CIRCLE OF FIRE





This is a story of a time long ago, a time of myths and legends, when the Earth was still young. The ancient gods were petty and cruel, and they plagued mankind for their sport, plagued them with suffering and with terrors. For centuries the people had nowhere to turn, no one to look for to help - until he arrived. He was a man like no other. Born of a beautiful mortal woman but fathered by Zeus, king of the gods. Hercules possessed the strength the world had never seen, a strength surpassed only by the power of his heart. But everywhere he went, he was tormented by his stepmother Hera, the all-powerful queen of the gods. Hera’s eternal obsession was to destroy Hercules for he was the constant living reminder of Zeus’ infidelity. No matter the obstacle, as long as there were people crying for help, there was one man who would never rest: Hercules!


The snow crunched under his sturdy boots as Hercules forced his way through the snowdrifts. Stopping, he peered through the swirling snow. He spotted someone lying in the snow several yards ahead of him. Swiftly walking forward, he wished he'd brought his warm cloak to add to the one covering the shivering figure. Kneeling, he turned the figure over and saw a beautiful woman.

Stunned by her beauty, he hesitated then put a hand over her mouth. Relieved that she was breathing, he smiled. "Don't speak," he urged. "Let me get you somewhere warm." Cradling her in his strong arms, he rose to his feet.

A short distance away, he found a cave opening. Peering inside, he saw Zeus sitting next to a fire. The King of the Gods silently stared at his son.

Hercules carefully lowered the young woman to the ground. "Wait here." He took two steps into the cave, then stopped. "Father?"

As Zeus raised his arm, a rock falls from the roof of the cave, closing the entrance.

"Father!" Hercules pushed against the rock but found he couldn't move it. "Father!"

"Hercules!"

The son of Zeus turned to see the young woman get to her feet. Throwing off her cloak, she stiffened then shattered into pieces.

"NO!"

With a shout, Hercules sat up. Looking around in confusion, he realized he was in a small room at the inn in the small village of Trypolis. Breathing heavily, he ran both hands through his hair. 'It was just a dream. What an awful nightmare.' Lying down, he closed his eyes. 'What a beautiful woman.'

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

Critus eyed the cave opening some distance away with more than a little nervousness as his fingers played with the staff in his hands. "Are you sure you want to go in there?" He looked at Hercules, who stood just behind him.

"I'm sure," Hercules nodded.

They approached the cave entrance only to find several skeletons lying on the ground in front of the cave. Critus silently pointed. "They were young men from my village. The witch who guards the fountain killed them for their youth and strength." He turned to the demigod. "You have to end this terror!"

Hercules sadly eyed the skeletons and nodded. "I'll stop her." Silently the two entered the cave, Critus allowing Hercules to go first. They had only traveled a short distance into the cave when the passageway widened. A small fountain sat in the middle of the room with an old woman standing next to it.

"There she is!" Critis excitedly whispered. "Kill her, Hercules! Kill the witch!"

"Help me!" The old woman begged. As she moved, Hercules heard the 'clink' of metal. Looking closer, he saw chains around the old woman's feet.

"Please! Help me!" the old woman repeated.

Hercules grunted as Critus hit him from behind, knocking him to his knees.

"Now I will have the greatest strength of them all!" Critus gloated as he raised the staff again.

Raising his hands, Hercules stopped the staff just inches from his head. He pulled the staff away from Critus and rose to his feet. Spinning around, he used struck the younger man in the chest with the butt end of the staff.

Critus was violently thrown against the cave wall. As he slid to the ground, the old woman shouted, "The staff! He uses the staff for his magic!"

"He does, does he?" Hercules murmured. With a smirk at Critus, he bent his left leg at the knee and broke the staff across it.

"NO!" Critus screamed.

A blast of cold air erupted from the broken staff, racing across the cave to engulf the screaming man. Seconds later, both Critus and the magic were gone.

Disgustedly, Hercules tossed the broken staff away. Turning around, he saw the old woman had changed into a young beautiful young girl. "It's all right. You're safe now." He quickly walked to her, knelt and broke the chains holding her prisoner.

"I just want to go home," she pleaded.

"Just a minute." Herc took the waterskin hanging across his chest and filled it with water. Closing the waterskin, he smiled. "Now we can go."

They'd only taken two steps when the fountain began bubbling, shooting liquid to the ceiling. They watched in horrified silence as the water turned to acid, destroying the fountain and cracking the ceiling..

"Run!" Hercules ordered. He grimaced as a falling boulder grazed his shoulder.

"The entrance!" the woman shrieked. "We'll be trapped!"

As Hercules deflected a falling boulder, an old man appeared at the entrance of the cave.

"Take my hand! Hurry!" the old man urged, holding out his hand to the young woman. He easily pulled her from the collapsing cave. They staggered back as Hercules quickly jumped though the opening.

The demigod glared at the older man. "Impeccable timing as always." He brushed dust and dirt from his clothing.

The old man chuckled. "And you say your father never helps you, hmmm?" He turned his attention to the young woman. "And this lovely lady is…?" The old man's dark eyes twinkled in appreciation.

Hercules sighed. He knew Zeus could appear in any form he chose. But he seemed to prefer the persona of a good-natured older man dressed in humble clothing who desired nothing more than the warm sunshine upon his face, a cold drink in his hand, and at least one beautiful woman on his lap.

The young woman grasped Hercules' arm. "Thank you. Thank you for rescuing me." On tiptoes, she brushed his cheek with her lips.

"I helped too," Zeus pointed out.

Hercules eyed his father. "You're not out of danger, yet. Not until I get you away from this old man."

The young woman shook her head. "I'll be fine. My village is just past that grove of trees." She smiled and backed away. "Thank you again."

Zeus watched the young woman run down the hillside then looked back at the collapsed cave. "Any more girls in there?"

Hercules sighed. "Nope. That was the only one."

Zeus shrugged. "Oh well." He eyed his son closely. "What were you doing in there anyway? Besides rescuing that lovely girl."

"I came for this." Hercules patted the waterskin. "It's a potion to cure Breon's wound." 'I hope.'

Zeus shook his head. "Always so busy helping people. You know, son, I wish we could spend more time together."

"I'd love to," Hercules admitted with a smile.

"You would?" Zeus looked surprised for a moment, and then grinned. Clapping his hands together, he suggestively leered. "I know this beautiful village. We could talk. We could watch the ladies dance…"

Always surprised by how his priorities differed from his father's, Hercules shook his head. "I can't go now. I need to get this potion to Breon." He sadly smiled. "I'm sorry, Father."

"You care more about your friend than your father, hmmm?"

Hercules sighed. "I really want to spend time with you, Father. I always have. But I can't go off to play while Breon is in such pain." He saw his father's disappointed expression. "I promise. We'll do it soon."

"Soon." Zeus nodded.

"Soon." Hercules smiled again then started down the hillside.

Worried, Zeus stood watching his son for a few moments then anxiously frowned up at the sky. "Let's just hope there a chance for a next time. I hope you can handle all that gets thrown at you, my son."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Hercules stopped and slowly raised his hands to show the two warriors that he held no weapons. He hadn't expected guards to bar his way between the forest and the nearby drwelling. Now he would pay for that mistake.

"Stop right there! If you're a friend, you'll know the password." Thelemon demanded.

"And if you're a foe, you'll know the tip of our swords," Pheleus promised.

"I'm a friend," Hercules assured them. "I mean no harm." "Then what's the password?" Pheleus demanded.

"Is it minotaur?" Hercules guessed.

"No," Thelemon shook his head.

"Is it Argonaut?" Hercules took a step forward.

"No," Pheleus grimly denied.

Hercules frowned. "Then it's got to be…tickle!" Reaching out with his long arms, Hercules grabbed both boys and began tickling them.

The two children shrieked as they wiggled, trying to evade the demigod's grasp.

"No fair!" Pheleus finally yelled.

"All right, then." Hercules released the two boys. "Take me to your leader."

"We can't," Thelemon grinned up at the tall man. "Mother's busy with the baby."

"What a comedian," Hercules groaned with a chuckle.

"Father! Look who's here!" Pheleus yelled as he ran towards his father who was standing in the doorway of their home.

