Cheiron's Warriors Transcript

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Young Hercules: Cheiron's Warriors

Young Hercules: Cheiron's Warriors
Written by Keith R.A. DeCandido.
Based on the hit TV series created by Rob Tapert and Andrew Dettman & Daniel Truly.

Acknowledgements

      The author would like to thank the following: Howard Zimmerman, without whom I would not have written this book. Anne Greenberg, editor extraordinaire, and Rodger Weinfeld, assistant extraordinaire, for phenomenal work under ridiculous pressure. The good folks at Studios USA, who kept their eye on me and let me play in their sandbox. Ryan Gosling, Ian Bohen, Dean O'Gorman, Chris Conrad, Jodie Rimmer, Nathaniel Lees, Joel Tobeck, Meighan Desmons, Stephen Tozer, Stig Eldred, and the amazing Kevin Smith, as well as the remaining cast and crew of Young Hercules (not to mention Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess), for ongoing inspiration. GraceAnne A DeCandido and John E. Peters for invaluable editing. Scott W. Langman, aka Miltiades, for equally invaluable research assistance. The Millennium Britannia Hotel in London and the Jens home in Chicago, where parts of this book were written. Lisa Clancy and Ginjer Buchanan, for general niftiness. And also, in no particular order, The Greek Myths by Robert Graves, Atlas of the Greek World by Peter Levi, the Greek exhibit halls in London's British Museum, Ashley McConnell, Kimberly Rector, Martha Wells, Rachel M. Bailey, the wonderfully twisted denizens of the KSmithAres and Hellmouthy Internet mailing lists, Laura Anne Gilman, and most especially my beloved wife and the best muse a guy could hope for, Marina Frants.

Chapter One

      Iolaus never saw the staff coming.

      Hercules watched his childhood friend balancing on a pair of flat-head poles, staff in hand. Over a dozen pairs of poles were arranged on the floor of the training room. They were raised about a foot off of the ground. The idea was to not fall off the heads of the poles while fighting your opponent. Iolaus's opponent in this case was Lilith. She stood facing him.

      Then Hercules had first come to Cheiron's Academy to be trained as a warrior, he'd thought the poles were stupid. "When is that ever gonna happen in real life?" he had asked Cheiron, the centaur who ran the Academy.

      Now Hercules knew better. For one thing, he had had to fight on similar poles in real life. For another, it was good practice. If you could fight while keeping your balance, fighting on solid ground was a lot easier.

      Or at least it was when you weren't exhausted. Unfortunately, Iolaus had been sparring for six straight hours. Sweat glistened on his forehead and matted down his curly blond hair.

      Then Lilith's staff clubbed Iolaus on the side of the head.

      "Oooh, that's got to hurt," Hercules said.

      Standing next to him, Jason said, "Hey, it's okay. She got him on the head. It's not as if she hit anything important."

      Hercules nodded. "Good point."

      Despite the banter, Hercules was worried. The son of Zeus - king of the gods - and a mortal woman named Alcmene, Hercules had greater strength and endurance than such mortals as Iolaus, Jason, and Lilith. But after six hours, even he with his half-god stamina would have been on his last legs. He couldn't imagine how exhausted Iolaus must be.

      Lilith, the Academy's only girl student, swung her staff around at Iolaus's shins.

      Iolaus made a low jump and bent his legs under him. The staff swung beneath them.

      His right foot came down smoothly on a pole.

      His left foot didn't.

      As he tried to shift his weight to his right foot o keep from falling, Iolaus swung wildly with his own staff.

      Lilith, of course, blocked it. She blocked it so hard that Iolaus lost his footing. He dropped his staff and somehow managed to break his fall with his hands. Hercules was impressed with the quality of the fall. But then, how to fall properly was one of the first things Cheiron taught. That was at least as important as landing a blow.

      If only Cheiron was here now, Hercules thought.

      "Pathetic!" came a voice from behind Hercules.

      Here it comes, Hercules thought as Iolaus struggled to rise.

