Here There Be Dragons 14-22
By Roo

Part 14

The Halls of War

The God of War sat in his black throne, his raven hair smelling of smoke,his boots encrusted with gore, one leg thrown carelessly over an arm of the throne. He sat very, very still, staring at a point deep inside himself. He had killed hundreds, he had proven his strength, yet he still felt somehow empty, as if something were missing.

(I want. I need.)

He ignored the whisper as it echoed in his head. The words were a legacy from an enemy. They meant nothing. They meant less than nothing. He built a wall in his mind, sealing the offending words and feelings behind the barrier.

(I want. I need.)

Ares shook his head irritably and stood, beginning to pace. The problem,he decided, was that he had neglected his duties. He'd been out of action too long, thanks to that fucking fop and his little games. He'd go check his temples, visit warlords, get back into his usual routine. That was what he needed. Routine.

(I want. I need.)

Once he visited his temples, he was sure he would find himself returning to normal. It was the remnants of that damn spell, lingering like a bad cold. He'd get back into his usual routine, and that abominable itching in the back of his head, that strange sensation of emptiness in his soul, both would vanish. He just needed a little time to recover.

(I want. I need.)

Corinth

Iphicles lay in bed, huddled under several blankets, curled upon himself for warmth. He shivered uncontrollably, pulling the wool blankets tighter, wondering irritably why the fire blazing in the fireplace didn't warm the room.

He had spent the evening searching for Braxis, challenging every guard and servant he encountered. Some had merely stared at him, others had run in panic, while a few had seemed somehow concerned. He ignored them all, intent upon finding his charge. She was his responsibility. He would find her and go to one of Zeus' temples. Once there he'd threaten to raze the temple, to burn it to the ground, if the god didn't restore Braxis to her natural state. The god wouldn't ignore a threat like that, would he?

The king pulled his blankets tighter, shaking, fighting a tickling cough, feeling rather nauseous. The point was moot, since he hadn't been able to locate the dragon. He'd searched the castle as best he could, fighting the cold, the pain in his head, the thundering in his ears. The only reason he'd given up was because he'd collapsed, his legs suddenly unable to hold him. He'd dragged himself along the hallway, using the last of his strength to pull himself into a standing position, leaning against the wall as he slowly staggered back to his bed chamber.

Iphicles despised his weakness. He should still be searching, not lying here in bed. Hercules, he was sure, would have kept searching until he found her. He snorted to himself. But Hercules wasn't here, despite his promises. He was off somewhere warm, fucking Iolaus and Ares, listening to their words of love and adoration, touching them, holding them. Iphicles squeezed his eyes shut, trying to ignore the images his mind created. Trying not to think of his brother's golden body, trying not to imagine his hands touching the God of War, warm flesh sliding, rubbing against soft skin. No. He would not be like his brother; he would not abandon Braxis, wouldn't let her down.

He shook his head, suddenly hot. He threw off the covers, feeling sweat bead on his body. The fire must have finally warmed the room. Iphicles stared at the ceiling, thinking about Argeus' words.

Braxis was a dragon. But she carried the heir to the throne of Corinth. He was responsible for Braxis, but he was responsible for Corinth. How could he possibly choose? If he chose to help Braxis, that meant he had no heir. If he chose to help Corinth, the dragon would go mad.

The king squeezed his eyes shut, trying to stop the pounding in his head, the pressure in his skull. He began to shiver again and pulled the covers back on top of his body.

He remembered, as a child, how his mother had looked at him sometimes. It was a look of exasperation, as if she wished he would just... go away. He had always had a nagging feeling that his mother would have been happier if he had never been born.

Oh, she said the right words, acted motherly, but sometimes he felt like it was all just an act, the love she professed not quite showing in her eyes. Not for him, at least. Her love for Hercules shone like a beacon, but no matter how hard he tried, Iphicles had never seen that beacon lit for him. It left him feeling empty for most of his life, hungry for something he couldn't name or understand. It was only when he found Rena that he felt truly loved.

And now Rena was gone. Iphicles raised his hand to his forehead, feeling sweat dripping into his eyes as he kicked off the covers, suddenly burning up again. Would it be right to force Braxis to have this child? Would it be right to raise a child that would know it had been responsible for driving its mother insane?

More than that, he began to wonder, would it even be right for Corinth for his progeny to sit on the throne? He stared at the ceiling, consumed. He had failed Braxis, he'd failed at so much in his life. Maybe it would be better for Corinth if he didn't leave an heir, if someone new stepped in.

The king dropped into a troubled sleep. And he dreamed of flying, free, a life without decisions and responsibilities.

***Present

Aphrodite, Goddess of Love, sits on a pink sofa, knees pulled to her chin, arms wrapped protectively around her legs. She sits very, very still, blue eyes staring into the distance, tears pouring down her face like the rain pours from the heavens outside. For the first time in ages, she feels lost, helpless. She's a goddess, but events have spiraled out of even her control. She prays to the Fates for a happy ending, because she likes happy endings. But she isn't sure they're listening.


Part 15

One Day Previous

The Halls of War

Ares, God of War, sat in his great throne, leaning forward, elbows resting upon his knees, chin resting on steepled hands. He looked pensive, as if he were considering a challenging problem, but his eyes glowed red and the air around his form sizzled with power. He growled, a low, constant sound that caused a vibration in the very foundations of the great black hall.

Broken weapons and bones littered the ebony floor of the great hall, their whiteness a stark contrast to the impenetrable darkness. Human limbs burned in the great fireplace, the air filled with the stench of burning flesh.

Ares had thought that routine would solve his problem, erase that infernal voice in the back of his mind. Instead, it had made him more angry, more frustrated. The familiar routine suddenly seemed empty and hollow. He felt as if he were searching for something, but he didn't know what. He only knew it wasn't to be found in his priests, with their empty, glib words, or his followers, with their bloodstained hands and visions of wealth and power. He had visited battlefields, raining death and destruction, but still the void remained.

The growl grew louder as Ares pounded his fist into an arm of his throne, splitting his knuckles, blood dripping down his hand and onto the obsidian armrest. He idly brought the hand to his face, licking at the blood, sparks forming around his body.

I want. I need.

That damn chorus in his head was growing louder. He brought his hands to his head, palms to his ears to shut out the noise, stood and screamed. Onyx pillars trembled, the floor shook, and even the air seemed to retreat at the sound of fury. But he couldn't drown it out. He still heard the voice.

I want. I need.

The god staggered back, slumping again in his throne, head thrown back, jugular exposed as he tried to control himself. He could not lose control. He would not lose control. To lose control was weak, and he was not weak. He was War. He was Death and Destruction. He did not want, he did not need. He took long, deep breaths, teeth clenched as he pondered his options.

There was a flash of blue light, and Eris, Goddess of Discord, stood among the litter and remains, her upturned nose wrinkled into an expression of disgust.

"Ugh. Gross." She looked up, seeing Ares, and strode toward him, her movements graceful, like a cat stalking its prey. Reaching the throne, she draped herself bonelessly across one armrest, her blood-red lips pouting at Ares. "So, I heard you were pissed off." She looked around at the destruction, raising an eyebrow. "Looks like someone's had a really bad day. Wanna tell me about it?"

"No." Ares' teeth were still clenched, the rage barely contained within him.

Discord snuggled closer. "Come on. I can help." She wriggled her hips seductively, but Ares casually pushed her off his throne. She landed on her backside, indignant. "Fine. Be that way. See if I care. But if you keep this up, you're gonna run out of toys, and you can't borrow any of mine."

Ares grunted, noncommittal. So he'd slaughtered a few armies. There were plenty more where those came from.

Discord struggled up, brushing the dirt off her clothing. "What's with you, anyway?" Ares glared, a definite warning, but she stalked forward, purring. "You know, I heard some rumors, but I didn't believe them."

"What rumors?" Ares didn't really care, but he was so used to answering his twin without paying any attention that it just slipped out.

"I heard," Eris looked coy, "that you were getting it on with Hercules." Her voice dripped acid. "That you two were all lovey-dovey and cute and fuzzy."

The God of War lifted his head, looking directly at Eris. His eyes glowed brighter, like two coals being stoked. "It never happened." His voice was low and growling, and the room trembled as he flushed with remembered humiliation.

Eris continued, unperturbed. "Really?" She feigned a puzzled expression. "The way I heard it, you told him you loved him, said you were his."

"It never happened." He recoiled from the memories. The earth trembled.

"I heard you two spent over a month in bed together, being all smoochy."

"It never happened." Ares' voice was a roar as he stood, a blue nimbus of lightning dancing over his body. He would not allow this, would not allow anyone to know what had been done to him, would not allow anyone to see him as weak, as a victim.

Eris suddenly realized that she had pushed too far. She stepped back, her trembling hands in the air in a gesture of appeasement. "You're right. It was just a stupid rumor." She spoke quickly, her eyes darting around the room, looking for a place to hide as Ares advanced upon her. "It was so totally ridiculous I had to tell you. For laughs, you know."

Ares backhanded her, the goddess' head snapping around, blood trickling from a corner of her mouth. She raised one hand to her face, crimson staining her fingers. He stepped closer as she stared, puzzled, at the contrasting ruby on her alabaster skin.

