"Just once I'd like to battle a villain who insists on sunshine and fresh
I will not use any plan in which the final step is horribly
complicated, e.g. "Align the 12 Stones of Power on the sacred altar
then activate the medallion at the moment of total eclipse." Instead
it will be more along the lines of "Push the button."
There are moments in history which are pivotal, when alliances are made, critical paths are followed, empires crumble, and time itself seems to hold its breath.
This was not one of those moments.
The final rays of the setting sun glowed as red as the coals from the dying campfire, and the cooling air smelled of smoke, cooked rabbit and rosemary. Hercules and Iolaus sat on the ground in a small clearing, cross-legged near the fire, relaxing and finishing their meal. Grass rustled as small animals scurried away from the men, but there was no sign of any other humans.
"We made good time today," Iolaus said as he gnawed at a bone, cleaning the few remaining scraps of flesh before tossing it into the pile next to him.
"Uh huh," Hercules replied, sighing as he stared at the half-eaten haunch in his hands.
"You gonna eat that?" Iolaus leaned forward and took the meat from his friend without waiting for an answer. He leaned back against a rock to eat, tearing off large chunks and chewing loudly. "Good rabbit. Thanks for going light on the rosemary."
"You're welcome." Hercules picked up a stick as thick as his thumb and idly stirred the coals of the fire, causing sparks to dance in the falling darkness before they floated back to the ground, winking out. The only sounds were the crackling of the fire, Iolaus' chewing, and the distant call of a bird of prey. The men sat in silence as twilight deepened, the stars shining down upon them.
Iolaus finished his meal and tossed the bones aside with a belch of satisfaction, wiping at the juice on his chin with the back of his hand. "At this rate we should be in Corinth in a few days."
"Uh huh." Hercules continued to poke at the fire with his stick, his eyebrows drawn down, face set in a frown. Iolaus cleared his throat. "I guess you've thought about what you're gonna say to Iphicles?"
"Thought about it?" Hercules threw the stick into the fire, hard enough for it to embed itself in the side of a half-burned log. "I haven't thought about anything else. No matter what I say, he's gonna get pissed off at me and we'll get into a fight, just like always. Why can't we just get along like normal brothers?" He sighed loudly and began looking for another stick.
"Maybe you should just be direct."
"What, walk up to him, hug him, and say 'By the way, Iph, I hear you're sleeping with Ares. In fact, I hear you're obsessed with him and the two of you've gone at it practically in public.' Yeah, that'll go real well. He'll throw both of us out of the city so fast we won't even have time to unpack."
"Okay, good point. Maybe after dinner, when he's had some wine to help him mellow out...."
"Iphicles doesn't mellow out. He just gets broody."
"More than usual?""Much more than usual."
Iolaus tried to imagine Iphicles brooding more than usual but failed miserably. The man completely cornered the market on brooding. If it were an Olympic sport, Iphicles would be the undisputed champion. Heck, if Ares made him a god, he'd be a shoo-in for the position of God of Brooding. And that was on a good day.
Hercules sighed again and spread out his bedroll, lying down and staring up at the stars. "If I try to be subtle, he thinks I'm treating him like an idiot. If I'm direct he thinks I'm attacking him. No matter what I say or how I say it, he sees it in the worst possible light. Rena used to help keep him from going off, but now..."
Iolaus spread out his own bedroll, but continued to sit, head cocked to one side. "Somehow I doubt hanging with Ares has helped his disposition."
"That's what worries me. What if Ares is using him? I can't just try and warn him because then I'm being patronizing, and probably shoving him right into Ares' bed. But if I don't warn him and Ares hurts him, or uses him against me, I won't be able to forgive myself." He trailed off, looking at Iolaus. "What?"
"Did you hear that?" Iolaus had turned his head, squinting into the darkness, trying to find something.
"Hear what?" Hercules sat up. He opened his mouth, but shut it quickly when he saw Iolaus' upraised hand.
"There's something out there," Iolaus whispered, "I hear metal, people coming this way." He sighed. "Can't we have a nice dinner in peace and quiet just once?"
Hercules sighed too. "Guess not. We're just doomed."
"You ever feel like every warlord, thug and monster in Greece has some kind of magical map that shows them where we are?"
"Don't say that too loud. I don't want to give anyone ideas."
Iolaus scrambled to his feet, as did Hercules. "Do you smell that?"
Hercules' nose wrinkled as an odor of rot and corruption reached him, and he nodded. "I've got a bad feeling about this."
"What else is new?" Iolaus shrugged fatalistically.
Clanking and trampling sounds moved closer - the sound of a large number of armed men who didn't care about being quiet. Hercules stood, muscles tense, waiting for the attack, while Iolaus found his sword and swung it once or twice, working the kinks out of his muscles. They stood back to back and turned in slow circles, unsure which direction the attack would come from, as the clangor moved. They were being surrounded.
When it came, the attack was fast and vicious. Both men were unprepared when twenty corpses in various stages of decomposition erupted from the forest, caught off guard by the smell and the sight of their enemies. Firelight illuminated animated skeletons with strips of gristle holding them together fighting next to the newly dead, their flesh rotting and putrefying. Some wore the tattered remains of armor, others rags that had once been their funerary best. Their motions were jerky, marionette-like, but they moved with grim purpose. A while stone glowed in the hand of a richly dressed corpse, a sickly greenish spear of light pointing toward Hercules.
"Great", Iolaus muttered. "Slimy dead things. I hate slimy dead things." He shuddered melodramatically.
"At least they're not all slimy," Hercules replied, pointing at a skeleton.
"Thanks, I feel much better now." Iolaus smothered the urge to hit Hercules upside the head.
"Glad to help." Hercules grinned at his friend, enjoying irritating him.