Hercules smiled at he felt the sense of peace surrounding Breon's earth and thatch home which sat in a forested clearing. The house was built low to the ground as though seeking the shelter of Gaia herself. To the east of the house was the vegetable garden that was the bane of the boys' existence.

Breon, a satyr, fondly smiled at his sons' enthusiasm. As he moved forward, he grunted from the pain of the never-healing wound on his side. "Our visitor must be someone truly special."

"Sorry to disappoint you, Breon. It's only me." Hercules laughed as he tousled Pheleus' hair. "I almost didn't make it past your guards here."

"Hello, Hercules. Welcome."

Hercules' smile broadened as he saw Breon's wife behind his friend, baby in her arms. "Amalthea! You look radiant!" He nudged the satyr. "You didn't tell me your son had already arrived."

The two boy snickered as their mother rolled her eyes.

"That's because he has a daughter. Her name is Lora." Amalthea pulled the blanket back so Hercules could see the sleeping baby.

The demigod gently stroked the baby's cheek. "She's beautiful. Just like her mother."

"Compliments like that will ensure you get an invitation to dinner," Amalthea chuckled.

Dinner was the sort of event that Hercules truly enjoyed. Good simple food shared by close friends. After dinner, Amalthea chased the boys off to bed and she left the two men together to tend to the baby.

Fondly watching them leave, Hercules hesitated then turned to his friend. "How is your wound?"

Breon shrugged. "Not too bad. Maybe a little worse somedays."

Hercules smiled and got to his feet. Retrieving his waterskin, he returned to the table. "I've got something that will change all that."

"Not another cure," Breon groaned. "We've tried everything."

"This one will work," Hercules urged as he opened the waterskin. "I'm sure of it."

With a sigh Breon took the waterskin. "It would be nice to be whole. To be a real husband and father again." He closed his eyes and drank.

Hercules took the empty waterskin away and laid it on the table. "Anything?" he whispered.

Breon shook his head then hesitated, opening his eyes..

Both men looked at open wound on the satyr's side. It started to close then reopened.

"ARGGGHHH!" Breon angrily swept the waterskin to the floor.

"Maybe it needs more time," Hercules suggested.

"No!" Breon shook his head and lowered his voice. "No, my friend. You've done all you can. But this is enough. No more false hopes." He pointed to a bottle on the fireplace mantle. "Now we will drink some good wine and remember better days." He wiped his face with both hands as Hercules obeyed. "Remember when I thought there was nothing better than being immortal? I used to brag about it." He sighed as Hercules sat back down at the table. "I suppose if I'd understood that it meant I would live like this forever…" Seeing the anguished look on Hercules' face, Breon reached over and patted his arm. "I only meant that had I been wiser, I wouldn't have bragged so much."

"You have Amalthea and the kids. You have a pretty good life." Hercules wondered who he was trying to convince.

'A good life where I watch the ones I love grow old and die. Immortality! Bah!' Determined to chase the bad thoughts away, Breon reached out for the wine. Suddenly the fire in the hearth went out, leaving the room bathed in twilight. "What caused that?" Breon looked from the darkened hearth to Hercules in confusion.

Hercules got to his feet and opened the door. "It's happening all over town. All the fires are going out."

Amalthea, carrying Lora, came to the doorway. "Breon, what's going on? It's suddenly so cold."

"All the fires in town have gone out," Breon explained.

"Not all of them." Hercules pointed to one building with fires. He looked over his shoulder at his friends. "I'm going to find out why."

Hercules joined the villagers who were gathering around the building with the fires. He grunted when he saw it was a temple dedicated to Hera. His attention was then drawn to the temple doors where a tall, beautiful, redhaired woman was arguing with a priest through an opening cut into one of the temple doors.

"Please, just let us come in. All the fires but yours have died! We're cold!"

"I said no one may enter," the priest haughtily replied. "Now get away from here! All of you!"

"You have to share your fires with us! Some of these people are old, sick…some are just babies! You must share!"

"No, we don't," the priest coldly replied.

The woman grabbed one of the darkened torches at the sides of the doors. As she turned, Hercules recognized her from his dream. He stared in surprise then slowly smiled in appreciation. 'Beauty and fire. Aphrodite outdid herself with this beautiful woman'

"Just light this for me, and I'll start the fires," she pleaded.

"I can't do that." The priest shook his head. "This fire is for the great goddess Hera."

"The great goddess Hera doesn't need this fire!" the young woman angrily shouted. "She's warm on Olympus! Are you saying she won't even lift a finger to help even those who have brought tribute and sacrifices to her temple?"

'She's never helped before. Why should she help now?' Hercules bitterly thought. He looked at the faces of the people around him. Even though they were frightened, some were muttering about the young woman's insolence.

Seeing the priest insolently smile, the young woman thought quickly. "What about if I pay?"

"I'm thinking 100 dinars," the priest answered.

"Fifty dinars," the young woman bargained.

The priest shrugged. "The price is now 125 dinars."

"What?!" The young woman sputtered. "But you said…"

"Keep your money. He doesn't deserve a single dinar." Hercules stepped forward and eyed the temple doors. "I'll get you the fire you need."

"Excuse me?" The young woman gave him an exasperated look. "Just what do you think you can do?"

Hercules looked at the crowd, seeing the frightened desperate looks on the faces of the villagers. He remembered Breon's family, huddling in their darkness with Amalthea barely on her feet from childbirth. Silently, he turned around and moved the young woman aside. "I can do this."

Bracing himself, he raised one booted foot and kicked down the temple door. As the door fell backwards, Hercules pushed his way into the temple.

The priest who had been at the door found himself lying in the dirt several feet away. Other priests moved forward, and then backed off at the sight of the angry demigod.

"Hera's worms stay nice and warm while everyone else is cold?" Hercules shook his head with an angry glare. "That is not going to happen."

"This is sacrilege!" One of the priests took a tentative step forward. "Stop! Now!"

Hercules took the unlit torch from the young woman's hand. "I'm going to light this from your fire. And you're not going to stop me." He walked towards the fire in the center of the temple.

"What have you done?" The young woman grabbed his arm. "You have to talk to these people…negotiate with them."

"Where Hera's worms are concerned, this is negotiating." Hercules continued towards the fire. "They'll take all your money, and then leave you in the cold and darkness."

As Hercules lit the torch from the fire, a priestess appeared from the inner sanctum. "You have defiled the sanctity of Hera's temple! I don't know who you think you are, but you will be punished for this!" She glared at the assembled priests. "Kill him! In Hera's name!"

Hercules sighed.

"Now look what you've done!" the young woman snapped.

"Oh, I haven't done anything yet." Hercules handed the torch to her and motioned for her to step aside. He grabbed the first priest who ran towards him and used him as a battering ram against the others. Seconds later, Hera's priests were either backing away from the angry demigod or lying on the ground staring at him in stunned silence.

"You fool!" the priestess shouted. "That torch will do you no good! Hera is destroying all fire. You have offended her long enough! Soon your world will be frozen, and none of you will survive!"

"Congratulations!" The young woman smacked Hercules on the chest. "You've taken what little hope these people have and destroyed it!"

"I destroyed it?!" Hercules stared at the woman in confusion. "Excuse me, but Hera is the problem here. She would be doing this whether I was here or not! I'm trying to help!"

"We don't need your help." The young woman threw the torch back onto the fire. "We might have been able to placate them in exchange for fire. But, NO, you had to interfere!"

Hercules shook his head as the young woman led the villagers away from the temple. He stepped through the ruined doors of the temple, glaring at them and wishing he could destroy them a second time. He saw Breon waiting for him.

"How can Hera do this?" he asked. "I can't bear to lose my family. I don't want to be alone again."

"That's not going to happen," Hercules firmly replied. "I'm going to find out what Hera's up to and put a stop to it."

Breon sighed. "There was a day when I would have joined you. But now…" He angrily turned away. "Come back with me. At least we can provide some provisions."

'Provisions that you'll need for your family.' Hercules silently shook his head, foreseeing the argument that was to come.

They found Amalthea waiting outside her home for them. "Breon, Deianeira is here. She says she needs to see you."

"There is nothing I can do," Breon shook his head.

