of flesh. He had been flogged and salt rubbed into the wounds. His bones had been broken, smashed and crushed. He had been beaten and kicked, clubbed and cudgelled. But still he had refused to submit, infuriating the God of War.
Ares looked at his prisoner, gauging his wounds, casually reaching out and stabbing his double in the shoulder, twisting the knife as the metal blade scraped bone, smiling at the slight whimper. Blood rushed from the wound and Ares dipped his fingers in it, licking the scarlet from the tips.
"So. What games shall we play today?" He stood in front of the love god, who slowly raised his head to look into his eyes.
"It won't change anything." He whispered, his lips cracked, throat raw.
Ares smiled mirthlessly. "I really don't care."
"Yes you do. That's the problem."
"Shut up." Ares kept his voice low, unwilling to show his opponent that he had scored a point. But the love god pushed on. He always pushed on.
"I had someone, you never have. You never will. And that's eating you up inside. You have that same desperate need for someone in your life, but you can't have it. No one wants you. No one needs you. No one loves you. No one ever will."
"He wasn't much. In fact, he was a heartless bastard. But the Sovereign loved me. That's more than you've ever had, isn't it?"
Ares stood closer, looking into his twin's taunting face. "Why should I care?"
The God of Love laughed, a harsh, bitter sound. "But you do, that's just it! I can feel it, you know, that dark, needing void inside of you."
"You're lying. Pathetic." Ares snarled, his anger growing.
"You're the pathetic one. You can't even admit it." He refused to back down, triumph in his swollen, bloodshot eyes.
"I am War. I don't need anyone else. I don't care about anyone but myself. Love is for the weak, and I am not weak." Ares used the words as a shield, but his opponent quickly breached his defenses.
"I can feel it, calling out to me with your every heartbeat." The love god's voice was low and hypnotic. "I want. I need. I want. I need."
The God of War backhanded him, knuckles splitting the full lower lip yet again, as his prisoner licked the blood, grinning.
"You're just like me, and you can't stand it." Despite the blood flowing from the swollen lip, down his chin, the love god's voice was even, powerful.
"I am *nothing* like you!" Ares turned his back on his twin, shaking. "We're nothing alike!" But he still heard that mocking voice at his back.
"I want. I need. I want. I need. I want. I need."
"I am not! I don't need anyone! I don't want anyone!"
"I want. I need. I want. I need."
The God of War turned with an inarticulate howl and attacked the love god, stabbing and tearing, not thinking, not planning, merely acting on his emotions. Anything to drown out that droning voice that seemed to match the beat of his heart.
"I want. I need."
Braxis stood in front of her window, leaning weakly against the wall. The cold seemed to have burrowed into her bones; despite the fact that she huddled in two thick blankets, she still shivered from the cold. Her joints ached, her lower back pulsed with pain. She had recently begun coughing, a phenomenon that appeared to worry Iphicles. Perhaps, she mused, if she were lucky, she would die. She had recently realized that death was to be her only escape.
She heard the door open but didn't waste the energy to turn. Only one human bothered to visit her, and he no longer attempted conversation. He merely brought her food and then left, swift and silent. But today, she heard a different noise.
The dragon turned, blankets clutched in stiff, cold, clumsy fingers, to find Iphicles standing in the room with an older man behind him. The older human stood tall and proud, but his eyes darted around the room nervously and he kept his distance from both Iphicles and herself.
"Braxis, this is Argeus. He's a healer and he's going to take a look at you. You will behave." Iphicles' voice was flat, as if he were speaking from a distance. She had noticed lately that his eyes had become flat also. She didn't care though, since it kept him quiet and away from her. She shrugged and approached the humans, noting that Iphicles' expression was blank, while Argeus' showed fear. His hands trembled.
The healer stepped forward, but stopped, noting her claws. She saw him gulp as he looked helplessly at his king, who showed no sign of emotion. Argeus stepped forward again, taking tiny, hesitant steps. His breathing quickened, becoming more shallow. When he spoke, his voice trembled.
"Please, take off the blankets."
She obliged, dropping them, enjoying keeping the humans off balance. Argeus stepped closer still, as Iphicles drew his knife, the muscles in his arms tense. Braxis considered attacking the healer and forcing Iphicles to kill her, but she couldn't be sure he'd do so. He might attack to wound, not kill, and she didn't want to take that chance.
The dragon shivered in the cold, avoiding looking at her repulsive new body. She had noticed of late that her belly appeared distended, the skin stretched and swollen. It was unnatural, and she hoped it was something fatal to humans. Argeus stepped closer quickly and placed his ear to her chest, drawing back hastily once finished.
