DOUBLE INDEMNITY





“Herc, do you think Iphicles can keep the peace with the Parthians?” Iolaus panted as he struggled to keep up with his partner’s long strides.

“I hope so,” Hercules grimly nodded. “But Jason’s message was awfully urgent. They were bound to test Iphicles sooner or later.”

“What IS their problem?” Iolaus grumbled. “There’s been peace since we were kids. Why go to war now?”

Before the demigod could answer, a flash of light ahead of them heralded the arrival of a god. To their surprise, the God of Forges appeared before them.

“Hesphaestus?” Hercules exchanged a startled look with his partner. “What are you doing here?”

The god did look uncomfortable as he rarely appeared in the mortal world. When he did, it was usually close to one of his followers’ forges. “I’ve been asked to take you to your brother’s camp,” the god explained.

“That doesn’t sound good,” Iolaus muttered.

Hesphaestus’ dark eyes flickered towards the hunter. He briefly smiled. “I think you’d be disappointed if there wasn’t trouble.”

As Iolaus uncomfortably shrugged, a flash of energy appeared next to the God of Forges. “Heffie! What’s the hold-up?”

“Aphrodite,” Hercules sighed. Now he understood who had gotten Hesphaestus involved.

The Goddess of Love planted her hands on her hips and pouted. “We don’t have all day, you know.”

“Of course,” Hesphaestus quickly agreed. “But I always like at least talking with Hercules. I don’t get to see him that often.”

Aphrodite sniffed. “I know, sweetums, but this is an emergency.”

Hercules and Iolaus exchanged amused looks at the word “sweetums”. Then the demigod looked at his sister. “What’s going on, Aphrodite?”

The Goddess of Love hesitated. “You’ll see,” she evaded.

-------------------------

They appeared a half-league from the Corinthian army’s encampment. “It’ll help if they see you and Curly arrive,” Aphrodite explained. “Morale, you know.”

Hercules refrained from commenting although he gave her an exasperated look.

“Everything will be explained soon,” Hesphaestus sympathetically assured him as they disappeared.

Iolaus glanced at his partner. “Well...at least we’re going to find out what’s going on,” he finally said.

“Somehow that doesn’t reassure me,” Hercules grunted.

To their practiced eyes, the Corinthian army looked ready to fight. The two heroes were quickly recognized and escorted to Iphicles’ large tent located in the middle of the encampment. The tent served not only as his sleeping quarters, but a place for Iphicles to meet with his military advisers and other personnel. To their surprise, they heard Jason’s voice from just inside the tent.

“Jason’s here?” Iolaus mouthed to his partner. Usually, Iphicles left Jason as regent when he took to the field.

Hercules quizzically nodded. “I’m surprised the Council let both of them get this close to the front,” he murmured.

Iolaus giggled. “I think the Council is scared of Iphicles. They’re probably afraid he’ll toss the crown back in their lap and walk away if they cross him too often,” he whispered in return.

The former King of Corinth turned as they were escorted inside. “Hercules! Iolaus! Glad you’re here!” Jason turned to the warriors, dismissing them with a nod. The warriors nodded in relief at the two heroes before leaving.

“Jason, what’s....” Hercules began only to have Jason furtively shake his head.

“I’m sure you’d like to rest and eat,” Jason calmly interrupted. “And speak with Iphicles.”

“Oh yeah,” Hercules nodded. “I really would.”

Jason silently led them into the tent’s interior. “Things are more secure here,” he murmured. Push a tent flap aside, he entered a large sleeping chamber. Lounging on the cot was the God of War.

“How nice of you to join us, brother,” Ares smirked.

Jason quickly got in front of Hercules. “Don’t,” he urged. “We’re all on the same side.”

“Since when?” Iolaus demanded.

“Nice to see you, too, shorty,” Ares grinned. “Still alive, I see.”

Iolaus rolled his eyes even as Hercules struggled to stay calm.

“Where’s Iphicles?” the demigod finally demanded.

“Good question, Hercules,” Ares admitted as he got to his feet. His left hand easily rested on the hilt of his ornate sword. “One I’d like answered as well.”