Hercules was surprised to see the young woman from the temple as she joined Amalthea. "But you're immortal. You know the way of the gods."

Breon snorted. "Oh, yes. I know their ways very well. But I'm crippled now. There's only one person who can help us. Hercules."

"Hercules! Of course!" Deianeira smiled. "Where can I find him?"

Breon turned and pointed. "That's Hercules."

Deianeira stared at Hercules and groaned. "Please tell me you're joking." When Breon remained silent, she closed her eyes. "We're in big trouble now."

Breon choked back a laugh. "Come inside…both of you. I'll introduce you two while Amalthea gathers some provisions." He shook his forefinger in Hercules' direction. "No arguments either."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Iolaus knew they were in big trouble when the fire in the forge suddenly went out. Putting down his tools, he walked outside and looked towards his house. There was no welcoming warmth showing through the windows. The door opened and Ania stood in the doorway.

"Iolaus! The fire! It's gone out, and I can't get it started!"

Despite himself, Iolaus smiled. He loved Ania beyond all distraction, but sometimes the most simple of household tasks defied her. Then he glanced back at the darkened forge and shut the door behind him. "The same thing happened in the forge," he explained when he got to the house.

Ania shivered in the sudden cold. "What's going on?"

Iolaus hesitated. His instinct told him this was the work of the malevolent gods. "We'll stay here tonight," he decided. "Get all the bedding you can and put it on the bed. When daylight comes, we'll feed the animals then go to Alcmene's. I think it would be best if we were all together until this is straightened out."

Ania studied her husband for several seconds. "The fires will come back, won't they?"

'They will if Herc has anything to do with it.' Iolaus patted her shoulder. "I bet Hercules is already doing something about it."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Hercules eyed the young woman walking at his side. "You don't need to come with me. I'm going to find out what's happening and put things back the way they should be. Besides, where I'm going isn't an easy trek."

"Well, I wouldn't expect Prometheus to live just around the corner from the village baker," Deianeira snorted.

"How did you know that's where I'm going?" Hercules curiously asked.

The young woman tossed her long mane of coppery hair to one side as she gave him a look usually reserved for silly little boys who should know better than to ask stupid questions. "He's the god of fire. That would be the logical choice, wouldn't it?"

"And you think you can just casually walk in and talk with him?" Hercules smirked.

"Why not?" Deianeira challenged. "You obviously know where he is."

"Well, yeah," Hercules admitted.

The young woman nodded. "Then you can take me to him. And when we get there, I'll do the talking."

"Why is that?" Hercules asked, raising one eyebrow.

"Because if I let you do the talking, you'll try to break his jaw or something," Deianeira predicted. "Violence always causes more trouble than it solves."

"Some things in this world respond better to violence," Hercules shrugged. 'Sometimes you don't have a choice.'

"Try talking first for a change. You might be surprised."

"What happened to not needing my help?" Hercules grinned.

"I don't want your help, but I don't have a choice either," she pointed out.

They walked in silence along the rocky road towards the mountains for nearly a mile before Hercules spoke. "Breon tells me you own most of the land around his village." When she suspiciously stared at him, he shrugged. "I'm just trying to talk."

"I inherited most of the land from the foothills to the river from my father when he died," Deianeira explained. "He was a man with a lot of vision but very little inclination to put in the hard work necessary to make his visions a reality. I had hoped to bring his vision to life, but it's harder than I thought." She glanced at the demigod and saw his smile. "Am I boring you?"

"No," Hercules denied, unwilling to admit how attractive he found her.

Deianeira snorted. "Oh, I know what interests Hercules. Slaying monsters. Fighting warlords. Throwing priests around." She panted slightly as they started up the side of a steep hill. "Not to mention all those helpless maidens just begging to be rescued."

"So you know all about me, huh?" Hercules chuckled.

"I know enough," she grumbled.

Hercules shook his head. "Don't believe everything you hear."

"Then let's talk about Breon," Deianeira suggested. "He's obviously your friend. What happened to him?"

Hercules' face darkened. "He has a wound that never heals. It keeps him in constant pain and agony."

Deianeira frowned. "But I thought if you're immortal, you're invincible."

Hercules shook his head. "Not if the wound is inflicted by someone else with immortal blood in their veins."

"You mean he'll suffer like that for eternity?" she demanded. "That's horrible!"

Hercules waved a hand at the surrounding countryside. "There's a cure for him out there somewhere. I just haven’t found it yet."

They paused at the top of the hill. A path led down the other side towards a small river. Another path led towards a nearby mountain.

"This is it?" Deianeira demanded. "We've been walking for hours, and this is where we end up?" She glared at the demigod. "I thought you knew the way to Prometheus."

"This is the way to Prometheus." Hercules pointed to the mountain. "You rest here. I'll be back down as soon as I can." He started walking. "I promise I'll only talk to him." He stopped in exasperation as Deianeira quickly walked past him. "Or you can make things a little more exciting by breaking your neck." He shook his head and followed.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Ania loved Alcmene. The older woman managed to make everything look so easy but never made Ania feel inferior. "I wish I could be a better wife to Iolaus," she sighed.

"Ania! What makes you say that?" Alcmene looked at the younger woman in shock.

The younger woman looked away, her dark eyes blinking against the tears. "You're so…competent! We have no fire, and you manage to prepare the food for storage. I can't even cook!"

"I haven't noticed Iolaus losing weight," Alcmene chuckled. "And trust me, Iolaus isn't happy when he's not fed." She patted the younger woman's arm. "And he is happy, my dear."

"You really believe that?" Ania wiped the tears from her face. "It's just he's always so eager to eat anything you prepare." She suddenly covered her mouth with both hands and stared at the older woman in horror.

Alcmene threw back her head and laughed. The afternoon sunlight relfected brightly off her blonde hair. "Oh, Ania! Iolaus will eat anything at anytime! I swear I've seen him put more food away as a child than any mighty warrior could possibly do so at one sitting. Then turn around, smile at me, and ask what I had for dessert."

Ania snickered, then began laughing out loud. "He does eat a lot, doesn't he? I thought it was just because he didn't want to hurt my feelings."

Alcmene patted the younger woman on the arm. "I think he enjoys eating so much that he's eternally enthusiastic about it. I have the feeling he thinks if he doesn't praise us for the food, he won't get any more."

Ania felt tears running down her cheeks as she laughed. Picturing the mental image of ordering Iolaus to his room without dinner, she put her head down on the kitchen table and laughed even harder.

Alcmene gave in to the hilarity of the moment and leaned back in her chair, laughing equally harder.

"Ummm…Ania? Alcmene?"

Both women wiped their eyes and turned to the open door.

Iolaus stood there, looking at both women in confusion. When they didn't speak, he scuffed his boot heel against the door jam and felt all of eight years old. "I thought I'd check the neighboring farms just to see if they're in the same predicament as we are."

Alcmene wiped her eyes. "That's a good idea, Iolaus. Just be back before dark."

Now feeling all of seven years old, he started to protest, then saw Ania nodding in agreement. Walking over, he gave her a quick kiss. "I promise." He turned to leave, then hesitated. "You know, even without any fire, I'm sure we'll be okay for a while. We'll manage to eat."

"I'm sure we will, Iolaus." Alcmene seriously nodded.

Iolaus hesitated once again, then shook his head and laughed. He'd only gone a few steps when he heard both women inside the house start to laugh again.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"Welcome to the house of Prometheus, last of the Titans." Hercules waved a hand at the massive oak doors. "Come on. You’ll be a lot warmer inside." He raised a fist and pounded on the doors. "Prometheus! It’s Hercules!" He frowned at the silence. "Maybe you should wait out here." He carefully opened the door and stepped inside.

"It’s colder in here than it is out there." Deianeira rubbed her arms and shivered.

"Do you ever do what people tell you to do?" Hercules complained.

She impishly smiled at him. "Do you?"

"No comment." Hercules reluctantly smiled back at her. He'd never felt so at ease with any woman. Then he shook his head and reminded himself to keep his mind on his business. "Just…stay behind me. Something's very wrong. This place should be an inferno."

