The Wolf and the Man 1-10
By Shamenka

Part 1

Plodding through the dank undergrowth, following the scent of blood to see what lay at the end of the trail the wolf made an alarming discovery. As he neared the source of the intoxicating smell he realised that it was not ordinary blood he could taste on the wind, but Olympian blood. Olympian blood could mean only one thing, an injured God around somewhere. The only vulnerable ... don't go there, don't think, just run.

The wolf powered away in the direction of the oh so familiar scent and skidded to a stop, relief flooding his lupine mind. Don't think it, don't think it, don't .... The wolf sat and looked at the crumpled heap that was lying on the forest floor, bleeding it's life away. It also looked at his paws and the body and his paws again. Cautiously, inching his way towards the fallen Olympian he reached out with his nose and touched it to the heap's neck and resisted the urge to count the beats as he felt them.

The fine hairs on the side of that neck tickled his extra powerful nose and made him sneeze. Wolf snot at close quarters was, if anything, worse than a dog's. The wolf would normally be more inclined to eat you. When alive a human is a danger to a wolf, when dead, carrion is carrion.

Walking around the heap, he nuzzled into the belly, seeing the blood oozing out, slowly, steadily he head butted the uppermost shoulder and the heap rolled over onto his back. It was a male heap. They smelled quite different from female heaps. That was a wolfish ...don't think that, don't think that .... he sat back on his haunches and howled. Then he listened. He heard nothing. In this forest then he was truly a lone wolf. The wolf padded around the heap once more and looked into a bush, then another, and another. He had walked all round his prey and seen no other carrion eater around.

He had seen nothing that a forest floor shouldn't have. No ... no, don't go there, don't think that.

Once back at the heap's side he sniffed at the injury,  a sw .... don't think that, don't think... he pulled the shirt open with his teeth. The taste of Olympian blood a torment of desire and need. Don't, just don't do that.....

The wound exposed he snuffled amongst the bushes again and brought back spiders webs hanging from his muzzle. He rubbed them off onto the ripped belly of the heap and wandered off to scrape at some trees. This time he brought back some moss and dropped it from his mouth onto the spiders webs and wandered off again. Mores spiders web, and one chewed spider were dropped into the moss. Spiders were good cub games, while he waited by the heap's side he found a few more spiders and made their last moments of life truly horrible. It killed the time, as well as the spiders.

Hours passed and the heap had long since stopped bleeding, but was still asleep. Asleep and cold, the wolf strolled over to the heap that it had now designated as Heap, first pack member, and lay down beside him. Rubbing his hair into Heap to keep him warm. Resting his long black snout on his front legs, the wolf, who now saw himself as pack leader, went to sleep.

At some point in the night Heap had rolled over and snuggled closer to the warmth at his side. Not that his pack leader minded, it was a good sign that his new pack member was recovering, at least a little.

Dawn was interesting however. Heap woke with a start when he realised there was something warm and hairy snuggled in close to him. When he realised it was a big, almost black wolf he rolled away, waking the beast.

The wolf looked at Heap, Heap looked at the wolf, then at his belly and the spiders webs and moss.

"I bet you have a master around here somewhere, easy boy!" Heap's voice was light, gentle, non threatening. Then Heap saw the spider. "It's been chewed!" He whispered to himself. Heap looked at the wolf and hesitated to put forward his new theory. "Did you do this?"

The wolf sat there, his mind deliberately blank of every thought bar the smells around them. He sat there and looked at Heap. Then he followed his nose to the base of a near by tree and dug up the interesting smell he sensed there. Holding the morsel in his teeth he returned to Heap's side and gave him his booty.

"A truffle!" Heap named his breakfast, rubbed off dirt and wolf spit and ate. Not realising how hungry he really was until the odd shaped mushroom was placed in his hands. "Thanks! You got a name?" Heap then went very red in the face. "How would you tell me, huh?" The he bared his upper teeth at the wolf. "Thanks." He added and ate the rest of his breakfast.

After eating Heap checked his injury and tightly bound his belly with his own shirt. He stood, slowly, wolf offered a shoulder but could only help a little, part way. Yet Heap got onto his legs and the wolf looked up the legs to the body and face that now loomed high above him. He put his head over to one side and run off again. Heap just stood and watched him run for a moment then remembering what he had to do Heap sent marked their area.

Wolf brought back a rabbit. Only slightly chewed, and dropped it at Heap's feet. Heap searched his body and found his moveable claw and opened the rabbit's belly, giving the soft, nutritious insides to the wolf. Heap then halved the rabbit and gave half back to the wolf, and started a fire and cook the other half for himself. Once fed he put his flames out, carefully and reached for the wolf's head.

Slowly, he touched his ears, scratched those bits that his paws didn't truly reach and spoke so softly to him again.

"Time I moved from here, the uglies that did this to me might come back once they find out who it is that they've left for dead.. who wouldn't want to boast they'd killed...YEAUCH!" Heap spit a few times to remove the taste of wolf spit from his tongue.

Wolf looked at him, don't say that, don't think that, don't stay here... follow me!

The wolf walked around Heap several times and then headed a few paces in one particular direction. Then he walked back to Heap and repeated the movement, eventually Heap caught on and moved with him. Together they headed towards
where the sun went at night.

They had to rest very often, Heap was only walking because he had to, the wolf, his pack leader, only permitted this because he had to move. At each rest Heap would sit down somewhere, a rock, a log and the wolf would go, hunt down something and bring it back. Heap tied so many creatures legs together that he begged the wolf.

"No more! I can't carry anymore, this is a fine feast you have found. So papa wolf, I'm your sickly cub am I!"

Wolf pulled back his lips and showed his teeth and panted. At last Heap was learning his place. Once more he headed out and Heap dully followed.

They walked for the rest of the afternoon, with more and more frequent rests until they arrived in a little clearing. A clearing with a human house in the shade of the trees. Heap was almost collapsed again, and he sat down once more unable to take another step. Heap passed out and the wolf ran to the human den and scratched at the door.

A tall, dark haired human opened the door and saw the wolf there. He screamed and made to shut the door on the beast when the beast in question stood half in and half out of the door and closed his teeth around the humans leg covering and tugged. The human stood still, looked at the wolf and sighed.

"You lead, I follow, story of my life!" And he cautiously stepped out his den and followed the wolf till they were at Heap's side.

The dark haired human looked at wolf's Heap and recognised him.

"H .. yeauch!" He spat, looked at Heap and then the wolf and grinned.

"Better get you indoors then sunshine!" And the tall skinny g .. don't think that, don't go there ... wolf howled, and listened. Nothing, he was still alone in their forest. He trotted off after his humans Skinny and Heap. Pack members one and two.

Skinny had Heap on his bed, and the shirt unwound and the wound exposed. "Not good, not impossible to fix up!" And then Skinny found the animals wolf had caught that day. "And supper, now you're a good guest, sunshine!" He put the animals on the table and fetched hot water, cleansing herbs, soap, clean bandages .. everything he would need for Sunshine. The wolf considered changing his designated name for Heap but thought better of that idea. He thought Heap was such a better name for him!

The wolf watched as Skinny tended Heap and once Skinny was sure Heap would
sleep for a while the turned to wolf.

"Now my dark beauty, what gifts have you brought me?" He crossed to the table and cleaned the animals Heap hadn't had the strength to do, once more wolf got all the soft inside bit to himself before Skinny cooked the rest of the beasts. Wolf looked at the cooking corpses and growled. Finally Skinny realised his error and reached  a fat rabbit off the stove for his hairy house guest.

"Oops, forgot my manners, my bad! Here ya' go Wolf!" And he put the rabbit down and backed off back to the bed and his other house guest. As he walked he scratched at the collar he wore and wolf saw the blood on Skinny's neck and fingers. Scratching was obviously something he did a lot of.

Part 2

Skinny sat on the edge of the bed and checked his patient's bandages. Only a speck of blood was showing through. That was good, he looked at the face he knew so well and fought any and all urges to give that face a name. He noticed his success, he wasn't choking, he just sat and scratched idly at the damn collar around his neck. He looked out the small window beside the bed and watched the clouds race across the sky and wonder yet again why he had been left there, like this, more than half dead. He had found out what he could and couldn't think about, well strangulation is a strong teacher.

Distant past things didn't bother his magical jailer. Any memory from his childhood was ignored, the last hundred years however were a definite no no, even at that random thought he could feel the collar tightening. Back to childhood memories, of more innocent times when he and the name he won't think because it would strangle him would roam the world doing stuff! Not plans and schemes or wars and conflict. Just stuff, adult and child stuff!

The wolf could hear the change in Heap's breathing, the sickly human was about to wake up, and if he saw Skinny he would say a bad thing. Don't think that, don't risk it. He leaped onto the bed and nuzzled Skinny's hand, pealing back his lips to make tiny nipping motions against the skinny human's hand.

"Hi boy!" Skinny opened his hand flat and presented it for the wolf's inspection. "Never knew ...Sunshine had a pet wolf." Skinny got his fingers nipped, just after he said pet wolf. "Ow! Okay, you aren't a pet wolf! So what are you? An innocent bye-stander?" Even now Skinny made the wolf laugh, and he showed his appreciation in the only way open to him. He showed his teeth, let his tongue hang to one side and started to pant  heavily and shake his head from side to side.

"Ya' know I could swear you were laughing at me Dogface?" Skinny pointed out. His sharp tone brining Heap closer to the surface. It was a good job that the wolf was paying attention, Skinny wasn't.

The wolf reared back a little and bounced on his front paws, drawing his host's attention to the occupant of the bed.

"Oh, He ... yeauch! Dogface, stop doing that!" Skinny wiped his mouth and realised what he had been about to say. The closeness of that imminent death shocked him. Speaking was worse than thinking. Even other certain types of being's thoughts could trigger it. Whoomf was how it had been described to him. Coldly, explicitly, in that damnable scroll. He could read that scroll and nothing happened, he wondered if the exemption clause would stretch to H.. Sunshine .. He smiled at the wolf, even though he knew the beast couldn't hear his thoughts, standing up he crossed to the small chest in the corner of his little cottage and rummaged around until he found the one and only piece of parchment he had been allowed to take with him. Holding it lightly, as if it would bite him, he crossed back to the bed and left it on  ..Sunshine's chest for him to read when he woke up. Skinny then left the cottage, but not before he spoke to Sunshine's wolfy guardian.

"Make sure he reads that scroll, Dogface and I'll see about you getting extra rations later!" He scratched at his collar and left the little human den, left it to a sleeping heap and a silent wolf.

Heap groaned and rolled over, the action dislodged the scroll and sent it falling onto the floor where it rolled beneath the bed. The wolf had it in his teeth almost instantly and had taken up a guard position by the still sleeping heap. Putting the scroll down and standing a front paw on it to prevent it from rolling away again, the wolf licked Heap's face.

That did the trick, Heap was waking up even more, he was talking.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah, don't try eating me yet, I'm still alive." Heap opened his eyes and saw the cottage, the fire, the bed, the wolf still with him and still a wolf. Not that he thought it might be something else, but he had a sharp memory of a man's voice. A voice he knew somehow. He looked on in awe as the wolf picked up the scroll and plonked it on Heap's chest.

The wolf cocked his head and knew that Skinny was right outside the door, he hadn't gone too far, just far enough!

Heap picked up the scroll and carefully unrolled it and began to read. He was shocked that anyone could devise a cruelty as vile as that collar sounded. To never be able to mention a family member's name, nor think of that name, and to avoid all skills and powers one might have or it's good bye you're dead again.

But why would she do such a cruel thing to a member of her own family?

My Dear Stife ... Your life is now totally based on a few very simple rules! Simply do not think about, talk about or pray to any member of the family. Do anything as a member of the family would or you die, talk about us you die, think about us you die! Simple is it not? The quickness and manner of death will be yours to discover as you go along with these very simple rules, you might yet enjoy a long life! Or then again, it could all go whoomf with just one missused word!


That about summed it up, his greatest shock though was the signature, what could she possibly have against her only child!

The PS got him, it listed every name that was a trigger to the collar. The list was under a sub heading helpful hints. It included his name, every one of is Godly relatives, every variation of those names. All that he had heard of and a few new ones, and naturally it included a long list of Strife's own names. It was then that he noticed one name was missing. Something he could use, something familiar, something a world better than 'hey you' or ignoring his nephew.

"I think I can call our host Nicus, what do you think?" The wolf cocked his head to the one side and listened. No explosions, or choking noises, nothing!

The wolf showed his teeth, lopped his tongue over the side of his jaw and panted, as he swung his head up and down very slightly he realised that Heap now knew wolf was more than just a wolf.

