The two opponents regarded each other with hooded eyes, each determined that the other would be the one to fall, each ready to take advantage of the slightest opening to ensure victory. They had both had moments of triumph in this battle, but now each knew that this was it, the moment of bitter reckoning. This time, there would be no room for mercy.
Suddenly, their eyes locked, blue on blue, and Iolaus made his move. Howling a war cry, he dove at Hercules, intent on tackling him to the ground. But Hercules was ready for him and sidestepping neatly, he used Iolausí own momentum to flip him over. Iolaus hit the ground hard and groaned to himself. Lost again. Damn!
Woefully, he looked up into the grinning face of his training partner, who made no bones about the pleasure of beating him yet again. True, the two of them were Academy partners (although that had been Cheironís idea not Hercís) and over the course of several crazy adventures had come to a fairly stable friendship, but that didnít mean Hercules didnít gloat every time he managed to send Iolaus flying during their exercises. And although Iolaus had Herc dead to rights in archery and the staff, Iolaus was getting way too familiar with that cocky grin looking down at him after hand-to-hand.
The whistle heralding lunch break sounded and just as he had done every day for the six weeks he and Herc had been at the Academy, Iolaus winced at its shrillness. Herc offered a hand and as gracefully as he could, Iolaus accepted it and got to his feet. His back twinged from the impact on the sawdust floor of the Gymnasium, but it was nothing compared to his injured pride.
"Ah, wrestling, my favorite part of the day," he muttered, gingerly brushing himself off.
"Just wanted to make sure you worked up an appetite," Herc chuckled.
Iolaus scowled, pushing his hair back into some sort of order. "Youíre all heart."
Sensing that Iolaus wasnít ready for more jokes, Hercules toned down his grin. Iolaus was still uncomfortable with the grandeur and the routine -- letís face, Herc thought, with the legitimacy -- of the Academy and that was making him touchy. The last time Hercules had teased his friend too hard, Iolausí hurt feelings had almost made him quit the Academy, and Hercules didnít want a repeat of that. As much of a pain as Iolaus could be on occasion, now that Jason had left to rule Corinth, Iolaus was the only person at the Academy that Hercules knew he could trust his life with. He didnít want to lose that.
"Itís just sparring, Iolaus," he said. "Thatís what practice is for."
"What, learning twenty different ways to get my butt kicked?"
"Youíre improving, Iolaus, but you must learn strategy," Cheiron said from behind the partners. Both of them jumped; their instructor might be a Centaur, but he made less noise with his four feet than either of them made with two.
Frowning as always, Cheiron stared down implacably at the partners. Iolaus wondered again why Cheiron had asked him to enter the Academy, and if the Centaur was sorry that he had. He certainly never played favorites, but sometimes his treatment of Iolaus felt about as far away from favoritism as it was possible to be. Actually, Cheiron pushed Hercules harder, saying that Herc had to work more than others to take advantage of all of his potential, but that didnít make Iolaus feel any better. Using that logic, anytime Cheiron let Iolaus off easy, it must mean that the centaur didnít feel he had enough potential to be worth the training.
Cheiron folded his arms sternly and stomped his front hoof the way he always did when you were supposed to be listening to him.
"You must remember," he said after Iolaus switched on an attentive expression, "that you cannot fight an enemy who is larger and stronger than you are as if he is your own size. Find the advantage. Go for the legs, use your speed."
"Yeah, to run away," someone sneered.
In the circles that Iolaus was used to, nobody could get away with a comment like that without a fight. Instinctively raising his fists he immediately spun toward the speaker. Herc wasnít far behind him. As much as they might rag on each other, the partners were fiercely protective if others tried the same. In a way neither one of them quite understood, it seemed to be part of their friendship, and no one else had the right.
Not surprisingly, the speaker was Snotteus, who stood looking down his nose at them with his customary sneer of royal superiority. That was what got to Iolaus; apparently princes and lordlings just popped in for a few months at the Academy because it looked good on their resume or something, and they saw no reason to make nice to anybody who wasnít somebody. Of course, almost everyone at the Academy was somebody, or at least the son of Somebody. Everyone except Iolaus, and Snotteus seemed to have taken personal offense at the fact that a commoner was being allowed to mingle with the elite; and even more so, that this commoner was better than him in most events.
Cheiron cut in before either Iolaus or Hercules could rejoin the princeís mockery.
"Snotteus," he snapped, "this Academy is not for those who would mock their comrades. Learn that well. I will not tell you again."
Snotteus flushed deeply and bit his lip at the rebuke. "Iím sorry, Cheiron. I misspoke myself."
"I think itís Iolaus you should be apologizing too," Hercules coldly reminded the prince.
Darkening further, Snotteus turned to Iolaus. Even in the midst of his anger, Iolaus found time to marvel at the way his friend, practically the youngest warrior at the Academy, could so easily take command of any situation. Maybe such confidence was the half-god in him coming out -- or maybe it was by virtue of having Alcemene as a mother.
"I did not mean to impugn your skill," the prince said stiffly.
"I know you didnít," Iolaus said with a large and fake grin. It was true. Iolaus knew for a flat damn fact that what Snotteus had meant to impugn wasnít his skill, but his honor, courage and ability.
The forced exchange seemed to satisfy Cheiron, if no one else, and nodding abruptly, he departed. The remaining warriors stared at each other with mutual dislike.
"Anything else you wanted to say?" Iolaus asked, dropping the grin.
To his surprise, Snotteus actually looked shaken from the encounter with Cheiron. Of course, Iolaus had been on the receiving of Cheironís lectures often enough to know how intimidating the old centaur could be, but there was no need to look like someone had stepped over his grave.
"If you get me kicked out of the Academy--" Snotteus scowled, his words colored with an oddly intense emotion that Iolaus didnít waste the energy to try and decipher.
"Oh, you wanna get kicked?" he snapped instead. "Iíd be happy to oblige . . . ."
"Snotteus," Hercules interjected before things could get out of hand. "Anything that happens to you here is your own doing."
A quick glance at Iolaus hinted that the warning in those words applied just as equally to him as Snotteus. With an effort, Iolaus reined in his temper and put on his most infuriatingly expression.
"See you at practice," he challenged.
Something snapped in the princeís expression and he leaned close. "You," he hissed, "are nothing but street trash. Donít think you can change. Youíre nobody -- no matter how many half-god freaks you hang with."
Hercules got to Snotteus before Iolaus did, eyes burning like the towers of Troy. "If I were you," he said flatly, "I would never say that again."
Feet dangling in the air as Herc held him by the scruff of his shirt, Snotteus grinned brokenly and Iolaus realized that in some obscure way the prince had won. Maybe Hercules felt the same way or maybe it was his natural temperament, but with an expression of disgust, he dropped Snotteus. Still grinning, Snotteus adjusted his clothes and sauntered off. Some of his cronies met up with him and he said something Iolaus couldnít hear -- but there was a round of laughter that made the content of the joke pretty clear.
Street trash . . . .
"Ignore him" Hercules said, whether to Iolaus or to himself, Iolaus wasnít sure. "Snotteus just hasnít figured out that here, being the son of a king isnít very impressive."
"Thatís easy to say when youíre the son of a god," Iolaus snapped before he thought.
Freak . . . .
Hercules just half-shrugged, half-smiled. "Letís get something to eat."
Iolaus sighed, feeling that life was too complicated by half. "That, I can do."
"You know," Herc added as they began walking to the cafeteria, "Cheironís right. You are getting better."
"Oh yeah?" Iolaus asked sardonically.
"Yeah." Hercules suddenly grinned again. "I didnít drop you on your head half as many times today as I did yesterday."