      The voice said, "No, don't bother, thief. If this were real combat, you’d be dead after that idiotic stunt, so you may as well stay down."

      Iolaus took the advice and let his head slump to the floor. Hercules couldn't blame him.

      A week earlier Cheiron had cone off to attend a wedding. Having learned his lesson the last time he had taken leave, the centaur did not put the Academy's bursar, Fiducius, in charge. Instead, he brought in Kostas, "an old comrade," as a substitute.

      Hercules, Iolaus, Lilith, and Jason were thrilled when they heard. They figured a sub meant an easy week. "Probably some retired general or something," Jason said. "He'll spend more time complaining about his lumbago than training us, and we can spend most of the week at Kora's."

      No such luck. Cheiron's "old comrade" was an active soldier from Crete, not a retired one. He worked the cadets harder than they'd ever worked and gave them no breaks. They spent very little time at Kora's, the eatery where the cadets usually hung out during off-hours.

      Kostas didn't think the Academy was a fit place for a son of Zeus, as he "makes everyone else look bad." He didn't think much of Jason, Iolaus, of Lilith, either. Jason was the crown prince of Corinth destined to become king once he had graduated from the Academy. Iolaus had been a thief, but he'd chosen to attend the Academy in lieu of jail time. And Lilith was "just a girl." Kostas didn't like the idea of princes, thieves, or girls "playing soldier," as he put it.

      Never mind that all four of them were quite serious about what they were doing at the Academy. Never mind that Hercules was no better or worse than anyone else there, even if his father was a god. Kostas had his own ideas about what was what, and the Fates help you if you didn't go along with him.

      "Look at you," Kostas said to Iolaus, "Off balance, sloppy - you move as though you're stuck in honey."

      Hercules turned to look at Kostas's scarred, tanned, bearded face. This was a man who had seen a lot of action.

      "That's because I've been sparring for six straight hours," Iolaus muttered.

      "You ever been in a war, thief? The enemy won't stop because you're tired or because you're hurt. Now get up, get back on the poles, and get it right this time. To be beaten so badly by a girl is embarrassing."

      "Hey!" Lilith said. "That’s not fair."

      "Life isn't fair, girl," Kostas said with a slower at the young blond. "You of all people should know that." He looked down and then kicked Iolaus. "Get up, thief!"

      That was going too far. "Hey," Hercules said, "you don't have to kick him."

      "That's your opinion, godling," Kostas said with a sneer. "And when you run this Academy, you can make that decision. For the moment, be silent."

      "Now, wait a minute," Hercules said. "You can't-"

      "I can do what I want until Cheiron returns."

      "That doesn't mean-"

      "Quiet, godling. You will speak when spoken to, understood?"

      Hercules was about to argue more, but then he caught Iolaus's look From behind Kostas's back, Iolaus mouthed the word "Don't."

      Only then did Hercules force himself to calm down. He folded his arms and gritted his teeth. The cadets had been putting up with Kostas's abuse for a week now, and Hercules was starting to get tired of it. Kostas had all of Cheiron's worst qualities and none of the centaur's good ones.

      Luckily, the cadets had to last only one more day. Then Cheiron would come back, and they'd return to plain old grueling training instead of this nightmare.

      As Iolaus retrieved his staff and climbed back onto the poles, Hercules thought, I for one am counting the moments until tomorrow.

      Iolaus got in the defensive position. Lilith did the same, but Kostas said, "No, girl, you're done. The prince is next."

      Lilith mouthed, "I'm sorry." Iolaus shrugged in response s Lilith got down off the poles.

      Jason, though, didn't move.

      "I said, you're next, 'Your Highness.'" Kostas spoke the last two words with another sneer. Sneering seemed to be his usual facial expression.

      "I won't fight him," Jason said with his arms folded.

      "Excuse me?"

      Go, Jason! Hercules thought with a smile.

      "He's exhausted. He's in no shape to spar. He's barely in any shape to stand. I won't fight him," Jason repeated.

