HERO'S CHOICE




Chapter One

Is the truth any less valid when spoken by an enemy? (Abraham Lincoln)

Love is as strong as death. (Song of Solomon)


Ares was not a happy God of War. Normally that could be attributed to either his pathetic half-brother thwarting his plans or the various weakness of the mortals he was forced to use in furthering his ambitions. 'Only Xena,' he mused. 'Only Xena had been worthy.'

Ares scowled his dark visage creasing in anger. 'Of course, Hades would choose today of all days to inspect the Elysian Fields,' he mentally snorted. He viciously kicked a nearby clump of flowers wincing as their fragrant perfume wafted up towards him.

"HADES!" Ares' booming voice echoed against the gently rolling hills. People nearby stopped, stared, and then went about their business. Being ignored didn't help Ares' temperament.

"What is it?" Hades' cool voice came from behind him.

Ares spun around and glared at his uncle. "We need to talk!" he snapped. "Away from here."

"Why not here?" Hades repressed a smile. "I have things to do, and you didn't let me know you were coming. I'm not going to drop whatever I'm doing just so you can bellow about something."

"Something?" Ares hissed his eyes narrowing. He menacingly took a step closer to his uncle. For a few seconds, the God of War and the God of the Underworld eyed each other coldly. "It's a little more than something, Hades."

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Colors swirled around him...reaching for him...trying to trap him. Iolaus nimbly danced away from them almost smiling as they teasingly reached for him again. Again and again, he ran, skipped, and jumped away from the tendrils of bright colors.

"Always a game...." The voice, heavy with irony, caught Iolaus' attention.

Suddenly, it wasn't fun. Iolaus kept his attention on the floating waves of color even as he glanced around seeking the hidden voice.

"You always want to make it fun..."

Iolaus whirled around as the voice seemed to come from behind him. But there was nothing there except a tendril of yellow trying to wrap itself around his wrist. Iolaus quickly jerked his arm away leaving the tendril to float towards the ground.

"Hey, Herc!" Iolaus shouted. "You can show up anytime now! This is getting a little bizarre!"

The voice giggled. "Always a game..."

Iolaus froze in spite of himself. That giggle...he slowly turned and saw a hooded figure behind him. The figure quickly flicked the hood away from his face. "I'm baaaccckkk!"

In shock, Iolaus tried to move away only to find the colored tendrils had wrapped tightly around his legs. He desperately waved his arms to keep his balance but tumbled to the ground. The colored tendrils quickly began wrapping themselves tightly around his body....like a shroud.

"No!" Iolaus screamed as he struggled to free himself. "Herc! HERC!"

"Iolaus! Wake up!"

Iolaus jerked awake. Finding himself able to move, he swung both arms at the figure looming above him.

With an expertise born of long experience, Hercules easily dodged his friend's attack. "Iolaus!" he yelled. "It's me!"

Iolaus found himself in a crouch, his hunting knife firmly in his right hand. He blinked...then blinked again. Slowly he looked around. When he saw Hercules standing on the other side of the fire, he blinked a third time. "Herc?" he squeaked.

"Yeah." Hercules relaxed. He slowly walked to his friend and gently removed the knife from Iolaus' tight grasp.

Iolaus slowly sat on the ground. He shivered and moved closer to the fire. "Sorry," he mumbled.

Hercules smiled. "You didn't hit me," he shrugged. "Now the knife..." he teased.

To his surprise, Iolaus looked up at him in shock. Then his eyes quickly ran over his friend's body. "Did I...?" his voice trailed off.

"No!" Hercules mentally kicked himself. "I was joking, Iolaus."

"Oh..." Iolaus nodded as though a joke about stabbing Hercules was the most ordinary of occurrences.

"Want to talk about it?" Hercules asked after a few moments.

Iolaus didn't have to look at his friend to see the concern. He didn't even have to listen to his friend's voice to hear the concern. It had been expressed in many of Hercules' own nightmares.

Ever since Iolaus' release from Dahok and his subsequent return from The Light, Hercules had been overly protective of him as though he expected each day to be Iolaus' last. And Iolaus couldn't remember the last time Hercules had slept through the night. He could only imagine the nightmares that forced the demigod awake each night...sometimes more than once...to gently touch Iolaus' shoulder to be sure the hunter was still alive. Iolaus never opened his eyes when this occurred. And somehow he'd managed to control his breathing even when hearing Hercules' relieved sigh.

"Iolaus?" Hercules prompted.

"A nightmare," Iolaus quickly answered. He rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands welcoming the accompanying sting. "All colors and sounds." He suddenly grinned at his friend. "Sorry I woke you."

Hercules shrugged as he reached for the waterskin and tossed it towards his friend. Despite himself, he frowned. Iolaus hadn't spoken a single word about his time with Dahok. He wondered if Iolaus realized his sleep had been troubled for some time. Hardly a night passed without Iolaus restlessly twisting on the ground and murmuring something indistinct. But whenever he gently placed his hand on his friend's shoulder, Iolaus had immediately calmed, falling back into a deep sleep. This, however, had been the first time Hercules had needed to physically shake his friend awake to stop the nightmare.