"Oh, ha ha."
Together, they went in to lunch.
Ares, god of war, lounged in his throne of blackened steel and mentally reviewed the dayís accomplishments. The war in Thrace was going nicely, Arcadia verged on the brink of civil war and by now a certain disciple had slipped a very effective poison into the wine cup of a very inconvenient politician who seemed to think that peace was the solution to all earthy woes.
Ares knew for a fact that it wasnít. Peace was sloppy; people got lazy, started thinking up ideas. Ideas were messy. Mortals didnít need them; they just needed to be told. You give an order and people arenít supposed to say Ďwhy?í, theyíre supposed to obey. That was order, proper, true, natural order. That was what got things done, and often it took a good, bloody conflict to keep things running smoothly. Really, Ares was just trying to keep things working at optimum speed. Sometimes, he wondered why nobody understood that. Usually, he just didnít care.
But all in all, not a bad dayís work. Might as well unwind a bit. Gods bore easily, but Ares had lately found a hobby that amused him no end. Often it frustrated him no end as well, but annoying or enjoyable, it kept him interested. This hobby was called: Crushing Hercules.
"Discord," he said aloud.
Instantly she was there, all black leather and a smile as alluring as gold -- and just as likely to drive men to murder.
"Honey," he announced winningly. "Iím home."
"Am I supposed to applaud?" she snapped, her features immediately sliding into a pout. "Iím not used to being kept waiting."
Ares ignored her impudence and shrugged with lazy confidence. "What can I say, Iím a workaholic."
Discord slid into his lap, one blood-red nail tracing his beard. "So, are we going to have some fun or what?" she asked into his ear.
"Always so impatient, my dear," Ares chastised her easily. "No. I donít think itís time yet."
Discordís teeth tightened on his ear. "Then make it time."
Languidly, immanently conscious of the power that rippled through his every movement, Ares reached out and turned her face to his. "Donít push me, my dear. If you canít restrain yourself, go find a village to play with."
He released her, carefully measuring the flash of anger that shot through her eyes. But he was the master; they both knew that. She retreated sullenly.
Control, that was the trick. A nudge here, a murder there. It was the art of timing and of action. Ares could wait. And then he would act. He smiled, slow and predatory as lion, as a storm in the distance, rolling in too fast to escape.
Slowly, Discord returned the smile.
"Iíll wait," she said, advancing again. "Iím sure we can find some way to pass the time. But it wonít be too much longer, will it?"
Now Aresí smile was a knifeís glint in a dark alleyway. "No," he promised. "Not long at all."
"How right you are, Discord," Ares agreed, sliding a hand through her hair as she curled into his lap again. "It will very, very good indeed."
At the end of the lunch period, Cheiron entered the eating hall and made an announcement, something he rarely did. Instantly, the hall quieted.
"As some of you know," he said, his voice carrying to every student without any apparent effort, "it is that time of year when the Academy holds the Rite of Kleos."
"Kleos?" Iolaus whispered through the last mouthful of his second helping.
Hercules shrugged. "Iíve heard Jason talk about it," he whispered back. "I think itís a contest."
"More than a simple Ďcontestí," Cheiron reproved sharply. Iolaus and Hercules traded guilty glances. It was something they seemed to do that a lot around Cheiron.
"Kleos, as you all know, represents the reputation and fame of a hero," Cheiron continued after a moment. "It is a difficult road to be worthy of true kleos, for it is a nobility that consists of many parts. You must have courage to put yourself in harmís way for others, skill so you will not sacrifice yourself uselessly by doing so, and wisdom to decide when it is the right time to use your courage and skill."
After a final withering glare at Hercules and Iolaus that clearly stated his opinion that the two of them together couldnít find enough wisdom to hit the ground with a rock, Cheiron went on.
"The Rite of Kleos tests skill -- and perhaps other qualities as well. You will compete against each other, but remember that winning is not necessarily the objective. For this, it is the doing, not the ending that counts. The first event starts in two days."
"Sounds like fun," Iolaus said brightly, idly wondering if he could get a third helping. Herc had been right -- the workout had sharpened Iolausí already naturally vigorous appetite.
"Yeah, too bad Jason wonít be here to see us clean up," Hercules agreed.
"Whoa, whoa," Iolaus mock-chided, "arenít you forgetting that Ďit is not the ending, but the doing that countsí?"
"Yeah, but what if what we do makes us win?" Herc countered.
Iolaus pretended to consider. "Well, I wouldnít want to disappoint Jason . . . ."
The partners grinned with equal enthusiasm. It was all very noble to say that winning didnít matter, but Zeus knew that nobody ever wrote odes to the guys who finished last. And besides, they owed Snotteus a lesson in what a Ďfreakí and a Ďnobodyí could do. . . .
Yes, it was going to be a good couple of days.
If you win, a small unfamiliar voice in Iolausí mind said. If.
Iolaus was practicing late, trying to get his kick just that extra inch higher, when Snotteus came into the training room flanked his royalty-worshipping gang.
"Working hard?" Snotteus asked with mock camaraderie.
"Youíve got eyes, why donít you use them."
Iolaus concentrated on his routine. Step back, step side, kick. Step forward, step side, kick.
"Pretty fancy footwork for a gutter rat," Snotteus sneered. His gang snickered.
Step back, step side, kick. "Shouldnít you be getting your beauty rest?" Iolaus asked. Step forward, step side, kick. "Youíll want to look good when we win the Kleos."
Snotteus frowned. "You donít think youíre going to enter, do you?"
Step side, kick. "Afraid of the competition?"
Kick, step back, step --
Snotteus caught him by the shoulder, breaking the routine. "Didnít you hear the definition of a hero?" he asked softly, his voice intense, penetrating. "Nobility."
"I heard, skill, courage, and wisdom," Iolaus countered. "Thatís 0-3 for you."
Snotteusí features hardened. "Blood will tell. Once a thief, always a thief."
Iolaus broke away and began the routine again. "Well, I guess weíll find out."
As Snotteus and his gang sauntered out of the arena, Iolaus was surprised to realize that his hands were shaking. Abruptly, he sat down. He must have been training too hard. And waiting for the shivers to stop, Iolaus wondered again if the hands he was watching were those of a hero or a criminal. Maybe wishing couldnít change things after all. Maybe he had been right the first time. Maybe this really had been a mistake.
He sat in the empty gymnasium and thought.
Ares sat up straighter.
This Snotteus had that special kind of mind that was both powerful and short-sighted. That kind of mind had potential. He could be useful in the fight against peace.
But as for now . . . prejudice and fear had their place, and if they could be used against troublemakers like his little half-brother, then all the better. This silly contest of theirs could be the perfect venue for some hard-hitting mischief.
Of course, if Hercules lost on his own, all the better. But Ares was perfectly happy to aid in the tide of events. It wouldnít be the first time he had helped the hand of history.
Ares glanced at Discord. "Are you thinking what Iím thinking?"
She smiled that particular sharp and nasty smile that always made him glad he had promoted her out of the ranks. "Hercules thinks heís going to win the competition. But if he doesnít . . . ."
"What would be better than defeat and humiliation for the wunderkid?" Ares finished.
Discordís eyes flashed. "How about . . . death?"
Ares drew up his eyebrows, pretending to weigh the idea, then shrugged. "Death would work."
Discord stretched lasciviously. "This could be fun."
Ares smiled again. Fun was good. Demoralizing was better. But deadly was best.
Things were about to get fun.
Iolaus was in the middle of saddling the horse when Hercules stepped into the stable. He folded his arms casually and surveyed the bed roll on the back of the saddle. Iolaus ignored him.