      Kostas glared at Jason for a moment, then scratched his gray beard. "Last week Cheiron told me that you had made a promise when you enrolled. Within these walls you would not be the prince, you would be just another cadet. So either you are breaking that promise now, or you are questioning a superior. Which is it?"

      Jason glared right back for a moment, then unfolded his arms and looked down. "Neither, sir," he muttered.

      Then Kostas did something really scary: he smiled.

      "Good. Now get on the poles, 'Your Highness.'"

      Through clenched teeth, Jason said, "Yes, sir." Then he took Lilith's staff and climbed up onto the poles.

      Iolaus managed to hold his staff in a defensive position, wobbling as he tried to balance. Hercules didn't know whether to be impressed or horrified.

      Jason took a swing. Iolaus saw it coming and blocked it pretty easily. Iolaus's staff barely shook with the impact. Jason's not putting any effort into it, Hercules thought.

      Three more swings came from Jason, to different parts of Iolaus's body, each as weak and obvious as the first. Iolaus blocked them.

      "Stop!" Kostas yelled. "You call this sparring? You're moving worse than the thief, 'Your Highness.' And frankly, I didn't think that was possible. Now put some effort into it!"

      Hercules had known Iolaus for a long time. Although he could be a giant pain at the best of times, he would always be there for a friend. It didn't look as if Jason was going to do anything that might hurt Iolaus, but that was only going to make Kostas angry at Jason. So, Hercules thought, Iolaus is probably going to make Jason spar properly in order to keep Jason out of trouble.

      Sure enough, Iolaus took a swing at Jason.

      Not expecting that, Jason got his staff up barely in time to block the swing. Iolaus then swung the staff around to get Jason at the shins. Unfortunately, the swing was too slow and too sloppy. Jason simply lowered his staff to block that move as well.

      Sadly, as with Lilith, this block was hard enough for Iolaus to lose his grip on the staff. It fell to the floor, bouncing off the poles with the clack of wood on wood.

      Jason, now getting into it, smiled and took a swing at Iolaus's shoulder.

      Normally, Iolaus's reaction would be to bend his knees and do a backflip, but he didn't leap as high as he needed to, and so he fell between the poles, hitting his head on one of them. "Ow," he said.

      Then the dinner bell rang. Hercules looked up at Jason, and the two of them said in perfect unison, "Chow time!"

      "All right, that's it for today," Kostas said. "Lilith, tomorrow I want you to work with Idas. You keep leaving your left side exposed." He turned to the other three as Hercules helped Iolaus up out of the poles and Jason stepped down from them. "You three have a special assignment tomorrow. Cheiron's boat is due to arrive at noon. You're to meet him and escort him back to the Academy."

      "I don't suppose I could go, too?" Lilith asked.

      "You need to work on your left side," Kostas said. "Besides, this is a task that involves responsibility. It's a man’s job, not a girl's."

      "What!" Lilith said. Her eyes went wide.

      "Hey," Hercules said, "that's-"

      "I've made my decision, and it's final!" Kostas spoke in a tone Hercules had come to know very well this past week. There was nothing to gain by arguing and a lot to lose.

      "Come on," Jason said, putting a hand on Hercules' shoulder. "Let's go chow down."

      "One other thing," Kostas said as the four of them turned to leave.

      What now? Hercules wondered.

      "Dedication to your comrades is an important thing, and admirable."

      Wow, Hercules thought. That was almost a compliment.

      "If you ever have the skills to support that dedication, you might possibly amount to something. Not that I'm counting on it."

      With that, Kostas turned on his heel and left the workout room by the far door.

      Emphasis, Hercules thought, on the word "almost."

      "You think he was born a jerk," Lilith asked, "or has he been practicing?"

      "Looks to me like natural talent," Jason said.

      "Let's go," Iolaus said, walking quickly toward the door. "I'm starved. Right now even the usual Academy slop will taste like ambrosia."