Iolaus drank deeply from the waterskin then handed it to Hercules. He ran his hand through his curly blonde hair.

"Iolaus," Hercules hesitated then took a deep breath. "This isn't the first nightmare you've had." He saw Iolaus' blue eyes silently questioning him. "This is just the first night I had to awaken you. The other nights you seemed to calm down when I touched your arm."

To his surprise, Iolaus suddenly grinned.

"I thought you were having nightmares," Iolaus chuckled. "I just figured you were dreaming about...well, you know. You'd touch me and then you'd go back to sleep." He grinned even wider. "Well, that explains that." He stretched out on the ground and closed his eyes with an air of satisfaction.

Hercules easily recognized his partner's attempt to close the discussion. "Iolaus," he muttered. "You are the most exasperating..." He crossed to the other side of the fire deciding to ignore the soft giggle from his friend. He glanced again at Iolaus who looked the picture of contentment. 'Next time.' he silently promised himself.

Iolaus kept his eyes closed as Hercules resumed his place on the other side of the fire. As he controlled his breathing, he silently acknowledged that his friend was not going to let it go. Despite himself, Iolaus shivered remembering his nightmare. He felt rather than saw Hercules' head raise slightly.

"Iolaus?" Hercules' voice was soft yet firm.

Iolaus' eyes opened. He slowly turned his head to stare into his friend's concerned blue eyes. "Dahok," he hoarsely whispered. "It was about Dahok." After a second's silence, Iolaus rolled away. "I don't want to talk about it now. Not while it's dark."

"Iolaus?" Hercules studied his friend's back.

"Tomorrow, Herc," Iolaus managed to keep his voice even. "I promise, tomorrow."

"Tomorrow," Hercules nodded. He saw Iolaus slowly relax realizing how tense his friend had been. Not for the first time, he silently damned Dahok to the deepest regions of Tartarus.

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

"This is impossible!" Hades raged.

Ares, no stranger to temper fits, eyed his uncle with wary uneasiness. His eyes flickered around the office. Stacks of parchments, once neatly stacked, now lay strewn across the floor flames licking at some of them. The dark ornate desk had been split down the middle, the result of an energy blast from the Lord of the Underworld. The balcony behind Hades' desk was nothing more than crumpled masonry barely hanging onto the wall of Hades' castle. In the distance, Ares could hear otherworldly shrieks and howls as though the trapped denizens of the Underworld were experiencing Hades' wrath...and perhaps they were.

"Finished now?" Ares quietly asked when Hades took a deep breath.

"I tell you it's impossible!" Hades seethed.

Ares shrugged. "And I tell you it isn't," he calmly replied. "And you know it. You can feel it."

Hades slowly nodded. "I don't know how..." he muttered.

"Dahok is a god but he's different from us." Ares interrupted with a shrug. "It stands to reason he'd have...different powers."

Hades eyed the God of War with suspicion. "I seem to remember you allied with him...against us."

Ares shrugged again. "That was then," he admitted. "Let's just say I prefer to fight against him this time."

"Why?" Hades challenged. "You think we're the winning side this time?"

Ares' dark eyes flashed in anger. "I'd think what should concern you, Hades, is that Dahok managed to slip into Tartarus and ally with Thanatos...under your very nose."

"Thanatos is still here!" Hades shouted.

Ares shrugged again. "Part of him," he admitted. "But Dahok took enough of Thanatos back with him to make it a problem."

"Dahok and Thanatos." Hades shook his head. "They'll never trust each other enough to ally for long."

"Long enough," Ares coldly smiled.

Hades glanced at his nephew. "Do the others know?" he asked.

"They will," Ares admitted. "I thought I should let you know first."

"Just how did you find out?" Hades asked suspiciously. His face darkened when Ares laughed.

"I keep an eye on my warriors," Ares pointed out. "When they start following someone else, I know it!"

"Dahok and Thanatos," Hades mused his anger dissolving. He suddenly looked at Ares with renewed suspicion. "As far as I know, there's only one person other than immortals who has a connection with both of them."

'He's smarter than I thought.' Ares nodded. "Yeah, Hercules' little buddy, Iolaus."

Hades regarded the God of War with open suspicion. "How involved are you, Ares?" he demanded. "And why should I, or any of the other gods, trust you?"

Anger flared again in Ares' eyes. "Do as you please, Hades!" he shouted. "Just remember, I'm the God of War...and war is my province!" A sudden flash of light and Ares had disappeared.

Hades stared for several seconds at where Ares had stood. "My chariot!" he yelled. "Now!"

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

"Hades!" Persephone's face was stunned then surprised then overjoyed. She flung her arms around her husband and kissed him warmly.

Even as Hades returned his wife's embrace, he felt a sudden bolt of fear through him. The emotion was so alien to him that his arms crushed Persephone against him. Dahok and Thanatos...and maybe Ares as well...

"Hades?" Persephone managed to raise her head to stare into his dark eyes. "Is something wrong?"

Hades took a deep sigh and reluctantly released her. "Have you seen Ares?" he asked.

"He's here. The question is what are you doing here?"

"Hello, Demeter." Hades closed his eyes for a second to gain control. There were times he truly hated his mother-in-law. "This is Olympus, you know. And I am a god."