"Where is he?" Heap asked.

Wolf padded over to the door and scratched at it once. Heap opened the door and wolf shot from the confines of a human den, just as any wolf would. He ran in a tight circle around Skinny .. or Nicus as Heap called him. Probably that name would be preferred by Skin.. Nicus anyway! Then the wolf shot off to the trees and did what a wolf had to do.

Back by the den Nicus was standing, back towards Heap and watching the wolf, laughing fondly at the creature's antics.

The wolf could quite clearly hear what was going on, his eye sight shouldn't have been too clear at that distance but wolf was a perfect wolf. He crouched, did his business in his scraped out depression and staked his territory. Heap was close to Nicus, and he laughed, gently.

"That is possibly the oddest wolf I have ever encountered. It's been a long time Nicus, how are things generally?"

"Nicus?" Nicus tried out that name, a name he'd used in the past and a name that didn't trigger the collar. Sunshine had read the scroll, clever wolf.

"You okay?" Sunshine asked.

"Yeah, Sunshine, I'm okay." Nicus' voice held a world of defeat in it. The flat sound of it's resignation to a painful death had a profound effect on his audience.

"Sunshine?" Sunshine queried, trying to keep his voice light and cheerful.

"Why not? You can be my own little ray of Sunshine in an otherwise long and boring death." Nicus' voice was flat, totally devoid of inflection, of life.

"I heard you were dead already Nicus, I missed you!" Sunshine reached forwards and clasped Nicus' shoulder, still out side of his line of sight.

"You did?" Nicus sounded amazed, if not a little doubtful too.

"Come on Nicus, there was a time when we were school friends, okay it didn't last, but  what does?" Sunshine felt the first shudder of what he took to be buried laughter as the shoulder he held trembled under his light touch.

"Death .. no that never lasts, dying lasts, lasts for ever!" Nicus dropped to his knees and finally Sunshine realised Nicus wasn't laughing he was crying. Risking his so called school friend's life he knelt down, careful of his injured belly and took Nicus in his arms.

Nicus looked at Sunshine, thought only of Sunshine and nothing happened. Nothing but his tears fell faster and he didn't know if he should laugh or scream.

"Nothin' happened. I'm lookin' at ya' and  thinkin' Sunshine at ya' an' nothin's happening!" This time when he finished speaking he did cry.

Sunshine just held onto the crying young man and thought how different this man was from the Nicus he had known in his youth. This lonely soul that had always been so full of life and energy. The Nicus he knew had maybe been short on friends but he had enjoyed his life!

"Everything will be all right, trust me!" Sunshine murmured as he rocked his school friend's thin body. Thin? He had always been slender but he was positively emaciated now. "You got to eat more Nicus, come on you've got those beasts that the wolf caught on to cook. Let's see if they're ready!"  Sunshine released Nicus and let the younger looking man rise. Nicus looked so young and vulnerable, not at all as he remembered him.

For his part Nicus helped Sunshine to his feet and they re-entered the cottage.

Wolf watched them enter the den and they left the door open for him, he walked around the clearing and saw, smelled and heard nothing out of the ordinary. He moved a little way into the clearing and lifted his head, he howled and listened, still the lone wolf in the forest he entered the den and his human companions.

Nicus and Sunshine were both sitting at the table. Wolf wondered where the second human sitting thing had come from, he had been so sure there had been only one there before, then he listened to their conversation.

"....... can be the worst thing to look at, an always empty chair" Nicus was saying.

"I can imagine it would be, a refined torture if ever there was one." Sunshine responded. Then they settled down to eat. Wolf sat at Nicus' feet and bounced back on his haunches, he yipped a little and looked up into the skinny man's eyes. Sunshine looked over the table at the wolf that was more than a wolf but didn't say anything like that to Nicus. It too might be a trigger. "What's he after?"

"His extra rations for a job well done. Look Dogface, I set yours aside!" And Nicus put a whole rabbit down to the wolf. "Careful on the bones, they're cooked!" He laughed and sat back facing Sunshine again.

Wolf ate his extra rabbit and considered things, all in all he still preferred the name Heap instead of Sunshine, but no one had asked him for his opinion.

Part 3

After they had eaten and the wolf had been let out of their shared den, the humans started to clear away the leftovers from their meal. Talking quietly of inconsequential things. In the process Nicus showed Sunshine all around the little cottage. Where the well was, where the latrine was, where what little food he had was. It was exhausting for the injured Sunshine and he retreated to what would be their bed for a rest. It was a very short time before he fell into a deep sleep.

Nicus continued with his chores, cleaning his little cottage, cleaning and mending Sunshine's shirt. A little practised skill but one he did well. After all the hectic pace and passion he had expended in life, there he was, sitting by candle light, sewing Sunshine's  shirt as Sunshine slept in their bed.  Once satisfied with his workmanship he put the wet shirt on the back of the chair nearest the fire to dry.

Cocking his head he listened to the howl of their wolf friend, and heard no response. There was nothing as lonely sounding as the cry of a  lone wolf. Pack animals ought to have a pack, voices to answer their cries, others to snuggle down with. He understood that loneliness. Nicus poured himself a little more wine and stepped out the door and looked up into the night sky.

As he sat on the door step he looked up and witnessed a brief meteorite shower and enjoyed the light show, it had always been something that had fascinated him. As a child he had ridden in with those tiny fragments of dust as they burned through the upper atmosphere. Times long past, long gone.

A hand came down on his shoulder, he had quite forgotten, for a moment, that he was no longer alone.

"Sorry, didn't mean to make you jump. What you doing sitting out here Nicus?" Sunshine smiled down at Nicus' upturned face.

"Watching the meteorites." Nicus pointed to the last few bright lights in the sky.

"The shooting stars? What did you call them?"

"Meteorites, tiny bits of dust and little chunks of rock that burn up in the sky as they hit it from outside ..." Nicus looked at Sunshine and saw his amused confusion. "I've lost ya' haven't I?" He smiled, a little sadly, the only conversationalist he had encountered for more than a year and he'd confused him.

"Erm, just a little, I guess there's still stuff I've got to learn."

"If you got the time I got the info!" Nicus grinned at his guest and stood up, draining his wine. "Want some wine?" He shook his empty cup attracting Sunshine's attention to it.

"Yeah, a cup of wine would be nice." Sunshine sat down on the chair he had been using earlier and leaned against his wet shirt. "Argh!" He shot forward at the cold wet shock of contact.

"Oh, I washed your shirt!" Nicus blushed, being caught being so domesticated was simply so not his accustomed style.

"And repaired it too! Thanks, you've a much neater hand than I ever had." Sunshine reached for the jug of wine and filled his cup, and Nicus' too.

"Cheers!" Nicus raised his cup and sipped his wine.

"Cheers!" Sunshine responded, and sipped his wine too.

"I thought you were asleep, like out for the night, you okay?" Nicus asked, hesitantly, not sure how his concern might be taken. He kept his eyes on his cup as it rested on the table top, not looking at Sunshine, not risking seeing the rejection he truly expected.

"I moved and pulled the wound, it woke me up and when I looked around I couldn't see you. I went  looking, I was worried." Sunshine kept his voice low, reassuring, gentle.

"You were?" Nicus' head shot up, he couldn't keep the surprise and delight from showing on his face. It twisted something in Sunshine's heart. "Worried about me? Cool!" To cover his embarrassment Nicus drank his wine down, but as he lowered his hand, his head followed, as did his eyes and brought him up against the most intense look he had ever seen on Sunshine's face, almost forever, except that time he had killed his wi ...

The collar choked the breath from him, instinctually he grabbed it, trying desperately to pull it's constricting coils away from him. Nicus' face went purple, he couldn't speak, all the noise he made was a half choked gasping sound. His action became more frantic as he fought his tormentor for his very life. And lost.

As he passed out into unconsciousness then the deeper black of temporary death he thought he heard the door bang open. But who would be paying a visit at that time of the night.

Sunshine sat and watched in horror as his nephew was strangled to death before his eyes. The pain wracked writhing of that young man's death paralysed him. When freed from the shock he too tried in vain to hold the band away from Nicus' neck. He had to let go as he felt it crush his fingers into Nicus' flesh adding to his pain and terror.

"Nicus!" He called, uselessly, pointlessly. "Nicus!" He shook the still frame and felt the blast of cold air as the door opened and the wolf ran back in. Sunshine was on the floor, cradling Nicus and the band was cutting into the tender flesh it surrounded. Sunshine was fighting tears. "Nicus." He whispered this time, rocking the limp body against his chest.

The wolf whimpered, and yowled. The sound of a beaten dog. High pitched and showing a lifetime of pain in it's sharpness. The wolf pawed at Sunshine's arms, hurting him, getting his attention, making him release his grip on Nicus' body, at least just a little.

The wolf licked Nicus' face, whimpering all the time,  high pitched yelps of distress filling in the otherwise silent night.

"He's dead wolf. We were talking and something I said, I don't know, made him think the wrong thing, maybe I said the wrong thing, and he's dead, and it's all my fault!" Sunshine had tears on his face as he looked at the wolf that was no wolf, and made up his mind to ask his questions, Nicus was dead and couldn't be killed again for his curiosity. "Who are you wolf?"

The wolf stopped his actions and turned heavy pain filled eyes towards Sunshine and just looked at him. A level stare that never wavered, never flinched. How could he make the half Olympian understand in a way that wouldn't harm Nicus further. How? And he felt it, deep in the instinctual part of his brain. Nicus was dead, the warder spells were inactive, but for how long? Long enough for him to risk it? It'd better be!

The wolf changed shape and left Sunshine, better known as Hercules staring at his brother, Ares. Ares with tears streaming down his face and their nephew cradled in his arms.

"What's going on? Why is Eris doing this? I thought Strife was her son!" Hercules put a comforting arm around Ares' shoulders and help support the dead weight his brother held.

"I only just found him, see he died when Callisto got free, hinds blood you know?" Ares looked at Hercules and saw the sad nod. "He was dead, dad wouldn't let me get him back, not that I truly expected him to. So I'd visit him in Hades' place.  He wasn't a fallen God, he was a dead God. Then a year ago his soul disappeared and we couldn't find it anywhere in the underworld. Eris finally told us what she had done. Brought him back without permission and was holding him, torturing him, killing him and there was nothing we could do." Ares smoothed the unruly hair and kissed his nephew's brow.

"You care a great deal for him don't you?" The question was softly spoken, not an accusation an observation.

"Of course I do. I raised him. See Eris was ... she was raped by dad, just like mom was. And when she fell pregnant she wasn't allowed to terminate the child. She had to deliver it, him. She went crazy, totally crazy and I took the child in, my nephew. Never my brother, I couldn't say that. It'd destroy what little sanity Eris had left. I was too late though, the damage had been done and she hated him all his life. When he died, I thought he'd have peace and she would recover. But once he was dead and pronounced as staying like that she saw her chance for final revenge, on Strife and dad." Ares stopped talking and felt for the spell guards, nothing yet. Good. "Dad wouldn't interfere, guilt I suppose. No one else cared enough to help me look and I've been searching ever since. I found him about a month ago, he was alive, restricted as Eris had said and so lonely. But I couldn't do anything, I've been researching what she's done ever since I found him. The collar is Hephaestian in construction. So I asked Heph how to remove it. He just laughed, bitterly and said with the key. I never knew he hated Strife so much, but he doesn't really, he hates all of us that much. Because of the way dad treated him. Eris threw the key into the ocean. Now I got to find a way to get that collar off. I can't stand another one of these deaths she makes him live through. How do we get that fucking collar off?" Ares looked to Hercules for an answer, despair clearly seen in his eyes.

""So why the wolf?"

"It's my totem animal, my sacred shape. I can move through all Godly shields and guards in wolf form, so long as I don't think outside the remit of a wolf, ya' see?"

"I do, I do see." Hercules helped lift Strife onto his bed, and thought, inspiration in a flash. "Can you talk about this collar with other's mortals, away from here?"

"I don't know about mortals, but we Gods could talk about it, why?" Ares looked up, hope showing on his face, despite his best efforts.

"Who needs a key when they have Autolycus?" Hercules grinned at the joyful smile that lit Ares' face.

"The thief!" He sat back and felt a slight tickle in his head. "Gotta go, he's coming back." And Ares was gone, only Dogface remained. Five minutes after Ares changed back into wolf form, to trick the magical guards Herc .. no he had a mental image of Sunshine, he was Nicus' friend. Sunshine watched his friend as his body convulsed back to life. Sunshine held him close, whispering reassurances.