      "Sure," Hercules said with a pat on Iolaus's back.

      Iolaus winced. "Not so hard, huh, Herc?"

      "Sorry."

      "Hey, Iolaus," Jason said with a grin, "I liked that last move. What do you call it?"

      Before Iolaus could say anything, Hercules said, "Falling on his butt. It's a great way to lull your opponents into a false sense of security."

      "Hardy-har-har," Iolaus said sourly.

      "Hey, come on," Hercules said. "Tomorrow Cheiron will be back and everything will return to normal."

      "You're right, Herc," Iolaus said with a smile. "After tomorrow things will be nice and calm."

Chapter Two

      "Hey, Unc, how's it going?"

      Ares looked up to see that his nephew Strife had shown up in his temple. As always, Strife wore an all-black studded leather outfit that covered his entire body. With his jet-black hair, Strife looked like a disembodied head against the black marble of Ares' temple. The walls were decorated with weapons from all over the known world. Ares had arranged them in an elegant pattern. Strife's giggling presence in front of that wall spoiled the effect, as far as Ares was concerned.

      Since Strife had not been invited, the god of war was not thrilled with the younger god's presence. He was never really happy to see his nephew. "What do you want, Strife?"

      "Oh, just wanted to see how the ol'uncle was doing, y'know?" Strife laughed his fake laugh, smiled his fake smile, and chuckled a fake chuckle. It was his typical way of trying to be endearing. Ares found it even more annoying than usual.

      Looking back down at the scrying pool he'd been staring into, Ares said, "Just looking for a little war."

      Strife grinned. "What's the matter, Sparta not keeping you busy enough?"

      Gesturing over the pool, Ares made the image in it change to Amphipolis. All was quiet.

      Ares hated quiet.

      "Hey, I know, Unc. Why don't you start a rockslide in Amphipolis and blame it on the Poteidaians?"

      On the other hand, Ares thought, quiet does have its virtues. "What do you want, Strife?" he repeated.

      Throwing up his hands, Strife said, "Just trying to help out, Unc. You know, cause a little strife, maybe get something going."

      "Like you and Discord attempted with the Amazons and centaurs?"

      Strife's face fell. "Well, okay, maybe that wasn't a complete success. Unc, but hey, nobody's perfect, right?"

      Ares, however, wasn't listening. A mention of that little failure of his nephew and sister gave him a thought.

      He gestured over the pool again, and it showed an image of the Centaur Nation. Their council of elders was gathered to discuss policy.

      Discuss, Ares thought with disgust. And they call themselves warriors.

      Discord and Strife had tried to start a war between one of the Amazon tribes and the Centaur Nation. Ares had objected at first - he was very fond of the Amazons. But he'd had to admit that the war sounded like a good idea.

      Unfortunately, his stupid little half brother Hercules had managed to put a stop to it.

      Strife walked over to stand next to Ares at the scrying pool. "Hey, look, centaurs! Cool! You know, they've been having little border wars with the Amazons." Strife broke into another one of his stupid grins. "Maybe - and I'm just woolgathering here, Unc - but maybe we could take another shot at getting that war going? Huh, huh?" he added with an elbow to Ares' ribs.

      Ares snapped his fingers. With a flash of light Strife was sent flying across the room. He crashed headfirst into one of the black stone walls. A shield from Gaul that had been hanging there fell onto they young god's head.

      "Ow!"

      "The Amazons aren't ready for that kind of battle," Ares said. He spoke normally, as if Strife weren't lying in a heap on the floor. "But the centaurs are. They're a surly bunch. Strong, powerful, disliked by most humans." He broke into a grin. "My kind of folks."

      "You know, they use centaurs as slaves in Syracuse," Strife said. "Maybe the centaurs can fight the Syracusans." He started to get up.

      Again, Ares snapped his fingers. Another shield, this one from Chin, flew off the far wall to knock Strife on the head.

      "Ow!" he cried again. He stopped trying to get up.