One skeleton rushed them, and Iolaus caught it with a roundabout kick to the head that sent its skull spinning in circles while Hercules downed another attacker with a right cross to the throat. Three more moved in and Iolaus neatly decapitated one with his sword while Hercules' grabbed the heads of the other two and knocked them together, causing them to fall to the ground, stunned, their eyes spinning madly in their naked sockets. One newly dead corpse rushed toward Hercules while another charged Iolaus from the opposite direction. The men's eyes met and a wordless message was exchanged. Waiting until the last possible minute, Iolaus rolled away from his attacker as Hercules grabbed the arm of the corpse rushing toward him and threw it into its oncoming companion. Its arm tore at the shoulder, leaving Hercules staring in disgust at the appendage he still held, which he threw away with a grimace as he wiped his hand on his leather pants.
"See? That's why I hate slimy dead things!" Iolaus said while taking one down with a flying kick, then frantically scuffed his boot on the grass to try to get rid of the clinging corpse flesh. "What I wanna know is, why aren't there any nice, clean tidy monsters out there?" He examined the boot critically, absently dropping to the ground and pivoting on his arm, knocking the legs out from under two more attackers.
"Guess we just have bad luck," Hercules replied as he threw a skeleton over his shoulder. "It'd be a nice change of pace though."
"Tell me about it. This gets kinda old after a while." Iolaus ducked a corpse, sending it charging straight into Hercules' fist.
Of course, the problem with fighting dead things is that, being dead, it's hard to injure or kill them. They may be temporarily inconvenienced, but it's hard to get rid of them completely, barring the use of magic. The decapitated skeleton picked up its skull, placed it back on top of its neck and charged again, sword raised, jaw open in a silent battle cry. This time Iolaus cut off the lower arm that held the sword and kicked it into the underbrush where the skeleton was forced to hunt for it.
One of the stunned corpses rose and tried to attack Iolaus from behind, but he flipped the sword under his arm and neatly stabbed it in the stomach and grinned in triumph. Self-congratulations vanished when the corpse didn't fall, but instead continued to grab for his neck, the sword skewering it not seeming to make much difference. It had wrapped its hands around his neck and begun choking Iolaus when Hercules grabbed its head and wrenched it around, so the creature was facing backwards. Confused, it loosened its grip enough for Iolaus to twist away and retrieve his sword and face another corpse as it rushed toward him.
Another problem with fighting the dead is that they are tireless. Where living beings have a limited supply of energy, the animated dead have no such limits. They can't be killed, they can't be injured, and they don't wear out. They are the ultimate soldiers, tireless and obedient. As the night wore on, the tide of the fight turned against the living in favor of the dead. While Hercules and Iolaus fought well, kicking, punching and stabbing with enough skill to decimate a small army of the living, their enemies never stopped. Sometimes one or two would be temporarily incapacitated, but they would quickly regroup and join their comrades in pressing the attack. Both Hercules and Iolaus, slowed by injuries and exhaustion, made critical mistakes. The fight ended when the glowing white stone seemed to explode into incandescence, bathing the clearing in an unwholesome green light that drifted down, mist-like, making Hercules and Iolaus choke and fight for breath before they fell, unconscious.
The sun was high in the sky when Iolaus woke, moaning and shaking his head, gingerly poking at bruises and cuts, assessing the damage. His chest ached and he felt sharp pain when he tried to breathe too deeply. 'Great, more bruised ribs. Why do I always end up with bruised ribs?' he thought. Shallow cuts on his arms itched, and his clothes were uncomfortably stiff with dried blood. His jaw was bruised and the left eye swollen shut, throwing the world slightly off-balance, and the pounding in his head made him nauseous. When he stood, the world rushed in circles and went black around the edges, making him stumble to cling to the nearest tree for support.
When the world stopped spinning, Iolaus opened his eyes again and looked around. The ground was torn and scarred, the bedrolls were a complete write-off, and luckily the fire had gone out. There was no sign of the army of the dead that had attacked them. More important, Hercules was gone. 'Naturally. Dead guys, glowing green stones, Herc missing. Typical. He gets to have all the fun and I get stuck trying to find him.' Sighing, Iolaus picked up his sword and began packing what little he could salvage before following the trail left by the things that had kidnapped his friend. Sometimes he really wished he was an ordinary blacksmith or something.
A few days of slow travel, hampered by blinding headaches and the pain in his chest, left Iolaus just outside of Tegea. Oddly enough the trail had been so obvious that even a blind two-year-old could follow it. The dead warriors had left various body parts in their wake as they continued their patient decomposition. Luckily none of the fingers, teeth, noses, ears or other parts that Iolaus had found appeared to come from someone who was living. Or had been until very recently. It was what he had expected - if the bad guys kidnapped someone, they generally weren't likely to kill them. Herc was probably being thrown into a dank, dark dungeon where he'd have to listen to a maniac tell him his nefarious plans and then cackle at him. Then, of course, Herc would foil the plans and escape. It was getting monotonous. At least if they had both been kidnapped they would've been able to improvise.
The trail came to an end in front of a large black temple, and Iolaus looked up at it, anger warring with amazement. Even Ares couldn't be so bloody stupid, could he? Granted, the god could be careless and sloppy, but this was just plain idiotic. And the animated warriors were a little showy for Ares' taste. The war god, at least lately, seemed to enjoy materializing, going for a few rounds of hand to hand with Hercules, then shaking his fist and leaving in a flurry of curses and threats. It was almost brotherly. Iolaus shook his head, ignoring the pain that buzzed at the back of his skull, and walked into the temple. It felt like a trap, but there was still something wrong here. Something didn't add up. 'Then again, things don't always make sense when Ares is involved', he told himself, 'Mainly because Ares doesn't always bother to make sense.'
Inside, the temple was dark and quiet. A lone torch flickered near the altar, firelight hiding more than it revealed. It wasn't one of Ares' bigger temples, and there was no sign of a priest. Until Iolaus saw the foot protruding from under the altar. Crouching, he saw the man's throat had been cut, blood oozing over the rough brick floor, his mouth opened in a scream. The blood was still sticky. This felt less and less like Ares - while Iolaus couldn't say much of anything nice about him, Ares wasn't the type to kill his own priest in his own temple and leave the body. It would leave a bad impression, and Ares was nothing if not image conscious. This was tacky even by Ares' standards.