"Well," Herc said after a minute. "Here we are again. Let me ask you, doesnít running away from every problem that comes up get a little old?"
Iolaus tightened the girth. "No, because last time I didnít think I could fit in here. Now, I know I canít."
"Why, because some moron called you a name? Is that all it takes for you to give up and let them win?"
"I guess so."
Iolaus didnít have to see Hercís expression to know that his partner hadnít accepted the answer. Sighing, he turned to meet Herc eye to eye. Iolaus was definitely not going to be stopped from leaving again, but he wanted Hercules to understand why he was going. It was important that he understand.
"Herc," he said, half pleading, half angry, "Iím tired of being laughed at or looked down on because Iím not the son of a king or a hero . . . or a god. No matter what I do, Iím never going to be anything but street trash to anyone here. So if youíre ever in Sparta, look me up."
He stuck his hand out to shake goodbye, but Hercules refused to acknowledge the gesture. "What about the competition?" he argued. "Youíre my partner, remember?"
Hercules sighed. "Iolaus, youíre also my friend. Thatís a lot harder to replace." He dropped his voice. "Do you think I always feel comfortable here? I may have a high-ranking dad, but status is the only thing Zeus has ever given me. I grew up with without a real father, just like you."
Iolaus hesitated, touched by the wistfulness in Hercís voice. Then his friendís eyes glinted. "And if you leave," Herc continued, "Iím going to be bored out of my mind here. So, what could be better than the look on Snotteusí face when we win the Kleos?"
Now it was Hercís turn to stick out his hand and stand there, waiting, so completely certain that Iolaus would stay. And without quite knowing why, except that Hercules was probably the best friend he had ever had, Iolaus found himself reaching out and clasping forearms with his partner. Herc was right, no more running.
"All right, Iím in," he said, and meant it. Here was the chance to start making something of himself. Probably the only chance he would ever have. It was worth one more attempt. Just one more, but maybe the third time would be the charm.
Hercís eyes still gleamed and now a trace of that cocky grin played around his mouth. "Good," he said slyly, Ďcause Iím losing a lot of sleep talking you out of the stables."
Iolaus winced at the recollection. "At least this time I didnít end up face down in manure!"
Hercules shrugged. "That was Plan B."
Iolaus believed it, too.
The first stage of the Rite of Kleos passed smoothly, with, except where Snotteus was concerned, mutual good feelings by all who participated. Cheiron had chosen a dozen events that he felt covered all the basic physical requirements of being a warrior, and one of each pair of partners competed in each event. The top three people in each event were given a corresponding number of points and the top three accumulative pairs would participate in a final event, chariot-racing, the next day. And the top score of all would win the Kleos.
During the morning, Hercules and Iolaus swept the events, although Snotteus and his partner Bluteus, as well as a few others were close behind. By lunch, which took place early while Herc and Iolaus were sent to retrieve the discus that Hercules had sent spinning into the horizon, Snotteus had moved up with his specialties (bola and two-handed short swords) and the two teams were almost neck and neck.
However, the only two events that remained before the final tally were hand-to-hand combat and archery. Nobody had a doubt about who would win the hand-to-hand, and Iolaus was an equally safe bet for archery. So while Iolaus cheered, Hercules methodically worked his way through the opponents, until it was just him and Bluteus, a truly massive slab of muscle who made up for his lack of finesse with a punch like a Titan. Iolaus had seen Herc take Bluteus before, but even for the son of a god it hadnít been easy.
It was when Hercules and Bluteus were squaring off for the final round that the child ran into the gymnasium. He was around eight, pants torn and face dirty as if he had been running so fast that he had kept tripping. He looked panicked, and if anyone still had any doubts after looking at his terrified expression, his words confirmed it.
"Help, help, please!" he panted, addressing the company in general.
"Whatís wrong?" Iolaus asked, kneeling down to make sure the kid wasnít hurt. He didnít look it, just a little skinned in places, but better safe than sorry.
"My friend Procles, heís caught in a cave, we were exploring and there was this avalanche--" The words came fast, desperate. "Please, youíve got to help."
"Calm down, weíll help, donít worry," Iolaus promised, looking around for Herc."
He was already making his way over from the arena, pulling his shirt back over his head as he walked. "Looks like weíll have to postpone the contest," he said casually.
There was a general murmur of assent by the other participants. But Snotteus, who had been watching the kid with barely concealed distaste, tensed like heíd been hit by a lightening bolt. "No!" he snarled. "Weíre not postponing anything."
"Snotteus, weíre talking about a kidís life here," Hercules snapped. "Weíve got to help him."
"Go ahead," Snotteus sneered, "but you forfeit the Kleos."
"We donít know how badly the cave-in," Iolaus objected. "We need everyone to be there."
The argument got to him and for a moment, Snotteus almost looked pained. "My, father--" he began, then cut off. But they all knew that any team that did not complete all twelve events would be disqualified. If Hercules and Iolaus went and Snotteus stayed, he would win the contest. But at what price?
"Iím no hero," Snotteus spat finally, but even he looked a little sick at what he was saying, the priorities he was endorsing. Bluteus looked uneasy, but as always, he took his cue from the prince.
"Weíve got to hurry!" the little boy begged.
Hercules met Iolausí eyes briefly and the partners mentally agreed. Even if it meant destroying their chance at the Kleos, they had to. There were things far more important than winning and this was one.
"Letís go," he said.
"Enjoy your prize," Iolaus told the prince, making no attempt to disguise his disgust.
"Wait," Cheiron said. The centaur had remained so quiet, that Iolaus had forgotten he was there.
Hercules eyed him levelly. "Somehow I donít think youíre going to offer to postpone the rest of the events," he said.
Cheiron nodded slightly. "You are correct, Hercules. Sometimes rules must be followed. However, all of you together will be more than enough to free the boy. One might stay with no risk to the child."
Hercules shook his head. "You know my strength might be important. Iím not going to risk that boyís life for a matter of pride."
"It wasnít you I was thinking of."
Iolaus saw the heads swivel toward him just as the centaurís meaning sunk in. And as much as he hated the idea of abandoning the rescue to the others, he had to admit it made sense. Herc had already secured a second place in hand-to-hand, but they needed the archery points. So all Iolaus really had to do was go a few rounds with Bluteus, just go through the motions, then hit the deck and go on to archery. . . .
Bluteus sensed Iolausí scrutiny and smiled smugly. He was one of the ĎIolaus is street trashí brigade, Snotteusí right hand man. Not smart, but mean and generally considered to have gotten into the Academy simply because his grandfather was Poseidon. Still, that was no reason to try to win the hand-to-hand. No reason at all.
"What do you think?" Hercules asked softly, eyeing Bluteus.
"Are you sure you wonít need me?"
"Weíll manage. I meant about him."
Iolaus squared his shoulders. "I can take him. Go get the kid."
They both knew that even Hercules would have a hard time with Bluteus. But Herc read Iolausí intent on his friendís face, and after a secondís hesitation, simply nodded his understanding. He left the gymnasium with the joyful boy leading him and most of the Academyís finest following. Anteos and Phalces, the team in third place, wavered, faces torn, then thankfully remained as Cheiron waved them to stay.
The centaur watched the others go without expression, betraying no approval for their choice just as he had showed no disapproval for Snotteusí. When the last warrior had disappeared from sight, he turned to the remaining opponents.
"Begin," he said.
Bluteus chuckled like an earthquake, flexing his huge hands. The one time Iolaus had trained with Bluteus it had been like fighting a brick wall. And that had been just casual sparring, not like this. This was for earnest.