“Sit down,” Jason wearily advised. “We’re still trying to figure it all out ourselves.” He waited until Hercules and Iolaus found chairs and sat down. Ares silently watched, impatience in his dark eyes. Jason poured some wine into goblets and passed them out.

“Someone has been agitating both the Corinthians and Parthians,” the former king began. “Trying to start a war.”

Hercules automatically looked at the God of War.

“Innocent of all charges,” Ares smirked. “It’s not to my advantage for Corinth to fight anyone right now.”

“Why’s that?” Iolaus curiously asked.

Ares hesitated then shrugged. “Ceasar’s death has created quite a turmoil in Rome. Until it gets sorted out, Greece needs Corinth armed...but not engaged in war.”

“Buying time,” Hercules surmised.

Ares barely nodded in agreement. “So you can imagine my...dismay when the armies of both Corinth and Parthia took to the field.”

“The Parthians massed on the border,” Jason continued. “Iphicles sent part of the army to meet them.”

“Why would someone want to start a war?” Hercules demanded.

“Excellent question,” Ares briskly nodded. “I can’t wait to get the answer.”

“And where is Iphicles?” Hercules demanded.

Surprisingly, Jason exchanged a worried look with Ares. “We don’t know.”

“WHAT?!” The demigod’s voice could be heard bellowing throughout the tent. “What do you mean, you don’t know?!” He jumped to his feet.

Iolaus winced, rubbing one ear. “Want to yell a little louder, Herc? I don’t think they heard you on Mt. Olympus.”

Hercules irritably glared at his partner but sat back down.

“He was here two days ago,” Jason explained. “He asked me to meet him here since I’d had a lot of experience in dealing with the Parthians. He’d received a rather interesting offer from them. We were here...in this chamber. I turned around to get some scrolls from my pack. When I turned around...he was gone.” He gave his two friends a level look. “The guards swear he never left the tent. And I have no reason to doubt them.”

“That sounds like the work of the gods,” Hercules sourly decided with a glare at Ares.

“Like I said, Hercules. Not my work,” Ares firmly replied.

“How did Aphrodite get involved?” Iolaus curiously asked.

Jason half-smiled. “The interesting proposition from the Parthian king was to offer an alliance. His daughter in marriage to Iphicles.”

Hercules exchanged a thoughtful look with Iolaus. “I presume Aphrodite says she’s not involved.”

Ares smirked. “Oh, she’s involved. It seems the daughter of the Parthian king is also missing.”

“Great.” Iolaus swallowed the entire goblet of wine in one gulp. “Let me guess. She just...disappeared.”

“According to Aphrodite, she’d taken refuge in her temple to protest being offered in marriage to Iphicles.” Despite the situation, Jason’s dark eyes twinkled in amusement. “Aphrodite told her to stay there, but she left the temple grounds. Something about returning to the palace for her favorite hairpiece.”

“Spoiled princesses,” Iolaus muttered with a shake of his head.

“So...we have a missing princess. Who, by the way, the Parthian king does NOT know is missing...yet. We have a missing king. And two armies ready to go to war with each other.” Ares slowly nodded. “Yeah, that covers it.”

“One of the gods, for his or her own reasons, has abducted both of them,” Hercules mused. “If we knew which one, we might know where they are.”

“Brilliant deduction,” Ares drawled.

“Why are you here?” Iolaus demanded.

Once again, Jason and Ares exchanged quick looks.

“The Parthian king arrived yesterday,” Jason slowly explained. “He wants to negotiate. He’s got the idea both Parthia and Corinth are being pushed into a war. But he’ll negotiate only with Iphicles.” Taking a deep breath, he slowly nodded at Ares.

Both Hercules and Iolaus watched in startled confusion as Ares closed his eyes. Then he slowly transformed into Iphicles. Iolaus caught himself before he fell off the chair. Hercules slowly stood facing the image of his mortal half-brother.

The familiar dark eyes opened. The familiar face smiled. “Neat trick, huh?” Iphicles said with Ares’ voice.