Time for the traditional summoning of the god. Iolaus winced as he thought of all the effort required for the ceremony. He was going to end up tired, each breath like a knife through his chest when he panted from the exertion. Why couldn't the gods have a simple bell you could ring for them or something? He shrugged, looking for the right place to start. Ah, there was a vase depicting Ares taking another man from behind. A man who wore a crown. That seemed to settle the question of whether Iphicles and Ares were really doing the wild thing. It'd be a good place to start though.
Iolaus picked up the vase and threw it toward the closest wall. It flew in a graceful arc, smashing with a satisfying explosion, pottery shards falling to the ground almost musically. Next came a bust of Ares, one that was a bad likeness - no beard. It was toppled and kicked until the nose was chipped off and thrown into a corner. He picked up a sword and began randomly swinging at pillars, stopping only when he saw a flash of light from the corner of his eye.
"I should've known it was you. What the fuck are you doing?" Ares growled, casually tossing a ball of fire from one hand to the other. He looked like he was in a good mood - for Ares, that is.
"Getting your attention." Iolaus looked at Ares, refusing to let the god stare him down."
Ah." The fireball disappeared. "Let me get this straight. You, a mortal, think you can just summon me, is that it? I don't think so. Later." Ares waved his hand and was outlined in blue light.
"What'd you do with Hercules?" Iolaus shouted, hoping to get Ares' attention.
It worked. The light disappeared and Ares looked at him, rolling his eyes and giving him a look that he seemed to reserve for those he considered a complete waste of oxygen. Like most of the humans and gods in Greece.
"You heard me." Iolaus walked closer, glaring. "I followed the trail and it led right to you. Really stupid of you. But you always hire the brainless help, don't you?"
"Someone snatched Jerkules?" A cocky grin slid across his face. "Let me know who it was so I can send a thank-you card."
"Don't play dumb, Ares." Iolaus paused a moment, tilting his head. "Then again, I guess it's not an act, is it?"
Ares' grin vanished for a split second, then reappeared. "Nothing's going to bring me down now. Whoever it is, they're probably gonna get rid of the pest for me, and I didn't even have to lift a finger to help them." He swaggered toward a throne that had just materialized, preparing to drape himself over it.
"Just like they got rid of your priest?" Iolaus jerked his thumb toward the corpse under the altar. This time Ares' grin stayed gone. His expression grim, he changed course and knelt down to look at the body. "And now they've framed you for Herc's kidnapping. Maybe you didn't do it, but do you really think anyone's gonna believe you, especially since the trail leads here? They'll get away with it and you'll take the blame. Do you really wanna be the fall guy here?"
"No one does this in my temple," Ares said, his voice quiet and low. Iolaus knew from experience that Ares was much more dangerous when he became cold and quiet than when he was loud and angry. When he was quiet, that meant he was planning and at his most deadly. "Tell me what happened."
Iolaus told the story of the fight with the dead, still not sure if Ares was behind this particular plot. He did appear clueless, but that wasn't unusual for Ares. Also, it was entirely possible that Discord or Deimos had taken it upon themselves to 'help'. By the time he finished Ares' mouth was set in a thin line, his eyes cold and shuttered.
Ares paced around the altar, every step echoing in the cavernous temple. Stopping for a moment, he picked up a small dagger from a basket of weapons and tested it against his thumb, grunting in approval when it drew a bead of blood. Sticking his thumb in his mouth, he sucked off the blood, eyes unfocused as he made the dagger disappear and resumed pacing. Iolaus watched, head cocked, as he tried to fit all of the pieces of the puzzle together. If Ares didn't have Hercules, who did? And who would be stupid enough to try and frame the God of War?
Stale, cool, motionless air. Darkness. Complete absence of sound. Solid, smooth rock under his body. An altar? Figured, if the gods were involved. And considering the animated corpses, it was a fairly sure bet that at least one of them was. Hercules sat up slowly, listening for any sounds, searching for clues as to where he was and who had taken him. And, of course, whether he had company. He sat, legs dangling over the edge of the slab of stone, swinging in space. There was no way to tell how far down to the ground. He swept one hand over the stone and felt a small rock, not much larger than a pebble. It'd have to do. He let it drop off the edge of the stone and listened for the sound of its landing.
Based on the noise, the ground wasn't far below him - maybe six feet. No problem. Hercules pushed himself off the stone slab, losing his balance as his heel caught something behind him on the way down, sending him sprawling onto his face. He stood and brushed himself off. Sand, not dirt. Reaching out, he felt stone behind him. Smooth, as if it had been cut and quarried, not natural stone like a cave. It felt like a raised dais with several steps up and an altar on top of that. Not the best situation to find oneself in.
He began walking slowly, hands outstretched, pacing off the confines of his cell, trying to gather more information. The floor was sand, the air still and stale. Somehow he knew he was underground. The room was small, twenty-three paces square. Walls were made of stone blocks, maybe sandstone, fitted together without any mortar so well that the cracks between the blocks were as small as a human hair. Some walls were plain, others covered with engravings, but his questing fingers couldn't feel any Greek letters. Maybe they were pictures, but some of the carvings were tiny, various shapes repeated, and they had the rhythm of written language. Egyptian? Or just a story told with pictures instead of words?
Most important though, was the indisputable fact that he was alone. Where was Iolaus? Had he been taken? Killed? Worry and anger knotted in his stomach, each vying for supremacy. Anger won. After all, Iolaus always found a way to survive, even when he managed to get himself killed. It was good, he reflected, that he could joke about that again, if only a little bit. But now, it was time to find a way out and make sure Iolaus was okay - and to make his kidnappers pay. Not to mention finding something to eat. He hadn't had much for dinner.