The god struck again, his fist driving into her midsection, knocking the breath out of her as she bent over, arms clutching her stomach. Eris looked up, her brother's knee slamming into her chin, knocking her backwards into a polished black wall. She slid down the wall, pulling knees to her chest, arms covering her head as the furious god kicked her, his black leather boots breaking bones, tearing flesh.

"It never happened. It never happened." He repeated the words, almost chanting them, a mantra to ward off the memories.

Eris whimpered, curling tighter, clenching her teeth against the pain. Summoning the last of her strength, she transported herself elsewhere.

Ares found himself facing nothingness, his boot kicking solid wall instead of yielding flesh, and his hands clenched so tightly that his nails drew blood.

"It never happened." He whispered it to himself, willing the memories away. He stood, leaning against the wall for support. There were witnesses, those who had seen his weakness. If he removed the witnesses, no one would ever know. If no one knew, it never happened.

It never happened.

**

Corinth

Braxis strained weakly against her bonds, knowing the struggle was futile, but desperate enough to persevere. She had been moved to a dark room, one without windows, and the closeness of the walls and the low ceiling frightened her. She often had trouble catching her breath, and found herself bathed in cold sweat and fighting in blind panic.

She was lying on a bed, each arm and each leg tied with leather thongs to a bedpost. She had scraped all of the skin off her wrists and ankles the first day, the blood soaking the leather making it draw tighter still, cutting off circulation to her extremities. Her captors had bandaged the wounds and loosened the thongs slightly, but not enough for her to escape. The wounds were festering, she could smell the decay, could feel the itching and burning sensations. She welcomed the pain, because she knew she might get lucky and die from the infection.

The dragon tossed her head from side to side, rubbing her red and chafed cheek against the rough pillow, trying yet again to dislodge the gag in her mouth. She had screamed and bitten when she was brought to this room, screamed until her throat was raw, and they had gagged her since. They removed the gag when they fed her, usually foul cooked human food that she spat back at them. But when the panic attacks came, she had to gasp for air, and the gag seemed to absorb oxygen, making breathing even more difficult.

She had to escape, somehow. Braxis had long ago given up hope of being turned back into a dragon, now she just wanted the horror to end. She was tired and drained.

The previous day, something had happened. Something that convinced her that there was no hope, no escape. She had felt the monster growing inside of her squirm, writhing and twisting within her innards as she vomited into her gag, crying for help, praying to the human's gods. But none answered, and she had fought until she had no strength left.

Today, she struggled weakly, shivering with cold and nausea as she pulled her arms, twisting them, hoping to find a weakness in the leather binding her. She froze when she heard a sound outside the plank door. It sounded like a soft clatter, then a thud. She raised her head as the door opened slowly.

It was Iphicles. He stood in the doorway, dragging a limp guard into the room, dropping the man in front of the fireplace, stopping to lean against the wall, his face shiny with sweat. His amber eyes glittered strangely, and his cheeks were flushed. He rushed to the bed, pulling out the familiar knife and cutting her bonds. His skin felt hot to her.

Braxis massaged her wrists, trying to restore circulation without hurting herself more than she already was. She wriggled her fingers experimentally, wincing at the unfamiliar sensation, bowing her head so Iphicles could remove the gag. He held out his hand, but she ignored him and stood, swaying, fighting dizziness and weakness.

"We have to get out of here." The king was whispering, and she noticed that his hands shook.

"And go where?" She whispered also, raising one eyebrow at him. Where could she go? There was only one escape for her, why didn't he see that?

"I'll take you to Zeus' temple," he leaned forward and she stepped back, increasing the distance between them, avoiding his outstretched hand, "I'll make him change you back. I'll tear the temple apart, kill his priests, do whatever it takes."

The dragon shook her head in resignation. "All he'll do is kill you." She looked the king in the eye, unblinking. "There's no guarantee he'll change me back, and if he kills you I won't have a protector."

Iphicles seemed to deflate, tears filling his eyes as he slumped against the wall, hand to his flushed brow. "I don't know. I'm sorry, I just don't know... Hercules would know what to do, but I don't." His gaze was helpless, hopeless.

Braxis took a deep breath and spoke slowly. "I know what to do. What has to be done."

He nodded, staring at the floor. "Then you better go." He cleared his throat, voice trembling. "Go outside and turn right, then left. You'll find a stairwell."

She nodded, walking out the door to freedom, and didn't look back. But she heard a sound, as if the king were sliding down the wall, sitting on the floor, and she wondered briefly how he would find his freedom.

The dragon followed the king's directions and found the stairwell easily enough. Her cramped legs protested as she climbed and climbed, spiraling upwards from the underground darkness of the dungeon to the world above. She climbed until she could climb no more, until the staircase ended and she saw light, the light of the sun. She blinked, having become accustomed to the darkness.

She stood on the battlement of the ruined East Wing of the castle. The wind drove rain into her, and it felt as if her body was being pierced by tiny needles of ice. But she felt the wind, saw the light and the clouds, and raised her arms in victory, spinning madly in circles and laughing. She was free!

The stones were slippery and icy, but Braxis was determined, fueled by anticipation. She clambered up, until she was standing on the outer wall, and used one hand to balance herself against the nearby battlement. She could see all of Corinth, her familiar rolling hills, the mountains in the distance where she had begun building her nest, the shore where waves crashed into sand, roaring. She remembered flying over this land, diving in the ocean, sleeping in the meadows.

She had missed freedom, and now she would reclaim it, the only way possible. Spreading her arms as if she were spreading her wings, Braxis spun around once more, giddy with joy, before throwing herself forward.

And for a brief moment, Braxis flew again.

**


Part 16

Cyprus

Iolaus watched as Hercules twisted in his sleep, moaning in pain. He reached out, placing a gentle hand on his lover's shoulder, whispering meaningless words to soothe. The demigod quieted, but his brow was still furrowed and there was still a twitch in his cheek.

After leaving him alone with the God of Love, Iolaus and Aphrodite had paced in circles, worrying together and making the watching Hephaestus dizzy. After some time, Hercules had left the injured god and joined them. His face had been drawn and pale, and he looked sick, but he refused to tell them what he and Ares had discussed.

They had found Ares still in bed, his wounds healing before their eyes, and a self-congratulatory smirk on his face. Iolaus had been torn between wanting to slap the smirk off Ares' face and concern for Hercules, and his concern had won. He had watched as Aphrodite and Hephaestus opened the vortex to the other world and Ares entered it, his grin fading slightly when Aphrodite asked him to send her regards to Cupid.

That had been one week ago. Since then, Hercules had visibly deteriorated, his blue eyes shadowed, ghosts swimming behind them. Iolaus had spent the past week with Hercules, trying to get through to him. He had failed.

Hercules moaned again, then arched his back, gasping for air as his eyes shot open. Iolaus reached out to hold him, but Hercules pushed him back roughly, the rejection hurting Iolaus more than the moment when his head hit the wall.

"Herc? It's me..." Iolaus rubbed the back of his head, moving back toward his lover. "It's just me." He laughed nervously. "Sorry if I spooked you there. Um. You must've been having some nightmare there." He hoped Hercules would take advantage of the opening and talk to him.

"Yeah. A nightmare." Hercules spoke in a monotone, his hands twisting the pink brocade coverlet, eyes downcast and shadowed.

"Wanna talk about it?"

"No."

Iolaus started to back off but finally decided that enough was enough. Being gentle and loving wasn't helping. Perhaps other tactics were called for.

"You're not the only one suffering here, you know." He let some of his anger show in his voice, capturing Hercules' attention. "I know, you went through something terrible, but has it occurred to you that maybe, just maybe, some of the rest of us just might not be enjoying it either?"

The demigod looked up and Iolaus pushed on. "Aphrodite's practically worn out her shoes pacing, Hephaestus spends all his time sitting around looking helpless, and you're driving me insane!"

"Sorry." Hercules' voice was still a monotone. "Maybe you should just leave me."

"No! Absolutely not. Not a chance in Tartarus. Would you *look* at me when I'm talking to you?" Iolaus grabbed the demigod's chin, forcing the blue eyes to look at him. "I love you, Herc, and watching you in so much pain's eating me up inside. Talk to me. Let me help."

"You can't help." Hercules contemplated the coverlet again as Iolaus sighed in exasperation.

"Fine. Then talk to me and I'll shut up. How's that for a deal?"

Hercules sighed, still looking down. He was silent, and Iolaus was ready to give up when the monotone started again. "I remember once, when I was little," he trailed off for a moment, staring at the wall, "I was maybe six, I think. My mother was going to market, and I insisted on going with her. She wanted me to stay home, but I threw a tantrum and she gave in." He smiled a little, tilting his head. "She always gave in."

Iolaus settled himself more comfortably, listening, wondering what Hercules was trying to tell him without words. The demigod returned to his story.

"We went into town, and I remember how people stared at us and pointed and whispered. Looking back, I'm sure it was because of who my father was, but at the time it just scared me. I guess that's why she didn't want me going with her. I remember holding onto her skirt like it was a shield and trying to hide behind it."