“He’s impersonating Iphicles?” Hercules half-whispered.

“Jason, are you crazy?” Iolaus demanded.

“They’ll only negotiate with Iphicles. If he’s not here, we go to war,” Jason wearily reminded them. “Got a better idea?”

“Yeah!” Iolaus retorted. “He’s the God of War! He could disperse the armies!”

Hercules watched in almost horrid fascination as the God of War shook his head.

“No can do,” the disguised God of War disagreed. “Rome may be in turmoil but she’s watching Greece closely. And Rome does have spies around, you know. Any hint of instability, and Rome marches.”

“And Ares’ open interference could be construed as instability,” Jason continued. He glanced at Ares. “By the way, it would make it more realistic if you spoke with Iphicles’ voice. Remember?”

The Corinthian king scowled then tilted his head to one side. “This better?” he asked in the king’s softer voice.

Hercules finally tore his eyes away. “What’s to prevent Ares...pretending to be Iphicles... from committing Corinth to something Iphicles doesn’t want?”

“Me,” Jason casually smiled. “As King Iphicles’ most trusted political adviser...and someone the Parthians have dealt with on many occasions...they’ll suspect a trap if HE makes a false step.” He casually indicated the disguised God of War with a nod of his head.

“Like I said,” Ares repeated. “It’s not in my best interests to have either Corinth or Parthia weakened by a confrontation.”

Hercules and Iolaus stared at each other for a long moment. Then the demigod took a deep breath. “What can we do to help, Jason?”

“Help keep an eye on him.” Jason nodded at the God of War once again. “It’s possible someone might try to assassinate him. Not everyone here is committed to keeping the peace as the kings are.” He ruefully smiled.

“I trust I can count on your support, brother.” Ares’ smile eerily reminded the others of the missing king.

“I think we can do that, can’t we, Herc?” Iolaus quickly grabbed his partner’s arm before the demigod could take a step forward.

“Shouldn’t we be looking for Iphicles?” Hercules grunted.

“Aphrodite and Hesphaestus are doing their best,” Jason smoothly answered. “The only logical answer to their disappearance is that one of the gods are involved. We just have to hope they can find both Iphicles and Princess Dacia as quickly as possible.”

------------------------------

Iphicles was hoping someone would find them soon...before he throttled a certain spoiled little princess. One moment he was in his tent conferring with Jason. The next he was trapped in this stone maze with a torch and a confused Princess Dacia.

“I don’t think you have any idea where you’re going! Do you?” Dacia demanded.

“Trust me, Princess. If I knew how to get out of here, I’d have done it long before now,” Iphicles assured her.

Holding the torch high, he slowly walked down the corridor. He’d stopped checking hours before to see if she was following him.

“I don’t know why I’m following you,” Dacia grumbled. “This is all probably some Corinthian plot.”

Exasperated, Iphicles whirled around and glared at the young woman behind him.

Dacia cast the illusion of being little more than a child. Part of that was her short stature. The top of her head barely came to Iphicles’ elbow. Long blonde ringlet curls hung almost to her waist. Round dark brown eyes peered up at him with obvious suspicion. Her once stainless emerald green gown was now dusty and her thin slippers provided next to no protection from the rough stone ground.

In actual fact, Dacia was a grown adult woman who, while a pampered princess and favored daughter of the King of Parthia, was nonetheless a woman of firm convictions...and didn’t hesitate to express them.

“This is NOT a Corinthian plot, as you put it,” Iphicles finally answered. As he turned back around, he muttered, “If it was, it would be better than this.”

“I don’t believe it!” Dacia snapped with a toss of her head. She glared at Iphicles’ broad back as he started walking away. Raising her skirts, she trotted to keep up with him. “After all, you’re the one who begged for my hand in marriage and when I...”

“I did WHAT?!” Angrily, Iphicles whirled around nearly knocking Dacia off her feet. “I did no such thing!”

“That’s NOT the message your couriers brought,” Dacia argued.

“What couriers? I sent no couriers,” Iphicles seethed.