Was it his imagination, or did the gym actually tremble from the weight of Bluteusí steps? Despite himself, Iolaus glanced over to Cheiron; the centaur, as always, remained impassive. But Iolaus had the sense that he was up to something. Somehow, that made Iolaus all the more determined.
Bluteus was still grinning.
"Oh yeah," Iolaus muttered as he shrugged out of his shirt, "this is gonna to be swell."
Snotteus stood to one side of the chalked circle that marked the arena for hand-to-hand and tried not to be horrified at what he had done.
ĎRelax,í said a lazy voice, Ďyou made the right choice.í
The prince jumped, glancing around in surprise. There was no one there. Shaking his head to clear it, he turned back to the arena. Iolaus and Bluteus were starting, slowly and warily circling each other, each waiting for the other to make the first move.
Well, this part would be over in a matter of minutes; there was no way the runt could stand up to Bluteus. If Iolaus knew what was good for him, he wouldnít even try, but Snotteus had a feeling the thief wasnít giving up without a fight. Such impudence; his father would have never have tolerated the way Hercules -- half god or not -- spoke to Snotteus, the way Iolaus dared to pretend he was as good as his social superiors just because he had learned some skill skulking in the streets.
The archery, that was a problem. That kid had been a godsend, an opportunity not to be missed despite the twinges of conscience that were needling him. After all, Snotteusí father had long ago told him that conscience was for the weak, the ones who didnít have to look after an entire kingdom. That was how you ruled well; you did anything that was needed to reach your goal and left the conscience to the ones you were protecting.
So Snotteus had bet everything on Herculesí and Iolausí sentimentality, knowing that they wouldnít hesitate to throw away the status of the Kleos to help. But Cheiron had one-upped him and now Snotteus was right back where he had started. Because as much as it galled him to admit it -- never admit that anyone is more apt than yourself, his father always said -- Iolaus was the better archer. Phalces might be as well, and Snotteus needed more than a third place scoring in order to be able to win the contest.
He was so close, but gods curse it, with Iolaus in the game it was impossible.
ĎSo take him out of the game,í said the voice. It was deep, almost a purr, simultaneously refined and brutal, mild and ruthless. But Snotteus was still alone.
It could only be . . . a god?
The very idea thrilled him, but at the same time, something deep inside him warned Snotteus not to respond, not to open himself up to the manipulation of an immortal. But his father, even his father who had led their kingdom with such an unerring, unpitying hand -- not even his father had ever been approached by a god. That would be something to tell the king. No matter the outcome of Kleos, that would make him realize that Snotteus was worthy to be his heir.
ĎNot so fastí the voice warned. ĎFirst win this contest and prove to me that you can serve.í
I can serve, Snotteus thought eagerly. I can serve, I will do anything, just tell me how.
The voice chuckled, as if Snotteusí pledge was endearing. And then the god told him what to do.
It was shockingly simple. Snotteus gasped with sudden wild glee and strode quickly up to the arena. The fight was going strong now, with Iolausí dexterity pitted against Bluteusí virtual invulnerability. Every time Iolaus eluded the ham-fisted swings and pushed in to deliver a blow of his own, Bluteus just blinked it off and swung again. Every time Bluteus connected, Iolaus flew backward and had to scramble to his feet in order to avoid being trampled; Bluteus had inherited some fairly direct ideas about combat from his grandfather.
Noticing Snotteus, Bluteus made a questioning noise in his throat. Snotteus responded with the signal explaining the godís voice plan. Slowly, eyes widening with understanding, Bluteus nodded.
Iolaus took advantage of the lull to launch himself feet first at Bluteusí stomach and this time the blow made the big Carpathian stagger backward a few paces. But Bluteus had understood the signal. He knew what to do.
Snotteus stood back and watched what came next, and as he watched he smiled the cold smile of the god of war.
The company of Academy warriors hurried. Hercules led the crowd, wishing that he wasnít constrained to the boyís pace. From what Dardanus had described, the other boy, Procles, was probably in no immediate danger but then again, he might be hurt, or running out of air, and who knew what kind of creatures lived in the dark . . . .
"There it is!"
The cave was barely more than a cut in a low hill, a crack of blackness less than two manís widths and hardly taller than Hercules. If ominous could be personified, it would look like this slice into the underworld. It was, Hercules realized ruefully, exactly the sort of place that would draw inquisitive children like a magnet.
He turned to Dardanus. "How far did you and Procles go into the cave before the avalanche?"
"Not far, hardly a few minutes," Dardanus replied, hopping from foot to foot in his excitement.
Good, that would make it that much easier to rescue the kid.
"Let me go in first and scout out the place," Hercules told the other warriors. They nodded, and Hylas handed him a torch.
Nodding his thanks, Hercules motioned for Dardanus to come on and the two of them began threading their way into the cave.
They moved quickly into the depths of the cave, which was perhaps why neither of them heard the shouts of alarm from outside when, to the astonishment of the waiting warriors, the stone at the cavernís entrance crackled together, sealing off the opening as if it had never existed and securely locking Hercules and Dardanus inside.
In the cave, Hercules hunched his head to avoid a jutting rock formation, and tried to hold his torch farther in front of him. The blackness was deep here, the torch barely making a dent in the almost palpable dark, but Dardanus didnít seem to mind.
"Weíre almost there," he called back to Hercules, apparently not put off by the darkness that made even Hercules, the son of a god, squint to make out shapes in the weak firelight. "I remember because there was this dip here right before the cave-in."
"Donít get too far ahead of me, Dardanus," Hercules warned. "I donít want to have to look for you, too."
"Okay mister Hercules," Dardanus promised, edging obediently closer to the torchlightís wavering sphere of influence and pointing the way. "Itís right up there."
"Okay," Hercules directed, "you stay here for a minute. Iíll be right back."
Leaving Dardanus, Hercules stepped cautiously forward, ready to react instantly at the first sign of another cave-in. But everything seemed to be still.
He moved farther along the cave, searching for the telltale pile of rocks that would mark Proclesí location, straining to hear any cries for help. But he saw nothing, heard nothing. In fact, the cavern here was opening up, the ground changing from the usual uneven rocks to a treacherously smooth stone only broken by a line of seemingly regular square stones pushing up from the surface.
"What is this place?" he asked under his breath.
"Why donít I show you," Discord said.
Hercules spun -- the goddess was standing where he had left Dardanus, making her own illumination so that Herc couldnít miss her.
"What the matter, ĎMister Herculesí?" she laughed.
"You were the boy," Hercules realized with a sinking heart. "There was never anyone in trouble down here."
Discordís eyes flashed. "Not til now."
Suddenly, the ground under Hercules vanished. He fell. The torch flew out of his grip but he instinctively twisted toward one of the still-standing stepping stones. He just caught himself with the fingers of one hand, then painfully, carefully, pulled himself up until he stood on the small pillar of stone.
Around him in every direction spread emptiness, broken only by the straight line of stone pilings that led back to where Discord stood, laughing. He couldnít see the torch he had dropped anywhere; it must be a long way down.
"What do you want, Discord?" Hercules asked, mentally measuring the distance to the next stone. It was a fair distance, but he could make it. The question was, would Discord let it be that easy? Probably not.
Discordís face twisted into a sneer. "What do I always want?"
"Well, is this is your way of asking me out on a date, Iím gonna have to pass."
Discord actually flushed. "Sorry, lover," she snapped, "Iíve made others plans."
Experience told him he wasnít going to like the Ďother plansí. As subtly as possible, Hercules tested the stability of his stone and readied himself for the first jump.
"How does a little barbecue strike you?" she asked and launched a fireball.
Hercules was already moving, pushing off from the stone and somersaulting to the next piling, which rocked slightly but held firm under his impact. "Sorry," he quipped, "it missed."