"We left quickly. She probably wasn't even finished with her shopping, but tripping over me wasn't making matters any easier. On the way home, a man came up to us. I don't even remember what he looked like, just that he seemed big, and he smelled. He'd been drinking."

Iolaus watched closely as Hercules' brow furrowed and a shadow moved behind his eyes. "I don't remember what he said, but he grabbed my mother and pulled her close. She screamed and dropped all the vegetables she was carrying. For some reason I just have this image of an apple rolling in the dirt, the red, shiny skin getting covered with dust. I was mad at the man for hurting my mother, and I was scared."

The demigod took a deep breath. "I grabbed a big stick that was near the road, and I just...hit him with it." There was a moment of silence. "I remember the sound, the loud crack, and his scream." A longer moment of silence as Iolaus found himself staring into haunted azure eyes. "I broke both his legs. I didn't mean to, I was just scared, and I didn't realize how strong I was."

The hunter reached out, intending to reassure, but he was shrugged off as Hercules continued. "My mother sat down with me that night and explained that she knew I didn't mean to hurt the man, but I always had to be very, very careful, because I was so strong that I could hurt people accidentally. She told me I had to stay in control, and not let fear and anger dictate my actions, or else I could hurt people, and that would be bad."

"So, all my life, I've taken all my anger and hatred and fear, all those black emotions, and I've stuffed them into this little box that I keep locked in a corner in the back of my mind. Ares opened that box and let them out, and now I can't get them to go back in again."

Hercules looked anguished and lost, like a small glass figurine that would shatter at the lightest touch. Iolaus watched his lover, feeling helpless, unable to fight an inner demon. He could stand with Hercules in a fight, face incredible odds, risk life and limb, but this enemy was in his lover's head and his heart and soul, and Iolaus was suddenly shut out, unable to breach the defenses so recently erected.

They sat in silence for several moments, Hercules' head bowed and shoulders stooped, Iolaus chewing his lip, paralyzed with fear and indecision. Finally, he reached out and gingerly placed his hand on the demigod's shoulder, hoping to send a lifeline from his heart. He cleared his throat, trying to dislodge the lump that had formed there, and his voice trembled with suppressed emotion.

"Herc, I know you're scared, and I understand. But -"

He was caught off guard when Hercules' head snapped up, blue eyes glittering, his teeth clenched. The demigod removed Iolaus' hand from his shoulder and began twisting it, painfully.

"You understand?" It wasn't a question; it was a challenge. "How can you *possibly* understand, Iolaus?" He continued to twist the captive wrist, bringing tears to the hunter's eyes. "Do you have any idea what it's like, having to be in complete control every single day of your life? Always afraid if you lose control you'll become a monster? Knowing that inside of you there *is* a monster?" Iolaus whimpered, afraid Hercules would break his wrist, trying to squirm away.

"Are you afraid, Iolaus? You should be, you know." Hercules' voice was still calm, but there was a dark undercurrent, a riptide sucking Iolaus in. "I could snap you in half, rip your arm right out of the socket, and not even break a sweat. I could crush you without a second thought. Does that scare you?"

Iolaus nodded, tears of pain leaking from below his eyelids. "The only reason I never did anything like that is because I kept that part of me locked away in a deep, dark dungeon in my mind. But he's out now, and he's not going back. And I can't stop him. You know why?"

Hercules dropped the hand and Iolaus cradled it to his chest, massaging feeling into the wrist, wincing at the sharp ache. The demigod leaned forward, closing the space between them, and Iolaus leaned back involuntarily, eyeing his lover warily. "I can't stop him because he's stronger than I am. And you know what else? He *likes* the power, and he likes hurting people."

The demigod leaned back, collapsing in exhaustion, vacant blue eyes staring at the ceiling in resignation. "How can you possibly understand what it's like to realize that you *are* everything you've fought against for years? Tell me that, Iolaus."

Iolaus felt his heart become numb as he stared at his lover's face, seeing the pain pulsing beneath Hercules' skin, but knowing he was helpless in the face of that tsunami of anguish.

Hercules turned away from Iolaus, a gesture that seemed somehow final. "Leave me alone, Iolaus. Please, leave me alone." It was a plea, a request that Iolaus couldn't deny, caught as he was in his own web of helplessness.

"I'll go." He whispered, still cradling his injured wrist as he stood. "But I'll be back when you're feeling better."

The demigod closed his eyes, shaking his head. "You just don't get it, do you?"

"And you just don't get how much I love you." Iolaus spoke confidently, with a strength he didn't feel. "We'll work through this together, I promise." Iolaus leaned over, gently brushing his lover's cheek with a kiss, and left.

Hercules sat up in the bed, staring at the door as it closed behind the hunter. "No, we won't." He whispered, the sound unnoticed. "I have to take care of this myself."

**

Corinth

Iphicles stood in the rain, looking down at the body. Braxis was dead. He glanced up, wondering if she had been afraid, or just happy that her ordeal was over. A part of him felt she was lucky. She was at peace. She had no more responsibilities, no more pain.

He bent over, another coughing fit taking him by surprise. They'd been getting worse the past several days, seeming to echo within his chest, and Argeus was worried. Iphicles ignored the healer and his advice, determined to find and help Braxis. He'd failed. He'd helped her to escape, but he hadn't returned her to her old body, he hadn't helped to free her.

Hercules would have been able to help her, Iphicles was convinced of that. But Hercules had abandoned her, just like he'd abandoned his brother, in favor of Ares. Hercules had betrayed both of them. Braxis was dead because the great hero was too busy fucking Ares and Iolaus to bother with her.

Iphicles looked at her body, watching her blood mix with the gray rain, and swore to avenge her death. It was all he could do now. He could find Hercules and make him pay.


Part 17

Present

Corinth

Iphicles wandered the halls of the ruined east wing of the castle. He wandered aimlessly, occasionally stopping and coughing, bracing himself against the gray stone walls as he bent over, one arm pulled tight to his body. The coughs were loud and hollow, forcing him to gasp for air, and they were becoming worse. He could hear his breath as he inhaled, the sound of suction within his chest. Argeus had ordered bed rest, but Iphicles refused, unable to sleep, unable to sit still. Instead he wandered the halls, a copper and gold ghost, avoided by all.

He listened as his booted footsteps echoed in the empty halls, the sound bouncing off of cold stone walls, sometimes absorbed by flat, colorless tapestries. He walked, and listened, and thought. He thought of dragons, and gods, and the last time he saw his brother, flying away, abandoning those who depended upon him.

The king sighed as he realized where he was. His old bed chamber, the one he had nearly demolished when Hera turned him into a dragon. The wall was partially destroyed, wind and rain blowing in, soaking the floor. The tattered tapestries clung to the walls, frayed ends whipping in the strong air currents. The once colorful carpets were soaked with water and dirt, and each step resulted in a squelching noise that acted as an eerie counterpart to the wind that howled through the room.

He had placed the body on the bed, covering it with a blanket. Like the rest of the room, Braxis looked cold and gray and abandoned, as if she had lain there for centuries, a statue instead of once-warm flesh. He had cleaned her as best he could, but there were still some few rust stains of blood on her lips, as if she had recently fed. Iphicles reached out, hesitating before he lightly scratched at the spots, watching them crumble under his fingernail. He didn't think she would mind him touching her, not anymore. Iphicles wished they had discussed dragon funeral customs, although he had a strong suspicion that they had none. He had decided to build a funeral pyre. He thought Braxis would like that.

Iphicles stood, staring at the body, but not really seeing it, his mind wandering as his body had, aimlessly, as if he were following a current that had captured him. He was distracted by a flash of light and turned to find himself facing Aphrodite.

The goddess stood in the ruined chamber, a golden glow repelling the rain, her diaphanous pink gown untouched by the wind, floating around her in gentle undulating waves. She looked at him, and the king was gripped by a sudden anger.

"What are you doing here?" He tried to keep his voice calm, but it was shaking with rage. Aphrodite reached for the king, who pulled back, glaring at her. "Leave me alone. Haven't you done enough?" He glanced at the bed and her gaze followed his, her cerulean eyes suddenly downcast, her golden glow dampening and flickering.

"I'm sorry." She stood very still, intently contemplating her pink shoes, trying desperately to let Iphicles know how sorry she was for all of the pain, all of the suffering she had inadvertently caused.

"Oh, that's just great. You think you can just come here and say you're sorry and it'll all be better?" His voice had a slightly hysterical edge.

"No." She sighed, continuing to study the floor intently. "None of this was supposed to happen. No one was supposed to get hurt."

"But we did get hurt, and you can't change that."

"You're right." The goddess looked at the king, raising her clouded azure eyes to his, suddenly appearing as tired as he felt. "I wish I could, I really do. But I can't."

Iphicles continued to glare. "So? Why don't you just get out of here? Or did you want to do something else to fuck up my life?"

Aphrodite hugged herself, looking back at the ground. "I just... I wish I could do something for you, to make up for all of this."

"Don't do me any favors." The king looked at the blanket-covered body. "I mean that literally. Your kind, all you ever do is cause trouble. Find some other schmuck to play with and leave me out of your little games."