“Yes, you did!” Dacia put her hands on her hips. “You BEGGED for my hand in marriage.”

“I don’t beg.” Iphicles’ voice grated even to his own ears. “Especially for the hand of a spoiled...” He coldly eyed her from head to foot. “...LITTLE girl who hasn’t the sense the Gods gave a newborn goat.”

Dacia’s dark eyes widened. “How insulting!” she spat. “Just what I’d expect from a Corinthian!”

Iphicles coldly eyed her for a moment then turned around to walk away. “How is it possible your father hasn’t married you off yet?”

Dacia angrily stomped her foot, then winced as a sharp pain shot up her lower leg. “Don’t think I won’t tell father how you’ve treated me!” she snapped as she hurried to catch up to him. “Besides, I still think this is a Corinthian plot! Isn’t your brother a god or something? He could have done this for you!”

“He’s only half a god,” Iphicles automatically replied. Narrowing his eyes, he saw the corridor branch into two separate directions. “And he doesn’t play games like this. He doesn’t have enough imagination.”

Dacia sniffed. “So you say.”

Iphicles held out the torch where the corridor split. Sighing, he looked first in one direction then another. He irritably tapped his forefinger on the hilt of his sword.

“Well?” Dacia snapped, impatiently tapping her foot.

“We’re not at the center of the maze yet,” Iphicles explained. “As we get closer, the wind will show us the way out.” He indicated the torch with a nod of his head.

“So you still have no idea which way to go, do you?” Dacia smiled in satisfaction.

Iphicles stepped to one side and bowed in her direction. “Please. Be my guest.”

Dacia hesitated only for a moment, then purposefully strode down the corridor to her left. Iphicles followed, easily keeping up with her short strides.

A sudden rumbling caused him to first stop, then look upwards. Concerned, Dacia stopped and looked over her shoulder at Iphicles.

“Back!” Iphicles yelled, grabbing Dacia’s arm. He easily pulled her towards him even as he turned and tried to run.

The first rock hit him on his shoulder, sending him to one knee. The torch flew from his hand to land against the stone wall. Dacia screamed as he struggled to his feet. Launching himself towards Dacia, he shoved her to the ground and covered her with his body as the ceiling collapsed.

--------------------------------

Jason was getting a headache. It wasn’t easy keeping one eye on ‘Iphicles’ and the other on Hercules. He gratefully smiled at Iolaus who was trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to keep the demigod’s attention on anything other but the God of War who sat in Iphicles’ place convincing everyone he WAS the King of Corinth.

The guests of the King of Corinth sat on one side of the tent facing the guests of the King of Parthia. Both sides alternated eating with scowling at each other. Only the presence of both kings and ingrained discipline kept them from brawling. The disgruntled look that kept reappearing on Hercules’ face didn’t help matters.

Every time that look appeared, Iolaus kicked his partner’s ankle. Jason figured the demigod’s ankle was already sorely bruised...and the meal wasn’t half completed.

“What I don’t understand is who profits by pitting us against one another?” Xanos, the Parthian king, scowled. A middle-aged man whose body had thickened with too much good living, he nonetheless was well known as a shrewd and ruthless monarch. The scowl on his face only emphasized his porcine features.

‘Iphicles’ shrugged. “Rome. Dissidents within your kingdom.” He sardonically smiled. “Mine, too, of course.” He sighed. “But...here we are. Face to face. And neither of us wants war.”

“Have you given thought to my proposal of a more...substantial alliance?” Xanos casually asked. He bit off a piece of cheese and closely studied the Corinthian king.

“Such a matter would, of course, have to be debated in Council,” Jason smoothly answered. “The marriage of a king is not purely a personal matter.”

“You made it a personal matter,” Xanos pointed out.

“And chose to step down as king,” Jason evenly replied.

“Are you refusing my daughter?” Xanos demanded.

“How could I possibly refuse what I haven’t seen?” ‘Iphicles’ easily smiled. He refilled their goblets. “Perhaps we can arrange a visit once we have matters settled here. After all, a battle camp is no place for women.”

Xanos grunted and drank from his goblet.