They cautiously walked further into the massive home of stone and wood. Towards the center of the dwelling, they found Prometheus. The god was lying in front of cold hearth with chains of ice binding his limbs.

"In the name of the gods!" Deianeira gasped, shocked at not only the size of the Titan but at the sight of his bindings. Easily ten times as tall as her semi-divine traveling companion, she realized she would easily fit inside the Titan's hand.

Prometheus opened his eyes at the sound of her voice. "Hercules..." he deep voice rumbled.

Hercules ran across the room and knelt by the stricken god's head. "Yes, it’s me."

"The Torch…you must retrieve the Torch."

"Don’t try to speak," Hercules urged as he studied the ice chains. "Let me get you free."

"It’s no use. The Eternal Torch has been taken." Prometheus groaned. "You must get it back. Do you understand? You must get it back before the torch dies out."

"It was Hera who stole it, wasn’t it?" Hercules angrily demaned.

Prometheus nodded. "She’s taken it to Mt. Ethion. I took fire from the Gods so that men would have knowledge and help them grow. Don’t let my efforts be destroyed, Hercules. Go to Mt Ethion. Free the Torch from Hera’s evil grasp."

Hercules rose to his feet. "Don’t worry, Prometheus. I’ll bring back the torch."

Prometheus closed his eyes. "My life is not the only one in your hands, Hercules. If the Torch dies, all life dies with it," he wearily promised.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Hercules and Deianeira had stopped by the small river at the foot of Prometheus' mountain to refill their waterskins. Hercules had stepped away for a few minutes, leaving his companion alone to splash water on her face.

"Nothing sweeter than a smile on the face of a child. Unless, of course, it's on the face of a beautiful woman."

Deianeira quickly lunged to her feet and turned around to see a handsome older man sitting on a nearby rock with his hands behind his back.

"You’re not from around here, are you?" he asked.

Deianeira shook her head.

The older man nodded. "I was sure of it. I would have remember to having met you. May I have the pleasure of giving you a welcoming gift?" When she started to shake her head, he continued, "Please, it would be something very simple." He brought his hands into sight and reached out a beautiful red and white flower.

Surprised, she stepped forward and took the flower. "It's incredible. I've never seen one like it."

"I call that a Deianeira flower," the older man confided.

The redhaired woman looked up in surprise. "That's my name." She smiled in pleasure and bent her head to sniff the flower's fragrance. 'He reminds me of Chaleon, the innkeeper who was my father's best friend.'

"Really? Well, then I named it correctly, didn't I?" The smiling man looked past her and waved. "Hello, young man."

Hercules stopped, his eyes narrowing.

"Do you two know each other?" Deianeira asked.

"Sometimes," Hercules grunted. "Excuse us a moment." He motioned for the older man to follow him.

Sighing, the older man slid off the rock. He took Deianeira's hand and bowed over it. "Please excuse us." He winked at her then followed Hercules a short distance away.

"Father, do you want to tell me what the hell is going on?" Hercules demanded.

Zeus looked over his shoulder. "That's quite a travelling companion you’ve got."

Hercules closed his eyes in exasperation.

"That's the kind of a woman a man dreams about." Zeus nudged his son.

"What do you know about my dream?" Hercules sputtered.

"I’m King of the Gods," Zeus chuckled. "So…are you two..."

"No!"

Zeus patted his son's arm. "You will. Soon." He chuckled again.

"Would you forget about her?" Hercules demanded. "I want to know what Hera's up to?"

Zeus stared at his son, then shook his head. "We're talking about a gorgeous woman, and you want to talk about Hera?"

Hercules cross his arms over his chest and nodded.

"Father, she’s stolen Prometheus’ torch and robbed the people of fire. Don’t tell me King of the Gods didn’t know that."

"I want you to forget about that!" Zeus ordered.

"How can I forget about it?" Hercules angrily shouted. "Don’t you care about what will happen to people? They're all going to freeze to death." He stared his father, who had looked away. "You don’t even give a damn, do you?"

Zeus shook his head. "Why do you think I spend so much time on Earth? Because I love people. People like your mother and yourself." He smiled. "You know, when you were a child, you used to challenge me; and I loved it." His expression darkened. "But you’re a man now. Don't you dare defy me! I say stay out of this, and you’ll do as you're told." With that order, he disappeared.

"Thanks for the encouragement," Hercules angrily muttered. He turned around and started walking back to the road.

Deianeira looked up and saw him walking away. With a muttered curse, she quickly ran after him. "Hercules! Who was that?" When the demigod ignored her, she tugged on his arm. "Back there. That nice old man."

Hercules snorted. "That? Oh, that was no one. Just my father."

"Zeus?" Deianeira's eyes widened. "That was your father?"

Hercules coldly smiled. "Quite a let down, is he? Not exactly what you expected for the King of the Gods?"

Deianeira shook her head. "Not at all. I thought he’d be mean or very strange. But he's a very charming man…person.…" She uncomfortably shook her head. "God."

"You didn’t fall for those lines of his, did you?" Hercules shook his head in frustration. "It’s all an act."

Deianeira tightened her grip on his arm. "We've got to go back and talk to him. He can help us."

"He won’t. And he doesn’t want me to try either."

"I don't understand," Deianeira frowned.

Hercules shrugged. "Neither do I." He glanced at her and bitterly smiled. "Still think he’s such a nice old man?"

Deianeira's response was interrupted by the sound of a child crying.

Hercules frowned and stepped off the path. A few yards into the nearby trees, they spotted a young girl in an animal trap.

"Relax, honey. I’ll get you out," Hercules promised with a gentle smile.

"It’s all right," Deianeira smiled. "Don’t be frightened."

When Hercules opened the trap, the little girl quickly ran to a nearby tree and quickly climbed it. Safely hidden in the branches, she stared down at them.

"What in the world?" Deianeira looked up into the tree in surprise. "Hercules, can you see her?"

"Hercules?"

A small face appeared in the midst of the leaves. "Are you really Hercules?" When the demigod nodded, she just as quickly climbed down. "I was saved by Hercules! The one and only! YIPPEE!" She danced around in a circle.

Deianeira stared in amusement at the poorly dressed little girl. Her dress was stained and torn in more than a few places. Her thin arms and legs were scratched from obviously having been in the forest for a while. The child's long blonde hair was sorely in need of a good washing and combing.

Hercules grinned at the woman next to him. "At least somebody's glad to see me."

"I know the story about you beating the Hydra and when you fought the Titans and the time you killed the two-headed giant and…" She stopped to take a deep breath. "I'm sorry. I'm Phaedra." She gave the two adults a small curtsey.

"How did a little kid like you end up in that trap?" Hercules asked.

The little girl stood up straight. "I'm not a little kid," she scowled.

Hercules solemnly nodded. "Okay, you want to tell me how a big kid like you end up in a trap?"

Phaedra hesitated. "Well, it’s like this. I was walking on the path and suddenly a lion jumped out and started chasing me. It was gigantic with big sharp teeth and huge claws ready to slash me into ribbons."

Deianeira smothered a smile as Hercules crossed his arms over his chest.

"A lion." He looked around. "We didn’t see any lion."

The little girl shrugged. "Maybe it wasn’t a lion. But it was at least a panther. That’s how it was so fast, and it had huge claws dripping with blood." She lowered her voice in emphasis.

"A panther......... with bloody claws." Hercules stared down at her trying very hard not to laugh.

Phaedra sighed. "Okay. I was just hungry. I tried to get that bait out of there. Kids like me do get hungry you know."

"Kids like you should be somewhere warm. Where are your parents?" Deianeira asked.

"I don't have any."

"Well, where do you live?" Deianeira encouraged.

"Around," Phaedra shrugged. She ignored the redhaired woman to smile impishly up at the demigod.

"Then maybe you should come with us," Hercules decided.

"Depends. Where are you going?" Phaedra asked.

"To Mt. Ethion," he answered.

"Really? I can go there with you?"

"No, that might be a little dangerous," Hercules explained. "But we’ll drop you off by the nearest town where it'll be safe."

The little girl made a face. "Sure, that'll be a lot of fun. I'll have to go to school and wear shoes and comb my hair...." Turning, she ran away into the woods.

"Phaedra! Wait!" Deianeira called.