The healer looked at his king and spoke. "Her lungs sound clear."
This seemed to mean something to Iphicles, who relaxed his grip on the knife fractionally. "Thank you for looking at her."
Argeus cleared his throat, hesitant. "Highness?"
"Yes?" Iphicles' sounded testy, Braxis noted.
"Has anyone spoken to her about preparing for the, um, the baby?"
The king shook his head. "What, precisely, did you have in mind?" He sounded almost amused.
"Well, sire, has she ever *seen* a human child?"
"Why not ask her yourself?" Iphicles definitely sounded testy now.
The elderly man appeared shaken and turned to Braxis, who had gathered her blankets around her once more. "Have you?"
She stared at him, unblinking, as he waited, his hands playing with the folds of cloth at the bottom of his shirt. She turned and walked to her window, leaning once more against the familiar stone wall and gazing out into the gray world.
"Have you ever seen a human child? A newborn one, that is?" The human wasn't going to give up. They never seemed to know when to give up.
"No." She didn't deign to look at him.
Iphicles and Argeus left, and she heard frantic whispers in the hallway. She didn't care. She was a dragon. What the herd animals said didn't concern her.
Braxis continued to survey the world outside her window. She had memorized every hill, every stream, every farm within eyesight of her window. She watched, yearning to be out there, flying free. All she wanted was a chance to fly, just one more time.
She wasn't sure how much time had passed, since she drifted off when she watched the outside world, but she heard more noises in the hallway. Several voices. Some sounded anxious, others angry. She didn't hear Iphicles.
The door opened and two guards entered, followed by three human females and Argeus. Iphicles sidled in last, avoiding the others. One of the women carried a squirming bundle close to her body.
Dragons are, by nature, solitary creatures. Braxis had never before been trapped in close quarters with so many humans. The air seemed to become close and stagnant, and she felt an urge to gasp for oxygen. The edges of her vision blurred, becoming hazy and black. Voices sounded distorted, as if she were under water. She flailed for a moment, her hand resting on the suddenly comforting stone of her window sill.
As the dragon attempted to regain her equilibrium, one of the human females approached, baring her teeth in what Braxis knew was supposed to be a friendly smile. She smelled off, like soured milk, and the odor made Braxis' stomach queasy. The human made nonsensical noises, directed toward the bundle in her arms, and the dragon's curiosity was piqued.
The human woman turned to the king and spoke, her voice smug. "You see, highness. She is, after all, a woman, and no woman can resist a baby. Once she has the baby she'll be fine. Now, let me just show him to her so she'll know how cute they are, and she'll be so excited over having one of her own..." Braxis noticed that Iphicles' teeth were clenched, and one white-knuckled hand was on the hilt of his sword.
The dragon turned her attention to the bundle in the human female's arms. The woman pulled the blanket aside to reveal the contents, and Braxis leaned forward to peer at the creature.
And screamed. It was a high-pitched scream, drawn from the center of her being. It was primal, a sound of madness and terror. She threw herself backwards, trying to jump out the window, but the guards stopped her. She kicked, screamed and bit, drawing blood with her claws, tasting flesh in her mouth, screaming incoherently, as they wrestled her to the floor, yelling for help.
The screaming females were herded out as more guards poured in the door, and she found five of them pinning her to the ground as she struggled, arching her back, snapping at any human within striking distance. She looked around, searching, finally finding Iphicles, who stood watching, his face frozen.
Surely he understood? She couldn't do this! The thing she had seen, the human child, was monstrous. It was a grotesque alien creature, and the realization that a similar creature was actually inside her body, growing, feeding off her, sent her into a frenzy of terror. This *thing* was why she was always sick, always sore, always cold. It was stealing her life-force, this malicious parasite, and she could not continue like this! Death would be a blessing now.
She stopped struggling, suddenly drained of strength, numb and cold, shaking and nauseous. Iphicles stepped forward, motioning the guards to let her go. They did and stood back, warily, as he approached. As soon as they let go, Braxis curled into a tight ball, shaking with cold and fear, her eyes squeezed closed as she prayed to any gods listening to kill her now, please, before it was too late.
She felt her blanket being tucked in around her body and knew it was the king. She smelled him. He was gentle, carefully avoiding touching her. She opened her eyes and looked into his, noticing that they seemed somewhat more alive than they had for some time.