The goddess fidgeted. Apparently she wasn't used to being told to get lost. "Are you sure there's nothing I can do to help?" She sounded hopeful, eager, as she looked at him out of the corner of her eyes.

"I'm sure." Iphicles was suddenly exhausted. "Look, go back to Olympus or wherever you go. Pop in and annoy Herc and Ares or something. Just stay away from me."

Aphrodite looked up, startled, her hand flying to her mouth. "Oh, dear."

"What now?" The king looked wary.

"You don't know?"

"Know what?" Iphicles was becoming testy. He really didn't want to hear whatever it was the goddess wanted to say.

"About Ares and Hercules."

Iphicles felt nauseous as the anger flared through him, as he remembered his brother and his own failure. "Yeah, I was there, remember? They love each other." He swallowed past the lump in his throat. "I hope they're very happy together." He spoke the words through clenched teeth, not willing to let Aphrodite see his pain. And definitely not wanting Aphrodite to tell Hercules about it. He didn't want his brother to know he had hurt him, didn't want to show that weakness.

He especially didn't want to imagine that he was the one with Ares, the one being held, being kissed, being loved. The one who was warm and safe. The one who was not alone.

"That's not it." She paused, searching for the right words. "They were under a spell. The other Ares put a love spell on them."

"Oh." Iphicles was confused, but pushed the confusion to the back of his mind. He refused to release the anger, the only emotion he could truly feel through the gray mist in his head.

"I made him take it off," she added helpfully, "but they're both kinda freaked out." Iphicles was suddenly distracted by another coughing fit, leaving him bent over, gasping for air, his face pale. Aphrodite studied him. "You're pretty sick, you know."

"So?" The king's hostility returned.

"Pneumonia, I think." The goddess could hear the fluid in his lungs as he breathed. "I can take care of it for you." Before he could protest, Aphrodite waved her hand, golden sparkles floating down to cover Iphicles, healing him. She smiled, happy to have helped.

Iphicles glared, stepping forward, snarling. "I told you to leave me the fuck alone! Why can't you gods just stay away? What is it with you, you get bored and decide to just...find some new toy to play with or something? And then you get bored with the game and break the toy and that's the end of it? Don't *we* get a say in any of this?"

Aphrodite backed away. She'd only been trying to help, after all. "I'm sorry, I just wanted..."

The king interrupted her. "You wanted to do what *you* wanted to do, nevermind what *I* wanted. Nevermind what *she* wanted." He nodded toward Braxis' body. "You play your little games, you drag us into them, and you don't care what the consequences are for us. None of you do."

The goddess pouted, beginning to get angry, hands on her hips as she thrust her upper body forward. "Look, buddy, I was just trying to help, okay? What do you want me to do here, throw myself on a sword or something?"

"And what would that do? It wouldn't hurt you. Nothing seems to hurt your kind. But we're different." Iphicles stopped, breathing deeply. "Look at her. She used to be a dragon. She was happy. And then she got dragged into this whole mess, and Zeus turned her into a human, and now she's dead. Nothing can change that, and I really don't think Zeus gives a damn."

"You're right, he doesn't." There was an unsettling edge to Aphrodite's voice. She crossed her arms across her chest, her blue eyes becoming icy.

Iphicles walked to the bed, his hand resting on the mattress near the body, but not touching it. "She used to be able to fly. That's all she wanted, was to be able to fly again." He bent his head, remembering the crisp flap of wings, the sensation of soaring through the sky. "I could only fly for one day and I miss it. She was able to fly her entire life, until Zeus took that from her."

"I'm sorry." Aphrodite gingerly placed her hand on his shoulder, squeezing when she wasn't rebuffed. "You were really good at flying, you know?"

"Yeah, I know." Iphicles closed his eyes, head tilted back, lost in memories and regrets.

"Would you like to fly again?"

The king looked at the goddess, desperate hunger warring with anger and distrust. Would he like to fly again? More than anything. He would do anything for one more chance to fly free, to be a dragon. To be an independent, strong creature, one that didn't understand loneliness, one that didn't care what others thought, one that didn't need love or companionship. Her offer was so tempting, but accepting anything from the gods had its price.

Aphrodite, looking compassionate, seemed to sense his internal conflict. "How's about this for an offer: I give you the ability to change into a dragon any time you want, and you can also change yourself back. Whether or not you ever do it's up to you. Fair enough?"

Iphicles felt his head nodding assent, despite the fact that he was still mired in indecision. He watched, distantly, as Aphrodite stood back and pointed a finger at him, a shower of glowing pink hearts and golden sparkles enveloping him. There was a tingling sensation, but no pain, not like when Hera had transformed him. He inspected his arms, his hands, looking for a sign of change.

The goddess grinned. "Cool. The world's first were-dragon!" She giggled, but quickly turned serious. "Just remember, Iphy. Sometimes we want something, but when we get it, it's not really what we wanted, ya know?" She tilted her head to the side as if she heard a far-off sound. "Sorry, gotta go. Someone's calling me. Toodles!"

Aphrodite disappeared in her customary flash, small glowing hearts floating to the ground in her wake, brilliantly colored against the gray, wet floor, finally fading into nothing. Iphicles stood, staring at the spot where she had stood. He could sense something inside himself, some new knowledge.

He walked to the gaping hole in the wall and looked down, remembering his panicked flight so long ago. He closed his eyes and stepped forward into nothingness, arms spread.

At first, all he felt was the cold wind and rain on his skin. Then there was a burning sensation rippling through his body, a sense of stretching and growing, changing, transforming. The pain was familiar and he welcomed it. He opened his eyes and looked around. He was flying.

Iphicles felt the resistance of the air beneath his great bronze wings as he flapped them, listening to the crisp snapping sound they made. He flew in lazy circles around the castle, chuckling to himself as he saw humans scurry for cover. He lowered his head and dove, roaring as he skimmed along the ground, almost touching the earth, then pulling out of the dive and climbing into the skies. He spun as he climbed, feeling the coolness on his scales, opening his mouth and experimentally breathing a jet of fire that lit the sky like a beacon.

He had unfinished business, though. He had a few responsibilities he had to see through before he could begin his new life. He banked and glided back to the castle, to the jagged hole in the wall of the east wing, and executed a nearly perfect landing in his former bed chamber. Looking at the body on the bed, he closed his large amber eyes and remembered the cute green dragon he had met once, so long ago.

He opened his eyes and took aim, sending a stream of fire toward the bed, burning it and the body. It seemed like a good funeral pyre for a dragon. He turned, listening to the fire crackle and pop behind him, consuming the room and everything in it. Cleansing it.

Flapping his great wings again, he took off into the sky, trying to decide what business to take care of next.


Part 18

Cyprus

Iolaus sat in the main room of Aphrodite's temple, his hands folded neatly, shoulders hunched, as he contemplated his feet. He seemed to do quite a bit of that lately; just sit and stare blankly, feeling helpless, watching as his lover drowned in his own mind.

The demigod had become even worse since their last conversation. He refused to speak to Iolaus, refused to even look at him. Iolaus had tried being loving and supportive, and had been rejected. He had tried anger and accusation, and had been rejected. He felt like Hercules had built a fortress around himself, and there was no way in. Iolaus was merely banging his head against the outer wall for all the good he was doing.

He sighed and bit into an apple, jumping slightly as Aphrodite materialized next to him, leaving small glowing hearts on the floor and the sofa. They pulsed slightly before fading out, a sight that made Iolaus somewhat melancholy. Of course, lately, everything seemed to depress him. The goddess looked rather put-out, he noticed.

"Bad day?"

"You could say that." She sat next to him on the sofa, examining her own feet. It appeared to be contagious, this foot examination. "You know, I mentioned a couple of others got caught up in this mess? Well, they're in worse shape than Herc is."

Iolaus snorted. "That's hard to believe." He bit into the apple again, crunching loudly to show his disdain.

"I know, but it's true. I guess I was so worried about Herc I just... I kinda forgot about them." She sighed, a long, wistful sound. "He was right, they were just toys, and they got stepped on and broken and thrown away." She rested her chin in her hands. "I hope I helped a little..."

"I'm sure you did." Iolaus reached out, hugging the goddess, glad he wasn't the only one feeling like they were being swept along in a dark undertow. "You can be helpful, when you put your mind to it."

"Thanks, Curly." Aphrodite's smile was hesitant, but made Iolaus grateful that he could make *someone* happy. "So, how's Herc doing?"

"The same." Iolaus held on to Aphrodite, desperately needing the contact with someone, anyone who wouldn't push him away, anyone who would listen to him. "I just can't get through to him, no matter what I try." Aphrodite returned his hug, gently running her fingers through his curls. "I don't know what to do."

They sat, taking solace from each other, each pondering their failures. Iolaus turned to Aphrodite, feeling something close to a sense of peace for the first time that day. "Why don't you try talking to him? Maybe he'll listen to you."

The goddess laughed. "Not likely, babe, but I'll try." She patted his hair. "Maybe I'll pick up on something you missed. Or maybe I'll annoy him enough that you'll look better to him."