Iolaus watched Ares pace around his temple, hands clasped behind his back, head raised high like a dog trying to catch a scent. The god's eyes were unfocused, but they glowed blue. A low growl filled the room, vibrating in Iolaus' bones. He wasn't sure why he was hanging around here with Ares, who was one of his least-favorite beings in the world. But he had walked around outside and found no sign of a trail leaving the temple. It was a dead end (he shuddered at the pun), and much as he loathed the thought, Ares was his best hope right now. And that was a scary thought, all things considered. Luckily Ares seemed to take the death of his priest seriously, even if he didn't give a flying fuck about Hercules. And Iolaus knew from bitter experience that no one could hold a grudge like the God of War.
The growling stopped, and Iolaus looked up. He'd sat down on the massive throne, feet dangling, glad for the chance to rest. His chest still ached and his head was pounding. Ares glared at him, stalking toward the throne with a look in his eye like the neighborhood bully who just spotted the new nerd in town.
"Outta my throne, Shorty."
Iolaus made a show of stretching and standing slowly, and had barely vacated the seat when Ares shoved him aside and sat down. Ares leaned forward, resting one elbow on his knees and stroked his goatee as Iolaus pushed some offerings off the altar, sending them clattering to the floor in an untidy pile, and sat on it, hands gripping the edge. He ignored Ares' glare. After all these years he was pretty much immune to it. The glare was returned with a cool gaze, and Ares broke first, rolling his eyes and leaning back, looking at the ceiling. One side of his mouth may have twitched, or maybe it was just an illusion thrown by the flickering torchlight.
"So, someone's kidnapped Jerkules and set me up."
"Looks like it."
"And you think I should help get him back."
Iolaus shrugged. "Looks to me like you don't have a choice. If anything happens to Herc, everyone'll think it was you. The only way to prove you're innocent is to bring him back safe and sound."
Ares squirmed, and Iolaus allowed himself a grin. He loved having the obnoxious god over a barrel.
"I can't find a trail," Ares confessed, the words wrung out of him.
"I mean," Ares said, standing and pacing again, his hands clenched into fists, "I can't find any sign of who did this. It's like they cleaned up after themselves on every plane. They didn't trip any alarms when they came in here. They didn't leave any scents. Everything points to me. Fuck." He pounded one temple wall, sending a rat scurrying across the floor in panic.
"Great." So much for the supposedly omnipotent gods. Iolaus never really bought that whole all-powerful all-knowing routine, but they could usually find something more than most people. And he loved the idea of watching Ares as he was forced to help rescue Hercules. Not that Herc needed rescuing - he was probably fine. In fact, he was probably having a ball. But now he was back where he had started. All he knew was that whoever had taken Hercules was capable of framing Ares, which meant that either they weren't a big fan of the god, or he just happened to be convenient. That narrowed the list of suspects down to a few hundred thousand. Oh, and they were probably a god. Could the situation possibly get any more annoying?
His answer materialized in a shower of hearts and gold sparkles and heaving breasts and diaphanous pink that revealed more than it covered.
"Iolaus!" Aphrodite squealed, her voice high enough that dogs for miles around probably had to cover their ears. Before he could reply, Iolaus found himself enveloped in a hug, the scent of roses filling his nose, and his eyes were drawn magnetically to the most impressive cleavage in the world. He tried to ignore the edges of pink aureolae that peeked up at him, the erect nipples that pressed into his chest, but it's impossible to ignore the Goddess of Love.
"Ahem." Iolaus regretfully tore his gaze from Aphrodite's chest only to look up at Ares, which was definitely not an improvement as far as he was concerned. The war god was glowering, but that was pretty normal. Of course, he and Aphrodite had had a thing going at one time, and maybe feeling up his ex in front of him wasn't the brightest idea in the world. Iolaus stepped back, trying to calm his body's reactions to Aphrodite, as Ares appraised the bulge in his pants with a barely concealed sneer before turning to his sister, one eyebrow raised.
"What's up, Sis? Tired of Heph? Need a real man?" He sat back on his throne, cleaning his fingernails with a dagger plucked from the air.
Aphrodite placed both hands on her hips and leaned forward, and while he tried to hide it, Ares' eyes were drawn to her jiggling bosom. "Don't you wish. I'm here on business, and under duress too. So there."
"I thought that *was* your business." One eyebrow arched up, matched by a slight quirk of the lips, quickly hidden.
Aphrodite sighed, rolling her eyes eloquently. "Daddy wants everyone in the meeting room, like, now. He sent me to get you. Something's up."
"And he couldn't be bothered to tell me himself?" Iolaus thought he saw something speed across Ares' face, but it was too fast to identify. Aphrodite just shrugged in reply, and Ares stood, obviously in no hurry. "Tell him I'm busy."
"Forget it. Tell him yourself."
"Fine. I will."
A bright flash of light, gut wrenching nausea, and Iolaus knew he was being dragged someplace else. Hanging out with gods really sucked rotten eggs.
Where there are stones, there are cracks. And where there are cracks, stones can been moved. At least, that was what Hercules had learned from experience. This time proved to be no different. His questing fingers hadn't found a doorway, but they had found a stone that felt looser than the others. Patience had paid off, and while his fingers were sticky with blood and scraped almost to the bone, he had moved the stone and now squirmed through the narrow passage into the next room. Hopefully this room would have a door, because moving stones could get boring pretty quickly.
No lights in the next room. Typical. But something rustled in the darkness.
"Iolaus?" He whispered, just in case. But there was no reply. No sound of breathing. Still, the skin between his shoulder blades itched, insisting he was being watched. The floor was still sand; the air was still stale. Wherever he was, it had been sealed for a long time. He began feeling along the walls again, mapping out the new room, searching for the door, when six torches flared to life, blinding him.
Blinking, Hercules looked around. The room was empty, except for himself and a mummy that sat in a corner. Its wrappings were black with age, and it wore the remains of a tattered robe, a gold and lapis circlet around its neck. Hopefully this guy wasn't the last guest at this particular dungeon, or whatever it was. But someone had to have put him there, so there had to be a way in and out, and he was determined to find it.