"You're safe, relax, breath deeply, shh, trust your Sunshine, I won't leave you alone here. Shh." He felt Nicus' body relax in his embrace and thought again about what he had learned. Thinking no names no relationships just person one and person two made person three and left him for person four to raise as his child. What would any father do for their children. Anything!

Once Nicus had managed to sip some wine past his painfully sore throat he found clean rags and cleaned the blood away, gently.

"You don't have to do this." Nicus whispered, unable to talk loudly past the burning pain in his throat and neck.

"Yes I do, you treated me, I'm treating you, it's what friends do!" Sunshine smiled and eased the injured soul back onto the bed to rest. This time Nicus didn't think about it, he just accepted it, they were friends. Sunshine had said it was so, and that was that!

"Thanks." He whispered. "Is that wolf with us again?" He turned to look at the black haired wolf as it sat beside the hearth, keeping an eye on what Sunshine was doing but keeping well  out of his way too.

"Yes, hey, Dogface, come here?" Sunshine patted the bed and the wolf was there instantly, sniffing and licking Nicus and Sunshine too.

"He's one weird wolf!" Nicus said, between hoarse laughs.

"Dogface, stop it." Sunshine almost shouted but not quite. He did get Dogface's attention. The wolf turned to look at him, such a look on his lupine face that Sunshine felt his life on the line. "Go get the man!" He whispered in the wolf's ear.

Dogface yelped, he had forgotten Sunshine's idea, in his joy at seeing Nicus alive again. He ran to the door and waited, looking at the door and then at Sunshine and back again. Sunshine got the message and opened the door for him.

Once they were alone he turned to his recovering but still weak friend.

"How far is it to the edge of this forest? To the nearest town?" He watched the thoughts chasing over Nicus' face and realised in a flash of insight that Nicus thought he would be leaving. "I'm not planing on going away, I just want to know." He smiled, a warm expression chasing the cold look of horror and fear from his eyes.

"I think that it's about a weeks walk to the nearest village outside this damn forest but you gotta just accept that I've never really felt the urge to go where people are, ya know?"

"A week for you or I, hmm. Fine, I just wondered. Now you ready for some sleep? I think you need it." Sunshine saw the haunted look come back. "What's wrong?"

"Ya know how some folks call sleep the little death?" He looked at Sunshine while he nodded and the saw realisation strike.

Sunshine deliberately cleared his mind of everything as he climbed into the bed beside Nicus. He stretched out, took the young man in his arms and pulled him close. He closed his own eyes against the pain he knew he would see reflected in his friends face.

"Then simply rest and I will hold you. But I must sleep." Which was so true, he felt such a weight of exhaustion settle on him and he fell deeply asleep, holding Nicus close to his own body for warmth and comfort.

Nicus couldn't help it, it felt so wonderful to be held, comforted, protected, he too feel asleep.

Part 4

Night is the time of the wolf, with senses at maximum Dogface ran through the forest, towards the nearest outpost of human colonisation. He had a purpose now, a direction, a reason for running. The pumping of his heart as he ran, ran, ran driving him on ever faster in his quest. Then he sensed her, knew what she was, where she was coming from, what she wanted of him. He stopped running, looked around and chose his place of challenge with care.

He stood quietly, letting his ears and nose tell him what they could, she was still too far distant to be seen. Once assured she would be there soon enough he walked all around his chosen territory and marked it as his. The stench of male wolf dominated that small landscape. The clamour of female wolf in heat was twisting on the breeze, but he was the perfect wolf, he could smell the disease she carried. A festering cancer in her deepest being, her soul if she had such a thing left to her.

Then she was there, recoiling at the smell, prowling the outer edges of his area, looking at him, watching him for any flaw in his defences. Then she surprised him, this sick she wolf, she spoke human speak.

"Ares, I know that is you! Think you could fool me? A wolf in MY forest? You think I'm that dumb!" The sick smelling she sat back on her haunches and looked at Wolf. Wolf looked back, eyes totally devoid of any comprehension.

"Talk to me brother, before I kill you, you will talk to me. Even if it's just to beg for your life, which will be in vain!" The smell of sickness increased around her, Wolf could smell the carrion flesh from her. She was more dead than alive. Killing this sick she would be a mercy to her, no wolf should suffer like that.

Wolf lifted his head and keened for the soon to be dead sick she wolf before him.

"Cut the doggy crap!" The sick she snarled and moved forwards a pace or two. "I know that that is you!" She moved forwards a pace or two more. As she walked forwards Wolf could almost taste the rotten flesh he knew she would be made of. No, this wolf she was dead already, just too stupid to lie down, To dangerous to leave alive!

Wolf howled his cry to the hunt.

Then attacked!

He got her off balance with his first push, and a firm grip on her throat. He rolled them over with the impact of his healthy body against her rotten flesh. The taste was enough to make him sick, the smell more so. The feel of her putrid flesh ripping apart in his mouth something no wolf would ever wish to know. Wolf twisted his head, pulling her wind pipe our, but just as he did that she got one good strike in, right across his face, cutting him with her death grown claws.

He released the body as it fell, and as it fell a blue light not of any forest escaped from the rotting corpse. And as any wolf faced with an entirely unknown enemy .. he ran from that which stank of human, or more than human.

He ran until the pulsing pain in his face drove him towards the smell of fresh water. Burying his face in the cold, fast stream he stayed there long after the desire to withdraw from that painful sting might normally have driven him from his spot. He stayed there long enough to let his face feel nothing. Then he rolled over and over in that cold water, washing the stench of the dead she wolf from his fur.

Finally, satisfied he was clean he struggled to the bank of the stream, idly catching a fish on his way. He had run a long way, fought hard, washed till his fur froze, he needed sustenance.

Then he heard the distant cry of another she wolf. Another wolf song trying to trick him. He finished his fish and looked to the heavens, then moved off towards the humans once more. Forcing his weary limbs to work just a little longer, just till he could find some place safe to sleep, a shelter, a lost den some place he could defend from the dead she user.

This forest knew little of human touch, but that touch that it had had was to protect the beast that lived in it. To protect them for only the chosen humans to kill. Wolf found a small temple, dedicated to Artemis, all he knew was it was another human den and the sickly dead she wolves might think again before entering there. Wolf crossed the threshold and dragged weary legs up to the large human made stone denhole in the front. Once there he crawled in that space and fell asleep.

Dreaming his dreams beneath the alter of Artemis, Goddess of the Hunt, Wolf rested.

Wolf did not know how long he slept there, but he felt refreshed when he awoke. Then he smelled yet another she, a human or more than human she. Somewhere near, and she smelled of blood and power. Deep in his throat he growled, warning that she that he would fight if he had to. He left his human den hole and looked around. Sniffing the air, listening hard he finally tracked that scent to the tall she human with yellow fur, sitting on a human chair. Looking at him.

She looked at him, into him, meeting his eyes with her own steel like gaze, and he let her. He sat there and looked right back at her.

"So she's messing with the dead of my dominion is she? We'll soon see about that!" The tall she human walked towards Wolf and crouched down to his level. "I can not see 'her' forest. It is occluded to me!. This I will not stand, Wolf, not in my dominion. I will find this glade and ..." She stopped talking her human talk when Wolf whimpered so piteously and put his head down on his fore paws, ears notched back, thinking about the image of his not breathing human friend. And the other with a salt wet face.

She saw that too, and thought rightly what would happen if she were to find that part of her dominion.

"But what can I do Wolf? She has transgressed in my forest, surely I can protect my own beasts and beings?" She smiled, "After all, they live in my forest, they are my beings..." Then she stopped to think. "I might not be able to go in but plenty of my game beast can go in. They will not starve, they will remain protected. She will be driven out of my forest, this very night. Hmm, she only sensed you once you left that area, that glade, has to shield them both from her eyes. Wonder why?"

She clicked her fingers making Wolf jump but before him lay a small portable puddle of fresh water for him to drink. Not being a stupid wolf he sniffed it, it was clean water, he drank his fill! Then she was talking again.

"If it's powered up by thought or speech or presence, but you are only Wolf, careful, cautious, and he is not enough like us to trigger it too much. Then she would have no pleasure triggering it always when she was there. Not much control left to her I suspect. Hmm, I wonder what my dear brother is doing?" She scratched Wolf's ears, and he let her. It was so pleasurable he would let her scratch where ever she chose at that point.

"Okay Wolf, you go your way, I'll go mine. But remember, on your return journey. She'll be trying to trap you outside this forest. Make it here in one piece and I and my hunt will ride with you back to that border again. No, better still, I'll meet you outside this forest, on the human road, ten days from now. Ten days Wolf, is the most I can guarantee her staying out of this forest. You better be there!" With that she sat back on the human seat she had been on before and clicked her fingers. A dove appeared, she looked at it, told it where to go. Then created a message to be tied to its leg. She
showed the message to Wolf first, and read it to him to make sure he understood it. " Wolf will be back in ten days, and through this forest the next day." And she signed it with an arrow symbol. "So what do you think?"

Wolf sat back on his hind legs and pawed the air with his fore legs, he yowlled gently, as he would when playing with cubs.

She smiled, knelt down beside him and kissed his head.

"All speed to you!" and she too went in a blue light that humans and wolves shouldn't do. Wolf headed out, looked to the sky and saw he had slept maybe three hours, dawn was not far away, and with the light of day the movements of humans would begin again. He'd have to stay off of human tracks.

He ran on, having a destination and a deadline to meet. The day smelled fresh in the morning light, the death and decay of the previous night almost forgotten.

For the first time in about a year Nicus woke up with the first light of dawn, as opposed to waking with renewed life. He had slept the night through, with out dying! He lay there, listening to the sounds of the world waking up and he laughed slightly, quietly. Yet not quiet enough.

Sunshine woke up too!

"Nicus? You okay?" Nicus turned to look at Sunshine, his friend, who was concerned for him.

"I slept the night through!" He said, voice filled with wonder. Sunshine saw the significance of that statement and smiled his slow, happy smile.

"You look refreshed for it!" And he peered at Nicus' neck and that collar once more. He grimaced as his belly muscles complained about moving, but he got out of bed, upright and across to the fire for some warm water and clean cloths. When he returned he gently wiped away the new, dried in blood from that hideous item and dried Nicus' neck as much as he could.

"Thank you." Nicus' smiled, shyly at him. "You have such a gentle touch!"

"Then thank you too for noticing!" Sunshine smiled and put away the rags and bowl. As he passed the chair once more he lifted his now dried and repaired shirt, and felt like himself again. " Good job on the shirt!" He remarked again, then proceeded to get breakfast.

"What you doing? I can do that .." Nicus was cut off mid speech.

"No Nicus, you are little more than skin and bone. I intend to fatten you up a little, and I decree this to be Nicus' day off. Stay in bed and rest up. You need it!" He said and thought of nothing but Nicus' exposed ribs. For his part Nicus smiled, lay back and enjoyed the feeling of being special to someone, no matter the reason, it felt good to feel protected.

"Where's Dogface?" Nicus noticed the wolf's absence.

"He went out last night, no doubt he is doing wolfish things. He's a wild creature, a free spirit, leave him to his mysteries!" Sunshine grinned, got on with breakfast and enjoyed the sound of Nicus' gentle laugh.

Part 5

Not the high pitched sound he normally assosiated with .. a gasping noise caught his attention. A cold dread caught in his heart, he knew just what he would see when he turned around.

Nicus was twitching, fighting the collar. Sunshine automatically finished his thought... normal sound assosiated with Nicus and their evenings in Kora's or in class. As his thought finished, Nicus still died. In agony. Tears of pain streaming down his face, his eyes locked to Sunshine's, fingers clawing at his own throat and neck.

"Nicus!" He cried as he broke his horror frozen stance and ran the few steps to Nicus' side. His nephew lay broken, twisted, face swollen and blue, blood flowing freely from his neck yet again. "Oh, Strfe!" Hercules whispered, remembering the day before and how he and Ares could talk freely while Strife lay dead between them.

He stroked the wild hair from the sightless eyes of his nephew, his hand trembling with a mixture of fear and anger. No one should ever have to face this horror. No one should be expected to face death more than once, let alone have to die on a daily basis. As he got up and went for water and cloths he let a prayer escape his mind.

Not to Eris, nor to Hephaestus, what the Fire God could have against Strife escaped him. His prayer was to, of all Gods, Aphrodite.

"Dite, why now? Why are they doing this?" Hercules looked down at his blood soaked hands and cried again as he cleaned the mess as best he could. As he wiped the pain wracked face he noticed the colour of Strife's still open eyes. The colour of polished steal. Such an unusual colour. Then he heard his answer. Something he had simply never expected to receive.