"I thought you said you were going to Mt. Ethion," the little girl called from the nearby trees.

"We are," Hercules nodded.

"Then you’re going the wrong way. You should be taking the path to the east. It’s a shortcut."

"Are you sure?" Deianeira frowned.

Phaedra appeared long enough to make a face at the redhaired woman. "Of course, I'm sure. I’m always sure." Then she disappeared back into the trees.

A few hours later, they found a paved road leading out of the forest. Hercules stared at it for a few moments, following with his eyes as it skirted the edge of the forest. Then he grinned. "I guess Phaedra knew what she was talking about."

"She's certainly was a fan of yours," Deianeira pointed out.

Hercules nodded, his grin widening. "Yeah, nice kid."

Deianeira rolled her eyes then smiled. "You know, I hate to say this, but you were so good with her. I really think someday you’re gonna make a great father."

Hercules' smile faltered as he shrugged. "I don’t know. I’m always one place or another. I don’t want a kid grow up with a father who's never around." Then he chuckled. "Now, my friend, Iolaus will be a great father."

"Is that what happened to you?" Deianeira asked, not really believing it. "Growing up without a father around?

"Close enough," Hercules admitted.

She stared at him in surprise. "You mean when you were younger, you really didn’t..."

Hercules raised his hand. "Maybe I didn’t make myself clear enough earlier, but my father isn’t something I really want to talk about."

"Well, maybe it's something you should talk about," she retorted.

Hercules snorted, hearing an echo of Iolaus' words. 'You know, Herc, you've been raised to have better manners than Zeus. I mean, Alcmene has raised you right. Just remember who raised Zeus…so to speak.' Dismissing his friend's words, he glared at the woman beside him. "Look, talking is fine. But not everything is meant to be talked to death." He shook his head. "Sometimes you just accept what can't be changed."

Deianeira frowned. "So, if your father is the King of the Gods..."

"I told you I don’t want to talk about him!" Hercules snapped. He uneasily eyed the sky, seeing an approaching storm.

"I’m not talking about him, I’m talking about you!" Deianeira snapped back. "Now…if your father is King of the Gods, doesn't that make you immortal?"

Hercules shrugged. "Maybe. Maybe not. I have his immortal blood, but my mother is human. So I don’t know what that makes me."

She studied Hercules for a few seconds. "That must be tough not knowing."

"Well, there is one sure way to find it out, but I don’t think I’m ready to try it yet." He frowned as he studied the road. "These stones of the road are human skulls."

"What?" Deianeira looked horrified as she pulled them both off the road.

"It's made out of human bones. Some sort of trophy exhibit." Hercules stiffened as he heard a loud groan approaching. Turning around, they saw an angry tree giant approaching from the nearby trees.

Deianeira ducked behind Hercules. "Do something!"

"Don't you want to try talking to him?" Hercules gently pushed Deianeira out of the way.

"I think this falls under your area of expertise," she shot back.

"Why can't I ever run into nice giants?" Hercules grumbled as he lunged forward.

The tree giant easily caught the demigod and threw him back towards Deianeira. He groaned as he landed on his shoulder.

"Are you okay?"

"Yeah, but if I ever see Phaedra again, I'm gonna do something you probably won't like." Hercules got to his feet and got between the tree giant and the redhaired woman.

The tree giant roared. "Fool! No one beats Anthaeus!"

Deianeira grabbed Hercules' arm, careful to keep the demigod between her and the tree giant. "That's Anthaeus!"

"Yeah, I heard," Hercules grimaced.

"According to legend, he gets his strength from his mother," she hissed. "The Earth is his mother. If he can't touch the ground, he loses his strength."

Hercules shoved Deianeira to one side and dove towards the tree giants' legs. Ducking between them, he locked his hands together and swung them. Striking Anthaeus behind the knee, he saw the tree giant teeter, his balance shaken.

Hercules ducked a wild swing from Anthaeus. While the tree giant was even further off balance, he quickly picked up the monster. Grunting from the strain, he threw the tree giant onto the stone road.

Anthaeus screamed as he lost contact with the Earth. Bouncing on the stones, he shuddered then broke into small pieces which quickly blew away as the rainstorm broke over their heads.

"You did it!" Deianeira cheered as she joined him.

"Come on! Let's get to shelter!" He pointed at a nearby overhang of trees. Under the overhang, he angrily shook his head. "If I ever get my hands on that little imp…" Hercules grunted as he rolled his shoulder. "Rather hard to believe that someone who knows the shortcut wouldn't know about him."

"Let me see that." Deianeira rubbed his shoulder then frowned when the demigod flinched. "Does that hurt?"

"No. Your hands are cold."

She snorted but continued massaging his shoulder.

"I barely beat him, you know," Hercules admitted. "Anthaeus might have killed me if it hadn’t been for you."

Deianeira smiled. "I was just joking when I said there was a way we could find out if you immortal." She hesitated. "Are you the one who wounded Breon?"

Hercules wearily closed his eyes. "We were side by side in battle. It was dark, and there was smoke everywhere. I mistook him for the enemy."

"I owe you an apology," Deianeira softly spoke. "You’ve been trying to help me…you’ve been trying to help everyone, and I’ve been pretty awful." She patted his arm when he shrugged. "Some of the things I've said…"

"Hey, some of them were true," Hercules admitted. "Besides, I should apologize too for snapping at you earlier about my father." He sighed and looked over his shoulder at her. "The reason I didn’t tell you about my relationship with him is because there isn’t one to talk about. He’s got the Earth and the Heavens on his shoulders. He never had time to think or care about me."

Deianeira smiled and held out her hand. "What do you say we start over? Friends?"

Hercules grinned in response. "Sure, what else would we be?"

They stared into each other's eyes for several moments before suddenly moving apart.

Hercules quickly looked away, surprised at the pounding of his heart in his chest. Catching his breath, he breathed Deianeira's scent and closed his eyes. He suddenly wondered if his mother would approve of his companion.

"We'd better try to get some sleep," Deianeira awkwardly suggested with a blush. 'What am I thinking? He's a wanderer…an adventurer! Not husband material at all.' She glanced at the man next to her and wondered if he could ever change.

"Yeah," Hercules thoughtfully nodded. "Good night."

As they settled down to sleep, neither noticed Zeus watching from the road. "Ah, my boy. You're going to have to do better than that if you want to win the fair lady's heart…not to mention everything else she has to offer." With a sly chuckle, he disappeared.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Deianeira was awakened when Hercules made a sudden lunge to his feet. Somehow during the night, she had wound up sleeping with her head on his shoulder. When the demigod jumped to his feet, she wound up falling hard onto the ground.

"Got you, you little…"

Irritably, Deianeira got to her feet and saw Hercules tugging on Phaedra's arm.

"Hold still, you little demon!" Hercules snapped. "You sent us into these woods on purpose!"

The little girl gave up trying to pull her arm out of Hercules' grasp. "Of course, I did. It's a shortcut!"

"A giant nearly killed us!"

"But I didn’t know about him…I swear!"

Exasperated, Hercules put his hands on his hips. "Don't lie to me!"

Phaedra ran to Deianeira, wrapping her hands around the woman's waist. "Please don’t let him hurt me!"

The redhaired woman angrily eyed the demigod as she took the child into her protective arms. "Don't you dare hurt her!" Her green eyes snapped in fury as she silently promised retribution.

Hercules rolled his eyes. "I wasn’t. I was just trying to scare her for pulling about Anthaeus."

Phaedra looked over her shoulder at him. "But I didn’t know about him. You have to believe me! I was following you, but I didn’t know about the giant... until he jumped out and attacked." She released Deianeira and began reenacting Hercules' fight with the tree giant. "I think he really enjoyed throwing you around. But then you grabbed him and lifted him in the air!" She grabbed Hercules' leg and tried to lift him.

Deianeira tried not to laugh.

"Hey, I was there, remember? Now stop before you strain something." Hercules gently pushed the little girl away from his leg. "We don’t have time for this. We’ve got to get going."

"To the mountains, right?" When Hercules nodded, Phaedra continued. "Then you need to know something. Up ahead the path reaches a fork. If you're smart, you'll go to the right."