Jason caught the twinkle in the dark eyes of the man sitting next to him and inwardly sighed.

Xanos quickly looked at ‘Iphicles’. “Rome?” he grunted. “Maybe so. Wouldn’t put it past those sons of...”

“I think we’re agreed that both kingdoms gain nothing by going to war,” Jason quickly interrupted.

“True,” Xanos nodded. “But I will not rest until I find out who is behind all this!” He thumped the table with his fist to emphasize his words.

“Neither will I,” ‘Iphicles’ assured him. He glanced at Jason. “Neither will I.” He smiled at Xanos. “Since we are in agreement about that, enough serious discussion.” He snapped his fingers.

Jason nervously stared as several scantily clad women entered the tent.. To the others it looked as though the Corinthian king had summoned them. To someone familiar with the gods, Jason knew the God of War had conjured them.

Hercules nearly choked on a piece of bread as one of the women began sinuously swaying in front of him. Then he glared at his ‘brother’ who genially smiled in his direction.

Iolaus’ eyes widened as he sat up straighter, smiling in appreciation.

Jason relaxed as men on both sides of the tent began relaxing. He inwardly nodded as the level of tension immediately decreased.

“I don’t believe this,” Hercules muttered to his partner.

“Relax, Herc,” Iolaus grinned. “It’s working. Everybody’s starting to relax.” He stifled a giggle. “Even Jason.”

Hercules guiltily looked towards his friend who was listening with a slight smile to something Xanos was saying. He knew he hadn’t made Jason’s job this evening any less difficult.

“I’m surprised, Iphicles of Corinth!” Xanos laughed as he smacked his hand on the table in appreciation. “You have the reputation of being such a somber young man.”

“Everyone has a hidden side to them,” ‘Iphicles’ grinned. He turned to Jason and whispered. “Bet you a hundred dinars, Hercules is the first one to leave.”

Jason shot him a silent warning look...but said nothing.

---------------------------

“Iphicles. Iphicles. Wake up!”

Slowly, Iphicles opened his eyes. Blinking them, he tried to focus on the face hovering above him.

“Thank the gods,” Dacia sighed. “Don’t try to move. Just lie still.”

Iphicles realized his head was pillowed in Dacia’s lap. He sighed when a cool cloth was placed on his forehead. Then he frowned. “Where did this come from?” he asked, trying to sit up.

Dacia firmly pressed his shoulders downward. “I said lie still. You shouldn’t move until the dizziness passes. There’s no rush.” When he relaxed, she absently brushed the hair from his forehead. “As to where the water and cloth came from, they appeared when the food, blankets, and extra torches did.”

Frowning, Iphicles turned his head. A basket sat nearby with two loaves of bread sticking up inside it. Two large carafes flanked the basket. Another carafe was next to Dacia along with some bandaging cloths and a thick woolen blanket. Two torches brightly burned in braziers that Iphicles knew hadn’t been in the wall when the ceiling collapsed.

“Are we where the ceiling collapsed?” Iphicles tried to see the dark ceiling above them.

“I don’t think so,” Dacia hesitantly answered. “When...I was taken from near Aphrodite’s temple, I felt dizzy and a tingling on my skin. I felt the same sensation right after...When I opened my eyes, I was sitting here. All this stuff was where you see it.”

“Where was I?” Iphicles asked, closing his eyes to fight the dizziness.

“Sprawled out on the ground next to me,” Dacia half-smiled. “You don’t have any broken bones or ribs. But you took a nasty bump on the head. The wound’s clean though. You shouldn’t have any trouble with it once the dizziness clears.”

Iphicles opened one eye and stared at her. “You sound like a very competent healer.”

“I could be,” Dacia admitted. “Unfortunately, it’s not seemly for a princess to get her hands dirty. Especially with blood and broken bodies.”

Iphicles grunted and closed his eye. “Food, water, torches, bandages, a blanket...” He absently frowned. “Somebody doesn’t want us dead.”

“Could have fooled me,” Dacia briskly replied. “A cave-in isn’t very benign.”