"Eris is insane, always has been. But now she is declared rogue. Hephaestus is hiding. None of us can find him to ask him. He left me a note saying he never meant it to go this far... if he doesn't come forwards in five days he too will be declared rogue. No God can kill another God... Zeus stands by his law. He has finally declared Strife alive. Hades forced him! We're trying to let Ary know, but can't find him.." Dite sounded so cold, so calm and Hercules realised she was in deep shock. His family was falling apart and he could do nothing to help, except comfort his nephew. When he lived again.

"Ares is a large, black wolf answering to the name Dogface." He pictured the almost black wolf and cleared his mind with a final memory. "No more, he will awake soon."

"Take care of him. We're trying to help, truly we are..." Dite's voice faded from his mind and he sat, silently watching Nicus, his friend, as he waited for that moment he would awake. He noticed the bloody water and cloths and cleared them away. He returned with a cup of wine and sat and waited.

As seconds stretched and turned into eternity, then suddenly Nicus gasped and struggled to breath, panic so very evident on his face,

"Sh, Nicus, sh. Everything is okay, drink this!" He held the wine to Nicus' still swollen lips and helped him to drink. After a few laboured and so achingly obviously painful swallowing motions, Nicus held up a hand.

"Enough, for now." He smiled his thanks. "Sorry, musta' frightened you. Let my mind wander..." Nicus swallowed, almost convulsively. Deliberately not letting his mind go where it had wandered, strangling him.

Sunshine put the cup down and gathered the weakened Nicus in his arms and lay back down on the bed, taking his dark haired, steal eyed friend with him.

"I thought I had caused it. When you don't think about it, you have a nice laugh." It was such a non sequitor that it did cause Nicus to laugh, huskier than ever, and it ended in a gasped ouch. "Sh, rest, relax. I'm here!"

Somehow Nicus did find the mere presence of Sunshine there with him, very comforting.

"Yeah, you're here.." and again Nicus drifted off to sleep, held secure in Sunshine's arms.

As he lay there, holding Nicus close, feeling his companion's breathing slow down to sleep, he looked out the open window above the bed and of all things saw a dove fly in. It hopped up his chest and offered it's leg to the hero's inspection. Tied to it's leg it had a tightly rolled message. Sunshine removed the message and as soon as he had the bird took to the air and flew away from that little cottage.

Sunshine unrolled the message, cleared his mind to only see the words, not their full meanings. It was a mental technique Iolaus had taught him for a laugh. To take in a message and know it, yet truthfully not know it. If questioned, or even tortured your conscious mind doesn't know the information. Only the unconscious mind does. Slowly he finished unrolling the message and looked at the words.

'Wolf will be back in ten days, and through this forest the next day.' It said, and was signed with an arrow. He didn't even think about that and ripped up the tiny message, making sure none of the message could be recognised. In case the handwriting was known.

Nicus slept on. Sunshine held him for as long as he slept. It was about lunch time when he awoke. Having slept soundly, with no trembling in the collar.

"Ready to eat?" The ever practical Sunshine asked.

"Actually, yeah!" Nicus didn't make a move to shift from his comfortable position though.

"Well, you'd better let me up then." Sunshine smiled, gently, at him and made little shooing motions with his free hand.

"Oh, knew there'd be a catch." Nicus rolled over and tried to sit up.

"You sure you're strong enough?" Sunshine asked.

"I find things better, easier if I keep busy, ya' know?" He smiled, shyly, almost hesitantly, and Sunshine realised he really didn't know Nicus as much as he had thought he had. This was a shy, quiet soul he had never really seen before.

"Yeah, I know." Sunshine whispered to his companion. He rose from their bed and crossed to the fire, which burned low in the grate. He fed it with thin strips of kindling he ripped off a near by log, as they caught he fed it bigger sticks, then whole logs. Soon the fire was blazing, warm and heating their meal for them.

A clang from the bed Ares had Sunshine spinning in panic. Not sure what he would see. At the sound of his movement, Nicus had looked over his shoulder and blushed a deep red.

"Sorry, didn't mean to make ya' jump, was just shuttin' the widow is all!" Which he had done, Sunshine realised. The bang had been the casement closing. "It was gettin' draughty, an' I thought any damn thing could just hop on in." He looked at Sunshine's tight, worried face and correctly interpreted what his friend had thought. "My record is nine times in one day."  He cursed himself for a fool as he felt his jailer tighten on his neck once more.

And yet again Sunshine had a ringside seat to it's affects. This time however he had an idea of what to do. He ran to Nicus and reached for the slender shoulders and pulled him upright and back against him. He whispered to him, demanding his attention and distracting his mind from its previous thoughts.

"Tell me what it was like, when you were a child, what was the world like then?" He remembered that Nicus could talk freely about his early childhood.

"The world was much the same, just more violent. See it was the advent of War Gods that compelled man to stop killing and eating his neighbours. I remember getting that lesson drummed into me. It took so long to control the world that no one rocks the boat as it were. Anyway, I grew up in the Halls of War. I remember when I was about ten, I think, maybe a year or two either way, anyways there was this big ta' do going on. A really big war, an invasion an' Un ..he... had ta' stop it, so he'd got all these Warlords there, hundreds of them, well several dozen anyway. And I almost single handedly wiped them out, almost!" Nicus was breathing evenly again, in fact he was laughing at the memory.

"Bet 'he' wouldn't have been pleased about that? What happened?" Sunshine's voice whispered his question right beside Nicus' ear, making their conversation seem all the more intimate, more personal.

"I was always a sickly kid, don' know why' suppose was 'cos of you know who an' me not being fed right an' stuff when I was born. Well, I had this real bad fever, an' 'he' was totally distracted between me an' them. But I didn't want ta' share his attention! No, I did not! So I went to Earth an' the Halls, like I said, an' spread my fever round his Warlords."

"So what did he do?" Sunshine had to know, had to hear what 'he' had done to that sickly child.

"Took me home, tucked me in his bed, then thought about it for a while, an' then he took me ta' the enemy camp an' let me sneeze myself silly all over them! Said it  was only fair since my fever did all the other harm to our troops, I had to work to make up for it." Nicus laughed, delighted by that memory. "There I was, in 'his' arms, safe an' sound and sneezin' like there would be no tomorrow. An' he's sayin' things like 'that's my boy' who's a good boy for his un..' ya' get the idea?"

"Actually I think I have more than just an idea, I have the whole picture. I can just see it somehow." Sunshine squeezed gently just once more and helped Nicus to the table and put hot food before his charge. It felt so good to have someone to protect, someone who really needed him. Someone who was not the latest in a long line of complete strangers to demand his help and assistance. This was personal. This was his family.

He forcibly changed tack with his thoughts to more domestic concerns.

"I think we'll need to get some more logs in, after we've eaten." Idle conversation, it attracted Nicus' attention from what ever he had been brooding about. Sunshine had concluded that brooding was a bad thing. He would have to watch for it in himself as well as in Nicus.

"Oh, yeah, we should. An' I can show you around my little paradise too. Fancy a walk?" Nicus asked, a friendly tone shining in his voice. Striking a similar chord in himself.

"Sounds fine." Sunshine took in Nicus' still pinched in face, the exhaustion so very evident. "But not too far, okay? There's always tomorrow to explore too!"

"Fair enough." Nicus ate with a slow steady pace, his throat obviously still very raw and painful.

In his little abandoned den Dogface the wolf slept. Exhaustion had forced him to rest up. Wolves were made for many things but not this punishing pace of extended running. A slow walk, a cautious trot, and a wolf could travel for miles, but this forced, extended race was exhausting him. He had been too tired to hunt before he fell asleep.

A noise outside the den caught his wolfish hearing and brought him instantly awake and alert. Cautiously he listened and heard that strange sound once more. A sickly howl, getting closer to his den all the time. If the dead she caught him in there then that fight would not go his way. Wearily he dragged his exhausted body out of his little shelter and into the bright light of noon. Looking back the way he had ran he heard that howl clearer, closer than he realised and started to trot away from there. He was too tired to manage a run, his legs hurt, he burned for sleep, for meat. But his pack needed him,
they needed him to keep going, and that was what he would do ..

He crossed several little streams and managed to catch one sizeable fish as he went, taking a little time to eat his prize before heading away from his pack once more.

The howl was closing, she had gained a lot of ground. Maybe dead she's didn't have to stop, to eat, or sleep. But he did! He broke cover into a wide clearing and heard the swoosh of giant wings above him. There was a man beast and he was flying like a bird, right over him. The flying bird man smiled at him, at least Dogface recognised the action as what a man beast would do as a greeting between pack members. Was this a pack member? Something told him it was. One of his own cubs at that!

Dogface listened to the howl and kept on trotting, his feet hurt, he was leaving a trail of little bloody paw marks having split one of his pads running as he had. His flying cub looked at him, listened to the dead she howl and flew off behind him. A loud noise that Dogface couldn't risk thinking about startled him then he felt hands close about him and then he was airborne. His flying cub was flying him away from the smell of burning flesh. Burning dead she? He listened over the noise whistling in his ears and did not hear any more howling dead voices. He shut his eyes against the sight of the ground and trees and forest rushing below him and trusted his flying cub.

Once the flying cub was satisfied that they were far enough away from where they had been, he landed and gently let the wolf down to the ground. As Dogface stepped away the flying man saw the imprint of a bloody paw pad on the dry earth.

"Aw, damn, ya're hurt. Here, lemme fix that!" And he filled the wolf with such energy, such power that he knew he could run for as far as he already had again, if need be. "It's okay, I fried that dead thing, forced her out and back to where ever she's based. She's no where near us." He scratched the wolf's ears and then continued. " You really gotta get out of that shape. Or you'll stick!" Then the flying cub thought about something. "I guess he's worth it ta'ya!"

Dogface remembered is own true shape and let himself change, and as he howled the pain of changing back after so long Ares stood up and looked at his eldest son, Cupid.

"Thank you for the timely rescue. What brings you here?" He stretched and reached out with his mind and touched nothing in their immediate area that would pose a threat. He also realised that they were only just inside the edge of that great forest.

"Mom sent me ta' look for ya' an' let ya' know what's goin' on back home!" Cupid looked at his exhausted father and exerted his powers to create a table, two chairs and a large banquet. "Sit, eat an' I'll fill you in." He pushed his father towards the table and as Ares fell on the feast before him he began talk.

"Mom managed to talk ta' uncle Herc. Seems Strife was dead again. He told her how ta' find ya' and sent me out lookin' for you. She's lookin' for Hephy. An' when she finds him he'd better have a room booked with Hades, mom is livid at his part in all this. See, Aunt Eris has been declared Rogue. Zeus finally declared Strife once more alive and under his protection. Hades demanded it!"

"But why now? Why not last year when this all began?" Ares' voice was so quiet, and Cupid knew just how angry his father was, with all of them. He was right, they had let things slide for far too long.

"Because we didn't know where Strife was, if he was truly alive or just a lost, stolen soul. An' I think Artemis had something to do with it too. She rampaged around Olympus this morning charging Eris with several crimes against her fellow Gods, namely Strife and herself. She, of course, is his very favourite so he caved in under the combined pressure of her and Hades. I think Strife's almost incidental!" His anger at the disregard his cousin was subject to was so obvious to his father.

"And of course you have always been there, ready to help me, help him!" Ares snapped. He had been on his own for a year. Looking for and protecting Strife, his Strife that he wouldn't let his fellow Gods just charge in and join his quest as if they had been his allies all along.

"I know, I know, and I regret I let the others sway me!" Cupid beat his wings and displayed his guilt to his father.

"So what are the others doing now?" Ares asked.

"Lookin' for Eris and Hephy!" He crushed the goblet he had picked up, the metal squashed with a satisfying crunch in his hand.

"Has anyone any idea why Heph would side with her?" Ares thought about his brother, granted they hadn't been too friendly the last time they had met but what did he have against Stife?

"Not until we find him. He's got five days to turn up or he too will be declared rogue, just like Eris has been." Cupid pushed a plate of sweet treats over before his father, the food having such a dramatic effect on the War God. He really needed the food!

"So what are they going to do about Eris?"

"Find her, trap her, kill her!" Cupid's matter of fact way of telling his aunts future made Ares' blood run cold.

"Why? When it's all Zeus' fault?" Ares was torn between his need to protect Strife and his need to protect his sister.

"But dad, you're not there to deal with things, to control their actions." Cupid shrugged. "So where are you going anyway?"