"Please..." Her voice was barely a croak and she hated herself, hearing the mute plea. "Please, I can't do this. Please kill me. Kill it. Please. Please." She was no longer aware of what she was saying, only that she was begging for it to end. Begging anyone who would listen, be it the king, the gods, the fates, the guards, she didn't know and didn't care. She just wanted it to end. She was so tired. So tired.
The king stood, his expression torn, as he looked down at her. He bit his lower lip, staring intently, before nodding to himself and kneeling down beside the dragon. His voice was low and trembled with an emotion Braxis couldn't define.
"I know someone, a friend of Rena's. She's good with herbs. Rena told me she could help women who were with child and...didn't want to be. I'll go to her. I'll be back soon, I promise. Once it's gone we'll get you back in your own body. I don't know how, but I swear to you we'll do it."
She felt him stroke her hair, the touch gentle as a spring wind, before he stood and walked out the door, not looking at the others in the room.
Iolaus and Hercules sat on a large pink bed in a large pink room in Aphrodite's temple. Iolaus kneeled behind his lover, watching powerlessly in the face of the demigod's pain, as Hercules leaned forward, arms crossed in front of his stomach, hugging himself, head bent, hair obscuring his face.
The demigod was afraid to sleep, because of the nightmares. He sometimes drifted off and woke up, screaming, refusing to speak or allow himself to be touched. It had taken weeks for Iolaus to persuade his lover to allow him to try to help, but Hercules was locked inside himself. Try as he might, Iolaus was unable to reach him.
Iolaus reached out, his hand gently brushing the golden hair on the back of Hercules' neck. Just a fleeting touch, that was all he would allow, before the hand reluctantly retreated.
"Herc? Can I help? Please?" The question was the same as every other night.
"No." So was the response, spoken in a monotone.
"Please? You can't go on like this, Herc."
"I know." Hercules looked up, eyes flashing. "You think I like this? I hate it as much as you do, but I just... I can't talk about it. Not right now." He lowered his head again, sighing. "Not right now."
"All right." Iolaus stood, his hand on the demigod's shoulder. "I'm gonna walk around for a while. Try to get some sleep, okay?"
Hercules looked up and managed a weak smile that didn't lessen the pain in his eyes as Iolaus left the room, shutting the door softly behind him. Outside, Iolaus wandered through the labyrinth of white and pink marble hallways. They had been here for weeks, and the walks had become a nightly ritual, but every night Iolaus found that the temple changed. New doors appeared, then vanished. Corridors which were straight one night were curved the next. Each doorway contained a different room, ever-changing. He supposed it was Aphrodite's idea of fun, and was grateful that she had set some sort of spell that allowed a few hallways to remain unchanged so that he could find his way back.
The hunter trailed his hand along the wall, fingers spread, feeling the unnatural warmth of the marble, watching as small gold sprinkles followed each finger. If he wasn't so worried, this would be fun. But he was worried. He sighed, rubbing at his eyes. Every night was the same. Every night his lover woke screaming, insisting on being left alone. Iolaus had tried staying, but that just made Hercules lock himself up tighter. He seemed to need the space, and Iolaus reluctantly gave it to him. Being shut out, forced to watch his lover suffer as he stood by helplessly was sapping all of Iolaus' strength.
Neither Aphrodite nor Hercules would talk about what had happened to the demigod while he was with Ares, but Iolaus could guess at least part of the story. He had been waiting in the main room of the temple when Aphrodite appeared, Hercules leaning against her, a dead weight which she had clumsily dropped to the floor.
Iolaus had run to his lover and turned over the limp body, stepping back for a moment upon witnessing the bearded visage, memories of the Sovereign sending momentary sparks of panic through him. Aphrodite had quickly reassured him that this was his Hercules, and he advanced again, noting the red welts where the demigod had clawed at his face, the gaunt features, the pale skin. He kneeled, gathering his lover in his arms, overwhelmed and grateful to be able to hold him once more.
Hercules had awoken, disoriented, whimpering to himself, gazing around wildly in panic, not appearing to know where he was. Despite their best efforts, Aphrodite and Iolaus had been unable to convince him that the spell was lifted and he was safe. He had curled in upon himself again, refusing to open his eyes, and locked himself away in a small, distant corner of his mind.
It had taken nearly a week for Hercules to emerge from that dark corner inside himself, seeming to finally realize that his ordeal was over. He had begun to respond to Iolaus, Aphrodite and Hephaestus, speaking only in monosyllables, sometimes drifting off, sometimes mumbling to himself, but he recognized them.