      "No. Syracuse is a poor enemy for the centaurs. Too far away." Ares gestured once again. The image in the pool changed to a palace. "Corinth, on the other hand, would be perfect."

      Strife giggled. "'Cause that's where Jerk-ules is, right?"

      "Partly. If something happens in Corinth to anger the centaurs, they would declare war. For example, say some slavers take a few centaurs in Corinth and sell them into slavery in Syracuse."

      Frowning, Strife said, "But wouldn't Corinth just say it wasn't their fault?"

      "Oh, any decent ruler would probably be able to keep war from happening. But Corinth doesn't have a decent ruler anymore, they just have a boy. And young Prince Jason doesn't stand a chance of holding off the centaurs." Ares scratched his bearded chin thoughtfully. "Of course, his dear, departed father, King Aeson, surely would have been able to prevent a war." Ares smiled. "That was one of many reasons why I killed the old man."

      Strife got up and pumped his fist. "I like it, Unc, I like it!"

      Ares rolled his eyes. "Well, I think I'll go through with it anyhow." He held up his hand as if to snap his fingers again.

      "Aaaah!" Strife cried, holding up his arms in front of his head. "Not in the face, not in the face!"

      Ares just glowered at his nephew. Then he snapped his fingers, and in an instant he was somewhere else.

      The god of war's temple was a black stone monument to the glories of war. It was filled with the relics of battles throughout the ages. On the other hand, the hut Ares transported himself to was just a monument to bad architecture. It was a small straw hut, barely held up by rotting wooden supports.

      But then, Ares thought, Elias never went much for the finer things in life.

      Elias was a slave trader; he was also a dedicated worshipper of Ares - two things that made him perfect for Ares' plan.

      At the moment Elias sat in the middle of his tiny, leaky hut. The short, stocky man was sloppily eating a bowl of soup.

      When Ares appeared before him, Elias spit put his soup in surprise. Broth spattered on the war god’s leather vest. "My lord Ares!"

      With a gesture Ares removed the unsightly stains. That's the nice thing about ambrosia over this mortal food, he thought. It doesn't make a mess.

      Elias rose clumsily from his chair, then got down on one knee. "To what do I owe this great honor, my lord?"

      Again, Ares rolled his eyes. The other gods were big on mortals bowing and scraping before them. Ares always found it to be phony and a waste of time. "Get up. I have a job for you."

      Rising to his feet, Elias said, "The honor is to serve, my lord."

      "Whatever. I need you to capture a dozen centaurs and then take them to Syracuse. There's a market for them. You keep any monetary profits."

      Elias blinked and scratched one ear. "Your humble servant thanks you, my lord. But does the god of war not wish a portion of our bounty as tribute?"

      Ares smiled. "I have little use for dinars, Elias. Oh, feel free to donate something to one of my temples if you feel you must. I certainly won't stop you. But my interest is more... bloody."

      Elias returned the smile. "Warfare, I presume?"

      "What else? Here." Ares held out one hand. With a flash of light a pair of golden manacles appeared in them. He'd had Hephaestus make them decades ago when a warlord was having trouble holding on to prisoners. "Place these on any two limbs - the human or the equine ones, it doesn't matter. As soon as you put them on, the centaur will be completely immobile. Then you can chain up each one with ease."

      Taking the manacles from Ares, Elias said, "My lord is generous." He was still smiling, but it was a greedy smile now. "Will there be anything else?"

      "Yes," Ares said. "Don't mess up. I have a problem with lackeys who mess up."

      "You can count on me, my lord."

      "Oh, I dearly hope so, Elias - for your sake."

      And with that, Ares snapped his fingers and returned to the temple.

      Strife, of course, was still there. "So how'd it go, Unc? All set to trap the centaurs?"

      Ares glared at his nephew. "No, I've sent someone else to trap the centaurs. After all, it has to be Corinthian citizens who do the dirty work."

      "Riiiiiight, 'course. I knew that."

      Rolling his eyes, Ares asked, "Strife, why are you still here?"