Ares looked into his son's soul, checking that this was his son, not Eris in disguise or worse, in possession of his son.

"I'm going to look for Autolycus." Ares said, so mater of factly, then turned his face in the direction of the forest edge. There he would locate the thief and go see him. As he made his decision, a thought occurred to him. "What if Eris or Heph get to Autolycus first?" He whispered, but his son heard.

"Then I go with you. No more sitting on the fence, I made my choice and it's Strife's side I come down on."

"Thank you, son." Ares felt weary, as if a great load had been lifted from his shoulders.

"Let's go then." With a flick of his hand Cupid cleared the area of the table, the chairs and the food they had shared. Ares stood, wearily to the side and smiled at his son's determination. If only he could have shown it a year before. Then Strife would never have had to suffer. "Do you know where to look for him?" Cupid asked.

"No, none." Ares told him.

"Well that won't help!" Cupid softened his words with a smile. Then they turned and walked to the edge of the forest. By the time they reached there Cupid was no longer sporting his much loved wings, a new silk shirt in a deep copper colour and a big grin. He was with his dad, and for once they were working together, like it should be. "Who's got the richest treasure that he hasn't stolen yet?"

Ares looked at his son, and laughed. It was a deep resonant sound, a release of tension, a purge for his soul, and just the right idea for that moment. Cupid watched his father crack up in laughter, knowing it was not directed at him, but he was the catalyst for this much needed reaction.

"Cool!" he said.

Part 6

Back in their clearing, well away from the sphere of influence Cupid and Ares were casting about themselves, Sunshine was watching Nicus as they walked around, enjoying the bright sunshine and fresh air. As they walked Nicus pointed out various parts of the local forest that he'd explored. The image of Nicus' pale skin highlighted by the bright light kept drawing Sunshine's eyes back towards him. Every time he caught himself staring at Nicus he'd blush just as every time Nicus caught him staring they'd both blush.

They'd reached the stream, actually a small river, it was well stocked with big fish. Sunshine looked into the river and thought about fish for their evening meal.

"Shall we have fish tonight?" He asked the enraptured Nicus as he watched the fish dart about.

"You can catch the slippery little demons?" He asked, rolling over onto his back and smiling up at his Sunshine. The sudden thought of propriatorial rights over this .. friend .. startled him. Maybe it was because he was no longer alone. He had company! He agreed with himself that that had to have been the case and looked back into the river as Sunshine answered him.

"Yeah, I can. It's real easy, watch and learn Nicus. Watch and learn!" He slipped into the river, still fully clothed and waited, poised, ready to strike. Then he struck and threw a large fish onto the bank where it flapped around next to Nicus as he squealed in surprise and delight. As his companion clubbed the fish, efficiently, quickly killing it out right Sunshine spoke up. "Get in here, it's your turn to learn something new." And he held his arms out wide in a welcoming gesture and without any preamble or stopping to
think about it, Nicus stood up and walked into the river and into Sunshine's arms.

With his back to his companion and Sunshine's arms reaching around him, Nicus felt safe. For the first time in a very, very long time he felt secure.

"Here, like this, stand ready and watch that fat one." Sunshine pointed at a particular fish and Nicus found himself mesmerised by the challenge of this hunt. "Now!" Sunshine hissed and Nicus struck, just as he'd seen Sunshine do and he too threw a big fish onto the river bank. Further back, less likely that the fish would waggle its way back to the safety of the river.

Nicus was suffused by the glow of achievement.

"I got one, I got one, I got one!" He chanted as he skipped around in Sunshine's arms and kissed his companion as if it was the most natural thing to do and then bounced back round to complete his full circle.

Sunshine was left feeling the brief imprint of Nicus' lips long after they had ceased to touch his.

"You sure did catch a good one. Shall we go home and cook them then?" The way he said it was so natural, so normal. They would go home, together and cook their meal. Nicus stopped his bouncing and looked at Sunshine.

"Home." He whispered, nervous as to what the mental image would be and surprised that he lived through the experience. Home was their cottage. After only one day of having him there he was already thinking of Sunshine as part of what he now considered home. Their cottage, in their forest, going home to cook their fish. "I'm not alone anymore!" he didn't realise that he had spoken out loud until Sunshine touched his arm and spoke to him.

"You'll never be alone ever again Nicus, not if I can help it. Come on, those fish need cleaning and cooking!" Sunshine climbed out the river and turned to help his friend out too. Together they walked over and retrieved their prises. Nicus killed the second fish, quickly and efficiently. Once Nicus decided something should be dead, he did it very effectively. It was a good trait in a hunter.

"You know, a good hunter always kills his prey quickly, cleanly and without adding to the beasts suffering." Sunshine said, making idle conversation.

"Yeah, true. And it don't leave the flesh tough either. One of the earliest things I was taught on the subject. Scared beasts is tough beasts." Nicus stopped walking, waiting for his twisted friend around his neck to make itself known, it did nothing. "Oh!" he said. "Nothin's happening!" He shrugged, putting it out of his mind as he tried not to tempt providence.

Sunshine felt his heart give a massive lurch as he suddenly realised just what Nicus meant. He cast around for a safe topic to discuss with Nicus.

"Where do you get your supplies from? Your fruit and vegetables. I want to contribute my share to our food, seeing as I'm eating my share." He laughed gently and watched for any negative reaction, thankfully there were none.

"Over there, just a little way, there's another clearing with wild fruits an' stuff growin'. I just go take what I need an' leave the rest. Might as well go get some while we're here. Do us for a couple o' days." Nicus lead the way, he whistled, a bouncy little tune that Sunshine didn't recognise. It was so good to see Nicus happy and relaxed. He followed his friend and found himself watching the way Nicus moved, luckily Nicus didn't look at him as he blushed such a deep shade of red.

Then they broke out of the forest into another little clearing and there, spread out before them was, just as Nicus had said, a nice collection of wild vegetables and fruits. So they did harvested them. Probably more than Nicus would normally take but certainly enough to keep Sunshine happy until he could come back and harvest more. As he made to head away from that little clearing he heard Nicus speaking, and could not believe his ears as he heard what Nicus was saying.

"Thanks for the food there Earth. We are so grateful for your bounty, it'll not be wasted, Sunshine'll see to that, he's good that way. See ya, Earth!"  And he turned away none the worse for ware. Sunshine didn't think about it. He put it away in a deep, hidden part of his mind for later consideration. The Nicus spoke again. " I had myself a garden when I was about, oh, five I think, anyway's HE always said to thank the Earth for what it's given ya' or it won't give it ya' again. It's one of those things, kind stuck an' it might actually help ya' know!" Nicus smiled and walked on ahead, back down the narrow path and once more on their way home.

Sunshine thought about it and silently agreed with him.

"Thank you Earth for looking out for him and feeding him." He tried his own prayer to the Earth and was rewarded by a cool breeze whispering through the trees cooling him down as they walked. Turning a hot still afternoon into a more pleasant one.

Soon they made it back and put their bounty down. Sunshine started to clean and descale the fish as Nicus cleaned and prepared their vegetables. They worked together in a companionable silence. Their meal was soon on to cook.

For their part, Ares and Cupid had reached the first village outside that forest. It was a strange place, the mortals in that village watched them as they walked into the village from the direction of Artemis' forest.

"You been in there?" One of the community elders asked.

"Yes." Ares answered, his tone rather short. They had watched him and Cupid emerge from that forest and now this stupid question.

"But how did you survive it? Didn't that mad wolf bitch try and kill you? Did she bite you?" He asked, looking over the two travellers for tell tale marks.

"What do you know of her? Has she bitten other travels from the forest?" Ares tried to keep his tone even, he was beginning to suspect his safe flight from that forest was a rare event indeed.

"Aye, that she has, or so we reckon. See, we hear her, screamin' an' howlin' like. But no one comes out that goes in deep. An' no one's come down through the forest in the direction you two came in a year or so!" He looked at his companions once more then at the forest again, he shivered in fear  of what he knew was in there. "She's been seen in the village, we keep a curfew around here fella's, better mind that for your safety's sake!" He looked away from that place of dread and ushered them onward to the village's Inn. "Best get a room sorted out for the night and walk onward fresh, in the morning like!" Then he hustled himself off home. To no doubt barricade himself in his
home, seeking safety with his family.

"So, you think he was talkin' 'bout aunty Eris then?" Cupid asked in a very low whisper.

"Yes, I do, with out a doubt, she's been keeping everybody out of Arti's forest. We'll we got out and we'll get a room and move on from there. Come on, let's not attract any more suspicious eyes to us." Ares headed into the Inn and asked about the availability of rooms. As the Inn keeper told him he only had the one a very, very familiar voice came to Ares' ears.

"Bar keep, another beer!" Joxer the Mighty asked, a little slurred in his speech. He'd obviously had more to drink than Asclepius recommended.

"What room, where is it?" Ares asked, hand held out for the key and a generous payment for that room in his open hand.

"Three, at the top of those stairs turn to your right it's the first door you'll see. Got a 3 on it." The Inn Keeper wasn't trying to be rude, just thorough, Ares realised he must have dealt with all sorts of drunk and or stupid folk over the years. His complete description of the location of their room made him laugh.

"I suppose I'll find it eventually!" He turned to Cupid who honestly had expected his father to blast the mortal to his component elements for daring to speak to him in such a manner.

"Aye, surely you will." And the Inn Keeper left them to their own devices.

"Come on son, I'll buy you a drink." And Ares walked cautiously into the bar to see just how drunk Joxer was and if he was with anyone who might be useful in his quest. And spoke a heartfelt prayer out loud for his son to hear. "Thank you aunt Fortune I'm owe you a very big kiss!" he hissed.

"What is it?" Cupid asked.

"Look, see!" Ares pointed to Joxer, who was indeed rather drunk, as were his two companions.

"Oh, I see!" Cupid smiled "Aunty F. Point him out and he's yours!" He too added his own brand of Godly bribery. Then, in a sparkle of red lights and gold coins Fortune was beside her nephew and great nephew.

"Thank you boys! So pay up tall, dark and deadly!" She held her face out for a kiss from Ares, which he dutifully did. Every eye was on them.  The entrance of Fortune had not gone unnoticed. Even the three men at their target table noticed her and the two men she was with, but as Ares was bent over slightly, kissing his aunt Fortune and Cupid had lost his most distinguishing features they didn't immediately realise who she had targeted until she let Ares stand up. "And I want Herc's little friend, he's just so
cute!" she grinned at the disguised love God and winked. "But I'll wait to collect until after we've rescued Little Mischief." She smiled as she used her own pet name for her missing great nephew. Ares smiled at the Goddess who had given his little Strife his first lessons in the art of Mischief.

"Come sit with us?" Ares asked, smiling.

"Of course!" She linked arms with him and let Ares escort her to the target table.

"You don't mind if we join you do you?" And without waiting for an answer Ares sat down, his aunt on one side his son to his other. "Now, can I ask you three a very, very important question?"

Part 7

As the God of War smiled, sweetly at the trio of stunned mortals and felt his aunt dig him in the ribs.

"Stop teasing them Ary, drunk mortals tend to not cope with such things." Fortune smiled at Iolaus. "Hi Iolaus!" she waved to him. The less than sober hunter, grinned half heartedly  at the diminutive, giggly Goddess.

"What do you want, Ares?" Joxer asked, finding courage in his beer and company of his erstwhile friends.

"I want Autolycus, his ... unique skills as it were, and a little assistance in getting him where he is needed." Ares gestured to the nearest barmaid and the table. His requirements entered the woman's head, took over precedence from all other orders and she brought fresh tankards and two large jugs of ale.

"Handy skill!" Autolycus observed as he reached for the nearest jug. "So what do you want me to steal? From where? What's your offer and finally, but by no means least, the degree of security wherever there is?" He lifted his tankard of ale and took a long draft of the hopsy brew.

"I don't want you to steal anything from anyone, anywhere. I want you to open a lock on a torture device, designed and built by Hephaestus and free the person being held captive therein! As to a reward, will this do?" He swept his hand over the surface of the table and it was filled, to overflowing with gold coin, jewels and trinkets.

Autolycus would have sold his soul to anyone who would have asked it at that precise moment, the seeds of avarice had long since dug their roots deep into his heart. The price offered would no doubt reflect the degree of difficulty, but the price offered represented so many men, women and nights of passion.

"I'll do .." He was interrupted, but not by Iolaus, the hunter and ex-thief just sat there, as stunned as Autolycus had been at the price offered. It was Joxer who interrupted, the voice of reason, if slightly slurred at that.