Iolaus giggled, imagining Hercules trying to deal with a determined Aphrodite. She stood, wiggling her fingers at him, and Iolaus felt a surge of affection for the goddess. They were like conspirators, working together for the first time, and he realized that he had come to depend on her strength and wisdom, two attributes he'd never previously associated with the Goddess of Love.

The hunter relaxed, attacking his pink apple with renewed vigor. Aphrodite might just be able to reach Hercules in her own strange way, and give him a small push to open up and allow the people who loved him to help him. Iolaus' eyes were drifting shut as he felt something pulling him, moving him, and he saw a flash of golden light.

He stood, dazed and blinking, before realizing that Aphrodite had transported him to Hercules' room. Looking around, he felt an abrupt surge of panic when he saw Aphrodite, pale and trembling, backed into a corner. She emitted a series of small, incoherent squeaks, stretching out a shaking hand. Iolaus followed the hand, and his knees suddenly buckled.

Hercules lay in the corner, unconscious in a dark pool of his own blood. Iolaus stood, staring, uncomprehending, before his instincts took over and he rushed to his lover's side. Reaching for the demigod's neck, he felt a faint pulse. Blood was still pouring from the wounds, and the hunter recoiled upon seeing the crimson stained knife gripped in Hercules' hand. He gingerly removed the weapon, searching for cloth to bind the wounds. He knew it wouldn't be enough, but he had to try.

His eyes fell upon Aphrodite, ashen faced and still trembling, her eyes open and unblinking, staring in horror.

"Aphrodite!" He yelled, but she didn't react, merely continued staring. "Aphrodite!" He screamed her name again and the goddess jumped, her hand flying to her mouth. "Get your ass over here and heal him!"

She walked forward, and it seemed to Iolaus that she was walking too slowly, as if she were wading through high water. She finally reached them and kneeled, stretching out for the injured demigod. Iolaus cradled his lover's head in his lap as Aphrodite touched Hercules, glittering, glowing golden ribbons of light emerging from her hands to wrap around the unconscious form. The wounds healed as Iolaus watched, but Hercules didn't stir.

Aphrodite leaned back on her heels, tears dripping down her face, and Iolaus wanted to comfort her, but didn't know how. "I, um..." She whispered, her voice broken. "I took care of the, um, the cuts. I think he should sleep for a while, you know?"

Iolaus nodded. "Yeah. Thank you." The words were too small, too trite. One said 'thank you' for a nice Solstice gift, or for a nice dinner. Why were there no more powerful words for occasions like this? Words that conveyed more meaning, more than simple thanks?

The hunter stood, grabbing the demigod under the shoulders and dragging him to the bed, where he gently tucked him in. Leaning down, he kissed Hercules on the cheek, smoothing back a wayward lock of honey coloured hair. "Sleep well, okay? I'll be back soon."

Iolaus and Aphrodite left, closing the door behind them.


The Halls of War

Ares sat in his great black throne, surveying the devastation around him. Discord hadn't shown her sneering face since she ran away the previous day, and he took some small amount of pleasure in that fact. The floor ran with blood, he was soaked with gore, but still, he felt that damn hypnotic pulse within him.

(I want. I need.)

He sat very still, staring, eyes glowing red with anger, lightning flickering about his form. Yesterday he had decided to wipe out all witnesses to his humiliation, refusing to be seen as weak, refusing to be perceived as a victim. He was not a victim, he victimized others. He was War.

But he had failed. Cupid and his boy-toy Autolycus were deep within Cupid's temple, shielded from outsiders. Aphrodite was protecting Hercules and Iolaus. As for Zeus, well, killing Zeus was out of the question. For now, at least. He wouldn't attack his father until he was positive he would win, since he knew full well that he would have only one chance.

Ares seethed with hatred. He needed more. He needed to kill, to maim, to tear. He needed more blood, more pain, more suffering. He needed to prove that he was not weak. That he did not want. Did not need.

He stood, a wolfish grin preying on his features. Of course! How could he have been so stupid? That infernal worm. Iphicles. He had been a witness to his weakness, and now that he was human again he would be easily destroyed. His grin widened as he realized that Iphicles' death would be even sweeter. The king and their brother had obviously grown close; killing Iphicles would be a blow to Hercules.

The god licked his lips, tasting the coppery tang of blood, and vanished in a flash of blue and red light, on his way to Corinth.


Part 19

Corinth

Iphicles flew through the sky, soaring effortlessly, wings beating to the same rhythm as his heart. His new body was so powerful, so efficient, that he was constantly amazed by its capabilities. It felt different, but somehow right. He could get used to this. He would get used to this. He felt the strong muscles in his legs, and experimentally clenched his claws, admiring the razor sharp points as he rotated them to examine from myriad angles.

He flew in circles, sometimes flying straight up, then diving for the ground, pulling himself out of the dive a hairs-breath from the earth, occasionally executing mid-air somersaults, or flying in dizzying figure eights. He threw back his head and laughed, the resulting roar echoing off the mountains, rolling across the hills.

Flying was sheer joy, something that his human body was unable to equal. He practiced hovering, flying backwards, even flying upside down. It seemed that this new body had no limitations, no flaws. He admired his iridescent bronze scales, learned that they sparkled in the light from his flame. He had very little frame of reference, and he hadn't actually seen his new body, but he felt sure that he was a damn good-looking dragon.

He flew over the harbor, absently noting that some of the pilings showed signs of wear. He'd have to get the dock workers on that as soon as the weather cleared, it could be dangerous.

Iphicles mentally slapped himself. He was a dragon now. Dragons didn't care about harbors or docks. But still, people could get hurt. He sighed, sulfurous smoke drifting from his nose. Obviously, he still needed time to adjust to his new state.

For the moment, though, there were more pressing considerations. Specifically, flying had made him hungry. Ravenous, in fact. It probably didn't help that he hadn't eaten much for days, either. This was a perfect opportunity to prove that he truly was a dragon and not a king.

He would eat a cow. That, after all, was what dragons did. Dragons didn't care who their food belonged to, they didn't care about loyal subjects. Dragons didn't have loyal subjects. Scruples be damned, he was going to eat the cow of a loyal Corinthian and he was going to enjoy it.

Iphicles circled, determined, looking for cattle. He had intended to be picky, but he was starving, and so he landed near the first cow he found. The animal lowed, a sound of terror, and struggled against its tether, eyes rolling back in its head. He could smell its fear, and the scent was intoxicating. He advanced on the helpless animal, but stopped suddenly, puzzled by the logistics.

He was a big dragon, but still, cows were also large animals. How, exactly, did one go about eating a cow? Should he eat it whole? Could he eat it whole? He tilted his head, considering. It appeared that he could probably fit the whole animal in his mouth, but he wasn't sure that he could swallow it. Should he spit out what he couldn't swallow? Would he be able to chew it properly?

This was so frustrating. He sighed again, choking on the sulfur. He'd have to learn not to do that. Well, this was certainly an embarrassing dilemma. A dragon that didn't know how to eat. Maybe he should bite it in half, eat one half, and then eat the other half? And should he kill it before he bit it in half? He really didn't want the poor animal to suffer.

He was distracted by a scent. A human scent. Looking up, Iphicles saw an elderly man advancing on him, limping heavily, waving an equally elderly and rusted sword, yelling incoherently. Behind the man he could see a thin old woman holding a frying pan. He blew a warning flame at the man, who continued to advance.

"Get away, you monster!" Iphicles was insulted. He wasn't a monster, he was a dragon. There was a difference, after all. The man didn't have to insult him. He breathed another small flame, making sure it stopped well short of the man.

Unfortunately, the old man tripped, falling in the path of the flame. Iphicles watched in horror as the manís wispy white beard caught fire, flames licking up his face. The man screamed, rolling on the wet ground, easily putting the fire out, and his wife ran toward him, dropping her frying pan and screaming and crying hysterically. Falling to her knees, she held her husband, both looking at Iphicles in terror.

He could smell their fear, but instead of being pleased, he felt... guilty. He looked around, truly seeing the small farm for the first time. The house was old and dilapidated, in desperate need of repair. The cow he had been planning to eat was white-muzzled and gaunt. There were a few scraggly fruit trees, but they looked decidedly unhealthy.

Iphicles looked again at the elderly couple, holding each other, determined to face death together, and felt an incredible sadness. He couldn't do it. He couldn't eat this pathetic cow; he couldn't kill this pitiful old couple. He was a failure as a dragon, just as he was a failure as a human. He roared, giving voice to his pain, and accidentally set the fruit trees on fire. Great. Just great. Now he felt even guiltier.

He beat his great wings, fanning the flames, and took to the air, planning another visit to Golgoth. Maybe there were more sandsharks about. At least eating sandsharks didnít make him feel guilty.


Corinth

Ares arrived at the castle in Corinth, cloaked in invisibility, prepared to kill Iphicles slowly and painfully. But he couldn't sense the king in the castle; in fact, he couldn't sense the king at all. He frowned, impatient.

The god looked around, surprised by the near panic of the mortals he saw. Many were running, others were crying, still others seemed quite happy. He listened to various conversations, read various minds, trying to sort out what had happened.

Ah. This was interesting. The king, apparently, was dead. Witnesses had seen him enter his old bed chamber. Soon thereafter, a great bronze dragon had appeared, setting fire to the room and taking flight. A body had been found in the remains of the bed, and the obvious was assumed.