Persephone flashed her mother a pleading look.

Demeter sniffed pulling her daughter to her side. "It seems Ares is summoning the entire Olympian Council." She ignored her daughter's silent entreaty.

Hades nodded as he touched Persephone's cheek with his gloved finger. "I agree with Ares on that." His eyes darkened with anger.

"Hades, is there trouble?" Persephone's gentle eyes tried to smile at him.

"Isn't there always trouble of some sort?" Hades still could not believe how she was able to calm and soothe his anger. He spared a glance for Demeter then smiled at Persephone. "We'll talk later," he promised.

He ignored Demeter's sputter as he strode down the hallway towards Zeus' chambers. Thinking furiously, he realized that if Ares was right, not even Hades' own domain was safe. There was no telling how much Thanatos knew about the Underworld. 'I have a few tricks that no one knows about. Enough that Persephone will be safe. I will take her with me no matter the time of year. Demeter be damned about it, too.'

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

Despite his troubled sleep, Iolaus woke first. He stared up a the sky as the sun gradually rose over the horizon. He took a deep breath feeling blessed that he could breathe the clean air and feel the firm ground beneath him. Being a Guardian of the Light was an honor, of course. But nothing around him at that point had seemed real. Even now, it was fading as a distant memory perhaps nothing more than a half-remembered dream.

Iolaus glanced to his left and grinned. Hercules lay sprawled on the other side of the smouldering campfire. To Iolaus, it looked like his friend was trying to take up as much space as possible. His smile faded as he recalled his promise from the night before.

He knew Hercules still blamed himself to a certain degree for what had happened. No matter that Iolaus had made the decision to stand in the way of Dahok's knife. No matter that Iolaus had made the decision to finally give himself to Dahok. In all the months since they'd journeyed to Sumeria, Iolaus doubted Hercules had allowed himself to properly grieve and certainly he'd not forgiven himself.

Silently, Iolaus stood and stretched. Unless pushed, Hercules was not known to be an early riser. He quietly stepped around his friend and headed towards the river. With luck, he'd have caught breakfast and have it almost cooked by the time his friend decided to open his eyes. He was determined to eat breakfast before talking about Dahok.

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"I don't believe him!" Poseidon boomed in derision.

Ares' visage darkened even more than normal. "Believe what you want, Poseidon," he seethed. "It doesn't change the facts."

"And what facts are those?" Apollo spoke. "There are so many, Ares." He leaned forward. "There's the fact that you betrayed us. There's the fact you allied with Dahok."

Ares took a deep breath fighting the temptation to knock Apollo through the wall behind him. "You may have time to rehash ancient history..." he began.

"Not so ancient," Aphrodite interrupted. "None of us have forgotten being trapped in that sphere."

"And what does that have to do with Dahok and Thanatos?" Ares angrily shouted.

"Quite a bit," Hermes pointed out. For once, the Herald of the Gods was serious. "Would you trust any of us if the conditions were reversed?"

'I'm not sure I trust any of you at any time,' Ares silently admitted. He glanced at Athena. He'd never liked sharing the duties of War with her but perhaps she'd felt it as well.

Athena stared into Ares dark eyes. "I must agree with the others," she finally answered.

"Even with what Hades has confirmed?" Ares pushed.

Everyone glanced at the dark Lord of the Underworld. Hades met their eyes calmly. "I have stated what I know," he pointed out. "I make no speculation as to why."

Ares finally turned to Zeus. At least he had a considering look on his face. "Well?" he demanded. "Do we fight or do we sit here waiting to be slaughtered?"

Aphrodite made a grimace even as she also looked at Zeus.

"There are too many questions," Zeus shrugged. "How did Dahok survive? Hercules is positive he was completely destroyed."

"Oh, well, if Hercules says it's so..." Ares interrupted with a sarcastic snort.

"Enough!" Zeus thundered. When even Ares had lowered his eyes, the Father of the Gods continued. "If Dahok survived and if it was he that took part of Thanatos's essence, we will move. But not until we are certain."

"What?!" Ares shouted. "Are you insane!?"

'"We will be neutral!" Zeus ordered pointing at Ares. "We will not, repeat not, interfere in events until we are certain who our enemy is!"

Ares stiffened at the unspoken accusation. He glanced around at the circle of gods. A few, Athena especially, met his eyes. Most did not.

"I take it that's your divine order?" Ares' voice was soft and ironic.

"It is," Zeus nodded. He slowly looked at all the gods. "Under pain of extreme punishment." He stared at Ares. "And you will so swear here and now. If you break your word, your godhood will be taken from you."

More than one of the gods looked at Zeus in surprise. Athena and Hades both started to interrupt but were silenced by Zeus' angry glare.

Ares slowly released a long deep breath. "I swear not to interfere until the enemy has been revealed," he grudgingly agreed. He raised his eyes to Zeus. 'But then I go to war,' he silently promised.

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Hercules slowly opened his eyes. As he'd done every morning since Iolaus' return, he automatically looked around the campsite for his friend. He quickly sat up not seeing his friend then glanced at the sky. He hadn't slept long past sunrise. He walked towards the river telling himself he'd find Iolaus there.

And he did.