Iphicles grunted again. “If we were supposed to be dead, we would be.”

“How comforting,” Dacia snorted.

Iphicles took deep breaths trying to conquer the dizziness. “Why were you at Aphrodite’s temple?”

“Excuse me?” Dacia’s eyebrows rose. The gesture was lost since Iphicles refused to open his eyes.

“Why were you at Aphrodite’s temple?” Iphicles repeated.

“After my father told me about your desire for my hand in marriage...” Dacia began.

“Which never happened,” Iphicles evenly interrupted.

“...and my father seriously considered it,” Dacia snapped. “I went to Aphrodite’s temple to plead for her protection.”

“From me?” Iphicles’ dark eyes opened in surprise. “What did you expect would happen? I’d bring an army to FORCE you to wed me?”

“You have an army on our borders,” Dacia acidly pointed out.

“The Parthians have an army on my border!” Iphicles snapped, angrily sitting up. “Of course, I put an army there!”

“So you admit you were planning on forcing me to marry you!” Dacia accused.

Iphicles got to his feet. “Princess Dacia, I have no intention of marrying you,” he angrily explained. “Your father doesn’t possess enough of a dowry to convince ANYONE to marry you! A man would have to be completely insane to marry you!”

Slowly...deliberately Dacia got to her feet. Stiffening her spine, she regally stared up at the enraged Corinthian king. “If this is your idea of wooing, I certainly have NO desire to find out what the honeymoon would be like.” Before Iphicles could stop sputtering, she leaned down and took one of the blankets. “I will sleep over there. Try not to disturb me with your snoring.”

Iphicles refrained from kicking the basket of food. “If there’s any snoring to be done, it’ll happen because of that little piggy nose of yours,” he muttered.

Dacia gasped. She automatically put her right hand over her nose.

Iphicles flushed. “I apolo....”

“Sweet Aphrodite, protect this poor fool,” Dacia angrily muttered. “Because I’m going to kill him.”

------------------------------------

“I could get used to this,” Ares gloated. He flopped down on Iphicles’ cot and regally glared at his half-brother. “I’d forgotten how entertaining it is to fool mortals.”

“Don’t get used to it,” Hercules snarled. He glanced at an obviously weary Jason. “Why don’t you get some rest, Jason? I’ll keep an eye on HIM.”

“We’ll keep an eye on him,” Iolaus casually corrected.

Jason looked from the demigod to the god. “I don’t think so,” Jason shook his head. “I’ll stay here. It’s what the Parthians would expect.”

Ares sat up. Even using Iphicles’ features, his scowl was familiar. “I’ve made nice-nice with the Parthians. Why should I stay here now? They’re sleeping.” He leered. “Or otherwise occupied.”

“What were you thinking?” Hercules angrily demanded. “That little stunt probably cost Iphicles a lot as far as his reputation is concerned!”

Iolaus exchanged a worried look with Jason. “Uh, Herc...”

“Yada yada yada.” Ares held up his hand, palm open towards the demigod. “Tell it to someone who cares. I probably did old stiff-in-the-neck a favor. Tartarus, I probably ENHANCED his reputation!”

“ENHANCED?!” Hercules bellowed. “What part of your deranged mind...”

“DERANGED?!” Ares bellowed back. He got to his feet eyeing his half-brother with an angry glint in his dark eyes.

“THAT’S ENOUGH! BOTH OF YOU SIT DOWN! NOW!” Jason’s bellow startled the others.

When the former king of Corinth glared at the others, he saw that Hercules was sitting on one chair.

Even though Iolaus hadn’t been included in the command, he was sitting as well...looking more than a little confused at his actions.

Surprisingly, Ares was sitting on the edge of the cot. He deliberately crossed his arms over his chest and glared at his half-brother.

“That’s better.” Jason wearily rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Hercules. Stop fighting with Ar...Iphicles. We need to show a united front.”

“But...” Hercules choked off the rest of his words at the glare from his friend.

“Iphicles. Stop fighting with Hercules. Same reason.” Jason eyed the man sitting on the bed.

“There’s no reason for me to stay here,” Ares hissed.