Ares laughed. So, someone had transformed the king back into a dragon. This would be more fun than he had anticipated. As a dragon, the king was a formidable foe. Ares was looking forward to killing the worm, since it had, in a way, started the chain of events that had led here.

Smiling, Ares extended his senses, searching for the dragon.


Cyprus

Pain. The first awareness he had was of pain. He ached, his head pounded, his arms throbbed. Next, he felt nausea and lightheadedness. What had happened? He didn't feel like he was hung over, didn't remember getting drunk. Didn't remember much, in fact.

He opened one eye experimentally, closing it quickly as the light stabbed his eyeball. Not good. Try again. He opened his eye, cautiously this time. Blinked repeatedly. Okay, that was better. Opened the other eye. Blinked both eyes.

This was progress. He was in a pink room. A very pink room. On a pink bed. He closed his eyes, hoping the pinkness was a product of the (not-quite) hangover. When he opened his eyes again, the pink was still there. He looked around blearily, his thoughts scattering like leaves in the wind, unable to grasp where he was or why.

The door opened. Iolaus and Aphrodite stepped in. Aphrodite looked pale and sad, lacking her usual glow. Iolaus seemed to have aged, there were deep lines around his eyes and mouth. Why did they both look so sad? Why couldn't he remember anything?

He reached out, his arm moving clumsily, falling to the pink coverlet. He looked at it. He wasn't wearing his gauntlets. Where were his gauntlets? He moved his arm, twisting it, watching it flop like a boneless tentacle, feeling detached.

Then he saw the wounds. The wounds on his arms. And he remembered. And Hercules ran for that safe corner of his mind, trying to hide where it was safe and warm and nothing could hurt him, trying to ignore the bad things lurking in the shadows, the bad things he was afraid would consume him, destroy him, possess him.

Hercules fell back onto the bed, eyes closed, and slept again, as Iolaus and Aphrodite took up positions on either side of the demigod, guarding him.


Part 20

Corinth

Iphicles lazed on the beach, his hunger sated by a filling meal of sandshark. Sandsharks, he had discovered, had extremely short memories. Either that or they were incredibly stupid. They had fallen for the same trick he had used before. All he had to do was stand, tapping one claw in the sand, and they came running as if someone had yelled 'chow time'. He had eaten three, then flown to the beach to rest. He was enjoying relaxing, listening to the sound of the waves breaking on the shore. With his new senses he could hear, see, and experience so much more than as a human.

He smelled the salt in the air, saw colors he had never seen before. The waves sounded musical to his ears, and he could hear the songs of dolphin schools swimming out at sea, the melody somewhat distorted by the waves. He sighed, wriggling, enjoying the sensation of sand scratching his scales.

Closing his eyes, Iphicles drifted off for a moment. He felt as if he were dreaming, and he was afraid he would wake up, alone, in his cold, stark bed chamber. Perhaps he really had lost his mind, maybe that was it. Nothing this good ever happened to him; magic and adventure seemed to be reserved for his brother.

Hercules. Iphicles rolled onto his back, wriggling again, his wings tucked at his side and all four legs in the air. He supposed he looked faintly ridiculous, but right now he didn't care. So, according to Aphrodite, Ares and Hercules had been under a love spell. This stirred emotions that he didn't think he wanted to examine.

The hatred toward his brother had returned so easily, he wasn't sure he would be able to banish it. He wasn't sure he wanted to banish it. After all, it was just a love spell. How bad could it have been? Hercules still should have helped, somehow. If Hercules had helped and kept his promise, Braxis would be flying free now, Iphicles was sure of it. Besides that, the hatred and resentment were so familiar they were almost comforting. He had felt most alive the past few months when he was thinking of his brother, planning revenge. No, he would have to wait before dealing with Hercules. Right now things were too mixed up, too confused, the wounds too fresh.

Then there was Ares. The God of War didn't love his brother. Iphicles' heart skipped a beat, hope soaring, until the king roughly pushed it back down inside of himself. Just because Ares was available, that didn't mean he'd pay any attention to him. The god was probably humiliated, given his public display of affection with Hercules. Iphicles shuddered. He knew he would have been mortified if he'd acted like such a sap in public. Ares probably wouldn't want anything to do with anyone who would remind him of that incident.

His mind wandered back, remembering. The way Ares had thrown his head back, mouth open and cheeks flushed, as their mutual brother had sucked him off. He remembered the scent, the taste of the god's arousal, the fire in his eyes. Iphicles could have sworn that fire was directed at him. No. He refused to think about this any more. He was a dragon. Dragons didn't want company, didn't need anyone. Dragons were alone because they enjoyed it.

The image of the god, naked, intruded again, and the king pushed it away again. He wouldn't think about how it felt to be held, to touch another human. He wouldn't remember the sensation of skin on skin, the taste of sweat, the warmth of a body held close. That was for humans, not dragons. He was a dragon. He was. He didn't need to be held, he didn't want to share this new world with someone else. He was a dragon, and he was going to forget the past and live only for today. It was a new world and a new life, and he was going to let go of his old life, his old existence, and move forward.

Iphicles thought, reviewing the incident with the cow. He felt somewhat better now, and could examine his actions dispassionately. Okay, so he had been unable to eat the cow, and had felt guilty. That didn't make him a failure as a dragon, it just meant that he had a conscience. He could live with that. There was plenty of game he could eat, it wasn't like he needed to eat cows. Besides which, he had to admit, it had been rather juvenile of him to decide to eat a cow just to prove he was a dragon. He was a dragon. He would just be a friendly dragon, that was all.

His mind made up, he wriggled some more. It was almost as good as having his eye-ridges scratched. This was exactly what he needed: peace. A chance to relax and step back and be someone other than the ever-responsible King of Corinth. For the first time in what seemed like a lifetime, his mind felt clear and sharp, the gray mist of depression that had been weighing upon him was lifted.

Iphicles stretched. Stretching felt incredible in this new body, with its musculature and strength. He stood on all fours, arching his back and reaching with his front legs, claws spread and digging into the sand. Then he spread his wings, hearing the crisp snap as they unfurled, reaching straight up with them, the wind and rain tickling the sensitive skin.

One last yawn set some brush on fire, and with a few downward strokes of his wings, he was airborne again. Remembering how much he had previously enjoyed swimming, Iphicles turned in mid-air, gaining speed as he dove under the water, nearly gasping as the water surrounded him, reaching under his scales to caress the tender skin. Dragons, he was finding, were very sensual creatures. It seemed that everything felt good.

He used his long tail for locomotion, lashing it to drive himself forward underwater. It was almost like flying! He laughed as he saw several schools of fish flee in panic, imaging what he must look like. Beating his wings, he found he could force himself upward with greater speed. He broke from the water, wings still beating, flying upward as he spun in circles, the cold air invigorating him.

Once airborne, the question arose - where to go? Iphicles thought as he flew, wondering where he should make his new home. He was hesitant to leave Corinth. Maybe he wasn't the king, but he still felt somehow responsible for the kingdom. Jason had entrusted it to him. But even if he couldn't rule, he could still help. Maybe he could be an unofficial guardian of sorts. Other kingdoms would hesitate to attack if they knew a large dragon protected Corinth.

He nodded to himself, flying toward the mountains. There were caves in the mountains; he could make a home there, and act as a lookout. He wouldn't be letting Jason down, not really. He'd just be doing his duty in a slightly different manner than Jason had hoped.


Cyprus

Aphrodite sat on the bed next to Hercules, one elbow resting on her pulled-up knees, idly smoothing his hair back, tucking it behind his ear. Her smooth brow was furrowed as she looked down at the sleeping demigod, her teeth unconsciously biting her pink lower lip.

Iolaus had fallen asleep next to Hercules, his arm protectively encircling his lover. The goddess could see the lines etched around his eyes and mouth, the strain showing in his face, even his posture. He stirred, mouth tightening, as he fought a dream-monster in his head. Even asleep, he couldn't escape.

Hephaestus entered the room, remarkably quietly for someone his size, and walked to Aphrodite, sitting beside her and covering her small hands with his own. He smelled of sweat and soot, and Aphrodite leaned her head against his chest, listening to his heartbeat, feeling small and lost. He smoothed the hair back from her brow, gently kissing the top of her head, and she felt herself relax, tears threatening to spill from her eyes.

She tilted her head, looking at her husband, and gently kissed him on the tip of his nose before returning to her previous position. Hephaestus tightened his arms protectively around his wife, rocking her gently.

"I don't know what to do." Aphrodite's voice was low and muffled, trembling. "I don't know how to fix this." She looked up at her husband again, her eyes pleading. "You're good at fixing things." It was almost a question, but the God of the Forge shook his head.

"I can fix things, but not people." He sighed. "People are a lot harder to fix."

They sat in silence, watching the two men on the bed. Long moments passed before Iolaus twitched, yawning and stretching, looking around in confusion before memory returned to him. He shook his head, rubbing his eyes as he looked down at Hercules, then over at the two gods.

"How long was I asleep?"

Aphrodite managed a smile. She wanted to appear strong, even if she wasn't. "Not nearly long enough."