The hunter was sitting on the riverbank his eyes closed. Even at a distance, Hercules knew his friend wasn't asleep. Three fine looking fish lay on the bank next to Iolaus who had his face turned towards the sun.

Hercules studied his friend for a second. Iolaus had died before but his time with Dahok had changed his friend. The other times Iolaus had returned, he'd been more eager than before to live his life joyously and with all his heart. This time, he was quieter seeming to take more silent joy in his surroundings. The joy and exuberance that was Iolaus was evident. But now there was this added contemplative dimension to Iolaus' character that sometimes frightened Hercules although he couldn't say why.

Reassured, Hercules quietly retraced his steps to their campsite. He busied himself building a fire and putting the blankets away. He soon heard his friend whistling off-key as Iolaus returned from the river.

'"Finally decide to wake up?" Iolaus teased as he knelt by the campfire.

"Decided to let you get breakfast," Hercules corrected him with a smile.

Iolaus snorted and began cleaning the fish. He felt Hercules' eyes on him and glanced upwards. He saw the silent concern in his friend's eyes and looked back at the fish. "Later, Herc," he promised. "Let's eat first and talk about other things."

Hercules silently squeezed his partner's shoulder and walked towards the river.

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A strange thing was happening at many of Ares' temples. Guards appeared at the gates eyeing the pilgrims and petitioners with more suspicion than usual. Anyone not meeting their approval was summarily turned away with no explanation.

It wasn't long before this was noticed on Olympus. Ares really wasn't surprised when Hermes arrived.

"Zeus is concerned," the Herald advised when he appeared before Ares. "I am here to remind you of your promise."

"You tell Zeus that I remember my promises...and I keep them." Ares' voice hissed as loudly as the snakes on Hermes' staff.

Hermes stared at Ares for a moment then smiled. "Lots of interesting things going on," he admitted. "Hades disappeared right on your heels,and he isn't answering Zeus. I'm headed there next." The Herald shivered causing the snakes to hiss louder.

"Give him my regards," Ares snorted. "You've delivered your message. Now get out."

Hermes regarded the God of War silently. "No message for Hades?" he asked with wide eyes.

"OUT!" Ares roared.

Hermes openly flinched then disappeared.

Ares breathed heavily then calmed himself. He had more temples to visit. And time was running out.

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

Conversation during breakfast had been limited to Hercules recounting some of his adventures during Iolaus' absence. He'd openly laughed at Iolaus' reaction to his visit with the Norse gods. The hunter had shivered and actually moved to sit completely in the sunlight. Iolaus hated snow and cold weather.

"Sounds like Eire is beautiful," Iolaus admitted. He smiled and glanced at his friend. "Morrigan sounds nice."

"Nice?" Hercules chuckled. "I don't know that I'd automatically associate Morrigan with nice. But she's a good friend."

"A good friend, huh?" Iolaus' blue eyes were twinkling. He chuckled when Hercules hesitated. "Something tells me I haven't heard all that story."

Hercules began scooping dirt onto the fire. It gave him a chance to let the subject of Morrigan die even as Iolaus giggled. He glanced over as Iolaus flopped onto his back staring up at the sky. He cleaned up around the extinguished campfire patiently waiting.

"The dream is always the same," Iolaus softly began. "There are these ribbons of color...greens, yellows, blues...all sorts of colors. They're dancing around me, and I'm sorta skipping and jumping to avoid them. Like a game."

Hercules sat back against a nearby tree watching Iolaus' face.

"Then I hear a voice telling me I always want to play or want it to be fun." Iolaus' eyes closed for a few seconds. "I know the voice, but it's different...altered somehow." He swallowed hard. "I see this hooded figure, then he shoves the hood back so I can see him. Then these ribbons of color catch me...start wrapping themselves around me like a shroud or something."

Hercules suddenly remembered how Iolaus' body had been wrapped in Sumeria. Had Iolaus somehow known what was going on? Had Iolaus' knowledge that Hercules had given up on him and left him behind been a factor in his decision to finally give himself to Dahok? His own blue eyes darkened with guilt even as he listened to Iolaus' words.

"I can't move or breathe." Iolaus took a deep breath. "You know I can't stand being restrained, Herc. That's when I start...screaming and wake up."

'Screaming for me,' Hercules silently added. 'Did you scream for me in Sumeria, Iolaus? I swear I didn't hear you. But I should have.'

Iolaus turned his head and saw the expression on Hercules' face. "Don't," he quietly said.

Hercules looked away.

Iolaus gracefully rose from the ground and sat facing his friend. "Herc, you've got to let this go just like I do," Iolaus quietly observed. "It's probably just a dream. You know, left over from..."

Hercules saw the cloud passing over Iolaus' features. "You think it's not?" he quietly asked.

Iolaus started to say something then shrugged. "I don't know," he admitted. "To be honest, I don't know if I'm capable of knowing the difference right now." He glanced around with a half-smile. "Everything seems different. Or maybe I just never noticed everything so much before." Iolaus pulled his knees to his chin and wrapped his arms around his legs. Resting his chin on his knees, he stared at Hercules.

"You think it's Dahok in your dreams?" Hercules said after a moment of silence.