      "Well, Unc, I was thinking that you might want a little help. You know, someone to keep an eye on things, make sure there aren't any flies in the ointment."

      The war god was about to reject this idea, but then he thought a moment. He remembered Elias's manner. The slaver was trying desperately to please Ares - a little too desperately. People who tried to suck up that much often made mistakes. And even if he was a weasel, Strife was still family. His function and Ares' worked better in sync. Maybe watching over this little operation would be good experience.

      "Tell you what," Ares said. "I'll let you supervise things. But only if you take Discord along."

      Strife's shoulders slumped. "What's the matter, Unc, don't trust the ol'nephew?"

      "Not especially, no."

      "But-"

      "Discord has one advantage over you, Strife. Her brain actually functions every once in a while."

      Rolling both his eyes and his head, Strife said, "Oh, all right, if you insist, I'll bring Shorty along." Heaving a very loud sigh, Strife disappeared in a flash of light.

      Ares sat on his throne sideways, left leg on the floor, right leg draped over one of the throne's flared arms. He smiled. The wheels were in motion. The plan had started to take form.

      All in all, he thought, a good morning.

Chapter Three

      The midday sun shone brightly upon the sea as Cheiron approached the gangplank of the Poseidon's Trident. The journey had been pleasant and smooth, for which Cheiron was grateful. He hated traveling over water. More specifically, he hated traveling on boats. He had been raised in open spaces. On a ship everything was much too cramped.

      But a ship was the fastest way to go in this case, and it had been worth it. Lara and Pall's wedding had been a glorious celebration.

      And now it was a beautiful spring day. Weather like this reminded Cheiron of his youth, when he'd galloped through the plains without a care in the world. He could just run and not think about anything.

      He didn't dwell on his long-ago youth very often. Days like this, though, made it hard not to. That was before he'd become a warrior, before he had responsibilities.

      Cheiron smiled. Those were good days. Still, he thought, it would be good to return to the Academy. Now he not only had responsibilities, he enjoyed them. He got far more satisfaction out of running the Academy than he did running through the plains. With a smile to himself, he thought, If you'd told me when I was younger that I would enjoy the rigors of adulthood, I would have laughed. But that is the eternal folly of youth, as I see every day.

      He missed his students. And knowing Kostas, they probably missed him, too.

      Kostas was a good man. Cheiron had fought alongside him when the Centaur Nation and Crete were both being menaced by Sparta some ten years back. It had been a rare case of human and centaur fighting side by side.

      We need more of that, Cheiron thought. My people keep to themselves far too much.

      "Hey, move it, will ya?" said a voice behind Cheiron. "We gotta get people off the boat. Stupid hooves."

      Cheiron turned in annoyance at the crew member standing behind him. Then again, he thought, perhaps we keep to ourselves for very good reason.

      He walked slowly down the gangplank, which strained under his weight. The dock was bustling with activity. Large men hauled boxes. People scurried up and down similar gangplanks. Some struggled with rigging.

      However, there was no sign of any of his students. This surprised Cheiron, as he had asked Kostas to send someone to meet him.

      A few people stared in surprise at the presence of a centaur. Cheiron simply smiled at them. That usually made them nervous, and they looked away.

      He thought again about Kostas. I certainly would never leave him in charge of the Academy for more than a week, he thought. But it was good for the students to experience a change in the routine. The last time Cheiron had been away for an extended period, he'd left Fiducius in charge. That had proved to be a mistake. Fiducius was a fine bursar, but he was out of his depth with the students. So this time Cheiron decided to try something a bit more radical.

      Besides, the purpose of the Academy was to train the cadets as warriors. Sometimes, a soldier can get a new commanding officer without warning. And sometimes that commanding officer is not a pleasant person.

      In addition, some of the youths were acting too much like students and not enough like cadets. They would use the fact that the Academy was "only" a school as an excuse not to do their best. Kostas would not tolerate that sort of attitude for long.