The room itself was small and actually bright, in a twisted sort of way. Pristine white plaster covered the stone blocks in the walls, acting as a canvas for a talented, if obsessed painter. Whoever the artist was, he had enjoyed working with reds that glowed like poppies, grass greens, sunlight yellows and ocean blues. The problem was that he had chosen to illustrate people being tortured, pulled apart, dying in creative and gory ways. Cheerful red paint dominated.
Hercules shook his head. This was just too stereotypical. Dungeon. Corpse. Illustrations of what happened to his captor's enemies. Just once he'd like to be kidnapped by someone who would lock him in a nice, sun-filled airy room. Was there some sort of manual out there, a union rule requiring villains to keep prisoners in dungeons like this? Were they all decorated by the same interior designer?
"I see you made it this far. My congratulations." The dry voice rasped like the wings of insects.
Great. Next came the part when the villain spent forever telling him his plans, probably followed by threats and a maniacal laugh. Just once he'd like something a little different.
Frankly, Hercules was bored, and more than a little pissed off.
Iolaus was ready to throw up. Of course, if he was going to throw up, he was at least going to make the most of it. Specifically, he wanted to make sure he barfed on Ares. This, however, wasn't going to work out since Ares, who probably figured out the plan, had made a beeline for a large throne, and there was no way Iolaus could projectile vomit that far. So he regretfully kissed his once in a lifetime chance goodbye, took several steadying breaths and looked around.
Ares slouched on a throne made of bone, both legs thrown over the armrest, staring at the ceiling with an expression that stated in no uncertain terms that he was bored silly and much too important to be here, thank you very much. The other thrones, arranged in a circle, were empty. The rest of the gods mingled, throwing occasional glances at Ares, who returned them with glares that would send most sensible creatures scurrying for cover with a squeak of terror. Some pointed at Iolaus and whispered, but none approached him. Iolaus shrugged and looked around for food. 'Damn. The gods never have food at these shindigs.'
Ares sighed theatrically, letting his head fall back, and began idly kicking the air. A cocky grin appeared when he noticed Athena's disapproving glare, and he resumed his twitching and slouching with renewed vigor and enthusiasm. Iolaus recognized some of the gods - Apollo, Athena, Artemis, Hephaestus, Aphrodite, Hades (who nodded politely and looked like he was considering stopping by to chat until Ares glared at him) and Poseidon. Others he didn't know, although the half-naked guy carrying the silver tray of ambrosia was probably Ganymede. With the exception of Ares and Hades, the rest of the gods stood in a brightly-colored knot, mingling just like courtiers at an afternoon party, gossiping and backstabbing, whispering and flirting.
If most mortals could see this, they'd demand their offerings back with interest.
The knot untied, each deity settling into their own throne, when Zeus walked into the room. Iolaus was always impressed with how unimpressive the King of the Gods was. Zeus had changed his physical appearance three or four times in the years that they had known each other, but he always managed to look like an ordinary old man with a perpetually befuddled look in his eye. It was a marked contrast to the youth and beauty that the other gods seemed to revel in, and probably chosen for just that reason.
Ares yawned, avoiding looking at his father, whose gaze slid past him and landed on Iolaus. Nodding his head slightly to Iolaus, Zeus directed a cold look at Ares, who pretended not to notice and buffed his nails on his vest. Zeus' expression set itself into a cold mask as he proceeded to the middle of the room. It was only then that Iolaus noticed the figure behind Zeus. So, apparently, did Ares, since he sat up a little bit straighter.
The woman was tall and willowy, her high cheekbones and slight build hinting at fragility, but her firm muscles suggested more strength than first met the eye. She wore her hair in small beaded braids that trailed down her back, golden threads and bells woven into the simple yet elegant style. Her skin glowed golden, accentuated by her simple white linen skirt and the heavy gold and carmine circlet around her neck. And the gold paint rubbed onto her nipples. 'Yep, that's certainly very...gold', Iolaus thought as he swallowed. Whoever she was, she oozed class.
Until he looked up and saw the crown she wore, which completely blew the image she projected. Two large moon-white cow horns curled up from her head, each pointing the opposite direction. A golden disc was balanced between them, seemingly held in place by magic, but it bobbed as she walked, sending flares of light bouncing around the chamber. It was quite distracting. Iolaus wasn't sure if it was extremely cool or extremely stupid. Upon hearing a muffled snerk from beside him, he looked over to see Ares, his face red from the effort of suppressing a guffaw. Okay, so for once he agreed with Ares. It was stupid. He went back to contemplating her nipples.
The room darkened, the only light remaining focused on Zeus and his guest. It was a little theatrical, but Iolaus had figured out a long time ago that most of the gods were natural showmen. He settled back to enjoy the show.
Whispers trailed off as most of the gods sat up and looked at Zeus. The notable exceptions were Ares, who was blatantly regarding the ceiling, and Aphrodite, who had snuggled into Hephaestus' lap and was nibbling his earlobe. Zeus cleared his throat, looking expectantly at Aphrodite, but while Hephaestus poked her in the ribs, all she did was squeal and start nibbling his neck.
His mouth set into a frown, Zeus cleared his throat again, then began speaking.
"This is Isis, who has come here with some important news."
'Well, that was anticlimactic,' Iolaus thought. 'No wonder nobody ever pays much attention to him. I've seen sea monsters with more charisma'.
Isis stepped forward, the disc in her crown bobbing madly. "I came here to tell you that one of your own has been kidnapped by one of our...troublemakers."
A soft mutter traveled around the room as eyes looked to see who was missing.
"I'm afraid that your demigod, Hercules, was taken."
Some gods looked shocked, others relieved.
"I didn't do it!" Ares said smugly, pumping one fist in the air in victory, then relaxing into his throne, obviously happy to be off the hook.
"Yes, well, we know who it was, why he did it, and where he's taken your brother." Isis' voice was soft and apologetic.