Within the past few days he seemed to be more like himself, but still withdrawn and distant. He acknowledged their concern, tried to let them help, but he still kept most of what happened from them. Fear for his lover and gnawing anxiety had become part of Iolaus, as he watched helplessly, trying to reach out but constantly rebuffed.
Iolaus wandered into the main room of the temple. It was bright and airy, circular, columns of pink and white gold-veined marble supporting the domed ceiling that glowed with a serene pink and white light. Most of the furniture was too soft for the hunter's taste, but he curled up on a pink satin sofa, his head resting on its arm, hoping for a few moments rest. Before he could drift off, he felt a warm hand on his forearm.
"Hey there." Aphrodite whispered, kneeling so that he could gaze into her soft eyes. "How's he doing?"
Iolaus shook his head. "Same nightmare. He still won't let me in." He ran his fingers through his already untidy curls, biting his lower lip to stop the slight tremor as he looked to the goddess for comfort. "I keep trying, but the harder I try, the harder he pushes me away. And then, afterwards, he feels bad for hurting me and that makes it worse." He paused. "I just wish he'd talk to me about it. Maybe I can't help, but letting it out might do some good."
Aphrodite sunk to the floor, her pink-clad feet tucked delicately under her, leaning her head against the sofa arm and idly toying with Iolaus' curls. "I know, sweetie. But he's been through a lot, and it's not just that things were done to him, but that he did things." She looked frustrated. "I know I'm not saying that very well, but I can't tell you his secrets, you know? He has to tell you himself. But before he can do that, he has to face a part of himself that he's always pretended doesn't exist."
"Yeah. I don't understand any of this, Aphrodite."
"Just give him time, okay?" The goddess smiled at him, but it didn't lessen the worry. "Why don't you head back to bed? He's gone back to sleep, and I know he likes seeing you when he wakes up. That really does help him."
Iolaus stretched his arms, yawning, as he gathered the strength to stand. Before he could rise to his feet, there was a bright flash of red and blue light and Ares, God of War, stood in the center of the room, a limp and bloody naked body over his shoulders.
Ares' eyes glowed red, the air around his body shimmered with power, and his mouth was shaped into a sneer of disgust. He abruptly dropped the body to the floor where it bounced slightly, crimson rivulets of blood staining the coral floor. "I'm finished with this piece of garbage. Get rid of it." Even Ares' voice sounded imbued with power as he glared at Aphrodite.
He didn't wait for a response, but disappeared in another flash of light, leaving the air charged and smelling of ozone. Aphrodite stood near the body, her mouth open in shock, blood seeping into her pink slippers, seemingly frozen.
Iolaus walked to the body and turned it over. The features of the God of Love were barely visible under the bruising and swelling. The hunter idly noticed the extent of the god's injuries. He appeared to have several broken ribs. There were deep stab wounds covering his arms and legs, and purple and black bruises spread over most of his skin. Iolaus felt a moment of pity, but remembered Hercules and the pity evaporated.
Aphrodite finally regained her voice. "Ew!" Her delicate nose wrinkled in disgust. "That big lout. I can't believe he'd just *dump* him here like this. This is just totally gross." She began walking around the body, leaving small bloody footprints that were quickly absorbed by the pink floor. "I'll get Heph and we'll do the vortex thing and dump him back home. He can make a mess in his *own* temple."
"Wait." Both man and goddess turned, surprised, to see Hercules leaning against a rose column, his eyes on the broken body of the god before them. "Don't send him back yet." His mouth tightened. "I want to talk to him first."
The Halls of War
Ares strode through his throne room, the blackness surrounding him darker than the surrounding night, his heels sending flares of blue flame licking and clawing at the shadows. His eyes glowed red, and the air surrounding him crackled with power. His footsteps, the same pace as his heartbeat, seemed to punctuate the refrain echoing in his head, the refrain he
I want. I need.
The God of War roared, summoning a two-handed sword from the wall, and began whirling the sword in a series of complex exercises designed to help him regain control and focus. But still, he heard it, that voice in his head, that damnable voice that sounded just like his own.
I want. I need.
The exercises gained speed and complexity, the sword moving, blurring, almost a phantom, until Ares threw it and it shattered against a wall, exploding into shards of silver that littered the floor, small broken pieces of a metallic corpse.
I want. I need.
The god shook his head in denial. He was War. He was Death. He was Destruction. He was Power and Strength. To want, to need, that was weakness. He was not weak. He needed no one, he needed nothing. He stood, head down, large hands clenched into fists, eyes glowing red in the ebony night as he looked up, his teeth bared in a feral snarl. The God of War
disappeared in a blaze of azure light, to prove he did not want, did not need.