The hunter didn't smile, his eyes shadowed as he looked at his lover. His voice was low and seemed to echo. "What're we gonna do?"

They were all surprised when Hercules replied. He opened his blue eyes, and they were as flat as his voice. "Kill me."


Part 21

Corinth

Ares stood in the shadow of the great castle's outer wall, blending easily into the darkness, frowning, concentrating. He extended his senses, searching again for the dragon-king. At one point he had found something that seemed to have characteristics of both human and dragon, but discarded the trace. It had felt happy, and if there was one thing Ares knew about Iphicles, it was that he wasn't the happy type. From what he heard, the king veered madly between angry, depressed, paranoid and sullen. Happiness didn't appear to be part of his emotional repertoire.

Ares' black-booted foot tapped impatiently as he scanned again. No Iphicles. The damn fool wouldn't have killed himself, would he? The god growled at the thought of being robbed yet again of his opportunity to kill. He found it again, that bundle of happiness that seemed to be both human and dragon. It seemed puzzled now, frustrated and somewhat angry. Ares shook his head, irritated. He was going to find this creature and kill it, as a matter of principle. He didn't like happy creatures. They annoyed him.

Following the trace, Ares found himself in the mountains, in a large clearing in front of a cave. There was an untidy pile of wood in front of the cave mouth, as well as an extremely puzzled looking bronze dragon. Iphicles. Ares grinned wolfishly. This was working out well. He approached the dragon, striding forward confidently, hands clenched into fists.

"How the fuck do you make a nest?" Iphicles' voice rumbled like thunder. Querulous thunder. Ares stopped, momentarily confused, as the dragon continued. "I know wood's involved, and bones and soft stuff like leaves, but how in Tartarus am I supposed to put it all together? All I can make is stacks, and I really don't think that's right." The dragon continued to stare antagonistically at the untidy mound, as if hoping it would be intimidated into making itself into a nest. "I wonder if I could just get a really big bed."

The God of War shook his head, roughly shoving down the urge to laugh. He was here to kill the damn king, not to build nests. He remembered his humiliation, remembered that Iphicles had been a witness, and his rage broke over him, a red wave of anger and fury. Again, his eyes glowed, his power sending sparks shooting from his boots as he strode toward the dragon.

When Ares spoke, his voice was low and thunderous, trembling with suppressed rage. "I'm here to kill you." He waited for the king to try to escape, to beg for his life, but the dragon merely blinked his large amber eyes a few times before returning his attention to the nascent nest.

The sparks grew more intense as Ares clenched his teeth. "I said I'm here to kill you."

Iphicles turned his massive head and again regarded the god. "I heard you the first time." His tone was uninterested, infuriating Ares further. "I was just wondering how you planned to go about doing it."

The god stepped forward, growling, unsheathing his sword, brandishing it with both hands. "Like this." He swung the sword in an efficient arc that should have severed the dragon's head from his body.

Should have, except that Iphicles lashed out with his serpentine tail, hitting Ares solidly in the back of his calves, sending the god to his knees. Dropping his sword, the war god desperately reached out to catch himself with his hands before his face smashed into the dirt. Shaking his head to clear it, the god realized the king had acclimatised quickly to his new body and wouldn't be easy prey. Good.

When he looked up, Ares saw the dragon's amused face. "You know, you should've showed up yesterday. Yesterday I would have let you kill me and probably thanked you for it. But today, I'm feeling better."

The god snarled, retrieving his sword and standing, again facing his foe. "Too bad." He could swear the damn worm shrugged at him, and he thrust again at the infuriating beast. This time Iphicles parried with a razor-sharp claw, and Ares was forced to pull his sword back before the claw cut his hand off.

This was not what Ares had planned. He advanced again, only to be driven back by a jet of fire from the dragon, whose tail was beginning to lash in a highly agitated fashion. The dragon's amber eyes were taking on a rather predatory glow of their own, one that matched Ares'. Despite his irritation at the beast, the god grinned. He loved a good fight.

The God of War stood back, assessing his opponent. Iphicles watched him warily, the large cat-like eyes following the god's every movement. Dashing forward, Ares threw himself at the dragon, tucking his legs under and rolling as he slashed upwards at the vulnerable front leg. He felt some resistance as his sword pierced the scaly armor and tender flesh behind the knee and smiled. First blood.

Iphicles howled in pain as Ares rolled past him, quickly jumping to his feet and facing the dragon. "Fuck! That hurt!" The dragon turned on the god, roaring in anger, the sound reverberating through the mountains, causing the ground to tremble slightly. Lowering his head and baring his mighty fangs, Iphicles advanced on Ares, who felt a momentary twinge of...fear? No, that wasn't it. He was, after all, a god.

But he still backed away; waiting for a counter-attack that didn't materialize. Ares decided to press his advantage and dove for the wounded leg, hoping to disable the creature. This time, however, Iphicles was ready for him, and Ares was in mid-dive when Iphicles twisted so that the blood from the open wound fountained onto his attacker, burning and eating at exposed flesh.

The god rolled on the ground, cursing. Fuck. Acidic blood, he should have known. Some of the acid was caught between his vest and skin, so he tore off the leather vest, throwing it far away, stepping back and examining the damage. Several small burns, a few open sores, but no major injuries.

Ares briefly considered just conjuring a fireball and frying the damn worm where it stood, but he discarded the idea. He was actually enjoying the fight, and it had been quite some time since he had faced a worthy opponent, one that would fight instead of running away or begging for their life. At the very least, he'd make sure the king died well.


Cyprus

Iolaus closed his eyes, trying to draw strength from reserves deep within himself. Reserves that were rapidly dwindling. Looking at Aphrodite and Hephaestus, he could see his own resignation mirrored in the goddess' eyes, shock and horror in the god's.

"Kill me." Hercules repeated his request, voice still flat.

Iolaus shook his head. "Would you just lay off the dying thing? We're not gonna kill you, we're not gonna let you kill yourself, so would you please try to cope?" His voice rose in exasperation as he ran his hand through his untidy hair, noticing for the first time that it was filthy.

Hercules was staring, his eyes still empty. He didn't reply.

Iolaus was suddenly furious. He stared at his lover, willing all of his love and anger to show as he stood, pacing, trying to find the right words, trying to use the anger blazing within him.

Whirling, he found himself leaning over the bed, staring into the demigod's face, feeling Hercules' breath on his cheek. "You fucking selfish piece of shit." His voice sounded different, hoarse and guttural. He was surprised to feel his hands trembling and he clenched them repeatedly, trying to control the shaking, moving away from the bed and pacing again, stalking like a caged animal.

"You act like this is all about you, but you know what? It isn't! Look around you. You're not just drowning yourself here, you're pulling all of us down with you. Is that what you want?" He thought he saw a flicker of guilt in the blue eyes and pressed on, ignoring the shocked looks from Aphrodite and Hephaestus.

"Do you hate us all so much you'd do this to us? Do you?" He lunged toward the bed, nose to nose with his lover. "You told me how you felt the first time I died, remember that?" He could hear his own voice trembling with fury, and it was a relief to finally unleash the emotion. "What do you think you're doing to me here? To all of us? You're doing the same damn thing, but the difference is you're doing it on purpose! And you're making sure I can't help you, so I'll have to live with the guilt for the rest of my life. Is that what you want?" He was almost yelling, but it felt so good to let all of the anger out.

Hercules struggled to sit, leaning back on his elbows, an expression of incredulity on his face. "No, of course not..."

"Then why are you doing this?" Iolaus finally felt somewhat in control of the situation, and it felt good. From the corner of his eye, he saw Aphrodite surreptitiously giving him a thumbs-up gesture and he smiled.

"I'm trying to protect you, dammit!" Hercules' words sounded angry, but Iolaus could hear the confusion in his voice.

"Protect me. How the fuck will your dying protect me?"

The demigod opened his mouth a few times, glancing uneasily at Aphrodite and Hephaestus. The gods looked at each other and stood, wordlessly leaving the room, Aphrodite waving to Iolaus as she closed the door behind her.

Once they were alone, Hercules visibly relaxed, reaching for Iolaus' hand. The hunter pulled away, afraid of losing himself in his loverís pain. He had to stay angry if he wanted to help Hercules.

"So, talk."

Hercules clasped his hands, looking down at the bed. "I don't want to hurt you." The broken tone in his voice made Iolaus want to hold and comfort his lover, but he refused to give in to the impulse. He had to keep pushing, had to make Hercules understand, and if that meant denying him comfort, then so be it.

"You're hurting me now." Iolaus looked directly at Hercules, who avoided returning his gaze.

"I... I don't want to become the Sovereign." A shudder rippled through the demigod's body as he spoke the name. "I don't want to enjoy hurting people, hurting you."

Iolaus crossed his arms over his chest, still trying to catch the demigod's eyes. "Right, I forgot. Suddenly, after years of being a hero, you're going to chuck it all and become evil incarnate. Would you listen to yourself? Do you have any idea how fucking ridiculous that sounds?"

Hercules sat up straighter, anger flaring is his eyes. "You have no idea what you're talking about. You don't know what it's like, knowing there's this...monster inside you."