Again Iolaus hesitated. "The one glimpse I have of him could be Dahok," he admitted. "It feels like Dahok. But..." he shook his head. "It's different somehow." He took a deep breath. "But we both know Dahok was destroyed." He caught Hercules' eyes. "Right?"

Hercules silently nodded. "Zarathustra was positive," he recalled. "And we know Dahok disappeared into the pit." He stared deeply into Iolaus' eyes. "But you don't think it's just a dream, do you?" he repeated.

"Maybe I'm afraid that it's not a dream," Iolaus sighed. "Maybe it's a dark part of my life that will always be with me." He closed his eyes. "Gods know I remember too much of what I did when..."

"Iolaus, don't!" Hercules put a hand on his friend's wrist. "That was Dahok, not you. It was only your body, not your soul or your spirit."

"That was enough," Iolaus tried to joke.

Hercules looked away as Iolaus brushed the tears from his eyes. "It was too much," he murmured. "I shouldn't have left Sumeria. I shouldn't have..."

"Gone on with your life?" Iolaus interrupted. "No, don't start that! Herc, you have a right to live, you know!" He forced a grin to his face. "Besides, if you hadn't left, you never would have met Morrigan."

Hercules was surprised to hear himself chuckle. "Let's leave Morrigan out of this," he joked back. He glanced at Iolaus. "I still left you," he quietly pointed out releasing Iolaus' wrist.

"Okay," Iolaus sat back. "You left. You can feel guilty about that." He saw Hercules look of confusion. "But then I get to feel guilty about giving myself to Dahok." He waited as Hercules digested the words. "Deal?"

Hercules stared at his friend for a moment. "Did I ever tell you that you fight really dirty?" he asked.

Iolaus gave him a silent "who me?" look and patiently waited.

"No deal," Hercules finally answered. "Neither one of us needs to feel guilty about those things."

"Good," Iolaus quietly smiled.

After a moment, Hercules took a deep breath. "Maybe Athena can tell us something about your dream," he suggested.

Iolaus was surprised. 'He MUST be worried.' Hercules hated asking his divine siblings for help. "Athena? Well, she's Goddess of Wisdom, so I guess maybe she could tell us something." He glanced at Hercules. "Are you sure?"

Hercules shrugged. "It's an option," he admitted. "Either what you're experiencing is a dream caused by what happened when you were with Dahok..."

"Or it's not," Iolaus finished when Hercules' voice drifted.

There was a blinding flash of light and a whiff of ozone. Both men scrambled to their feet.

"It's not," Ares told them. "I can guarantee that."

Hercules immediately stepped protectively in front of Iolaus and glared at his half-brother.

Ares smirked at Hercules' actions. "You can’t protect him from this," he pointed out. "And I'm not the one you need to protect him from."

"Is that a fact?" Hercules quietly retorted.

"Been having nightmares, shorty?" Ares snidely asked.

Iolaus, who had stubbornly stepped away from Hercules, flushed.

'Thought so,' Ares nodded as though to himself.

"What have you done, Ares?" Hercules demanded.

"Nothing yet," Ares assured him. He stared at the two heroes while he pondered his options. In truth, he silently admitted, he had few left. "Let's just say I'm here to offer an alliance." He cocked his head to the right. "For once, we have a common enemy."

"Who?" Hercules half-joked. He stiffened as Ares' dark eyes focused entirely on Iolaus.

"Do the names Dahok and Thanatos mean anything to you?" Ares coldly asked.

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She had studied the dark swirling current around her. If she could understand the power behind it, she could learn to control it. And once she learned to control it, she would be free. A year later, she had howled in frustration for the longest time. The power remained elusive and refused to acknowledge her will...her rage...her superiority.

Now she simply floated with the current. She had time. She was immortal. Even if it took a millennia, she would be free. Her only regret was that he might not survive long enough to suffer her vengeance. That infuriated her.

Then join us and be free, Hera.

Hera's eyes flew open. She saw no one in the darkness but felt... "Who are you," she imperiously demanded.

Your savior. Your ally. We can free you. You can free us.

"You're not Chronos!" Hera spat. "And he's the only one here!"

Join us. Taste your revenge on Hercules as we will taste our revenge on Hercules.

"Who are you?" Hera repeated. She licked her lips at the delicious thought of revenge.

We are Dahok. We are Thanatos.

"I know of no Dahok," Hera mused. "And Thanatos is securely chained in Tartarus."

We are Dahok. Hercules believes we are destroyed. Part of us survived. We are Thanatos. We are the part that Dahok freed. We...are.

"And together we will destroy Hercules," Hera smiled.

We will destroy much. We will rule.

Hera's eyes narrowed. "And who is we?" she demanded.

Dahok. Thanatos. Hera. Zeus.

"Zeus!" Hera laughed. "He'll never join you! He'll never allow you to destroy his precious bastard!"

Zeus is not Zeus. Zeus is another. Hercules will be destroyed.

"Why do you want my help?" Hera asked.

We are not flesh. Zeus will help. Ares will fall before us.

"You want Ares' position on Council," Hera guessed.

His position. His power. His place.

Hera considered. Ares was her son. Her favorite. They were united in their hatred of Hercules. Yet...he'd done nothing to release her from this prison. And there was no guarantee Ares' power and position would be taken from him. "Very well, ally," she smiled. "I agree."