It had taken longer than originally planned, but Agathon and Pelios had begun their raid on Leuctra. Without the promised aid from Ares, they had been forced to locate mercenaries to fight for them, but they had found several; good ones, in fact. The raid was going well. The fighting was
intense, the air filled with the sound of metal upon metal, the wails and moans of the injured and dying. Tongues of flame penetrated the blackness, twisting and lunging, illuminating little, black smoke obscuring more.
The raiders were winning. They had planned well, trained well. They were motivated by greed, by rage, by bloodlust; each had his own reasons, each fought with skill. Victory imminent, they surged forward, a wave of weapons and men, screaming cries of victory.
And in the midst of the charge there was a flash of brilliant blue light, a clap of thunder, and the raiders saw Ares, God of War, standing among them. The god stood, motionless, assessing the battle, and the warriors felt proud. They had done Ares' bidding, they had fought well for their god. He nodded, as if in approval, and the warriors were happy. The god raised his hand, and a bolt of lightning flowed from his fingers, spreading like a blue web of death, to capture and kill several members of the Leuctran Army.
The raiders cheered. The God of War stood with them. Victory was theirs.
The god turned toward the raiders, who saw his face for the first time, and silence fell as they held their collective breath. Ares' eyes glowed with an unearthly light, the air around him crackled and sizzled, and they could see no sign of approval etched on his face, only fury; bottomless, endless
The silent god raised his hand and five balls of fire streamed from him, consuming all in their path. Raiders screamed as they died, some staggered, clothing on fire, before falling into the muck. And still the god didn't stop.
Men on both sides of the conflict ran, praying for their lives, as the God of War attacked indiscriminately, killing anyone in his sight. He used lightning, fire and wind, but also his great shining sword and even his bare hands.
When Ares finished, the battlefield was littered with corpses, the ground saturated with blood, crimson puddles soaking into the green earth, the creeks and waterways resembling arteries more than water.
The god looked around the field and smiled to himself. Here was what he was. He was death, he was destruction, he was power and slaughter. He had no desire for anyone. He had no need for anyone. He did not want. He did not need.
But still, the voice echoed in his skull. The voice that sounded like his own.
I want. I need.
Iphicles rushed down the narrow, slippery stone staircase, one hand pressed against the wall, feeling the cold rock, occasionally leaning upon it when he missed a step. Reaching the bottom, he stumbled, looking around wildly as courtiers and servants pressed themselves against the wall in their hurry to get out of his way before he dashed down a corridor. Behind him, courtiers stared in frank amazement and muttered to themselves about commoners rising above their station in life. Servants scurried on their way, and the whispers began anew.
The king raced down another hallway, his footsteps echoing in the narrow corridor as he reached his goal. He put his shoulder to the massive oak door and opened it, exiting the castle. When he stepped outside, a gust of wind drove sharp needles of cold rain into his face, thousands of biting,
stinging pinpoints impaling his body as he shrunk back against the slick wall of the castle. He was dressed for indoors, not for this weather, but he paused only for a moment to get his bearings before bending his head and pushing into the wind.
Iphicles quickly reached the small square inside the city walls where stalls and tents braved the elements, shopkeepers bundled warmly as they haggled over their wares. Most of the people were dressed in rough gray and brown wool, huddled into their cloaks for warmth; the tall king in his
fine white and gold tunic was a blaze of color, standing out easily as he ran from stall to stall, searching frantically, his amber eyes wild. The people shrunk back as he passed, clinging to each other as they avoided looking at the distressed king.
Iphicles ran, stepping into puddles, splashing mud onto his clothing, soaked and shivering in the cold rain. He ran, looking about for the familiar purple tent, but couldn't find it. Finally, as he began to tremble from the cold, unable to feel his fingers or toes, he saw the tent and ran again, dashing for the welcoming flap.
Once inside he looked around in confusion. Instead of the familiar herbs on their tables, he saw shelves of pottery. Instead of Rena's blonde, cheerful friend Pareia he saw a young couple, the man standing protectively in front of his wife.
"Where's Pareia?" He gasped it out between teeth that had begun to chatter.
The young man gaped, moving closer to his wife as the king spun around, searching. It was the young woman who answered, hesitantly. "Her mother took sick, so Pareia went home to take care of her. She sold us her tent."
Iphicles suddenly felt completely drained. He slumped, knees buckling, as he grabbed a small table for support. He'd failed, yet again. The woman began to reach out, her eyes soft, but her husband pulled her arm back and glared at her. Running his shaking hand through his sodden hair, the king
quietly thanked the young woman before walking back out into the rain and to the castle. He didn't notice that people made a path for him as he trudged through the gray muck.