"You werenít what I was aiming for," Discord countered archly.
The fireball exploded at the far end of the darkness. Immediately the space around Hercules ignited into flame. The heat singed his feet and the stone piling groaned under the assault of the fiery sea.
"Oh," said Hercules.
"Roast in peace," Discord told him, blowing a kiss that stung as it reached his cheek. Then she vanished.
Hercules stood in the middle of a sea of fire, and sighed. And the day had started out so well.
Iolaus was running out of ideas.
Maybe if he had a really big hammer or something? But Bluteus was like a walking tidal wave and all Iolausí sallies had done was make him mad. It was a good thing that the guy was slow, or Iolaus would be a smear on the arena floor by now. But there was no thought of giving up now. This was do or die! Well -- Iolaus glanced at the expression on Bluteusí face and winced -- hopefully Ďdo.í He wasnít so keen on the other part. But it had become more than pride now. He had to do this, not to show the others, but prove to himself he had what it took. No one else mattered now; he was in a contest with his self, and he was determined to win it.
Ducking low under a swing that rustled his hair on its way by, Iolaus sprang forward to dig his shoulder into Bluteusí stomach. And rebounded back as if he had hit a wall. Bluteus reached out while Iolaus was still stumbling back, caught him around the shoulders and slammed him down to the ground. Iolaus instantly rolled to avoid the huge foot coming down towards his solar plexus and scrambled to his feet on the other side of the arena. Okay, so that definitely hadnít worked. Sparring with Hercules was starting not to look so bad.
Bluteus started to lumber forward, then stopped as Snotteus moved up to the edge of the arena. Iolaus didnít bother to see what they were doing, he just grabbed the opportunity and again launched himself at Bluteus, this time feet first. The impact seemed to fuse Iolausí ankle bones into his feet, but the idea was a go. Bluteus actually staggered backward.
Iolaus pushed the advantage, grabbing one of Bluteusí arms and trying to flip him. The problem with this approach was instantly evident; maybe Hercules could have thrown him, but Iolaus couldnít. There was no time to cover the mistake. Bluteus swung around a fist and the world lit up as it connected with Iolausí face. Stunned, Iolaus almost fell to his knees but managed to recover in time to receive another blow to the face.
The world spun lazily. Desperately, Iolaus dove and rolled, getting a little space between himself and Bluteus, a precious half second to regroup. His eyes ached from the blows, blurring his sight. He tried to find his breath. Okay, letís think about this. The direct approach wasnít working. Cheiron was right, he needed strategy. Bluteus was twice his size, so he couldnít fight him the way Hercules might. Iolaus had to think of some way to make the inequality favor him. His ribs twanged. So, strategy. He was fast, that was something, but how could he turn that to the offensive rather than defensive? What had Cheiron said? Move fast. Go for the legs. . . .
Iolaus shrugged to himself. All right, what did he have to lose?
Breathing deeply, squinting the huge shape of Bluteus into focus, Iolaus readied his last attempt. This would be the last, he had tried everything else. If he couldnít work this now, there was no point to it. Goodbye Academy, hello Sparta. It was stupid, but that was the way it was. But he wanted to stay, he wanted the life that Hercules had given him a glimpse of, a life of helping people, of being respectable, confident and generous. A life of nobility.
So when Bluteus charged him, Iolaus waited until he could smell the other warriorís bad breath and then sank smoothly down and swept his legs around into Bluteusí shins. Bluteus stumbled, nearly falling. But Iolaus didnít wait to watch the results of the action; he was already moving, and moving fast. He spun away and jumped straight up to catch Bluteus with both his feet right in the chest. Bluteus grunted and waved a ham fist toward him, but Iolaus had already used his purchase on Bluteusíí chest to flip backward. He hit the ground well and charged again.
Once again, Iolaus spun and went down, hitting Bluteus on the other side, this time a little higher this time, at his knees. It worked. With a confused bellow, the warrior went down, falling heavily to his knees like an avalanche stopped halfway. In this position, Bluteus was a much more convenient height, and Iolaus began a flurry of kicks and punches that left his ribs aching but took a toll on Bluteus as well. But although Bluteus swayed, blinking slowly, he didnít fall.
Wearily, Iolaus searched the nooks and crannies of his resourceful mind and came up with one last idea. Turning away from Bluteus, he dropped himself into a handstand, pushed out and delivered a two-footed into the big warriorís face.
Iolaus landed and with an effort pulled himself up and around so he could watch Bluteusí reaction. The warrior shook his head once, as if to dislodge a pesky fly, then as slowly and inevitably as continental drift, he smiled and fell face first onto the floor. This time, it wasnít just Iolausí imagination that the floor shook with the impact.
But even as Iolaus felt the satisfaction, the relief, pour through him, he realized it wasnít the end. Because Bluteusí blows had served a purpose beyond simply beating Iolaus to a pulp. They had given Iolaus a pair of black eyes that were already so swollen that he saw his defeated opponent only as a flickering blur.
Iolaus swore softly but sincerely. He had had won the hand-to-hand and proven himself, but Snotteus may have won the Kleos, because while Iolaus could still participate, now there was no way that he could hit a thing in archery. And there was nothing he could do about it.
Flame licked around Hercules.
He tried to ignore it and concentrate on the next stone piling, but that was easier said than done. It reminded him of that first fight he had had with Ares -- well, Hercules had been fighting, Ares had been just toying with him. Hercules was still proud of the encounter, but he knew now that it had been a lucky blow that had knocked the god of war into the fire that day. And it had started such a series of torments and challenges from Ares and Discord; in an odd way, Hercules thought, he should be flattered that something about him had impressed, or irritated, Ares enough that the god of war had made his destruction a personal hobby.
But it was hard to be flattered when a goddess had just thrown a barbecue and you were supposed to be the main course.
There were those pilings, though. Maybe it was more fun if the victim had a fighting chance, or maybe there were rules about that kind of thing. But who made up the rules?
At the moment, it wasnít important now. What was important right now was that he had almost a dozen pilings left before solid ground. As long as nothing changed, that was no prob--
Things changed. With a deep rumbling moan, the stone under his feet succumbed to the pressure of the inferno below and crumbled. Hercules sprang out, straining his body to the utmost. . . .
He landed draped over the next piling, but there was no time for congratulations. This piling, too, was shuddering and groaning pitiably. It wasnít going to last. Hercules scrambled to his feet, tried to judge the distance through the sulfuric smoke that stung his eyes and tore at his lungs, and leapt. Behind him, the stone broke into pieces and sank into the sea of fire.
Again and again, Hercules jumped and landed, sometimes on his feet, sometimes on his knees or stomach, once barely managing to catch the stone with two hands and clamber his way back up amid hungry flame. Redness filled his vision, heat battered his body, his mind grew numb to anything but the need to move and move again. Finally, the last piling disintegrated under his first touch and he had to throw himself forward, using will power more than anything else for propulsion.
But at last, he was on his knees on solid ground, coughing and muscles aching, eyes stinging from sulfur, face smoke-stained and boots smoldering. But alive.
"We should practice that in training," he panted, then pulled himself up and went to find a way out. Discord had probably sealed up the caveís entrance, but that was okay. It was only stone, and he was really ready to punch something anyway.
Iolaus was waiting for him when Hercules got back, long after twilight had made way for night. Hercules felt a twinge of worry as the sight of his friend; Iolaus looked too serious for good news, and while Herc could live without the Kleos, he was afraid that that losing the competition might mean losing Iolaus too.
"So," he said carefully, "howíd it go?"
"I won," Iolaus said in a curiously flat voice.
"I won the hand-to-hand," Iolaus clarified. "I barely hit the target in archery."