There was a flash of black light that completely blinded Hera. She felt her lungs collapse and struggled for breath. She mentally screamed as she felt her very existence ripped asunder. Then she felt cool marble beneath her body. Slowly opening her eyes, she saw sandaled feet in front of her.

"You're much prettier than my Hera."

Hera shakily climbed to her feet and stared at the man in front of her. "Zeus?" she hesitantly asked.

Zeus giggled.

He is a different Zeus. From another world.

Hera glanced around but saw no one. "What do I call you?" she asked.

Thanok.

"Where is the real Zeus?" Hera glanced around recognizing Zeus' private chambers on Olympus.

In the other world. Your fellow gods fled from us to the other world. Ares trapped them there. Hercules freed them.

Zeus laughed. "I came in his place. He was busy with one of your goddesses." His eyes twinkled. "When they began escaping, I made him stay and came in his place."

Hera walked around the room during the explanation. She savored the sensation of being able to move...to touch...to feel. Hercules had much to answer for.

"Your Ares killed my Sovereign," Zeus suddenly accused.

"What?" Hera turned to look at him. "What Sovereign?"

The son of this Zeus. The Gods were not the only difference. The Sovereign was Hercules' counterpart on his world. He was a conqueror on that world.

"You would have liked him," Zeus decided. "He looked mean like you." His face clouded. "But YOUR Ares killed him."

Hercules trapped the Sovereign between the two worlds. Then Ares killed him with a Hinds Blood Dagger.

"You poor dear." Hera put her arms comfortingly around Zeus. "My Ares has been a very bad boy." She glanced around still trying to find Thanok. "But he won't be easy to depose."

Zeus will...loan us his body. We will challenge. We will prevail. You will proclaim us.

Hera coldly smiled. "Where is Ares?" she asked. The answer turned her features into a brutal scowl.

Plotting against us...with Hercules.

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

Hercules felt the shock go through Iolaus' body. He heard the soft gasp beside him and saw his friend turn slightly away. "What are you talking about, Ares?" he demanded. "Dahok is destroyed. We destroyed him!"

"Not before he left pieces of himself scattered all over the world," Ares corrected him. "And one piece managed to slide into Tartarus and connect with part of Thanatos' essence." He coldly smiled. "Right under Hades' nose."

"Why should we believe you?" Iolaus harshly asked. And, because he was Iolaus, he looked directly at the God of War.

Hercules felt pride in his friend's courage. He knew most of what Thanatos had tried to do to Iolaus but next-to-nothing about what his friend had endured from Dahok. Yet he easily understood what it cost Iolaus to face Ares with those two names hanging between them. Silently, he placed a hand of support on Iolaus' arm.

Ares shrugged. "Ask Hades if you don't believe me."

"Why do you care?" Iolaus angrily shook Hercules' hand from his arm. "You were Dahok's ally!"

Hercules glanced at Ares. "He has a point," he agreed.

"Alliances change. Circumstances change," Ares admitted. "Make no mistake. I don't care what happens to either of you. But I intend to survive. And this time, they're also coming for me."

"Dahok and Thanatos." Hercules hated to even say the names.

Ares nodded. "Even you would agree the world's a better place with me as God of War than with them in my place."

"How can they challenge you without..." Iolaus' voice drifted into silence. He turned wide frightened eyes towards Hercules.

"It won't happen." Hercules put a steadying hand on Iolaus' shoulder and stared into his friends' blue eyes. "Neither of them is going to take you." 'Or do this to me.'

Iolaus slowly released the air he'd trapped in his lungs. He nodded more in acceptance of his friends' words than belief in the promise.

"How touching, "Ares sardonically interrupted. "I'm sure Dahok and Thanatos will take that into account."

"Where are they?" Hercules demanded.

Iolaus pulled away from his friend and took another deep breath. He glanced across the clearing at Ares who shrugged.

"We'll find out soon enough," the God of War promised.

"You're not using Iolaus as bait!" Hercules angrily snapped.

"Idiot!" Ares seethed. "I don't have to do anything! They're on the loose and coming for him!" Ares looked at Iolaus with a wolfish grin. "I'd considered eliminating your little friend but they'd only select someone else. But it makes more sense to keep him alive until they decide to take him."

"Thanks so much," Iolaus muttered.

"Don't mention it," Ares shrugged. "Ever."

"ARES!"

All three men were startled by the booming voice.

"Zeus?" Hercules looked around. To his surprise, he saw Ares had tensed, his eyes narrowed, his fingers curled around the hilt of his ornate sword.

"COME TO OLYMPUS, ARES! NOW!"

Iolaus glanced at Hercules who was openly puzzled by Ares' reaction to the command.

"So it begins," Ares muttered. He hesitated then his dark eyes focused on his half-brother. "Remember what I've said. They're coming for him no matter what else happens." He glared at Iolaus. "Athena may help you if I don't return." With those words, he disappeared in a burst of red and gold energy.

"If he doesn't return?" Iolaus glanced at Hercules. "What did he mean by that?"

"I don't know." Hercules slowly shook his head. "But there's a temple to Athena about a day's journey from here. Maybe we should head in that direction."