"Damn," Ares muttered under his breath. "I guess that means we get him back."
Isis continued. "Once, several millennia ago, a pharaoh named Nephren-Ka made an unholy alliance with the dark gods of another world. They offered him eternal life in exchange for his help in conquering our world. While they failed and were exiled to a barren, demonic plane, he has remained and periodically tries to help free them again. He now has the Talisman of Thoth, the Stones of Set, and the Altar of Osiris. He needs only the blood of a demigod, which must be spilled on the altar tomorrow at midnight, as the moon is eclipsed, when the stones are aligned. That will let his gods enter our world." Her voice rose to a dramatic crescendo.
Ares pulled a dagger from the air and began cleaning his nails again. Iolaus yawned.
The mummy was talking. 'How silly of me,' Hercules thought. 'Of course the mummy's talking. The day wouldn't be complete without a talking mummy. Now he'll introduce himself, tell me his plans, threaten to kill me, and do the maniacal laugh thing. This is so boring. I wish Iolaus was here. At least then we could improvise.'
"I," the mummy said, in its dry, rasping voice, "am Nephren-Ka. I once ruled all of Egypt."
"Uh huh." Hercules tried not to tap his foot in annoyance. 'Next up, descriptive text, embellished with long rants. I'll lay five dinars on it.'
"Thousands of years ago I conquered this country, my armies spreading like locusts and devouring all who opposed me. The people brought me tribute of gold, silver and jewels. I bathed in the blood of slaves."
Hercules nodded. Why didn't the villains ever say something like 'I came from a nice middle class family, grew up on a farm, saved the life of the king and he made me his heir'?
The mummy stood and continued. Naturally. Once they got on a roll they were hard to stop. "When I grew old, I learned of ancient gods who had been exiled from our world. Gods that others called demons. Gods that agreed to grant me eternal life in exchange for my help in opening this world to them."
"Uh huh." So far this was completely by the book. Hercules figured that at this rate he'd be able to meet up with Iolaus in a matter of hours.
"I was foiled before, but now I have all of the necessary ingredients, thanks to you."
Nephren-Ka walked jerkily toward a section of wall that slid upwards with a loud rumble, and motioned Hercules to follow him. Hercules shrugged and ambled along behind him. Pretty soon they'd have the revelation of the nefarious plan, followed by the evil laughter. Boring. Even Ares was more entertaining these days.
"Um, before we get too far here, what'd you do with my friend?" Hercules took a chance and interrupted before Nephren-Ka could get too far into the cackling to make any sense.
The blackened mummy looked annoyed. "He was left where he fell. He was of no consequence."
'Iolaus'll be really annoyed when I pass that bit on,' Hercules thought, relieved to know that his friend was fine. 'He's probably pissed he's missing all this.'
"My vizier transported you back here to Egypt, while the rest of my minions laid a false trail to the temple of your God of War, who will be blamed for your death," Nephren-Ka continued, his dry voice taking on the edge of hysteria that always signaled the beginning of a dramatic monologue.
'Great. Now Ares is involved. That's completely original.' Hercules thought dryly.
They walked down narrow, low-ceilinged hallways until they reached another room, one that was at once spacious and oppressively close. Torches set into the walls provided light, but the room still felt dark, as if the blackness itself were a living thing, crawling along the corners, filling the space. A large, elaborately engraved altar of jet or basalt stood in the center, radiating darkness. Eight jewels glittered from the edges, set in holes next to a deep groove that looked suspiciously like it was designed to channel blood.
'Typical,' Hercules thought. 'What's wrong with a simple white altar, a clean room and lots of sunshine and fresh air? Maybe some plants, some upholstered chairs, that sort of thing. Don't these guys have any creativity at all?'
Nephren-Ka removed the circlet from his neck, fingering the amulet that dangled awkwardly from it. "This is the Talisman of Thoth, which I obtained from a traveler in a caravan who had no idea of its value. Tomorrow night there will be an eclipse, and at the moment of the eclipse I shall kill you, and your blood will spray over the eight Stones of Set and flow in the ancient pattern carved into the Altar of Osiris. Then, the door between the worlds will open, and the demons shall return!" He started cackling maniacally.
The gods looked at Isis, silent until Ares cleared his throat. "Just to make sure I've got this straight," he said, addressing Isis, "A generic evil sorcerer has kidnapped Jerkules and is going to sacrifice him to some ancient demons, and he's on a time table. Is that about it?"
Isis nodded soberly, her sun disc bobbing alarmingly, and Iolaus began to wonder how it stayed in place. 'Must be a god thing,' he figured. 'They can shoot fireballs, disappear and reappear, and keep funny-looking hats on their head. Now there's a completely useless power.'
"Any chance he'll be tortured?" Apollo asked laconically.
Isis looked perturbed. "I don't know what Nephren-Ka is capable of. When he was alive he was vicious and cruel, an indiscriminate killer. Nothing is too depraved for him."
Apollo cheered up. "So you're saying Herc could be getting beaten and raped right now?"
"It's possible," Isis began.
"By Nephren-Ka and all of his henchmen?" Ares broke in, grinning.
"Well, I suppose..." Isis looked from one brother to another, confused.
"Tortured and beaten and raped, maybe even crippled?" Apollo continued, obviously excited.
"Maybe they'll remove a limb or two, then rape him with it," Ares suggested.
"Enough!" Zeus stepped forward before Apollo could return Ares' volley. "We need to rescue Hercules."
"Of course," Ares muttered under his breath, rolling his eyes. "Not that he needs rescuing."
Iolaus had to agree. Right now Herc was probably foiling Nephren-Ka's plan and having a blast, while he was stuck here with the boring side of the family.
"Ares, you'll represent us. Go rescue your brother."
"What?" Ares screeched, his boots landing on the floor as he leaned forward, his expression incredulous.
"Athena, go with them to make sure Ares doesn't screw anything up."