Back in the castle, Iphicles leaned against the stone wall, exhausted, feeling his pulse pounding in his head, trying to decide what to do next. He had to help Braxis, but he had no idea how. He'd tried appealing to the gods, making the rounds of temples, but none had bothered to acknowledge
him. He'd sent messenger after messenger to find Hercules, but his brother was nowhere to be found.
The king bit his lip in frustration. He was only a mortal, and this situation required more than a mere mortal. He was responsible for the dragon being in this predicament. It was his responsibility to solve her problem and return her to her old life, but he knew he couldn't do it, not without help, and help didn't appear to be forthcoming.
Iphicles started to climb the stairs, shivering with each step as his cold, sodden clothes clung to him, chilling him further. He was no longer sure if the cold came from outside or from within his soul. His hands and feet were numb, but not as numb as his heart, paralyzed with failure.
He reached the dragon's room and noted in passing that there was no guard. Pushing the door open carefully, too tired to unsheathe his sword, he peered inside.
The nest was gone, the bed had been replaced. And in the chair sat Argeus, his chin resting in his hands, elbows planted on the table. Iphicles looked around. There was no one else in the room.
"Where is she?" It was hard to force the words out, hard to push past the overpowering gray miasma in his head.
Argeus looked up, sat up straight, spoke firmly. "Highness, I've had her moved."
The healer looked at his feet. "I'm sorry, but I can't tell you that."
Iphicles stared for a moment, trying to process the words. "What do you mean, you can't tell me that?"
Argeus stood and walked to the window, looking outside. "Your highness, I
realize that you've been through quite a lot lately, and you may not be... quite yourself at the moment." Iphicles merely stared, hand on the hilt of his sword as the healer cleared his throat and continued, still looking out the window. "You don't seem to grasp the fact that that...woman... is
carrying your heir."
"That *woman* isn't human."
"For all intents and purposes, sire, she is. As is the child. Your child."
"Would you listen to yourself?" Iphicles was beginning to lose his temper, a flame of anger beginning to warm him. "She may look human, but she's not. You know what she's capable of, you've seen what she's done."
"Nevertheless, she is carrying the heir to the throne."
"And it's driving her insane! Argeus, she isn't human! I have to get her changed back into a dragon before it's too late, if it isn't already!"
The healer continued to stare out the window. "She is merely a vessel for your heir. The child is more important."
Iphicles moved, standing next to Argeus. "She's my responsibility."
Argeus turned, finally looking at his king. "All of Corinth is your responsibility. You must weigh the needs of the kingdom against the needs of one individual. Corinth needs a king, and an heir to the throne. That is what is important. If others are damaged bringing that heir into the world, that is the price that must be paid for the greater good."
Iphicles seethed, speaking between clenched teeth. "Think about this, when you think about your precious heir. The child was conceived when she was a dragon; there's no way of telling if it'll be fully human or if it'll be like her. Is that what you want on your throne? Is that what's best for
Corinth?" He shivered at the thought of a full-grown dragon in human form holding the reins if power in Corinth.
Argeus opened his mouth to reply, but Iphicles turned and walked from the room, determined to find Braxis.
Against Aphrodite's wishes, Ares, God of Love, had been allowed to stay in her temple. He had, however, been afforded the smallest room available. Hercules carried the wounded god to the room and gently laid him in bed, using a soft cloth to delicately clean the gaping wounds as Iolaus and Aphrodite hovered.
Aphrodite was still upset, standing with her hands on her hips and glaring balefully at the injured love god. Iolaus stood next to her, unsure how he felt about this latest development. If helping Ares helped Hercules, he'd be grateful. But at the same time, Hercules' face was carefully blank, and Iolaus was suddenly afraid of what lurked under the neutral mask. Maybe this hadn't been such a good idea after all.
Iolaus moved closer to Aphrodite, startled to find that he had the urge to whisper, to avoid disturbing Hercules.
"Is this good?"
The goddess tapped her foot. "I don't know." She also whispered. "What I *do* know is I don't like having that snake in here!"
Iolaus thought for a moment. "Well, he's a snake, and you know he's a snake, and he knows you know he's a snake, so maybe he'll behave."
Aphrodite snorted. "Don't hold your breath, Curly. He's gonna use this, I can feel it."
Iolaus had to admit that he agreed. He was used to the God of War; his temper, his juvenile plots, his bad puns and offbeat sense of humor. He sensed that the God of Love was infinitely more dangerous, and didn't like the idea of Hercules being alone with him for any length of time.