Iolaus stared for a moment at the spot where Ares had stood. Then he slowly followed his friend.

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

The first thing Ares noticed was the concerned look on Athena's face. The second was that, with two exceptions, all members of the Olympian Council were seated...waiting. Ares automatically glanced at each of them trying to decide if they would side with or against him.

Athena - 'She'll possibly side with me. She certainly looks worried.'

Poseidon - 'He'll probably side against me merely on principle.'

Hades - 'Another possible ally. In fact, he looksd like he has something sneaky up his sleeve.'

Hestia - 'It didn't matter. Her power is negligible in any case.'

Apollo - 'He could go either way.' Not for the first time, Ares tried to read his half-brother's expression...and failed.

Aphrodite - 'Someone else who could go either way.' Like Athena, she had a worried look on her face; but Ares doubted it was out of concern for him.

Hermes - Ares doubted even the Herald knew what he'd do next. He just wished those damned snakes on Hermes' staff would be silent for a while.

Artemis - The Goddess of the Hunt sat almost motionless as though not really a part of the gathering.

Hesphaestus - He was frowning at Ares. They'd never been particularly close, but Ares knew the God of the Forge would at least listen.

Ares accomplished this all in the space of a few seconds. He folded his arms against his chest in at attitude of patience. It fooled no one.

"YOU WERE WARNED, ARES!"

Ares tensed his hand finding the hilt of his sword. "I said I would wait until the enemy was revealed." Ares' words were directed towards the Council rather than the booming voice. "I know who the enemy is."

"TRAITOR!"

Zeus materialized across the open space from Ares.

Anger flashed in Ares' dark eyes then he tilted his head to one side in puzzlement.

Taking advantage of Ares' hesitation, Zeus threw a massive thunderbolt which struck the God of War in the chest.

Ares flew backwards crashing into the white marble wall behind which the Gods gathered. He fell to one knee his left hand clutching his chest. He was dimly aware of Apollo's startled face just above him before another thunderbolt came flying towards him.

"I CHALLENGE YOU, ARES! YOU WILL NO LONGER BE GOD OF WAR!"

Ares rolled to his left even as Apollo jumped away from him. The thunderbolt missed Ares and shattered the marble wall that had stood between the two gods.

Ares' sword was in his hand even as he rolled to his feet. He ruthlessly repressed the pain in his chest as the tingling spread to his arms.

"Zeus!" Poseidon's voice rang in the sudden stillness. The echoes of the deep sea sounded in his voice even as his blue eyes swirled in puzzlement. "You cannot deprive Ares of his godhood without the presence of the entire Council." He paused for effect. "And since Hera has not been replaced..."

"Hera is here."

Despite himself, Ares turned his eyes from Zeus to see his mother join the other Gods. She smiled, seemingly at ease, ignoring the gasps and stunned looks of the others.

"Dear Ares," Hera purred. Her eyes froze into ice. "You should have tried harder to release me...and not joined with my enemies!"

'No help there,' Ares ruefully conceded. Too late, he saw Aphrodite's baby-face change to horror. Ares' instinctively threw himself to one side desperately trying to avoid the thunderbolt racing towards him. He cried out as it seemed his left leg shattered.

Grimly pushing himself to his feet, Ares couldn't ignore the pain shooting through his leg warring with the pain in his chest and arms over which hurt the most. Baring his teeth, he raised his sword and lunged at Zeus.

Aphrodite screamed as Zeus allowed Ares' glittering sword to impale him. Even Ares stood in shocked silence as Zeus smiled at him.

"He's not Zeus!" Ares yelled even as Zeus released a thunderbolt point-blank at Ares' chest.

Ares inhumanly howled as he flew across the room cracking his head on the damaged marble wall. He crumpled in front of Hera who stared down at him with her cold smile. As he lost consciousness, Ares realized two things.

First, he'd lost his grip on his sword...and felt his power draining from him. Zeus was now pulling that same sword from his chest and holding it triumphantly in front of him.

Second, the other Gods were yelling and disappearing. He felt someone wrap their arms around him....Athena?...and screamed as the pain of his injuries finally reached his brain.

There was a flash of light as Zeus took Ares' power into himself. 'NOW WE ARE WAR! NOW WE RULE! THANOK IS VICTORIOUS!'

Hera's high-pitched peal of laughter echoed the booming voice.

When the light disappeared, only Hera and Thanok remained. Hera saw the power radiating from Zeus' eyes and smiled. "They’ve all fled," she calmly noticed. Then she saw the pool of blood where Ares had lain. Her lips curved into a wider smile.

"It does not matter." Thanok experimentally flexed his fingers around the hilt of the ornate Sword of War. "They will obey or be destroyed."

Hera slowly stepped from behind the marble wall. "How long will you be able to keep Zeus' form?" she asked.

"Long enough to absorb Ares' power," Thanok assured her. His red eyes bore into her green ones. "And then I will seek Iolaus."

Hera laughed. "And then Hercules will be destroyed."

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

Hercules grabbed Iolaus' arm swinging him out of the way of a falling tree. The wind whipped his hair into his face stinging his cheeks. "We've got to find shelter!" he yelled.