"But wha--" Then Hercules stopped. Now that he looked closer, he could see that among other minor bruises, Iolaus was sporting twin black eyes that were still impressively swollen. "Bluteus hit in you in the eyes?"
"So no matter happened in the hand-to-hand I couldnít win the archery," Iolaus completed.
"But thatís not fair!" It was also too devious for Bluteus, and even Snotteus, for all his faults, didnít seem to be the cunning type. But if someone had given him the suggestion, someone who lived for under-handed tricks and had made ruining Hercules life -- and by default the lives of his friends -- a private hobby of his . . . .
"ĎFair is how you must treat the world,í" Iolaus quoted disgustedly, "Ďnot how the world will always treat you.í Thatís all Cheiron had to say about it."
Hercules sat down beside his partner, still not sure how Iolaus was reacting to the situation. If Aresí and Discordís interference had made him give up--
They spoke at the same time. "Iolaus, Iím sorry."
"Herc, Iím sorry."
Iolaus answered first. "I let my temper get in the way of the strategy, Herc. I should have just let the hand-to-hand go and focused on the archery. I screwed up and weíve probably lost the Kleos because of it."
Hercules shook his head. "Iolaus, I donít care about the Kleos. Sure it would be nice to win, but itís just a title. Beside, if Snotteus planned to sabotage you, it wouldnít have mattered what your plans were, Bluteus would have hit you no matter what."
Iolaus mulled the idea over and then brightened. "Thatís a good point." Suddenly his face cleared with that ability for instant good-humor that always amazed Hercules. "Hey, Herc, you shouldíve seen me, I was ducking and dodging and then went up in this kick thing and flipped back and did this sort of up and down combination . . . it was so cool."
"You can show me in training," Hercules offered.
"Oh, donít worry, buddy, I will," Iolaus promised with a note of wicked confidence that made Hercules wonder just how the next sparring session would end. But just as long as Iolaus was sticking around, it was good by him.
"So," Iolaus asked, "is the kid okay?"
Herc made a face. "The Ďkidí was nonexistent. It was all another one of Discordís tricks. She lured me into a cave and then tried to grill me over an open fire."
"Sheís really got a warm spot for you, doesnít she?" Iolaus asked innocently. "I mean, sheís always cooking up something."
That was when Hercules knew his friend was all right. You could always judge his mood by the number of truly rotten puns he cracked.
"This time it wasnít something she was cooking up: it was me!" Hercules countered.
Iolaus looked at him conspiratorially. "Herc, are you sure youíre not hot for her?"
"No, really, I wouldnít blame you. I mean, itís risky getting involved with someone who wants to kill you, but I know how you like to play with fire . . . . "
"Yeah, but Iíve been burned before. . . . "
"But this thing is sure-fire . . . !"
And joking and laughing, the partners went into the Academy to prepare for the next day, where a chariot race would determine the true definition of Kleos.
It was almost midnight when the voice woke Snotteus.
It filled his mind, powerful, irresistible. ĎOutside.í Ever so careful to make no noise, betray no hesitation or fear, Snotteus went.
And standing there in the moonlight, was the god. The god. Ares.
Snotteus knelt, not daring to dream what was about to be offered to him.
"My lord," he stuttered. "As of me what you will."
Ares smiled fondly down at the boy, accepting the homage with the ease of someone used to fear and awe and hunger. "That was good work this afternoon," he told Snotteus. "Very organized. I was impressed."
"Thank you, my lord!" Even his father had never said such praise, and the words gave Snotteus enough courage to stand up again, look at Ares, at his patron.
Now Ares held up a warning finger. "But," he said regretfully, "Iím afraid it wasnít quite enough. You see, at first I just wanted my half-brother humiliated and depressed, but that doesnít seem to be happening. So now I want him dead."
"My lord?" Snotteus shivered, not wanting to understand what the god had just said.
Ares frowned. "Come now, Snotteus, youíve been doing so well, donít disappoint me now. I said I want Hercules dead."
"Snotteus, youíve got to think about this logically. People like Hercules -- and Iolaus -- theyíre dangerous. Theyíre dangerous because they disrupt the natural order of things. The natural social order. Do you really want a world where commoners -- and thatís all Hercules is, despite his father; a bastard commoner -- do you want a world where commoners like that run rampant, gaining glory and preaching democracy?"
Never let the commoners get above you, son, Snotteusí father had always said. Never let them get ideas. You know your place, make sure they donít forget theirs.
But murder . . . .
Ares saw the word in Snotteusí expression and drew back, as if hurt. "Snotteus, Iím not asking you to kill," he explained. "Just to arrange a little incident."
The god held up a small waxen stake. "Just replace the wooden pin holding one of Herculesí chariot wheels to the chariot with this wax pin. About halfway through the race, the friction of the wheel will cause the wax to melt and the wheel will fall off. Whatever happens after that is the will of the gods, not any of your doing."
The loss of a wheel during a race at top speed. It could be deadly, certainly injurious. And yet . . . and yet there was no reason to think that it would necessarily cause any permanent damage. Snotteus leapt at the idea. Maybe all it would do was stop Hercules and Iolaus from completing the race. . . .
Cheating, a small part of him said. But no, the rest argued, cheating was when someone who deserved something was tricked out of it. But it was Snotteus who deserved this prize; Ares, god of war, was offering him the means to what was rightfully his. So it was the will of the gods. The will of the gods couldnít be wrong, couldnít be cheating. And if Hercules and Iolaus received a few bruises, then that would serve as a reminder to them that there was an order to the world and it was meant to be kept. It was the will of the gods that it be kept and he could not risk ruining his chance to become the favored of Ares.
"Snotteus," Ares said, and it seemed to Snotteus that he heard his fatherís voice overlapping the god, "do you want to win or not?"
And Snotteus, prince of Nastiteus, answered: "Yes. Sir."
The next morning dawned clear and bright.
After a hearty breakfast the members of the Academy piled out to the stretch of beach that Cheiron had determined would serve as an impromptu race track and began marking boundaries and harnessing each pair of horses to the three chariots. Spirits among the warriors were high; Iolausí face was more or less back to normal and he tossed jokes back and forth with an animation that had been missing for a long time. Hercules was also feeling less burnt around the edges and the newly reinstated confidence of his partner made him equally high-spirited.
Only Snotteus stayed removed from the general babble of laughter. Dark circles under his eyes betrayed a poor sleep, and to those who bothered to notice, he seemed preoccupied. The only time he snapped out of his daze was when Cheiron announced that the three pairs of contestants would draw for the chariots. Then he paled, and the hand that drew his lot trembled ever so slightly. But even Hercules put it down to excitement.
Hercules and Iolaus drew the green chariot, Snotteus and Bluteus the red, and Anteos and Phalces the blue. Although Hercules mildly preferred the blue, the chariots were basically the same, each well constructed open-backed cups set between two huge wheels. And all the warriors had trained with each chariots and each set of horses.
The course was twice the length of a designated stretch of beach and each way a different partner would drive. Although Snotteus was a justifiably renown horsemen, having Bluteus for a partner would work against him in this event just as it had helped the prince in most of the others. Not only would the warriorís weight slow down the horses, but Bluteus was not very attuned to the subtleties guiding the animals and would cost them seconds that a more able driver would not. Anteos and Phalces, on the other hand, were both skilled at the event, and while Iolaus wasnít thrilled with horses, he could handle them almost as competently as Hercules.
Still high-spirited, Iolaus, Anteos and Bluteus took their place at the rein. The others climbed behind, and at Cheironís word, the race was on.