Rolling his eyes, Iolaus began to laugh. "Would you drop the melodrama? Herc, everyone has a dark side. You, me, Aphrodite. Look at Xena. Now there is someone with a dark side, and you know what? She fights it and she lives with it. How's that for a radical idea?"

The hunter noticed Hercules' hands were clenching, but he felt euphoric, triumphant. For the first time in weeks, he felt like he was starting to get through. When he spoke, Hercules' voice trembled with suppressed anger. "That's different."

"Different how?" Iolaus moved closer, sitting on the bed. "Different because we don't feel sorry for ourselves? Different cause we don't whine about it, we just live with it? Is that it? Is it different because we're not cowards?"

Hercules finally met his eyes, and Iolaus saw the glow of resentment. "That's not it." He visibly struggled for control. "None of you could become what that the Sovereign was."

"Xena could, and she knows it." Iolaus was implacable.

Hercules didn't answer, merely returned to regarding the pink coverlet with his intense gaze. When he finally spoke, his voice was muffled. "I liked it."

"Liked what?" Were they finally reaching the root of the problem?

"I liked what he made me. I liked hurting Ares." When he raised his head, Iolaus saw raw anguish in his lover's eyes. "I loved the power, Iolaus. I loved being able to dominate him, the feeling of control and freedom. I loved it. It felt right."

Iolaus shivered at the desolation in his lover's voice. Reaching out, he took the demigod's hand and squeezed it, but Hercules didn't seem to notice. "That's what's wrong. I want it. I want the power, the control, all of it. But I don't want to want it, and I can't stop myself. And someday, I might just reach out and take it, unless I can stop myself now, before it's too late."

Iolaus squeezed Hercules' hand tighter, unable to reply.


Part 22

Corinth

Roaring, Iphicles met another charge from the God of War with his claws and tail. Ares' blow glanced off scales, not penetrating, not drawing blood, as the serpentine tail slammed into his back, increasing his forward momentum and throwing him headfirst into the untidy stack of wood.

Iphicles bristled. He finally got something he wanted, and what happened? He had to deal with a homicidal maniac. It was just so fucking typical. He was sure this was Hercules' fault, somehow. People with normal siblings didn't have to put up with this kind of shit. He lashed his tail in anger, accidentally uprooting a tree.

Ares rose to his feet, shaking wood chips off his body, snarling, throwing himself forward. Iphicles inhaled, then blew a steady stream of fire at the god, forcing him to retreat back to the wood pile. Ares shifted his sword from his right hand to his left, then back again, always in motion. He rested on the balls of his feet, bouncing slightly, maintaining eye contact with his opponent, trying to anticipate the dragon's next move.

Iphicles snorted, sulphurous steam rising from his nostrils as he stared at the god. They had been fighting for hours, or so it seemed. Both had been injured, but not critically. He supposed he should be grateful the god didn't just fry his ass with one of his famous fire balls, but this was getting tiring. The outcome was inevitable. Ares was a god, and Iphicles was tired of being a plaything for the gods.

He growled, low in his belly, and the ground trembled. Ares continued to stare, a blatant challenge, hoping to provoke a reaction, hoping to unnerve him. It wasn't going to work; Iphicles had used the same tactic himself in his mercenary days. He returned the stare, his amber eyes unblinking, deliberately provoking the god.

Of course, Iphicles thought, it would be nice if Ares would have the decency to put his vest back on. He stared at the god, noticing yet again the sculpted torso, glistening with a sheen of sweat, the smoothly muscled arms, the aura of power. He smelled the rage, and the blazing joy of combat. It was quite distracting. He kept remembering the fire in the war god's eyes, the flush on his cheeks when he came in their brother's mouth... No. He shook his head, breaking eye contact. He would not think about that. Not now.

Grinning maniacally, Ares threw himself forward in yet another attack. He never seemed to give up. Iphicles gauged the angle of the attack and sidestepped, but Ares changed direction and struck again at the already-injured front leg. Rolling forward, he rose gracefully to his feet, a demonic smile of triumph on his face.

Fuck fuck and fuck. Iphicles backed up, watching the war god, as he tried to determine the extent of his latest injury. He flexed the wounded leg, wincing at the sharp, lancing pain. This wasn't good. Some dim instinct, whether human or dragon he didn't know, prompted him to lick the wound. He hoped acidic blood wouldn't hurt him.

Iphicles crouched, one eye on Ares, as he gently licked his wound, his forked tongue curling around the injured leg, one tip lightly probing the gash in his flesh. The taste was sharp, the sensation of tongue on scales intriguing. The pain lessened, but he continued to lick, alternating long, languid strokes with short, feather-light laps, lost in the unique experience, completely forgetting the world around him.

A new scent distracted him, and he looked up, looked at Ares. The god was watching, apparently mesmerized, the tip of his tongue caressing his full lips as his dark eyes, pupils dilated, followed Iphicles' tongue. The king smiled to himself. Apparently he was beginning to distract Ares. This might just work to his advantage.

Carefully hiding his smile, Iphicles returned his attention to his wounded leg, trying to appear ignorant of the effect he was having on his opponent. He languorously stroked the wound with his tongue, starting at the base of the gash and following it to the top. He repeated this several times, gradually increasing the speed of his strokes. Then, he probed the wound again, this time letting the tip of his forked tongue dip inside the ragged flesh, penetrating it, vibrating and stroking, still using a slow, deliberate rhythm, increasing the tempo over time.

He glanced at Ares, who was still watching, his breathing slightly ragged. Oh yeah. This had potential.


Cyprus

Aphrodite sat on a pink couch, knees pulled to her chin, crying, listening to the rain fall. The sound was soft and rhythmic, somehow soothing, and she sighed, wondering yet again if there would be a happy ending. Aphrodite liked happy endings. They made her feel all tingly inside. She wasn't sure anymore, wasn't sure of anything. She was beginning to feel as if the Fates were weaving a new tapestry, one that captured gods as well as mortals, and she was helpless to change the pattern. She felt the raw pain still radiating from Hercules, the anguish from Iolaus, the miasma of vulnerability and desolation that seemed to permeate her temple.

Closing her eyes, she rested her forehead on her knees, silently praying to the Fates to spare those she cared about, wondering if this was how mortals existed, knowing they were nothing more than pawns to larger, uncaring forces. She didn't like it. She didn't like feeling as if she was a piece of flotsam, bobbing in a storm, unable to change her course, unable to see her destination.

There was a flash of light, perceived even behind closed eyelids, and the scent of smoke, of sweat, the solid presence of Hephaestus, her anchor. His strong arms encircled her, holding her close, and she leaned against him, letting him take some of her pain. His fingers smoothed hair back from her forehead, stroking her cheek, and she raised her head and looked at him.

"Things any better?" He was whispering, concern etched plainly on his face, a dim hope shining in his eyes.

"I don't know." She whispered back, somehow afraid of breaking the silence, the cocoon it formed around them. "They're still in there, but..." She shook her head, a curl dropping into her left eye, and smiled a little as Hephaestus brushed it back. "I'm not getting very good vibrations from them."

He pulled her close, resting her head against his collarbone as he continued to stroke her hair, her face, her arms. She sighed, snuggling closer, pressing a kiss into the palm of his hand, ignoring the trace of soot left above her upper lip.

"What about Ares?" Aphrodite looked up again, seeing concern in her husband's eyes. She reached out with her senses, following trails of anger and pain, until she reached the God of War. She stopped, assessing the situation, before withdrawing and opening her eyes.

"I think maybe he's gonna be okay." She smiled, just a little, refusing to let herself hope that there might be a happy ending.

Hephaestus nodded. "Good." He ruffled her hair, smiling, tilting her face up for a kiss. "My little brother's a pain sometimes, but I don't want anything to happen to him."

Aphrodite smiled in reply. "He hates it when you call him that."

"I know." He gently rubbed the tips of their noses together, leaving a smudge on hers. They sat together in a companionable silence, lost in each others' eyes, gently touching and kissing, when they were interrupted by the sound of a throat clearing. Looking up, Aphrodite saw Iolaus standing in front of them, holding his hands together, looking at the ground, bouncing slightly.

Her eyebrows drawn together in concern, Aphrodite reluctantly uncurled herself from the safe harbor of Hephaestos' embrace, stretching elegantly as she looked at the hunter. Although he looked pale and tired, she though she saw something in his eyes, a spark that had been absent and sorely missed of late.

"So, how'd it go, Sweet Cheeks?" She smiled, teasing, the familiar nickname rolling off her tongue.

"We have an idea." She whirled, facing the voice behind her. She saw Hercules, leaning against a column, looking at the ground, his face half-hidden in the shadows. He looked up at her, meeting her eyes for only a fraction of a second before dropping them to the ground. But in that brief glance, in the new lines etched around his mouth and in his forehead, she saw determination, and a flash of his familiar strength.

"What is it?" She held her breath, hope fluttering within her as he slowly walked out of the shadows, head still down, standing beside Iolaus, taking his lover's hand and holding it like a lifeline.

Hercules looked up, meeting her eyes. "Make me forget. Make me forget all of it. If I forget it, I can... control it."

TBC