"Yeah? And what will we run into there? A lake serpent? A gargoyle?" Hercules demanded.

Phaedra shook her head. "No, it’s just the fastest way to Mt. Ethion."

"Maybe," Hercules grunted. "But first we are taking you to the nearest the town. You’ll go to school all day…wear really tight shoes…comb that rat's nest you call hair…"

"NO!" Phaedra made a face at him and ran away. "You can't make me!"

"Phaedra! Get back here! I'm not done with you yet!" Hercules shouted.

"Oh yes. You will make a good father," Deianeira chuckled.

A few hours later, they reached the fork in the road. They stood in silence for several moments, staring at first the right branch of the road and then the left.

"Well? What do you think?" Deianeira finally asked.

"Phaedra said to go to the right," Hercules mused. "But then again, she also said to take the shortcut in the woods."

"I don’t think she knew anything about Anthaeus," Deianeira argued.

Hercules sighed. "You’re probably right. Why would she tell us to go the wrong way?"

They took a few steps down the right fork then stopped. They stared at each other for nearly a minute then turn and started walking down the left fork.

In a nearby tree, Phaedra smiled contentedly.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

After several hours of climbing a worn path dug out of the mountainside, Deianeira grumbled as they started across a narrow wood and rope bridge that curved around the side of the mountain. "Maybe we should have taken the other way, like Phaedra said. This is a stupid place for a bridge." She nervously leaned against the rocky side of the mountain.

Hercules shook his head. "No, this is the right way." He looked down into the chasm. "It looks like the path slipped and collapsed here. Someone's constructed the bridge rather than dig anything else out of the mountain." He took her hand. "Come one. The bridge is perfectly safe."

"This isn't a bridge," Deianeira snapped as she pulled her hand away. "It's a child's toy of sticks and string." She hesitated, and then started walking. Nervously, she felt the bridge sway slightly and she wished it was closer to the mountainside. It might have been illusionary, but she felt better just being about to touch the rocks as they had climbed the steep path.

As they started around the curve, she cleared her throat. "I guess this is the right way. I mean, we haven’t run into a single giant that wants to tear your head off," she pointed out. "That has to be a good sign." She looked over her shoulder to grin at the demigod, then screamed as she missed a step.

Hercules quickly grabbed her and pulled her back against him. As she got her nerves under control, he saw several planks of the bridge were missing for a length of about ten feet."

Deianeira turned and saw the same thing. "She tricked us again, that little brat! I'm going to tan her hide for this!"

"She must be working for Hera," Hercules guessed. 'So much for protecting the child from me.'

"It'll take all day to get back to that path," she complained.

Hercules shook his head. "I think we can still cross. We'll go back until we can get onto the rocks. Then I'll carry you on my back and climb around the missing part."

Deianeira looked at Hercules then at the bridge then down into the chasm. Then she shook her head. "No…no…absolutely not! I can't do that!"

"Why not? You climbed to Prometheus’ house," Hercules pointed out as he pulled her back the way they'd walked.

"That was up! This is down!" She took another look into the chasm and shuddered.

"Deianeira, we have to do this! Hera will throw obstacles in the way no matter where we go." Hercules gently shook her. "Hera will never stop, and that means we can’t either." He stared down into her eyes.

She briefly closed her eyes and nodded. "No, we can't stop now." Despite herself, she shivered. 'You're here because you wanted to be here. No one made you come.'

Hercules turned around and bent over. "Come, time for a piggyback ride."

Deianeira slowly climbed onto Hercules' back and wrapped her arms around this neck and legs around his waist. As Hercules started climbing the rocks, he easily found hand holds in the mountainside next to them. He heard Deianeira gasp and felt her wrap her arms even tighter around his neck. "Do me a favour. Don’t look down anymore!"

Deianeira closed her eyes and buried her face in Hercules' neck. "I'm not looking down…I’m not looking down…I’m not looking down…"

Smiling to himself, Hercules tried to put aside the thought of how nice she felt against him. "We're almost there. Nothing to worry about." He carefully balanced his weight before reaching for the next hand hold.

"I hate heights!" Deianeira snapped.

When Hercules reached the other side of the bridge, he gently lowered her to the ground. "It's okay. We're across the bridge."

Deianeira staggered away and leaned against the side of the mountain. "We almost died!"

Hercules gently patted her shoulder. "I know, but it’s all right now. We're safe." He tried very hard not to smile in amusement.

"It’s just that almost dying has never happened to me before," she shivered.

Hercules shrugged then cockily grinned. "I try to do it at least once a day." He stepped back and put out a hand. "Come on. Let's go."

When they rounded the corner, Zeus appeared. He stared at the bridge then shook his head. "What is with that boy? You have danger. You save the pretty girl. Her heart beats fast. She's grateful. She melts into your arms." He snapped his fingers. "That's how it's done."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

As they approached a village, Deianeira pointed. "Look! They have fire. That means we're getting closer to the Torch."

"Closer than you think." Hercules pointed to their left. "Look!"

Deianeira looked to where he pointed and saw a mountain peak where the light of a torch can be seen. "Mt. Ethion! Can we get there tonight?"

Hercules shook his head. "It'll be dark pretty soon. And these mountains aren't all that safe in daylight. We'll stay here tonight. As long as there is a fire, we've still got some time."

Deianeira smiled. Framing his face with both hands, she kissed him on the lips. Chuckling under her breath, she walked towards the village.

Slowly shaking his head, but grinning, Hercules followed.

They quickly found the village inn and walked inside.

A middle-aged man greeted them from the dining area. "Welcome, travelers." He walked closer and smiled. "How are you doing tonight, sir?"

Hercules smiled back. "Fine. Any there rooms still available?"

The innkeeper nodded. "Can’t offer you much of a fire, though. Damn thing seems to be dying away. Just one room for you and your lady?"

Hercules and Deianeira looked at each other. Then Hercules smiled. "Yeah, one room. And make it your best."

The man smiled in return then winked. "Down the hall. Number three. I hope you’ll enjoy your stay."

"And I'd like a room for myself as well," Deianeira spoke up. She looked at the demigod with an impish grin. "It was just a kiss, you know."

"Are you sure you don't…I mean…" Hercules nervously looked at the innkeeper who suddenly found something else to do. "Good-night, Hercules," Deianeira murmured. "I'll see you in the morning."

"It could get cold…" Hercules took a deep breath. "Yeah…good-night." He looked at the innkeeper who gave him an apologetic smile.

"I'm sure you'll find Room Six very nice, sir."

"I'm sure," Hercules muttered. As he walked down the hall, he didn't see Phaedra watching from a darkened corner.

The innkeeper sighed and shook his head. He started back to the dining area when he heard a commotion in the other hallway. Turning, he saw an elegantly attired older man with three young girls approaching.

"Excuse me, but I have rented rooms for myself and my daughters. However, they simply won’t do. They’re cold." The man frowned.

"Far too cold!" One of the young women nodded.

"Unbearably frigid, if you ask me," the man arrogantly sneered. "What kind of shabby third-rate establishment are you running here?"

The innkeeper shrugged. "Normally we have a fire in every room sir, but almost all of our fires are out."

"What about that one?" One of the daughters pointed to the common fire.

The other two daughters murmured in agreement.

"Yes, move it to my room," the man demanded.

"Our room!" Another of the daughters argued.

"But that’s the only one left!" the innkeeper protested.

"That's not my problem," the man sniffed.

"Sir, I’m afraid that’s impossible," the innkeeper argued.

The old man's eyes widened. "Impossible? Do you know who you are talking to? I’m Thespius, one of the most prominent citizens of Athens. Certainly you don’t expect my lovely daughters and I to be uncomfortable just because you have a little heating problem?"

"I'm afraid it’s more than a little problem."

"Let me tell you something, my good man! I have stayed in some of the finest establishments in Greece, and I have never...." He followed the retreating innkeeper into the dining area.

Phaedra appeared and grabbed at the back of the cloak on the eldest daughter before they could follow.

"Get away!" the daughter snapped.

Phaedra shrugged. "I guess you don’t care if I told you in what room Hercules is sleeping."

The eldest daughter's eyes widened. "Did you say Hercules?"