The chariots surged forward in an explosion of wet sand and a chorus of whoops from the watching warriors. Iolaus immediately guided his team to the right of the other two, while Anteos took the left, horses running at the more treacherous sand at the edge of the surf line, and Bluteus thundered straight down the middle. At the halfway mark, the three were still neck and neck; by the three-quarters, Iolaus had pulled slightly ahead and Bluteus slightly behind.
Wind whipped across Iolausí face and tossed up grit into his still tender eyes. His hair threatened to blind him, and he almost wished he had acceded to general fashion and cut his hair, or at least had thought to tie it back. Wheels spinning furiously, the chariot hummed with the pounding hooves of the horses.
"Ready?" Hercules yelled over the noise of the race as the turning point loomed into view.
"Ready!" Iolaus confirmed, the wind stealing the word and leaving it far behind the speeding chariot. He took the turn as tightly as he dared, but Bluteusí position forced him wide and when Hercules took the proffered reins and took in the situation, he saw that Phalces was now ahead; the blue chariot had made up its ground and more by being in the inner lane at the turn.
Quickly, Hercules urged the horses forward and cut in front of Snotteus, steering toward the prized firmer ground away from the ocean. He made it before Phalces could react to the move and cut him off. That left Snotteus on the outside and although his team were responding admirably to his deft touch, he still had almost a chariotís length of ground to make up.
Judging it safe enough, Hercules forgot about him for the moment and focused on edging up to Phalces. But suddenly, the blue chariot began to wobble.
"Somethingís wrong!" Iolaus called urgently.
It was true. Before Hercules could respond, the right wheel of the blue chariot sprang away from the body as if it had been thrown. The chariot fell hard and Anteos was tossed half over the side by the movement. The edge of the cup dug a deep furrow in the sand, but the jolt had cost Phalces his reins and the horses ran wild.
"Hold on!" Hercules yelled to them and began slowing his team in order to cut behind the blue chariot. At the surf, Snotteusí chariot thundered by without pause. Seeing the chariot pass, Hercules grimly tightened his grip on the reins; pettiness was one thing, but there would be a reckoning for the princeís callous self-interest.
"Weíll get Anteos," Iolaus shouted across the sand and Phalces waved gratefully and began to concentrate whole-heartedly on the task of retrieving the reins. As carefully as possible, Hercules guided his team close to the unwheeled side of the blue chariot. Anteos was hanging low, legs scraped unmercifully by the ground. The angle of his left suggested it was broken, and badly.
Hercules modulated the speed of his team to match the panicked horses and let Iolaus direct him closer to the wounded warrior. Iolaus tried leaning over the side of the chariot and grabbing hands with Anteos, but to get close enough to reach the warrior would run the very real possibility of either crushing him under their own chariot, or getting his legs tangled in their wheel.
Instead, Iolaus waved Herc forward and wrapping one arm around the leather handholds on the inside of the chariot, stretched out on his stomach on the bottom of the chariot and inched out of the open back as far as possible. Sand kicked up by the chariot hit him like tiny missiles, but he ignored as best he could the potentially deadly ground that was whipping by only a few handwidths below him. He felt Herc closing in on the blue chariot, saw Anteosí pain-etched face come into view as Herc got as close to the chariot as he dared. Well, this was it. Redoubling his grip on the handhold so he wouldnít be pulled out by Anteosí weight, Iolaus stretched out his free hand and gestured urgently toward Anteos.
Anteos nodded, trusting him, and freed one hand from its death grip on the side of the chariot. The act made him lose his grip completely, but Iolaus caught the warriorís desperately flailing hand as he flew by, and thankful for both their sakes, began the process of hauling Anteos in. Hercules immediately slowed the horses and soon Anteos was panting in the cramped quarters of the green chariot.
Herculesí and Iolausí high five of triumph was interrupted by a cry from Phalces. With sinking hearts, the partners turned toward the flying chariot and realized what had happened. The other wheel of the blue chariot had snapped under the pressure and the entire cup had shattered, but Phalces had become entangled in the reins and was now skidding behind the running horses with no way to stop himself from being dragged or trampled to death.
"Iolaus, you take the reins," Hercules said. "This oneís mine."
Iolaus quickly exchanged places with Herc and urged the horses back up to a gallop. "They oughta put safety belts in these things," he muttered. Vaguely, he realized that they had already passed the finish line and were heading down the other half of the beach. He wondered if Snotteus was proud of himself, then banished such thoughts and concentrated on closing the distance between the chariots.
Both sets of horses were tired, but Phalcesí team were being hindered by the mass of lines, chariot pieces and Phalces himself that dragged behind them. Iolaus had little trouble overtaking the other team which was all to the good; now even seconds could cost Phalce dear.
Body tense with readiness, Hercules waited for Iolaus to get close enough and tried to decide what to do. He could try to break the traces by hand and free Phalces, but if he didnít get all of them once, the warrior was likely to be seriously hurt. It would be better, then, to concentrate on the horses, get them calmed down and untangle Phalces afterward.
That was a plan.
The only problem with it was that it meant Hercules had to climb onto the edge of the blue chariot, balance there while Iolaus pulled alongside the foaming horses, and then jump onto the back of the nearest steed. That was a lot harder than youíd think.
The wind whipped at him as he tried to find purchase on the sweat-soaked back of the horse, and the change in speed and position almost ripped him away and left him in a heap on the beach. But he grabbed a doublehandful of mane and slowly but determinedly pulled himself upright until he was riding the horse bareback instead of just stretched out over the animal and sliding all over the place.
That done, Hercules reached out for the traces that connected the two bridles with one another. They jangled wildly with the horsesí motion, resting against his fingertips for a split second before bouncing out of reach. He reached further; the horses, seemingly inspired by his presence, picked up the pace. Refusing to look down, refusing to think about what would happen even to a half-god if he fell between those pounding hooves, Hercules slid further forward, jeopardizing his balance for reach. After an agonizing second suspended over the rushing ground, he was rewarded with a handful of leather and metal.
Immediately, he hauled back on the traces, careful to exert smooth pressure, careful not to jerk and make the confused horses rear or lose their own balance. The team whinnied angrily at the touch, but obediently slowed until finally they were walking as docilely as if nothing had ever happened.
Hercules slid thankfully to the good old solid ground and reached Phalces at the same time as Iolaus. Phalces was barely conscious, his arms burned and torn from where the reins had bit into him, but he didnít seem to be seriously injured.
Iolaus whistled a note of relief. They had all been lucky, and there wasnít a regret in anyoneís mind that the accident had cost them the Kleos. It was only that Snotteus would win. But that anger could be saved for later.
Right now, Hercules placed Phalces in the chariot with Anteos and together, he and Iolaus led the horses back to where the rest of the Academy waited for them.
Snotteus spent a miserable night secluded in the gymnasium.
No one else would speak to him, not even Bluteus or the others who had used to follow him so faithfully.
But he had won, hadnít he? Cheiron had presented him with the award, had given him the Kleos. He had won. No one had cheered. Most of the warriors had been away tending to their injured comrades, but the ones there had just stared at him with hard, righteous eyes. And afterward, Cheiron had said to him, speaking too low to be heard by anyone else: "You have today to pack. Be gone by tomorrow morning."
Well, he hadnít planned to stay much longer anyway. But the look in Herculesí eyes, the blame -- the justified blame -- in Iolausí voice when he asked if it had been worth it . . . .They didnít even know the full extent of Snotteusí betrayal. The waxen pin was gone, all evidence of the crime destroyed in the accident. No one knew. Snotteus had gotten away with it. He had won. His father would be proud, Ares would be pleased. He had won.
Snotteus curled up in a ball and wept.