"So you want him to die doing you a favour so you don't have ta' pay him. Is that it?" Joxer looked at the treasure before them and Autolycus' hand, now frozen above the booty laid before him.

"Joxer, that's no way to talk to a God!" The thief admonished the drunk would be warrior.

"This is Ares, God of War. Nasty natured youngest Godly son of Zeus. He's zapped us all how often, and you wanna go in to his deal blind? Who is the poor soul you're gonna rescue, why did Hephaestus imprison him or her anyway? If Hephaestus did it, why can't he undo it too? Why can't the Gods just zap the person free?" Joxer folded his arms across his chest and took a deep breath obviously waiting for his destruction.

For his part Ares was readying a fireball when his son closed his hand over his father's fist and calmly dropped both hands to the table top. Then Cupid's soft voice told the mortals at the table what had been happening on Olympus. Giving his father  an obviously much needed breathing space to calm

"It's not quite that straight forward, you're right about that Joxer. See, Discord has been declared rogue, and Hephaestus has disappeared, he faces being declared rogue too if he doesn't show in five days. Less than that now! The prisoner is Strife, if he so much as thinks about his life as a God he is
strangled to death. If he were to see one of us or have us perform a .. a miracle for want of a better word, around him, then whoomf, his head is blown clean off his shoulders. Dead yet again and for what? As it is he dies daily. Strangled to death! We all know dad, it's no secret, well not now! Discord took a great deal of satisfaction in telling us what had happened to her only son! Right before she vanished ... it was then that Gramps declared her rogue and Strife alive again." Cupid looked at his father as he gave the last part of his explanation, and saw the same anger and anguish he felt, reflected in his father's eyes! The Love God shuddered at the thought of his adoptive brother suffering the ultimate death, just for the sake of an easy fix. He shuddered too at the very idea of anyone else falling victim to Discord's sick games.

"She got him returned to life just so he could be killed, daily?" Iolaus waved a hand at Joxer, shushing him before he could interrupt. "Wasn't the once enough for her?"

"No." Ares whispered, his rage building within his soul. A rage that desperately needed an outlet. A fight, a war, a powerful lover who could withstand the rages burning in him. He began to work through his basic fives, the first exercises he ever received in the art of killing people with a sword. In his mind he dissected Discord, piece by piece, yet the rage didn't fade as it should.

The rage got stronger, as if ....?

Ares shot to his feet at the exact same moment that Hades appeared by their table.

"What now?" The War God snarled. Hades knew the power building in his nephew needed release, and knew where that rage would be expended.

"Discord is approaching this village, she's been keeping souls from me! She has an army of the walking dead." He looked not at the mortals or the other two Gods, the only person of worth to him in that entire village, was his nephew.

"So what's bringing her here?" Ares looked beyond the physical boundaries of the walls around him to see the battle that approached these people.

"She want's to destroy you, I'd say. With you out of the way she'd stand a better chance of reaching an accord with Zeus. An accord in which she stays away and gets to keep Strife to play with for ever!" Hades pulled no punches with Ares' feelings. He needed to motivate his nephew away from his quest to save Strife, and redirect his energies towards salvaging Olympus at any and all costs. Strife included if need be!

What he didn't count on was Ares' ability to think around the emotions in war that drove him at these times. Centuries of effort went into his control, tight, harsh, unyielding in it's needful brutality. He had to think, to control, to keep out of the full blown war until he could have Strife once more by his side. His adopted son that their father was loathe to look at.

Not aggressive War then, defensive War was called for. He could do that, had to do that. It was not as soul satisfying but he had to stay in control, and a defensive nature was all that would allow him that freedom to work as he knew he should.

With a broad sweep of an arm the room of drunken revellers were at once sober and clear headed. Each and every eye was now focus on the God of War. He was their only hope, they knew this, felt it in their bones. Ares smiled as he realised his message had been received and understood. Even Iolaus had shut up and was waiting to hear what Ares suggested they should do.

"How far is she?" He asked his uncle.

"About an hour away, at most." Hades shrugged, thinking about it. "Probably a good bit less than that, why?"

"Because we have to delay her until this village can be evacuated. Not just this village but ALL the villages surrounding this forest." Ares let his eyes turn inward, he knew every square inch of Greece, intimately He was either fighting over it or helping his aunt Demeter grow things on it. What his aunt
Dee didn't know about topography just hadn't been invented yet. She knew her terrain, it's uses, strengths and weaknesses.. and he had been a good, if unwilling at the start, pupil.

"Listen up!" Ares spoke slightly louder than normal, he expected to be listened to, he didn't see a need to shout, yet. "There is a valley running west-east about five miles north of here. It cuts through the mountain range and brings you out above Olympia in about four or five days march. With Gods
to co-ordinate the evacuations everyone this side of the forest and north of here can be removed to a place of safety. Once in Olympia they can petition Zeus and Hera for sanctuary from the rogue Goddess Discord, they can not, under the rules governing this situation, refuse them." He turned to Cupid. "Cupid, call in as many of the lesser Gods and Goddess you can find, it's time they went to work. They can reach the people quickly, quietly and lead them to safety. Hades, you, Hermes, Athena and Apollo can take the other side of the forest and south of here. But be careful, Discord's probably raised at least a couple of villages to man her army. You'll have to head any survivors in the opposite direction, towards say, Dipai, or the other way and to the coast. But if she's heading this way she's gonna find slim pickings. Move. Leave what can't be carried, we'll sort something out about that. Aunty Demeter!" Ares shouted on his argumentative aunt.

"Yes Ares, you bellowed!" She gave the God of War such a look that it would have felled a heard of stampeding bulls. Ares ignored it, as she knew he would and ordered her about anyway.

"We got a  lot of refugees heading out from here. I need you to feed them. Keep them from any foods Discord might have contaminated." He did not ask, he told her what he expected her to do in name of the Godly War about to be enacted on the mortal plain.

"Yes Ares." She acquiesced without any argument.

"What about the southern refugees?" Cupid asked, taking a break from his appointed task of communicator for the lesser Gods.

"Persephone can go with them." Ares saw his uncle Hades suitably distracted by the bringing in of his wife into the war direct. "She'll be safe enough with the senior Gods to watch over her!" Hades could not argue that, he would let nothing happen to his wife.

"I take it someone has looked for Hephaestus in Lemnos and all his usual places?" Iolaus asked. The non sequitor response did not throw the War God, he mearly passed the question on to someone else to answer.

"Cupid?" He asked.

"Yes, all his familiar places, it's like he's dropped off the world somewhere!" The Love God replied.

"Is he a prisoner of Discord too?" Iolaus asked the blond God.

"No, he was safe enough until Ares found Strife and asked him to release the lock. Shortly thereafter he vanished but is not hidden by cloak like Strife is, he's just not using his powers and can't be traced. Where ever he's gone it's nowhere I've been before and I thought I knew all his temples."

"When I was a kid, at the academy, every time Hephaestus was in trouble with Zeus and you lot he'd go to his cave just above the school in the hills." The hunter thought about that, as did the War God.

"You need a bloody fast horse to get there in time and get him back to me." Ares looked at the hunter and smiled. Iolaus had sense enough to be very afraid.

"I don't like horses..." He tried pointing out.

"You'll love this one!" Ares promised. "Mother, bring your horse!" He called out and dragged the hunter behind him as he headed out into the court yard to await his mother's arrival.

Then Iolaus gave up the struggle, and did indeed want so much to ride that horse. Before him stood Hera leading Pegasus on a reign.

"Why do you want him dear?" His mother asked the War God.

"I've got someone who might know where Hephaestus is, but he's got too far to travel." Ares explained as he lifted Iolaus onto Pegasus' back, and spoke not to the man but the horse. "Okay, listen up, you do as he says, take him where he wants to go and return him and Hephaestus to ME, not anyone or any where else, but ME, mind, and be quick about it!" Ares smacked the flying horses
rump and it took off for the sky's with a screaming Iolaus holding on for dear life. It was impossible to tell if the scream was fear or delight.

"Cupid?" Ares asked, knowing his son would know what he wanted to know.

"They're in position and moving, even here." Cupid informed him.


"We're getting on it, I'll report in later." And the God of the Dead vanished.


"I've got a spot picked out to allow the refugees to come together safely." She too vanished.

"Mother, Aunt Fortune, do you feel up to joining me in a spot of stolen soul releasing here?" He looked at his son. "And you too Cupid. Just think of all their lost opportunities to love.." He grinned, pointed and continued speaking. "About four miles in that direction!" He said, so emphatically.

"What about us? Me and Autolycus?" Joxer hated being left out of the action, it was bad enough when Xena did it, just because she thought him too caring, to weak! But when his own chosen God did it too?!

"You two help with the evacuation but stay here in the village. I'll be back for you, okay?" Ares compelled both mortals to obey that order, seeing in Joxer's mind the desire to join in the fight to come.

"Yes." Two voices echoed as one.

"Ladies? Son? Shall we?" Ares indicated a specific point and lead his troops out to do Godly battle.

Part 8
As they approached the advancing army of undead villagers, Cupid began to have doubts as to what good they could do if Discord could just keep on re-animating the corpses. He needn't have worried, his father, as if reading his mind, supplied the answer.

"Right, mother, Aunt Fo. You both know what you got to do? We need a wave of life power wide enough to get them all and you are going to have to keep it going until Cupid and I can do what we are going to do. Okay?" Ares' mother and Aunt both nodded, their faces showing no emotion, both Goddess' were building up power to do as Ares required.

Life power, that special something Gods kept ticking over in the world. It was the fulcrum on which all mortal life balanced. If mortals got full control of it, then they would surely wipe themselves out. It had very nearly happened so often before, and no doubt, would happen time and time again. Mortals had shaped their Gods to hold that power in balance, and when one of those so called protectors of humanity went rogue, it threatened everything. Every time it had happened the Gods had amalgamated behind Ares, the War God, the Defender of Mortal Man, even from themselves. This was Ares primary function, saving the world from any who would destroy it. His secondary function was saving the mortals from themselves. Little wonder he always thought he could run things better than any other!

Hera thought briefly and worried about just such a day as this, one in which when Ares might go rogue. Who then would save the world? Certainly not the likes of Hercules? Her thoughts were interrupted as Ares spoke to his son, distracting her, refocusing her mind on the task at hand.

"Cupid, we have to destroy the corpses as your grandmother and great aunt produce them We will have to do them one at a time, so speed is of the essence here. Any questions?" Ares looked at his son, knowing full well he had a thousand questions and knowing full well his son would restrict himself to one, or two at the most.

"Yeah, why individually?" Cupid asked.

"We, as their Gods, have to free each soul with our undivided attention. If we try to cheat and do two, or more, then we will be wasting our time. Discord will just re-animate them. But, if we do them one at a time, we can let their souls go over to Hades' domain with a God's blessing. She won't be able to touch them then. We'll have freed them. I'm sorry son, but there is no way to free them and leave them alive. We tried that once, shit, but that was messy!" Ares smiled, a little sadly at that memory, but tried to look confident for his son. This would be the first battlefield where they would
fight together. Just them, Hera and Aunt Fo. Ares regretted that there weren't more Gods there to help, but this had to be dealt with now...

Hera and Aunt Fo took up positions facing each other, then they built their power net. A life power that Cupid could see and feel took shape between them, the Love God and his father stood well back from that shimmering field of absolute power. They had too much to do to risk power burns from that weapon.

Pacing themselves Hera and Fo walked up the field that Discord had her army arranged on. They had their energies almost to the full stretch when they engaged the enemy. As the undead hit that energy barrier they crackled and fell, twitching. That was Ares and Cupid's signal, they moved forwards sweeping the field from side to side, reducing each fallen fighter to dust, freeing the soul trapped within.

It was slow progress to deal with Discord's army, she had several hundred souls trapped under her command. Ares could see that it would be a finely run race to see who ran out of power first. Them or Discord? The entire battle was a source of Discordant energy, that couldn't be helped, but the joy from each soul released, refreshed those liberating them a little each time too.

They had been fighting that army of undead villagers for some time when Ares' thoughts turned towards his son. The War God could only imagine what his son must be feeling, his own hands were already tingling from the power feedbacks he received from each execution, soon his fingers would show signs of burn damage, then of actual reduction of his living flesh. He had faced this before, Cupid never had.

The energy field flickered slightly, right before Ares' eyes and let an unfree soul pass through. It took time from Ares' task to deal with it. To first freeze it's energies then kill it properly, he had to race to catch up his quota of deaths.

Cupid could see his hands beginning to burn, but he knew soul deep that he had to struggle on, that his father was as damaged and hurt as he was. Yet, he knew that they owed this sacrifice, if that was what it was, to these poor souls they had failed to protect. Burn, tingle, burn, tingle, the rhythm went on.