The second daughter sighed. "He's the strongest man in the world."

The youngest daughter giggled. "He's the son of Zeus!"

"I guess that means you’ve heard of him." Phaedra stared up at them with an engaging smile.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Hercules punched the lumpy pillow and closed his eyes. He heard the door gently close. He rolled over to see Deianeira slowly walking towards the bed. He sat up, staring in surprise as she removed her clothing and slid into the bed next to him.

"I can't believe you’re here," Hercules smiled.

Deianeira gave him a smile in return. "I wouldn’t be anywhere else," she whispered, leaning forward for a kiss.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Deianeira frowned at the gentle knock on her door. "Who's there?" she asked. Not receiving an answer, she cautiously opened the door. Looking down, she saw a bouquet of flowers lying at her feet. She picked them up and smiled. "Hercules," she murmured.

Out of sight down the hall, Phaedra snickered.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Hercules loved the feel of Deianeira in his arms…so warm and responsive. "You're so beautiful, Deianeira," he moaned softly as she ran her hands across his chest at the same time he felt her caressing his back. Surprised, he blinked and rolled over…to see a second Deianeira lying behind him.

"What is going on?!"

Startled, Hercules sat up. A third Deianeira stood in the door way, angrily shredding the flowers in her hand. Blinking, the demigod looked around and saw two unfamiliar women in his bed.

: Another woman ran past Deianeira into the room. She stopped, then shrieked, "You were supposed to wait for me! I had to put Father to bed."

Deianeira threw the shredded flowers to the floor and walked out.

"Deianeira! Wait!" Hercules grabbed the blanket and wrapped it around him. He ran into the hallway. "Please, Deianeira! You don’t understand! It was some sort of spell! I was tricked!"

The redhaired woman spun around. Tears streaked her cheeks and her eyes angrily glared at him. "No, I was tricked! I was starting to think you were someone special!"

"I am!" Hercules protested. When she snorted, he pleaded, "Deianeira, you’ve got to believe me!"

"I don’t have to do anything you say! Why don’t you just go back to your adoring fans? I never want to see you again!" Deianeira slammed the door of her room in his face.

Angrily, Hercules walked back to his room. Staring at the three women in his bed, he forced himself to not loose his temper. "Get out," he finally snarled.

"But you said I was beautiful!" the eldest daughter complained.

"He doesn't even know your name," her youngest sister scoffed.

"He does, too!"

"Then why did he call you 'Deianeira'?" The youngest sister evilly smiled.

All three women frowned.

"Who are you?" Hercules demanded.

"We're the daughters of Thespius of Athens," the middle daughter replied.

"Get out," Hercules ordered. When they didn't move, he roared, "I said GET OUT!"

The three women quickly pulled their clothing around him and left.

Hercules grabbed his clothing and began dressing. "I need a drink," he muttered.

He got to the dining area when he saw the fire flicker and die. The villagers huddling in the room cried out in fear.

"What's happening?" one child sobbed.

Hercules' eyes narrowed. If a fire this close to Mt. Ethion had been extinguished, then there was no time to waste. Silently, he left the inn.

A few minutes later, Deianeira entered the darkened dining area. "Oh, no!" she cried out.

The innkeeper sadly nodded.

"I need to tell Hercules." Deianeira turned to go back to the rooms.

"You mean your travelling companion?" The innkeeper asked. "He left a few minutes ago."

"Damn him!" Deianeira raged. She looked at the innkeeper. "I need to follow him. Do you have a cloak I could borrow? He's going to Mt. Ethion to get fire back for mankind."

The innkeeper nodded. "That mountain's something to be avoided in the dark," he warned.

"If mankind doesn't get fire back soon, it won't matter."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Hercules struggled up the mountain. The Eternal Torch shone through the darkness, promising light and warmth to a very cold hero. Taking a moment to catch his breath, he stared at the cave entrance. He really wasn't surprised to see Phaedra running into the cave. "Got you now, you little monster," he muttered.

Finally getting to the cave entrance, he saw Phaedra standing in front of a fire. He looked around but didn't see the Eternal Torch. Stepping into the cave, he saw Phaedra whirl around to meet him. "Hera’s keeping you nice and warm, isn’t she?" he accused.

"I don’t know what you’re talking about," Phaedra denied.

"Don’t play dumb with me!" Hercules angrily ordered.

"I swear! I don’t know what you mean!"

"You’re working for Hera!" Hercules shouted.

"Actually she's working for me."

Hercules spun around to see Zeus walking into the cave.

The King of the Gods smiled at Phaedra. "It's alright. You can go now."

With a look of relief on her small face, Phaedra disappeared.

"I don’t believe this! What the hell is going on?" Hercules demanded, hands on his hips.

"Son, have some faith in your father. Try to understand!" Zeus pleaded.

"Understand? Understand what? You know, I never expected you to be there to help me," Hercules admitted. "But now you're actually working against me?"

Zeus nervously chuckled. "No. I’m trying to help you."

"Help me? Anthaeus nearly broke my neck. That bridge almost killed both of us!" He glared at his father. "You call that help?"

Zeus shrugged. "There was no harm intended. Those things just slowed you down." He winced when his son narrowed his eyes.

"You were behind what happened at the inn, weren't you? Do you realize you've ruined everything I could have had with Deianeira?"

Zeus grimaced. "I'm sorry about that, son. I was just trying to protect you. I was getting desperate."

"Protect me from what?" Hercules demanded.

"Protect you from this insane mission you’re on!" Zeus patted his son's arm. "Son, do you want to commit suicide?"

Hercules stepped away from his father. "What has Hera done with the Eternal Torch? It's not in this cave, is it?"

Zeus sadly sighed. "She's surrounded it in a circle of fire further up the mountain. But her circle of fire is deadly to any immortal."

Hercules shrugged. "I never wanted to live forever."

"Why didn’t you come with me the day I asked you to?" Zeus angrily shouted. Then he shook his head and smiled. "Never mind. You’re here now. Why not stay? Please?"

Hercules stared at this father in stunned surprise. "You can’t be serious! You actually want me to sit here and let the whole world freeze to death?"

Zeus spread out his arms in supplication. "What is it? Deianeira? We can get her here! She can stay with us." He pleadingly smiled.

"You just don’t get it, do you?" Hercules stared his father in the eyes. "What about Mother? What about Iolaus and Ania? What about Breon and his family? What about all my friends and their families? What about everyone who doesn't deserve to freeze to death because of Hera?!"

Zeus solemnly stared at this son. "If you go through that circle, you’ll die."

Shaking his head, Hercules walked towards the cave entrance.

Zeus waved his right hand and a rock slowly closed the entrance.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Struggling up the side of the mountain in the cold wind and darkness, Deianeira had kept her eyes on the light coming from the cave. When it suddenly went dark, she stumbled and fell to her knees. "NO!" she screamed. Sobbing, she closed her eyes.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Hercules spun around to face his father. "Open it," he angrily demanded.

"This time I'm defying you," Zeus irritably replied.

"Then I'll do it myself." Hercules threw himself at the boulder. Using all his strength, he rolled it away from the entrance. Not looking back, Hercules stepped back into the cold and darkness.

Zeus sighed and shook his head. "The more you love them, the more they hurt you."

Outside the cave, Hercules spotted the crumpled form of Deianeira. Running towards her, he remembered his dream. "No," he muttered. Getting her to her feet, he shook her. "You have to stay awake!"

"The fire's all gone," she mumbled.

"No! We still have a chance!" Hercules shook her again. "Open your eyes! We have to keep moving!"

Literally pulling her along with him, he started up the side of the mountain. After nearly ten minutes of stumbling in the dark, he finally saw a light burning from within a cave. "There!" he pointed.

"I'm sorry! I didn't trust you!" Deianeira clutched at his hand.

Hercules looked at her then smiled. "Can we talk about it later? Please." When she nodded, he leaned forward and gently kissed her on the mouth. "Come on. Let's finish this."

When they reached the cave entrance, Zeus appeared in front of them. "Go back!"

"Get out of my way," Hercules warned.

"I said for you to leave!" Zeus thundered. "You may be the strongest man in the world, but I'm still the King of the Gods."