Ares' mouth opened and closed several times as he glared daggers at his father, but no sound emerged. Athena looked superior, and Apollo nearly fell out of his golden throne, his face red from suppressed laughter.
Iolaus tried not to laugh - maybe Herc was off fighting the bad guys, but this was gonna be priceless.
Nephren-Ka's cackle bounced off the walls, the echo slapping Hercules in the face then traveling merrily down the hall. It stopped abruptly as Hercules punched the ancient sorcerer, disconnecting his jaw and sending it flying into the far wall, where it broke into two pieces and fell to the floor.
"Sorry, but I really hate the maniacal laughter thing." Hercules grabbed the talisman from the shocked Nephren-Ka and threw it around his neck. The damn thing was as heavy as it was ostentatious. "I'll just be going now. I have to meet my friend and have a little talk with my brother." He casually walked out of the room, wondering which way to go now.
'Too bad they don't put signs up in these places. Maybe some well-lit exits, a handy torch or two, arrows showing you where to go...'
His ruminations were interrupted when five mummies attacked him. 'Damn. I forgot about the henchmen. Oh well. At least they're not slimy.'
He kicked the first one, thrown off balance when his boot went completely through its midsection instead of sending it sprawling backwards. 'Oops. Gotta watch that,' he reminded himself as he staggered for a moment, trying to get his foot unstuck. It came loose, leaving a large hole in the middle of the mummy, which looked down, then stuck its hands through its missing abdomen before wandering off with a troubled look on its face.
The other four charged and Hercules ducked, sending them crashing into each other. They went down in a cloud of dust. Mummies obviously weren't the brightest or toughest minions of evil available. He stepped over the stunned mass of the undead, sneezing as he inhaled the old dust, and continued down the hallway.
Reaching a t-intersection, he paused. The corridor to the right was empty. Yet another mummy charged from the left. One side of its face had been crushed and it appeared to be having some trouble seeing him, as it was flailing its arms madly, groping for something it couldn't quite focus on. 'This is just too easy,' Hercules thought. Stepping back, he grabbed the trailing end of the mummy's bandage as it rushed past him, then grabbed its arm and pulled it toward him. The mummy stumbled in his direction, still flailing blindly.
'Dammit, I really need something witty to say here,' he thought in frustration. 'I know Iolaus'd have a great one-liner. Wonder what's taking him so long?' Shrugging and abandoning his planned quip, Hercules pulled on the bandage, sending the mummy spinning down the hallway, unraveling until nothing was left but a few bones, a lot of dust, and one long dirty bandage. 'I know I'll think of something great to say tomorrow,' he thought as he turned left. 'I always think of great one-liners too late.'
Night in the desert is cold, as Iolaus quickly discovered. One minute he was listening to Ares screaming at Zeus, the next he was in the middle of the desert, shivering and doing his best to barf on Ares' big black boots. Except this time he didn't feel nearly so queasy, which was a relief, although it effectively squished the puking plan.
Wrapping his arms around himself, Iolaus tried to control his breathing, tried to warm himself. It'd work better if he could concentrate, which really wasn't much of an option right now. Ares was still trading death stares with Athena, and Isis' sun disc was bouncing up and down as she strode across the sand. So were her golden nipples. He wasn't sure which was more distracting.
"Where the fuck are we going?" Ares' voice boomed across the dunes, part petulant child and part exasperated bully.
"To Irem, the City of a Thousand Pillars," Isis replied, her voice calm and modulated."
Oh. And do we have a plan? Or are we just gonna charge in and say 'Hi there, hand over the demigod?' And why the fuck are we walking?" Ares' voice dripped sarcasm as he ignored the constant smug looks from Athena.
"Nephren-Ka will sense our presence, so if we materialize in the middle of the city he'll know we're there."
"And he won't if we just walk on in? What?" Ares called out as Isis glared at him and walked next to Athena.
"Fine," Ares muttered, hanging back to walk next to Iolaus. "First I get stuck on this stupid rescue mission, now they won't admit the plan's stupid."
While he'd rather be branded with hot irons than admit it, the fact of the matter was that Iolaus agreed with Ares. This was bad - he'd agreed with Ares at least twice so far in one day. But Hercules was probably sitting in Irem waiting for him. Maybe they could do some sightseeing, check out the pillars. 'I wonder if there really are a thousand of them?' he wondered. 'And what's the point of building a thousand pillars anyway? Were they just bored?' He continued to ponder as they trudged onward.
The four traveled in silence for a while, until Athena slowed down, allowing Iolaus and Ares to draw closer to her.
"Ares, if you screw this up, Father will make sure you get shut up in that brass jar for a few more millennia."
Ares glared, and the venom made even Iolaus pause. 'Whoa. He doesn't even glare at Herc like that.'
"I won't screw it up. Zeus is the one screwing up here - Jerkules is fine."
Athena looked both dubious and superior. "He will be, once we get there."
"It's important to make a good impression on the Egyptians. They're older and more powerful than we are."
"And they have such cutting-edge fashion sense." Ares nodded toward Isis' crown. "Maybe you should get one, Sis. In fact, maybe you should do the topless painted-nipple thing. I think it could be you." He leered at his sister, who huffed and turned red, then strode ahead.
Ares shrugged. "Huh. Women."
Great. He was lost. 'Why don't they ever have maps with little arrows showing where you are? How do the minions find their way around when they're new?' Hercules continued to roam, hoping for a clue that would point to the way out, turning randomly, meandering down deserted passageways. 'This,' he thought, 'is incredibly boring. But it beats asking Iphicles if he's sleeping with Ares.' With that thought to cheer him, he kept walking.
After wandering aimlessly for a while (thankfully not in circles) he thought he smelled fresh air. Licking one finger, he held it up and felt a slight breeze coming from his right. Things were looking up.