Then he saw a lapse  from his grandmother and a group of undead got through. He had to take to the air to take them all out. Kill, burn, tingle, kill, burn, tingle, the rhythm changed. Eventually the small group were all dead and Cupid tried desperately to speed up to catch up. As he reached for his next victim, or maybe they were supplicants, he was unsure which, but as he reached for him he found his father by his side, helping him.

All they could do was smile. Neither God had the energy to spare for idle chatter, nor the time. Most assuredly these mortals before them definitely had neither. Burn, tingle, burn, tingle the rhythm went on.

Hera let her eyes flick ahead of their steady progress and judged their chances of success. They had made big inroads into the ranks that were set to oppose them, but somehow she doubted they were big enough! That they were powerful enough! Discord's madness seemed to have been gathering strength for so very long, and no one had noticed it. She regretted her failure to help her daughter, but that did not alter her desire to see this through.

Refocusing her thoughts to the power field she prayed., almost idly, that help would arrive before their energy ran out. Their field of power had flickered twice now, they couldn't afford any more losses to their power field. Most definitely,  Ares and Cupid couldn't afford any more power lapses.

Fortune tried not to gauge their chances, she didn't want to jinx herself, or more importantly, those mortals they were trying to free from Discord's hold. She reinforced the power field as she felt it begin to flicker again. This was a task she truly hated, all the Gods truly hated, even Ares hated it. Mortals were their vital energy source, such mass destruction wasn't good for man or Gods, but needs must when the mad drive! And Discord was most definitely mad.

As Hera and Fortune began to show signs of failing power Discord picked up her pace a bit. She appeared on the field of combat, well away from that sizzling power field, yet close enough to try and effect a power drain on the two Goddess'. She began to build up her power levels, readying a massive fireball when she was herself in receipt of just such an energy blow. She looked up and above her Cupid flew, hands shimmering as he build up his power for another blast. This time her anger and rage took over and she tried to redirect her power at her nephew. Cupid's directed energy met her disorganised energy and the backlash sent Discord flying away from that power field, she crashed through several trees before coming to a halt half way through yet another one.

Painfully, she dragged herself out of that tree and promised the world that she would personally pluck her nephew and roast his corpse herself. She looked for his signature and found him, working with his father, destroying more of her army!

She screamed her rage again, it was an awful sound. Animalistic in nature, human in form, and insane in its pain.

Discord ran back to the battlefield, all focus beyond her, unable to move herself there with a thought, but, before she got there, she saw and felt several disruptions in the air. More Gods and Goddess' had arrived to help with the battle. Aphrodite and Artemis took over the forming of the power field, letting Hera and Fortune fall back slightly, regaining their strength. Bacchus and Apollo took over from their brother and his son. That let Ares look to Cupid and assess his injuries.

Discord was insane, she was not stupid. She knew her army would fall under the assault of fresh Gods and Goddess'. She opened a spacial vortex, all that rage she had generated to destroy Cupid found an outlet that condemned what was left of her army to a lingering undeath.

She left the field with as many of her troops as she could. Behind her nothing showed of her passing, just dust blowing in the breeze and the sounds of pain and exhaustion from those that had opposed her. Cupid crashed to the ground as wave after wave of pain flooded him from his hands, his back; his entire body was one enormous ache. He suspected his father was in as bad shape as he, if not worse. Yet Ares remained standing, ordering his fresh troops into new patterns of defence and warfare. The Love God lay there, pain forgotten for a moment and just worshipped his father. All that power, and it was gearing around the defence of two mortals!

"Pol, you and Artemus go to that village back there about four miles, in it you'll find two mortal men. Protect them, at all cost. Discord will try and get to them, to prevent us from freeing Strife. GO!" He commanded his older brother and sister, as always when the Gods were threatened they put aside all enmity and duly went where they were needed most.

Part 9

Ares' next task was to call for Asclepius and have the God of Healing see to Cupid's injuries, that done he turned to his mother and aunt, reassuring himself that they were recovering from their fatigue.

Hera smiled at her son, he was ever the good general, seeing to his troops needs before his own comforts.

"Come, Ares, sit by me and give me your hands!" She commanded, in her 'mother' voice, the one Ares knew you disregarded at your own peril.

"Yes, mamma." He offered his burned hands to his mother, for her inspection and sat back to enjoy her ministrations. The pain was distracting, and he couldn't afford further delays and distractions if he was to protect the people, stifle Discord's attempts at replacing her fallen troops. Perhaps the pain was distracting him afer all.

"Hades!" Ares called out to his uncle. "Listen to me, Discord will try to hit the convoys of mortals to replenish her army. Beware, night will fall soon, call in any other minor Gods you can round up if need be, you have to strangle her army!" He repeated his message to Demeter and was reassured that both senior Gods had already implemented a guard policy designed to minimise her attrition of their charges.

A loud WHOOMF sounded in the direction of the village, followed by the appearance of Apollo and Artemis with Joxer and Autolycus between them. Loud crackles and pops continued to sound in the growing night sky which was alight with a dancing orange flame as the village the mortals had been sheltering in burned brightly for the world to see.

"What happened?" Ares asked, finally retrieving his hands from his mother's treatment, yet not breaking free of his mother's grasp harshly, that would be an illfitting payment for her care.

"We got there as some of Discord's troops were trying to get to Joxer and Autolycus, more because they were the only mortals there than anything else. They didn't know who they were, just that they were mortal and they had been programmed to target any and all mortals. When we got there, Joxer and Auto were on the roof of the building next to the inn, lobbing  burning oil lamps at the troops surrounding them. Seems Joxer decided that they needed light to fight the darkness, until you could rescue them." Apollo looked at the still unconscious mortals, they had knocked them out to make transporting them easier.

"He did make a good point though. Discord's army does eat up the light around them. If you're above them you can follow them by the trail of darkness, what did he call them?" Artemis asked her brother.

"An army of darkness, I think, well, it fitted. So we helped combat them with a little light. We couldn't free them from Discord's hold with just the two of us, so we elected
to delay their advance with a little bit of Godly light."

"You did the best you could, now, we have to get these two somewhere safe for the night. Any ideas?" Ares looked around his own small troop of more than deadly soldiers, and it was Bacchus who came up with the solution.

"Why not take them underground, I have a subterranian temple near here, and I can promise you that my Bacchae will not bite them, or you lot either for that matter. Discord has always hated to be enclosed in the Earth, so I don't think she'd follow us there." He stood beside his brother, Ares, and smiled, which would not have been reassuring on another God's face, and was only just so on his.

"Okay, lead on Bac." Ares assisted his mother and aunt to their feet, made sure Dite and their son were both fit for the transfer, then he helped Pol with Joxer's dead weight. Cupid moved to assist his aunt Artemis with Autolycus' weight.

Bacchus formed the image of the temple in his mind and shared that image with his family members, gathered all around him, sheltering one another. When next they looked around they were in his domain, and safe. Almost every one of them sighed loudly with relief, everyone except Hera, she sighed very quietly, loud heaving gasps being undignified.

"Now children, food, beds, reports, let's get organised!" Hera was on a roll. Ares let her take centre stage in the organisations, he felt her need to be doing something, and truth be acknowledged, he felt so weary, tired to his very soul. All the God of War really craved at that moment was sleep. Exhaustedly he dragged himself off to one of the newly created beds.

"Arry?" Dite's quiet voice sounded beside his bed.

"Hmm?" He quizzed, not opening his eyes.

"Herc knows, Cupid told you, didn't he?"

"Hmmm, hmm." He confirmed.

"And you know I'm sorry Strife ever had to suffer like this, don't you?"

"Hmm, hmm!" His non verbal sounds were begining to sound angry, and exhausted.

"I just want you to know, I'm on Strife's side in this, and if Heph is guilty, I will cast the first fireball at him myself, you know?" Her voice caught, giving her former lover her assurance that she would assist in the dissoloution of her husband, if he were guilty.

Ares' eyes open as he turned to face her.

"Now you're being silly, Dite, he's innocent, Iolaus will prove it. He'll find him, bring him to me and we'll get this mess sorted out. He's more stupid than guilty, okay?" He smiled, slightly, watching his former lover's face as his reassurances cheered her.

"Thank you Arry, no wonder I love you, you know?" She hugged the father of her children and sniffed inelegantly in his ear.

"Fine, now go away and let me sleep!" He snarled, but she could hear his lack of ire as he settled down for some much needed rest. The last thing Ares heard before sleep claimed him was Dite's voice, admonishing their eldest son into getting some rest, just like his dad!

As night fell in their clearing, Sunshine and Nicus were sitting on the step of their cottage, star gazing, again. This time, they were just sitting quietly, enjoying each others company and relaxing, before going to bed.

"Ready for bed?" Sunshine asked, turning to look at his charge, his companion.

"Yeah, actually I am. Been a busy day alright, come on then." Nicus stood and
stretched, yawned and suddenly looked as tired as he no doubt felt. "Fancy a drink before bed time then?" He asked, stepping past Sunshine and pouring himself a fresh goblet of wine, a little one though.

"Sure, why not?" Sunshine didn't as a rule drink much alcohol, but felt reckless.

Nicus poured another small quantity of wine and took them both over to their bed, placing them on the little table that nestled into the side of the bed, he sat down and got undressed, ready for his nights sleep as he hadn't been in all the last, he deliberately didn't think in how long it was. Once settled he lifted both goblets once more.

"Here ya'go!" And he passed the second goblet over to Sunshine as the latter climbed into bed after him. It struck Nicus as odd, how he just let Sunshine take the outside edge of their bed. Not that he minded, he felt so much safer like that, protected, nurtured, most definitely safe.

"Thanks." Sunshine sipped his drink and settled back, his mind similarly occupied, but  he worried that Nicus might see it as more than a need to protect, but as a need to dominate.

Nicus handed him his empty goblet and settled back to sleep. Sunshine's own, now empty, goblet followed suit and he too settled down to sleep. Only, he ached to pull the skinny, malnourished Nicus to him and hold him safe against all their world could throw at him. As if reading his thoughts, Nicus rolled over and into Sunshine's arms.

"Good night." The whispered words caressed Sunshine.

"Sweet dreams, Nicus." The benediction was meant honestly, and it made Nicus smile. It felt good to have someone of his very own to worry about him that way.

"Same to you." And he closed his eyes, unaware that his fluttering eyelashes had tickled his Sunshine into instant alertness, Nicus' breathing slowed as sleep over took him.

Eventually Sunshine too fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

Morning found them awake, more or less at the same moment and both eager to rise and greet the day. Sunshine was pleased to see the changes already evident in Nicus, his face looked less haggard, with just a couple of good nights sleep, and a couple of good meals under his belt. What benefits would the following days and weeks bring?

"Is that river deep enough to swin in anywhere around here?" Sunshine asked, thinking on the benefits of good exercise, yet blushing when he imagined Nicus naked, his skin glistening with droplets of river water. Lucky for him, Nicus was looking the other way while he thought of his answer to Sunshine's question.

"Yes, there's a pool a little ways down stream from where we were yesterday." Nicus finally answered, thinking about the joy of sharing his pool with someone else, of showing his world's delights to another for the first time. He was smiling when he turned to face Sunshine. For his part Sunshine almost blushed again! Nicus' face glowed, like a child showing off his new toys to a new friend, for the first time.

The irony of that comparison didn't go unmissed by Sunshine, he suspected that friends had probably been few and far between in this young man's life. Well, not any more, if he had a say in the matter!

Part 10

The first glimpse of Chieron's old academy signalled an end to Pegasus' wild flight, as the magical beast swooped down to the darkening hillside Iolaus' grasp tightened, and the hunter felt sure they would crash into the rocks below. Shutting his eyes he prepared for the worst, only to open them briefly as the flying horse changed the movement of his muscles. Pegasus was galloping through the caverns towards Hephaestus' inner forge. Noting this, Iolaus shut his eyes tight, again, trusting the animal to remember he was
clinging to his back. Finally the blaze of a mortal fire coaxed the frozen, fearful mortal to open his eyes once more. Before him, eyes wide with shock, was his quarry.

"You are here!" Iolaus exclaimed, as he jumped from Pegasus' back.  Turning to the beast he clapped it on it's neck and pointed off to one side. "Hey, Peg, well done, why don't you go wait over there while I have a talk with Hephaestus here?" To Iolaus' shock, Pegasus did just that.