"Hercules!" Deianeira anxiously squeezed his arm only to have Hercules pull it away. She looked at Zeus. "Please! Don't do this! Not to your son!"

When Hercules took another step towards the cave, Zeus raised his hands. "You're pushing me, boy!" He threw a burst of energy to the ground at his son's feet. "The next one won't be aimed at your feet," he warned.

"You'd really kill me, wouldn't you?" Hercules asked in shocked surprise.

Zeus hesitated, hating the look in his son's eyes. "I'm trying to save you. Why can’t you understand that?"

"What about mankind…the people you created?" Hercules demanded. "Have you stopped caring about them?"

"I do care about people," Zeus argued. "But I care more about you."

The two men stared at each other in silence. Both men were full of pride and assurance they were right in their beliefs. Suddenly, both saw the desperation in the others' eyes and realized they weren't enemies after all.

Hercules gently smiled and touched Zeus' arm. "Father, I love you. But I still have to do this."

Closing his eyes, Zeus stepped away. "I must be more willing to risk your life than risk losing your love." Opening his eyes, he roughly chuckled and winked at Deianeira. "I must be getting senile in my old age, hmm?"

Hercules carefully approached the circle of fire that surrounded Prometheus' Eternal Torch. He took a deep breath and jumped into the flames.

Deianeira cried out when the flames roared to life, shooting up to singe the top of the cavern. "Hercules!"

Zeus anxiously peered through the fire.

Hercules half-appeared through the flames, holding the Eternal Torch out to his father.

Zeus momentarily closed his eyes. Then, unable to deny the mute plea in his son's eyes, he quickly walked forward and took the Eternal Torch in his hands.

Deianeira covered her eyes as the sound of an enraged shriek echoed around them.

Determinedly, Zeus ran to the cave entrance. He peered into the darkness then adjusted his position. Suddenly, he threw the Eternal Torch into the darkness outside the cave.

Those who were lucky enough to have been looking into the dark night sky, saw a trail of fire streaking across the heavens. They pointed to it and prayed it was the act of a benevolent god.

The Eternal Torch flew threw the night sky until it reached Prometheus' house. Smashing through the ceiling, it fell into the hearth that was the heart of the Titan's home. The fire ignited, brightly blazing.

The frozen Titan suddenly stretched, his expanding muscles cracking the ice that had formed around him. Shards of sharp ice fell to the stone floor, shattering into thousands of pieces before melting into puddles of water. Prometheus rose from his humiliating bondage and raised his arms over his head in victory. "Hera! You have failed!"

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Inside Hera's cave, Deianeira took a step closer to the flames. "Hercules!" He turned to Zeus. "He's dying!"

Zeus turned around and walked towards the flames. "HERA!" he thundered.

Startled, the redhaired woman looked at him. Even though she knew he was Zeus, King of the Gods, he seemed like such a gentle charming man determined to protect his son at all costs. Now, in his thundering voice, she heard the power he commanded.

"Hera! Stop this savagery now! I command it!" Zeus furiously shook his fist at the cavern ceiling. "If you hurt my son, I'll hunt you down throughout eternity! If you want to take my son, you'll have to take me, too! And you can't do that!"

For several seconds nothing happened, then the flames lowered, leaving Hercules lying unconscious in the center.

Deianeira uneasily looked around, fearful of Hera's retribution.

Zeus quickly knelt next to Hercules and lifted his son into his arms. "Son? Son? Open your eyes. Come on, talk to me."

Hercules' blue eyes flickered open. "Father?" He looked up at his father in confusion…confusion of being alive…confusion at the depth of concern and fear in his father's voice and eyes.

Zeus quickly hugged his son. "I thought you were dead," he murmured with a catch in his voice.

"So did I," Hercules quietly admitted. "You returned the Eternal Torch to Prometheus?"

Zeus sighed. "Yes. And you can be sure I'll be hearing about this for a long time," he grumbled. "Can you get up?" When the demigod nodded, Zeus helped him to his feet. "Now…let's get out of here."

Hercules held onto his father's arm. "You saved my life," he acknowledged with more than a little humility.

Zeus mischievously smiled. "Hey…that's what fathers are for." He nudged his son. "You may find that out someday yourself."

Hercules rolled his eyes, although he glanced in Deianeria's direction. "What if Hera hasn't backed down?"

Zeus laughed. "Why do you think I roam the Earth so much?" He dismissively waved a hand. "Can we go now?"

"Wait." Hercules reached down and took a one of the torches from the circle of fire.

"Hercules, do you know the power of those flames?" Zeus cautioned.

Hercules broadly smiled. "Yeah, I do."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Breon relaxed in front of his fire, determined never to take such a simple thing for granted again. He fondly smiled at his wife who was cooing at the baby in her arms. His two sons were busy at his feet mending tack.

"Why isn't anyone guarding their posts?"

"Hercules!" Thelemon shouted. His brother at his heels, he jumped to his feet and ran outside.

Smiling, Breon and his wife followed. The satyr frowned when he saw the demigod and Deianeira standing next to a circle of hay. Hercules grinned, holding the torch from Hera's cave.

"What's this all about?" Breon curiously asked.

"Step into the circle," Hercules ordered.

Breon sighed. "No more, Hercules."

"Breon," Deianeira interrupted. "Just do it."

"This is the last time," Hercules promised.

Amalthea nudged her husband who reluctantly stepped into the circle.

Hercules looked at the satyr then at Breon's family. "Trust me."

"We do," Breon firmly answered. He looked at his family. "Don't interfere."

Hercules lowered the torch, igniting the hay.

Despite herself, Amalthea gasped when she saw her husband disappear within the flames.

The flames rose in height almost higher than Hercules' head before slowly dying away.

When the flames disappeared, Breon stood in the blackened circle. The open wound in his side was gone as were his goat legs and horns. Breon the satyr was now Breon the mortal man. He looked down at his body in astonishment. "It’s gone! My wound has gone! And I’m mortal!" He rushed towards his family who gathered him close in their arms.

"You did it," Deianeira smiled at the demigod.

"No. We did it," Hercules corrected.

"So who is the mighty Hercules going to help next?" Deianeira asked with an impish smile.

"Actually, I do have an idea for a quest," Hercules admitted with a slight smile. "How do you feel about the age-old custom of meeting the family?"

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Ania anxiously stared at the creatures in front of her. 'This is ridiculous! I can do this! Iolaus and Hercules have faced far worse!' Stiffening her back, she edged forward and threw out some feed. "Here chick, chick, chick."

Squawking, the chickens trotted towards her.

"AHHHHH!" Ania screamed. She threw the pan of feed in the chickens' direction and turned to run away.

"Ania! Easy!"

Startled, Ania looked up into Hercules' eyes. "Oh, Hercules!" She threw her arms around him and shivered.

Deianeira looked in confusion from the dark haired woman shivering in the demigod's arms to the chickens who were greedily eating.

Hercules shrugged, knowing he would explain later.

"Ania!"

Ania pulled away from Hercules and threw herself into her husband's arms. "Oh, Iolaus! I'm sorry! I tried to feed the chickens but they squawked and ran at me!"

"Shhh, it's okay." Iolaus took her into his arms and hugged her. "I'll teach 'em a lesson, I promise."

Ania sniffled then giggled.

"Hey, buddy," Iolaus greeted his friend. Then he looked past Hercules and grinned. "You brought company?" His blue eyes lit up with the opportunity to tease his friend.

"Iolaus, this is Deianeira. Deianeira, this is my best friend, Iolaus and his wife Ania." Hercules grinned back. He looked around. "Where's Mother?"

"Inside." Iolaus nodded towards the house. "When the fires went out, I thought it would be best if we were all together to watch out for each other."

Hercules nodded and gently squeezed his friend's shoulder. "Thank you."

Embarrassed, Iolaus nodded. "Come on! Ever since the fires returned, Alcmene's been cooking up a storm!" He smacked his lips in appreciation. Tucking Ania against him, he murmured, "You weren't hurt by those mean old chickens, were you?"

Hercules looked at the redhaired woman by his side and mouthed 'later'.

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"Now that's nice." Zeus smiled in appreciation as he watched his son enter his mother's home with his soon-to-be bride on his arm.



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