"Curses!" Ares roared. "Foiled again!"
He smashed a fist into the table and it collapsed into kindling. It never failed. He made a plan, perfect down to the last devious detail, and then his infuriating half-brother went and ruined everything by doing something heroic. Why couldnít he just die heroically? But no, he had to save the day, rescue himself and others, and still not sustain a life-threatening injury! It was so unfair.
But this time, this time Ares had had enough. No more fancy-schmancy schemes. It was time for being direct and to the point. He snapped his finger and a platoon of grim-faced soldiers appeared in front of him. Their swords had a lot of points.
"All right," Ares growled, "no more Mister Nice God."
There were rules about this kind of thing, of course. No gods killing other gods, even bastard half-gods. But nobody could prove Ares had anything to do with his brotherís eminent demise. And if worst came to worst, he could blame it on Discord. She deserved a few lifetimes in the penalty box for the way she drooled after Hercules. Yes, all in all, a plan with no drawbacks.
If Ares could have twirled his mustaches, he would have.
Hercules was going down. And this time, he was staying there.
Snotteus had finally managed to control his tears, but still couldnít sleep.
That was why he was the only one to notice the horde of silent shapes as they entered the Academy. As the door opened, moonlight glinted briefly on assorted weapons, and on chill faces that were somehow less than human. A godís army. And Snotteus had no doubt which god.
He jumped to his feet.
"I wouldnít do it if I were you," Ares said behind him.
Snotteus ignored the god and began to walk toward the sleeping quarters.
"Think of all youíre throwing away," Ares shouted.
Snotteus began to run.
"What would your father say?"
Snotteus knew, and for the first time in his life, didnít care. He kept running. Behind him, Ares roared his rage.
Snotteus felt the heat of the fireball the god threw before he felt it. He managed one yell of warning and then the heat picked him up and smashed him against the wall.
His last thought before losing consciousness was the desperate hope that he had managed to sound the alarm. If he was going to die, he wanted it to be doing something good. At least once in his life, he wanted to have done something noble. Even if no one would ever know about it.
Hercules was ripped out of dreams by a thin shout of alarm.
"What was that?" Iolaus asked from the next bunk.
Herc reached for his boots. "I donít know, but it doesnít sound good."
"Does it ever?"
Sighing, Iolaus reached for his own shoes, and throughout the room, warriors did the same.
Snotteus woke up to find the furious god of war staring down at him.
"I had high hopes for you, boy," Ares snarled. "Now not even the undertaker will remember your name."
Ares raised his hand for the final blow, but behind him, Snotteus suddenly saw Hercules step into view.
"Hey," Herc called, his voice ringing through the gymnasium. "You with the bad attitude. The gymís closed."
Slowly, Ares swiveled, eyes gleaming as he saw his half-brother. "Stick around," he invited. "Youíre next."
Hercules took another step forward, still grinning cockily. "What if I canít wait?" he asked.
"Well, I donít want you to be bored." Ares nodded to the shadows. His soldiers stepped into view. "Knock yourself out."
"Thatís a lot of bad guys," Iolaus said from behind Hercules.
"On the other hand," Herc said. "They say patience is a virtue . . . ."
"Oh, I donít think youíll have to wait long," Ares sneered. "Unfortunately," he added regretfully, "I canít be around to watch your unpleasant demise. Canít have the other gods thinking I was involved in this little soiree, can I?"
He turned to Snotteus, who had managed to stagger to his feet. "Die with the rest of the brats," he suggested. And was gone, leaving only two dozen soldiers to mark his visit. Most people, Iolaus privately noted, just brought flowers.
And then the bad guys charged.
Some of the Academy warriors had grabbed their personal weapons, or training swords or sticks from the walls. Iolaus didnít have any of the former and didnít have time to reach any of the latter. So he just started fighting, mentally chanting as he moved: strategy, Iolaus, move fast, Iolaus, twist Iolaus, duck Iolaus, kick. Kick a lot.
It seemed to work but the question was, for how long?
Hercules ducked a soldierís sword, caught the man by the elbow and heaved. The man flipped to the floor. There wasnít time to go scrabbling after his sword. Another soldier pressed in and once again Herc evaded the swordthrust. And again. This time, the manís maneuver left his flank open, and Hercules stepped in neatly to deliver a one-two punch that send the man tumbling to the ground.
Around him, he heard the grunts of soldiers and friends fighting, clangs of sword on sword, occasional curses or cries of pain, occasional thuds as bodies hit the floor. It seemed that the Academy side was winning, that Cheiron himself had entered the fray and was single-handedly building a ring of fallen enemies. It seemed that there were a lot fewer soldiers than a few minutes ago. But in the midnight gloom of the gymnasium, Hercules would have given a lot to know for sure.
Iolaus didnít even have to wonder about such things as he picked himself up from a tangle of bad guy and looked for the next comer. Three nasty-looking baddies stepped up. That wasnít good.
Iolaus was searching for something -- anything -- that might give him a fighting chance, when he felt someone step up to his back.
"Mind a little company?" Snotteus asked. He looked dazed and one arm would definitely need a doctor later, but he had a sword and that was fine by Iolaus.
"Glad to have you," Iolaus replied honestly. Now was definitely not to the time for grudges. "Iíll take the guy on the right. Can you take the guy on the left?"
"Sure." Snotteus adjusted his stance accordingly. "What about the guy in the middle?"
"I was hoping maybe if we ignored him, heíd go away."
And then Hercules stepped up. "Has anyone got dibs on the middle guy?"
"Help yourself," Iolaus and Snotteus chorused as one.
And as they engaged the enemy, it didnít occur to any of them that a few hours before, the enemy had been Snotteus.
It was full morning now.
Caught between pride and embarrassment, Hercules, Iolaus and Snotteus stood in front of the rest of the Academy and listened to an unusually oratorical Cheiron recite their praises.
The Academy warriors had taken care of Aresí soldiers without much injury; only a few wore bandages and of those, Snotteus was the most severely hurt. His arm had been deeply burned, but privately, he was pleased at the scar. It would be a permanent reminder of the choice he had made here, and of his vow to uphold that choice for the rest of his life.
The nightís fight, combined with Snotteusí confession of what had occurred between himself and Ares and his visibly heartfelt penitence, had eased the hostility the other warriors. A series of personal and honest apologies, starting with Phalces and Anteos and ending with Hercules and Iolaus, had almost entirely erased the remaining bad blood.
Snotteus was astounded at how willing the warriors were to give him another chance. Astounded, but very grateful, and this more than anything else was what was giving him an unshakable understanding of what his life, his kingdom, could be like if he changed his ways.
And so now, standing next to the two people he most owed respect and gratitude, Snotteus was filled for the first time with a pride not based on who his father was, but on who he was. And it felt good.
Hercules grinned at the joy in Snotteusí face, grinned that Iolaus was here to grin back at him, grinned that he fancied he could hear Aresí curses even from here, and finally, he grinned because with no help from his father and no idea of giving up, he was succeeding and doing right here on this earth. And that felt best of all.
"The last several days have proven many things," Cheiron concluded in a deeply ringing voice, "but the most important lesson is that a true hero is one who puts others above himself, and understands that true nobility is not found in blood but in actions." Now, the centaur actually smiled. "And so a special award go to Hercules and Iolaus, who have proven themselves true kleos warriors, and who are on their way to becoming heroes such as the world will rejoice to see!"
And as every warrior shouted their approval, Hercules and Iolaus shouted loudest of all, for the pure joy of being alive.
Disclaimer:This story is not intended to violate any copyrights held by MCA, Universal, Renaissance Pictures, or any other entity involved in the productions of Hercules: the Legendary Journeys.