"What, other than Pegasus, brings you here Iolaus?" Hephaestus tried to pretend he had no idea why Iolaus would be working with the Gods, especially his mother, the only one who could command Pegasus, then he paled further as he remembered that his brother could command that beast too. "Ares sent you, didn't he?" He whispered.

"Yes, he wants you with him, and, I think you should go, otherwise you're declared rogue. While no one told me just what that would mean, I can guess. Discord is torturing Strife, she has been declared rogue. You have three more days to turn up or suffer the same fate. I take it being declared rogue does not mean they throw you a big party?" Iolaus tried to smile, but something about the lame Fire God told him he was worried about more that the collar that held the Mischief God its eternal prisoner.

"What could you possibly know about it?" Hephaestus shouted at the hunter.

"I know he dies daily, strangled to death by a collar you created. Why, Hephaestus, why did you create such an evil thing? What did Strife do to you that would justify your leaving him for a day in that thing. Let alone the year he has worn it!" The hunter moved towards the God, as he did so Hephaestus lifted a sword from the pile of similar weapons he had lying on his work bench.

"You don't understand, how could you?" The God hefted the weapon, watching the firelight glint from its deadly edges, mesmerised.

"Well, I sure as shit stinks won't know till you tell me, will I! What is it with you Gods? Okay, it's bloody obvious that you're guilty of something, but what the fuck is going on? Why do you hate Strife, apart from him being Strife that is?" Iolaus took his courage in both hands and moved closer to the unstable God.

"It's not what he did, he did nothing, it was what I did. I know Ares, he never forgives, he lets things sit, unmentioned, unrecalled, that is not the same as forgotten, now is it?" Hephaestus turned to face his mortal  visitor, waving the sword around. "Look at this blade! Isn't it a thing of beauty? Any warrior would love to have such a weapon, wouldn't they?" He waited for an answer. Iolaus nodded, slowly, obviously not quite following the thread of Hephaestus' confession, if that was what it was. "It sort of reminds me of 'Dite, she's perfect, irresistible to everyone she meets. But, only a few
ever get close to her, and really get to know that perfection." Hephaestus stopped talking, recalling his wife's beauty, something he could not count on seeing ever again.

"What has this to do with Strife, and what you did to him?" A deep, cold ball of fear was growing in the hunter's belly. He prayed to 'Dite he was wrong, he prayed to Ares he was wrong, he prayed to Apollo they could find all the bits when Ares got through with his lame brother, if he was not wrong.

"See, it was when 'Dite was so hot on Ares, you can't blame her, or him, really, he's so perfect. Have you ever seen Ares naked?" The Fire God asked the startled hunter.

"No, can't say I have." Iolaus whispered.

"Oh, but you must, come, see!" And the God reached forward and dragged the mortal behind him. "Look, see, this was what 'Dite craved!" So saying he threw a cover off a statue hidden in the shadows behind his forge. There, before Iolaus' shocked gaze, stood a life-size statue of the God of War, naked, perfect, glinting red and gold as the fire lived and danced on its reflective surface.

"Ares?" Iolaus squeaked, swallowed, got himself under control again. "This is Ares? Accurate?" He asked.

"Yes, every blessed, perfect inch of him!" Hephaestus turned to face the mortal, his scarred face on a level with Ares' cold, metallic beauty. "And 'Dite wanted him, still does, always will! Oh, she loves me too, so she says, but back then, back when I..." The Fire God looked away, from both the statue and the mortal. "How could he forget? I was so angry, so hurt, so much in love, and she never noticed me, not then, not how I longed to be noticed!" Hephaestus ran a hand down Ares' perfect body, almost as if the statue were flesh and blood. "What she wanted was this perfection!" He looked at Iolaus again.

"I could never hurt 'Dite, I wanted to, oh, how I really wanted to! But I loved her too much, so I hurt Ares, he took what I wanted to be mine, so I took what was his." Hephaestus nestled into the statue. "He never mentioned it, not once, Strife wouldn't come near me, ever again. I made him such gifts, such weapons. He returned them all!" He stopped talking again.

"You tried to seduce Strife. Is that what you are saying?" Iolaus prayed again, this time that the truth was a lot simpler than it at first seemed. But, his prayers went unanswered.

"Don't be dense Iolaus. I raped Strife, chained him up, abused him, mutilated him, fucked him, left him for dead. I was trying to say sorry... when the rage died, the reality set in. And I finally saw... I saw what kind of an animal I had become! Come, look at this?" He again dragged the now stunned mortal behind him, deeper into his inner sanctum. As they moved the Fire God touched a lit torch to more unlit ones, creating light the mortal way, still hiding his powers from detection. He turned to make sure Iolaus was paying attention, when assured he was, he drew another cloth off another image. This time it was a mirror. One of the God's own magical mirrors.

"What is it?" Iolaus asked.

"One of the Hall of Time's memory mirrors. It replays everything I did, see! Look at it Iolaus! See what I fear!" He turned the hunter's face till the mortal couldn't look anywhere but at the mirror.

Iolaus was faced with the image of Strife hung from the roof of the very cave they now stood in, suspended with his feet free of the floor, his whole weight was taken on obviously dislocated shoulder joints. The young God looked in pain, in a great deal of pain. His flesh was hanging in strips, blood flowed freely from many open, possibly even festering wounds.  Strife was naked, and as he revolved slowly Iolaus saw the whole extent of his injuries. The blood that flowed from the wreckage of his ragged sphincter.
Seeing the extent of Strife's injuries, the hunter had a suspicion that Ares simply didn't know, had probably never been told what had happened to the younger God. Somehow, that truth had been kept from the War God. Iolaus simply couldn't see how Ares would not have reacted to this torture, and broken Zeus' law against killing other Olympian Gods.

Unable to look anymore, Hephaestus recovered the mirror, blocking out the image far easier than he ever could blank out the memory.

"You let him go then, didn't you?" Iolaus begged to hear something, anything, that would soften the rage that filled him.

"That was just the start of my sin." The Fire God whispered, leaning into the covered mirror. "That was the end of day one... I had him here for the six months it took Ares to break free of 'Dite's spell. Remember, I said she set her heart on getting Ares, I didn't say he went willingly. The day I discovered her making more of the potion she drugged him with, I called Apollo and let Strife go. That was the day this prison sentence started. I knew that one day I would be made to pay for my crime. That Ares would decry
me and I would be finished. I have waited since that day for the truth to catch up with me. You see! I don't care if the council of twelve declare me rogue, I declared myself rogue centuries ago." The Fire God collapsed at the foot of the mirror, weeping openly, almost dislodging the covering again.

"Dear Gods, Ares, you bloody fool Hephaestus, didn't you ever realise.. Ares never knew what you had done! There is no way he would let something like this just slide!" Iolaus' angry words got no reaction from the deeply afraid and guilty God. Hephaestus was so locked up in his own misery that the hunter couldn't reach him.

Iolaus looked around, found something that he could use and bound the God's hands together with the Fire God's own chains. The vague possibility that those chains could be the very ones that had held Strife made Iolaus' skin crawl. Feeling his gorge rise, the hunter swallowed convulsively until his gut settled.

"Crying about it won't make it go away!" Iolaus' voice sounded harsh, even to his own ears, but then, the images of Strife swam before his inner eye again. That had been day one out of six whole months... Sympathy had to be earned, and Strife had earned a lifetimes supply, simply by living through that experience, and somehow protecting Ares from ever finding out about it. However, Hephaestus had yet to earn the right to a single tear. "Come on, get up!" Iolaus jerked on the chains, pulling the lame God to his feet, then guiding him towards the flying horse. "Peg, we got him. Take us to Ares!" The
hunter threw the still immobile God over Pegasus' shoulders and climbed up behind him.

Hephaestus didn't move, didn't twitch, just lay there as Pegasus started the long flight back to Ares. Iolaus held onto the God and the reigns, he shivered as they left the confines of Hephaestus' lair. He put it down to the chill night air, not to his prayers finally freed from the wards over that forge, leaving for their intended recipients.

Back in Bacchus' subterranean lair Ares, Apollo and Aphrodite shot awake as Iolaus' fears and prayers hit home. And finally, Ares and Aphrodite knew what their long ago tryst had cost Strife.

"No!!!!" Ares screamed, shot to his feet and advanced on Apollo. He reached for his brother, trying to grasp him. The elder God of Healing backed away from his advancing brother and sister.

"Ares, Strife never wanted you to know, it was his choice, I had to honour that choice!" Apollo pleaded with his brother to listen to him. "Please Ares, I was going to tell you, but Strife said no. I couldn't break my bond to him."

"What exactly did he do to Strife? I know he did something, I know what Iolaus saw and felt from his prayers. What actually happened?" Ares stood before Apollo, and wouldn't move with out finally knowing the truth.

Aphrodite was as angry as Ares, only less used to those dark, fearful emotions, She walked right up to her golden brother and slapped him, and kept on slapping him. Apollo made no move to defend himself.

"Mother!" Cupid was also now awake, and pulled his mother off of Apollo as she tried to claw the hapless God's face off. "What's wrong? What's happened?" He pleaded. Looking from one parent to the other, even sparing a glance for Hera, even she shrugged, not knowing what had happened.

Everyone was now awake, all talking at once, all trying to listen at the same time. However, it was the least regarded member of that small army that realised what Ares' words signified; and if he were right, he didn't envy the culprit's chances.

"Some one, probably Hephaestus, seeing as that was who Iolaus went looking for, has hurt Strife, really badly. Rape, mutilation, being a willing conspirator in his continual deaths! Hurt him somehow, anyway." Joxer put forward his theories. "You'd think that Gods could behave better than mortal fathers or bro..." Then he realised he had said too much. Every eye was now on him. Trying to drive that attention away from himself, he turned to Apollo and faced up to the God of healing himself.

"What did happen to Strife?" He asked, opening his memories to what had happened to him, if the God chose to look at them.

Apollo faced the would be warrior, looking into his mind and soul, comparing it to his memories of Strife's injuries.

"Six months of your thirteenth birthday, only worse." Apollo told him, then retreated to the other side of Bacchus' underground temple.

It was Cupid who looked at Joxer's memory of his thirteenth birthday. It was Cupid who imagined how much worse Strife's treatment could have been. It was Cupid who broke that news to his father. The one person he couldn't tell was his mother, he simply couldn't face her with that guilt.

"How did he get away with it?" Joxer asked, again he faced the God of Healing. "What did Zeus do, say? I can't believe he would be unaware of it? I can see Ares not knowing, you're the same generation as he is, you could hide things from him, but from your father?"

"He wouldn't care, would he?" Ares asked his brother. Apollo hung his head in shame and shook it.

"I couldn't make him care." Apollo whispered.

"None of us could." Ares whispered back.

Joxer shared a look with Autolycus and both mortals moved to one side of the great room, leaving the Gods to their guilt.

"What's the secret Joxer?" Autolycus asked his companion.

"Strife was ... somewhat abused, shall we say? For six months, and Hephaestus did it." Joxer shrugged and looked over at Aphrodite, she still stood, to one side, thinking, worrying, knowing the guilt was almost entirely hers. "You okay Aphrodite?" The would be warrior asked.

"No, should I be?" She snapped.

"The guilt isn't yours, you acted on your nature, Hephaestus seemed to have acted against his." Joxer hesitantly put an arm around her shoulders.

"Joxer, how come you're so wise?" 'Dite asked, turning into his embrace and cried.

"Experience is a great teacher." He whispered.

"I'm sure glad I'm not Hephaestus!" Autolycus muttered, then thought about something else to ask. "Say, how long ago did this all happen?"

"About, oh, thick end of twelve hundred years ago." 'Dite told him, wiping her eyes, hiccuping a few times, but bringing herself more under control.

"And Ares will do what to Hephaestus?" Autolycus asked, not quite able to imagine a more than twelve hundred year life-span.

"Ar? He'll probably shout, fireball him, slap him about a bit. Then put it to one side .. Ar's like that, time, and distance robs him of his rage. He will have calmed down by the time Curly and Heph get here." The Goddess of Love looked a little distant, as if her thoughts were totally elsewhere.

"And you?" Auto coaxed an answer from her.

"I'll kill the snivelling bastard!" She got up and stormed away.

"She's more than a little pissed." The thief observed.

"Wouldn't you be? In her position?" Joxer asked in turn. "'Look what horrors I did? I did them because I love you so much?' Doesn't work as an excuse, violence is violence no matter how you decorate it up!"

All they could do was sit back and wait for Iolaus and Hephaestus to arrive. With no sure way of guessing how long the journey would take the winged horse, those that could, tried to sleep. Those that knew they couldn't sat quietly, nursing their own angers and pains.

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