Having taken the right branch in the closest corridor, Hercules heard whispering ahead, the sound of scuffling and muttering. Pressing himself to the wall, he peered out carefully. Okay, there was one mummy just ahead. Past it were four or five more, it was hard to tell in the darkness. And past them, he could see stars. So, all he had to do was take care of the five or six goons and he was home free. Hopefully Iolaus hadn't been waiting long.
Hercules crept up on the first mummy, which stood with its back to him. Kneeling, he teased a length of bandage from each of its feet and quickly tied the two ends in a knot. Backing away slowly, he pretended he had just turned the corner in the intersection.
"Hey! Dead guys!" he shouted, jumping and waving. 'Man, that was so lame. I really need to start writing this stuff down as it comes to me. I know I'll come up with a great one-liner in the middle of the night,' Hercules thought. The first mummy whirled around and tried to charge him, but tripped over its own feet. Two others tripped over it, falling to the floor in a tangled mess.
Three more continued to charge down the corridor, one wielding a bronze kopesh, the other two holding spears. One well-placed kick reduced the wooden spears to splinters, the bronze tips clattering to the floor. The two mummies stopped, looked at each other, then backed off, trying to look inconspicuous. The third waved its kopesh menacingly. Hercules sighed and waited for an opening. It didn't take long since the mummy moved slowly. Hercules kicked the kopesh out of its hand, sending it spinning through the air, and then caught it as it began to fall, decapitating the mummy in one smooth motion. It reached frantically for its head, catching it on the tips of its fingers and juggling it wildly from one hand to the other, stumbling down the hallway as Hercules pushed past it and walked outside.
Hopefully Iolaus wasn't too bored.
Iolaus was bored. They'd been trudging through sand for hours, and the stuff was in his boots, in his hair, in his eyes and in his mouth. It didn't help that Ares kept muttering, Athena kept throwing superior looks at her brother, and Isis' nipples remained perkily erect.
"Are we there yet?" Ares asked yet again. Iolaus suspected he did it to annoy Athena, because every time he asked she glared at him, which made Ares grin and scuff at the sand. It was like travelling with two little kids.
"We should be there soon," Isis said. It was her stock answer, but her voice had become more clipped every time she said it.
The sun began to peek above the horizon, turning the sand pink and red, and they continued walking. The sun rose, blazing down upon them, and even Ares squinted against the white glare from the sand as they walked silently, led by Isis. 'I bet Herc's having more fun than this, nipples or not,' Iolaus thought.
They crested a hill, and there was nothing ahead but an ocean of sand. Athena and Isis started down the hill as Ares and Iolaus stayed at the top. 'Okay, this is it. I've had it,' Iolaus thought, but his mental tirade was interrupted by Ares.
"This is it. I've had it. I'm going in now, fuck the stupid plan."
Athena and Isis continued walking, too far away to hear the comment.
"I'm going with you," Iolaus said, hoping Hercules had left one or two goons for him to help clean up. "I never want to see sand again."
Ares nodded, and Iolaus felt the wrenching in his gut. As they disappeared, he saw Isis and Athena turn toward them, mouths open in protest, and heard the rumble of Ares' laughter. Then the world went dizzy and black.
When they materialized Iolaus was disappointed to find that he hardly felt sick at all. Looking around, he saw more sand, and pillar after pillar after pillar. 'Not exactly a major tourist attraction,' he thought. The pillars were painted in bright colors, but they were scattered randomly, like the toys of some ancient giant.
"Let's find Jerkules and get outta here," Ares grumbled, and Iolaus had to agree yet again (this was getting to be spooky) that it was a good idea. "This is so embarrassing."
"Iolaus!" Iolaus turned to see a figure waving and jogging easily toward them.
"Damn," Ares muttered, watching the oncoming figure, "Looks like he's got both arms, both legs, all his fingers... oh well." He sighed wistfully as Hercules joined them, clasping Iolaus' hand in his own.
"What took you so long?" He looked up at Ares. "And why'd you bring him?"
"Zeus sent me to help rescue you," Ares growled, staring the one of the pillars.
"Oh." Hercules stared. "I'm fine."
"I knew that, you idiot!" Ares yelled, lips pulling back in a snarl.
"So," Iolaus said, hoping to distract the brothers. "You meet this Nellie-Ka guy?"
"Nephren-Ka. Yeah. It was fairly typical."
"Locked you in a dungeon?"
"Told you his plans to rule the world?"
"Did he cackle maniacally?"
"Damn. I can't believe I missed it." Iolaus sulked.
"Sorry. Maybe next time. By the way, do you know how many pillars there are here?"
"One thousand." Iolaus refused to be cheered up.
"Yeah. I counted them all. Why would anyone build a thousand pillars?"
"Maybe," Ares interrupted, "Because they were stuck out here in the middle of fucking nowhere! Can we go now, or do you two wanna keep bonding here?"
Hercules looked at Iolaus and shrugged. Ares could be so touchy sometimes.
"Actually, I do have something I'd like to discuss with you," Hercules said.
"Are you sleeping with Iphicles?"
A nasty grin crept across Ares' face. "Yeah, what about it? Wanna watch? Maybe join in?" He opened his mouth to say more, but Hercules punched him in the jaw before he had a chance. Ares retaliated with a sharp jab to the stomach that sent the demigod stumbling back. Then Hercules caught Ares in a tackle that sent them both sprawling, punching and kicking, sand flying.
Iolaus sat on a pillar and settled back to watch the show. "You know, Herc, I was thinking," he said, more to himself than anyone else, "You ever feel like we're in a rut? It's like, there's never any surprise or excitement anymore." He ducked as the brothers rolled past him, a flurry of fists and grunts. "Everything's just so...boring. Been there, done that. Maybe a change of scenery would help. Of course," he paused, "The last time we had a change of scenery I got killed, so maybe it's not such a great idea. But still, something a little unusual might be nice."
Ares and Hercules continued to pummel each other, and Iolaus continued to watch, and the newly-arrived Athena and Isis just stared, open-mouthed, at the scene before them.
That was so like the gods - to get there when all the dangerous stuff was over.