“The Parthians love to do the unexpected. Especially in the dead of night,” Jason patiently explained.

“How would it look if they demanded to see the King of Corinth and you weren’t here?” Iolaus reasonably asked.

“Iolaus. You’re responsible for him.” Jason pointed at Hercules. “I’ll be responsible for him.” He pointed at Ares. “Questions, anyone?” Before anyone could answer, Jason nodded. “Good. King Iphicles. You have the cot. The rest of us sleep on the ground.”

Ares smirked at his half-brother, but wiped it from his face when Jason gave him a stern look. Instead, he genially smiled and lay down on the cot.

Iolaus put a sympathetic hand on his partner’s arm. Hercules silently nodded then turned to Jason. “I’m sorry, Jason,” he quietly apologized. “I just wish we knew about Iphicles.”

“I know,” Jason wearily smiled. “Hopefully, Aphrodite and Hesphaestus will find him soon.”

“They’d better,” Ares calmly spoke from the cot. “Otherwise, I’ll yank out a few of those gold curls. That should provide some incentive.”

“You know, you...” Iolaus’s angry words were interrupted by the guard.

“Your Majesty?” the guard called from outside the tent flap.

Ares immediately sat up and ran a hand through his auburn hair. “Enter.”

“Pardon the interruption.” The guard apologized glancing first at ‘Iphicles’ then at the others. “But you should know the Parthian king just received a messenger. Our scouts say he came from the direction of their capital. And he’s ridden hard.”

“Thank you. Resume your post.”

When the guard had left, Ares got to his feet.

“Xanos knows his daughter’s disappeared,” Jason groaned.

“Enough playing around,” Ares snarled, his hands on his hips. “Aphrodite! Get in here now!”

The Goddess of Love appeared flanked by the God of Forges.

“Choose your words carefully, Ares,” Hesphaestus coldly warned.

“Aphrodite, have you...” Hercules began.

“Not yet, bro,” Aphrodite sadly reported. “The problem is, Iphicles isn’t really connected to any of the gods. So no one has any...extra advantage in finding him.” She grinned at Iolaus. “I mean, I can usually find Sweetcheeks if I put my mind to it.”

Iolaus automatically smiled then looked away when the God of Forges glared in his direction.

“Jason, it doesn’t make sense.” Hercules frowned. “Even if someone knew about the princess’ disappearance at the time it happened, there’s not enough time for a rider to have made it here this quickly.”

“Unless whichever god snatched them sent the messenger,” Ares mused.

“We’ll keep...’Dite?” Hesphaestus eyed the Goddess of Love with concern.

Aphrodite’s eyes slowly focused. “I feel her...Princess Dacia. She called my name. She prayed to me!” She flung her arms around Hesphaestus. “Isn’t that wonderful? In the depths of despair...staring certain death in the face...she prayed to ME!”

“Certain death?” Hercules grabbed his sister’s arm.

“Well...metamorphically speaking, of course,” Aphrodite pouted.

Both Hercules and Ares exchanged the same look of exasperation.

“Can you find her?” Iolaus gently asked.

Aphrodite smiled. “That one little prayer was all I needed. Wait here.” With a slight bump and wiggle, she disappeared in a burst of pink and gold energy.

“I swear...one of these days...” Ares snorted. He ignored Hesphaestus’ glare.

Jason rubbed the bridge of his nose once more. “I have such a headache,” he muttered.

--------------------------------

“Kill ME?!” Iphicles snorted. “How? By whining me to death?” He put his hands on his hips and stared down at the enraged princess.

Dacia angrily stamped her foot. “You...you...you...” Flustered, she closed her eyes, trying to regain control.

Iphicles tried not to smile. When Dacia opened her eyes, he had masked his amusement.

Regally, Dacia stared at him. “You could at LEAST do me the courtesy of not towering over me.”

Iphicles dramatically knelt on one knee. Now looking up at her, he raised one eyebrow. “Pardon me, Princess. I’m not use to...”

Dacia muffled the rest of his words by pulling his head towards hers and soundly kissing him on the lips just as Aphrodite appeared.