As if reading his friend's thoughts, Hercules stood and dropped the bloody cotton cloth he'd been using to clean the love god into the pink bowl of water. "I'd like to speak with him alone."
"Herc!" Iolaus was suddenly unsure as to why he was afraid. Was he afraid that the demigod would be hurt, or that he'd hurt the injured god? "Is that a good idea right now? I mean, maybe one of us should stay with you. In case you need help or...or something."
Aphrodite shook her head in agreement. "I don't trust him alone with you."
Hercules sighed. "Guys, this is something I have to do. Trust me, okay?"
The hunter and goddess looked at each other, at a loss, before finally giving in. As they walked out of the room, Iolaus turned. "We'll be right outside. Yell if you need help, okay?"
The demigod smiled, but the smile didn't reach his eyes. "I'll be fine."
Hercules waited until the door had closed before turning to his patient. "You can open your eyes now. I know you're awake."
The God of Love raised one arm weakly, pressing the back of his hand to his forehead as his eyes hesitantly fluttered open. He looked at Hercules, melting at the sight of the demigod. "You saved me." His voice was a whisper. "How can I thank you?"
Hercules frowned as he stepped closer. "For one thing, you can drop the act."
Ares looked puzzled, chewing on his lower lip as he gazed up in vacant adoration. "I don't understand. What act?"
"*This* act. This 'poor pitiful me' act. This 'I'm a lover, not a fighter' act."
The love god didn't move, but Hercules noticed that his bruises were healing, cuts sealing themselves. "It's true." Ares' eyes were opened wide, clear and guileless. "You know that." Hercules felt himself drowning in those eyes, deep black pools of warm emotion sucking him in,
soothing his pain. "Come back with me. Stay with me." The words were whispered, and there was a touch of desperation and sadness behind them as Ares took his hand, gently squeezing, thumb caressing the demigod's palm. Hercules pulled away, remembering what this god had done to him, had made him do.
"Drop it, or I hand you over to Aphrodite."
The threat had the intended effect. Ares immediately ceased pouting, a subtle change coming over his features as he struggled weakly to a sitting position, crossing his arms over his chest. He sat silently, regarding Hercules, his eyes turning cold, becoming shuttered.
"Why?" Hercules paced, arms waving in the air, putting all of his frustration into the single syllable.
"Why what?" This time Hercules heard strength in Ares' voice, as well as a familiar but somehow alien mocking tone.
"Why'd you put that spell on us?" Hercules felt his hands clenching into fists as he remembered what he had done, what he had become, thanks to the god in front of him.
Ares tilted his head to one side, regarding the demigod with an intense gaze that reminded Hercules of a cobra before it strikes. "Revenge." His hiss also reminded the demigod of a serpent.
"Why'd you drag me into it?" Hercules stepped closer, hearing his voice rise, trying to control the anger burning within him. "Why couldn't you just go after Ares?"
The God of Love shrugged. "This way, I got to humiliate him. He'll never forget it, never forget what it was like. It's burned into his soul. Besides," he laughed, a light, happy sound, "this way was so much more fun."
"Fun?" Hercules advanced on the god, leaning over him, face to face. "You think this is fun? You did this to me for fun?" He suppressed the urge to smash that beautiful face, to hurt the god to release some of his own pain.
Ares leaned forward, and Hercules could feel his breath on his face. "Yeah, it was fun." The love god reached out, slowly running three fingers down the demigod's chest, caressing the skin exposed by the open neck of his vest. "You should thank me." His voice was lower, breathier. "Don't tell me you never dreamed about it. You never laid there at night, imagining fucking your Ares, him begging you for it, pounding into him until he screamed..." He licked his lips, and Hercules was drawn in, closer, as the god continued.
"All I did was release your inhibitions. Oh, and make him a little more... malleable." He grinned wolfishly. "I just released some of his inhibitions too. You know," Ares leaned forward, whispering into Hercules' ear, lightly nibbling at his earlobe, "he dreamed about it too. Where do you think all that hostility came from? You were fighting cause you didn't want to admit you'd rather be fucking."
The God of Love leaned back against his pink pillows, smirking, as Hercules shook his head to clear it, stepping back, out of striking range. "No." He shook his head again, breathing deeply, fighting the combination of fury and arousal battling within him. "That's not true."
"Yes it is. You just don't want to admit it. Power and violence turn you on. Admit it, quit feeling guilty about it. Learn to enjoy it."