Iolaus glanced at the blood red sky streaked with green and black. "I've never seen a sky like that!" he yelled back. He absently brushed his curly hair out of his eyes only to have the wind whip it back.

They both flinched as an orange streak of lightning cut across the sky. The resulting boom of thunder was so loud that Iolaus covered his ears.

Hercules pushed his way though the windswept bushes. There were caves nearby. He hoped they were unblocked from the falling trees not to mention uninhabited.

A lightning bolt struck a nearby tree sending a large limb hurtling in their direction. Iolaus threw himself against his friend's back sending them both to the ground as the tree limb slashed across the empty space over their prone bodies. The two exchanged worried looks even as they struggled to their feet.

Bracing against the stiff wind, Hercules grabbed Iolaus' vest and staggered forward. Iolaus clutched Hercules' tunic as he felt the wind almost lift him off his feet.

"There!" Hercules shouted a few minutes later.

Iolaus squinted at the cave opening Hercules indicated. "Hope nobody's home!" he shouted with a grin.

Hercules grimly nodded even as he started forward. He stopped as Iolaus pulled away and leaned down. "What are you doing?" he demanded.

"Firewood!" Iolaus began filling his arms with pieces of wood that were rolling from the wind.

Hercules bit back a retort and began gathering larger pieces. After a few moments, he saw the increasing fury of the wind drive Iolaus to his knees. "Enough!" he shouted staggering towards his friend.

His arms full of wood, Iolaus scrambled to his feet and followed Hercules to the cave.

Both men fell to their knees as they reached the safety of the cave. The wood they'd gathered clattered to the floor as they gasped for air. Iolaus sprawled on his back as Hercules sat with his back to the rocky side of the cave. The flashes of orange lightning increased in frequency until Hercules had to look away.

"Do you think this is part of Dahok and Thanatos?" Iolaus asked without opening his eyes.

Hercules caught his breath. "I don't know," he admitted.

"Ares said they were coming for me," Iolaus quietly continued.

Hercules instinctively looked outside. "They can come," he coldly answered. "They won't succeed."

"Promise me that."

Hercules turned his head to see Iolaus staring at him. He studied his friend's determined face and the fear lurking in Iolaus' eyes. "I promise," he calmly answered.

It was Iolaus' turn to study his friend. "No matter what," he pressed sitting up.

Hercules' eyes widened, and he quickly look away. "Don't ask..." he began.

"I AM asking!" Iolaus angrily interrupted. He took a deep breath startled at the sudden rush of fear. "In the name of all we've shared and been to one another, Herc! Promise you'll see me dead before they take me!" He saw the demi-god's jaw clench as Hercules fought down his own panic. "I know what I'm asking," Iolaus continued in a softer voice. He moved to kneel next to his friend. "And I know I'm selfish to ask. But I can't trust anyone else." He took a deep breath. "I can't go through that again, Herc," he whispered.

'Neither can I.' Hercules couldn't do what Iolaus asked. 'But if I can't, who will? And, if worst comes to worst, doesn't Iolaus deserve better than to be remembered as Dahok's tool? Doesn't Iolaus deserve better than to have all his heroic deeds forgotten?'

"I'm sorry," Iolaus whispered his voice full of misery.

"Don't be." Hercules opened his eyes. He took a deep breath and came to a quick decision. "I promise, Iolaus." He put a hand on his friend's arm and tried to smile. "But you won't mind if I try everything else first?"

Iolaus stared into his best friend's eyes drawing strength from what he saw there. He nodded in silent gratitude. Then he moved away to begin building a fire.

Hercules looked back at the cave entrance where the orange lightning continued to spear the sky. He hoped Iolaus hadn't seen more than Hercules' acceptance of his request. He glanced back at his friend who seemed calm and satisfied. Staring back at the lightning, Hercules frowned. There was more than one promise he meant to keep.

An unearthly scream shocked both men into paralyzation. The scream seemed to surround them sounding worse than the torments of the worst damned soul in Tartarus.

'"Gods," Iolaus breathed when the scream finally died away. "What was that?"

"I don't know," Hercules reluctantly admitted. "But it can't be good." He glanced outside. "At least the lightning's stopped."

Iolaus glanced outside as well. Hercules was right although the wind seemed to have increased in its intensity.

There was a glimmer of light behind them. Hardly before Iolaus could react, Hercules had jumped to his feet and stood between Iolaus and the light. Iolaus grimaced in irritation not only at his friend's action but at his own silent relief of that action.

"Hermes," Hercules breathed in relief. Then he took another look at the Herald. "Hermes?"

Peering around Hercules, Iolaus saw the Herald's features were strained. "Are you alright?" he asked.

"You both need to come with me. Now." Hermes' eyes anxiously looked around the cave trying to peer into the shadows. "All Hades has broken loose."

"What's going on?" Hercules demanded even as he picked up their packs, and Iolaus threw dirt on the fire. "Where are we going?" He paused. "Where's Ares?"

"We're going someplace safe." Hermes' eyes flickered nervously from side to side. "I hope. As for Ares...I think he's dying."


Be careful of people who look not straight at you. The keeper of time is blind. (Stevie Nicks)



CHAPTER TWO