“Awwww....so sweet,” the goddess sighed.

Startled, both king and princess drew apart.

“Aphrodite?” Dacia breathed.

“That’s me, sweetie.” Aphrodite looked around the cavern with a look of disgust. “Yech! This place bites.” From the corner of her eyes, she saw Iphicles quickly getting to his feet. Both he and Dacia were blushing. “Well, time’s a-wasting. Everybody’s really anxious to see the two of you.”

-------------------------------

“Iphicles!” Hercules exclaimed. Relieved, he gave his half-brother a quick hug. “You’re okay, aren’t you?”

“I’m fine, brother.” Iphicles glanced around the room, then did a double-take at seeing himself.

“Ares,” Hesphaestus warned.

The God of War rolled his eyes then slowly resumed his own form. He laughed as Iphicles paled then looked at Hercules.

“We’ll explain later,” Hercules assured him.

“Where were they?” Ares demanded.

“A dank, dreary, yucky cave.” Aphrodite elaborately shuddered. “It must have been traumatic for you, Dacia.” “Indeed. I may have been traumatized for life,” Dacia sniffed.

“Oh, please,” Iphicles groaned. “If anyone’s been traumatized...”

“ENOUGH!” Jason bellowed.

Hesphaestus put a hand over his mouth as he watched everyone in the room react. He idly wondered if this mortal could teach him that trick.

“Any idea who snatched them?” Ares asked with overly polite courtesy.

“TA-DA! TRICKS!”

They looked towards the cot where a burst of energy revealed the presence of another god.

“Hermes,” Hercules groaned.

“Hermes!” Iolaus gasped. “Why?”

“I’m the God of Tricksters. I play tricks.” Hermes genially smiled.

“Tricks?” Ares seethed. “Do you have any idea how many of my plans you’ve nearly destroyed?”

“Tricks?” Aphrodite screeched. “Do you have any idea how...traumatized this poor girl has been?”

“Hey!” Iphicles protested.

Hermes looked from Ares to Aphrodite. He slowly sat up, licking his lower lip. Desperately, he looked at Hesphaestus who calmly returned his stare. He looked at Hercules, who sternly glared at him.

“My, my....look at the time,” Hermes quickly smiled. “Had no idea it was so late. Toodles.”

Ares angrily lunged towards the herald but missed, falling face down on the cot. “HERMES!” he angrily yelled before disappearing.

“Aphrodite, can you take the Princess to her father?” Hercules quickly asked. “One of Hermes’ people has probably informed him of her disappearance.”

“No problem, bro,” Aphrodite smiled. “I’ll explain that she took refuge in my temple and I brought her to her father. No need for him to know any of the nasty details. Right, sweetie?” She smiled at Dacia.

“I completely agree,” Dacia nodded. “I certainly don’t want to be reminded of this entire...incident.”

“Princess, if we never meet again, it will be too soon for me,” Iphicles firmly replied.

Aphrodite snickered then disappeared with the princess.

Hesphaestus looked at the demigod. “Hercules. Should I rescue Hermes?” His dark eyes twinkled.

“No,” Hercules promptly replied.

Hesphaestus nodded. “My thought, too.” He briefly smiled then disappeared.

“Gods, what a day!” Iphicles sat on one chair, his head in his hands. “That woman...” He looked at his half-brother. “Are you sure she’s not one of Echidna’s children?”

Iolaus hesitated. “Did you really mean it about never being too soon to see her?”

Iphicles stared at hunter. “Yes,” he firmly answered. His eyes narrowed. “Why?”

“Iolaus,” Hercules groaned.

“Iolaus, I have a headache,” Jason firmly warned. “No more.”

Iolaus innocently shrugged. “He needs to know.”

“Know what?!” Iphicles demanded, getting to his feet.

“Ares...while pretending to be you...invited King Xanos to visit Corinth.” Iolaus calmly smiled. “With his daughter.”

The guard outside the king’s chambers was startled to hear a great deal of groaning from the inner chamber. Then he shrugged. Royalty were a strange breed.


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