"No. Violence is wrong." The demigod was still fighting himself as the god leaned closer.
"But you love it. You love feeling your own power. That's why you do it, you know." Ares looked smug as he reached out, running his hand gently along Hercules' arm, tracing it from shoulder to wrist.
"Why I do what?"
"This whole," Ares paused, searching for the right word, waving his hand absently, "hero thing. You're sublimating."
"What?" Hercules resisted the urge to slap the love god and demand a straight answer.
"Why aren't you settled down somewhere with your little studmuffin? Why do you wander from village to village, righting wrongs and saving people?" Ares sighed melodramatically, pouting out his lower lip. "And don't tell me it's because you're forced into it. Please."
Hercules moved closer, confident he had himself under control. "It's true. Hera and Ares would never let me settle down."
Ares snorted. "Please, spare me the selfless routine. Ares and Hera would do handflips if you'd settle down and stay out of their affairs. They'd build you a house, give you anything you wanted, just to get you out of their hair." He crooked a finger at the demigod, motioning him closer. "You do it because you get off on it." He was smiling again, baring his teeth. "You get off on the power and the adoration."
"No." Hercules moved closer, mesmerized by the love god, feeling the god's hand caressing his face, thumb running over his lips as his tongue instinctively darted out to lick it. "No." This time it was a moan.
Ares pressed his advantage, his other hand loosening the demigod's vest. "It's true." His voice was still low, hypnotic. "You like being recognized, treated like a hero. Like a god. People practically worship you here, and you love it."
Ares leaned forward, capturing Hercules' lips, his tongue gently plundering the demigod's mouth, one hand at the back of his neck, pressing Hercules closer. "Yes." He broke the kiss. "You get worshipped like a god, you get offerings like a god, but you can feel morally superior to the gods.
That's why you do it."
"No." Hercules wasn't sure if he had spoken aloud. He wanted to deny it, but somehow, it all made sense. He quit thinking as Ares leaned forward, kissing him again, warm tongue gently twining with his. He felt a gentle hand at his crotch, stroking his hard cock as he moaned into that warm, gentle mouth. He protested silently as the mouth pulled back fractionally, lips brushing his as the god spoke.
"You set yourself up as a hero, because that way you can fight, you can be violent and hurt people, but you still look good. You still feel morally superior. You never have to face yourself, or examine your actions."
Hercules was drowning. His knees buckled and he collapsed onto the bed, feeling the soft mattress beneath his body. Ares quickly twisted on top of him, blanketing the demigod's body with his own, a hard erection pressing into his own hardness.
Another kiss, this one harder, more demanding. "You like the power, the adoration. You *want* to be worshipped, you just have to admit it. Let go of your silly inhibitions. Be yourself."
The demigod opened his mouth to protest, but the protest turned into a moan as a warm, wet mouth enveloped his cock. Ares sucked for a few moments, alternating between hard and light suction, his tongue licking around the sensitive crown, probing the weeping slit as Hercules' hips bucked roughly. His hands, seemingly of their own volition, reached for the god's head, his fingers tangling in his hair, pulling it hard, forcing the god's head down, fucking his mouth.
Hercules threw his head back, gasping for air, groaning in pleasure. He thrust hard, feeling the head of his cock hitting the back of Ares' throat, ignoring the small choking sounds from the god, deriving some small satisfaction from the knowledge that he was hurting Ares, making him pay.
The God of Love reached for his own swollen cock, but Hercules noticed and roughly kicked his hand aside. What had Ares done to deserve to pleasure himself? His voice rasped as he gasped his order. "Just take it, slut." He threw his head back, eyes closed, as he enjoyed the sensations, knowing his enemy was debasing himself to bring his pleasure.
Hercules felt his climax approaching and gripped Ares' hair tighter, feeling strands of hair pull loose in his hands. He thrust harder, losing his rhythm, as he came in the god's mouth, listening as Ares choked, trying to swallow all the semen.
He opened his eyes and looked down, suddenly realizing what had just happened, a numb horror racing through his soul. The God of Love looked up at him, white cum dribbling from a corner of his mouth, and smiled.
"See? You're just like him."
Hercules closed his eyes and let the wave of fury break over him and carry him along, growling as he struck out at the god's insolent face, feeling warm blood trickle over his fist, knuckles bruising. He was satisfied as he heard the crunch of bones smashing, flesh splitting, the gasps of pain.
But when the fury finally dissipated, Ares, beaten and bloody, still looked smug, still looked superior.
And Hercules, sickened, curled into a ball in the corner and tried to hide from himself.