      A burly man carrying a large sack pushed past Cheiron. "Do you mind? We're trying to work here."

      "My apologies. I was supposed to meet-"

      "Yeah, fine, whatever, just stay out of the way, okay?" The man moved off. As he walked, he muttered, "Stupid hooves."

      Sighing, Cheiron trotted over to a more secluded part of the dock. He wondered whom Kostas had sent. Given that the person is late, Cheiron thought with a smile, it might well be Iolaus. The young man was often reckless and impudent, but he had the makings of a great warrior. Cheiron hoped that Kostas hadn't been too hard on him. That hope, he realized, was probably in vain.

      Cheiron found that he wished for Hercules to be the one to meet him. He had to admit to a special fondness for the boy. Someone with his abilities could very easily have taken a dark path. Indeed, another half-god son of Zeus, Lucius, had taken that very path. But Hercules never even considered that way. He was as good a person as Cheiron had ever known. Once he grew up, he would be a great hero.

      Assuming, of course, that Ares or Discord or Strife or Lucius or someone else didn't kill him first. For a good person, Hercules had many enemies. Cheiron had done his best both to protect and to prepare the young man, but someday he would have to face his foes alone.

      Suddenly Cheiron felt something. The planks on which he stood vibrated very slightly. A human, trying to be stealthy, was attempting to sneak up behind him.

      The centaur shifted his weight and kicked back with his hind legs. His hooves struck the person in the stomach. The impact sent the person flying backward. Cheiron spun around to see a man dressed in loose clothing. He had a turban on his head and a scarf covering the lower part of his face. That meant either he was from the east or he was trying to hide his identity - or both.

      He hadn't come alone.

      Three more humans attacked Cheiron, one more from behind, the other two from in front.

      The one behind him was easy enough to deal with. Cheiron did the same thing to him that he'd done to his comrade. The only difference was that his hind hooves struck the man in the jaw instead of the stomach. The man fell, crying, "Urk!" before he landed next to his friend.

      That left the other two to deal with. Their attack was sloppy and unfocused. Students in their first day at Cheiron's Academy weren't this clumsy.

      Rather than attack together, the humans came at him one at a time. The first one tried to grab Cheiron. The centaur dodged, then grabbed the attacker's arm. Using the momentum of the attacker's punch, Cheiron threw the man to his left.

      "Waaaaaaaaah!" the man cried as he went flying into the sea with a splash.

      His friend managed to get in a punch to Cheiron's chest. Unfortunately for the attacker, the punch was to the fatty part just below the shoulder. It was probably the most useless spot on the chest to hit.

      Cheiron hit the man in the jaw with the heel of his hand. The man stumbled backward on the dock.

      Then Cheiron removed the pack from his back. He twirled it in the air and threw it. The pack collided with the attacker's stomach. He let out a muffled "Whoulf!" as he went down in a heap.

      Cheiron turned to check the other two. The one he'd hit in the jaw was still down. The one he'd hit in the stomach, though, was getting up.

      What I wouldn't give for a proper weapon, Cheiron thought, but I'd settle for some help.

      While this area of the dock was comparatively secluded, that didn't explain why nobody had come to Cheiron's aid or at least called for help. Or cried out in alarm. Or something.

      But it seemed that everyone else on the dock was ignoring his predicament.

      I know dock workers tend to keep to themselves, Cheiron thought, but this is ridiculous.

      "Looks like we got us a tough one," the man said.

      Cheiron allowed himself a small smile. "You have no idea."

      The man was now holding a large dagger. He ran forward to attack with it.

      Waiting until the last possible second, Cheiron blocked the attack. He struck his attacker's wrist with his own forearm. That kept the dagger away. Cheiron then kicked the man in the stomach with his forelegs.

      This second blow to that area was even more effective than the first. Then man let out a groan, dropped his dagger, and fell to his knees.

      Quickly Cheiron looked around. The on he'd kicked in the jaw was still down. He could hear the one he'd thrown into the water swimming. It would be several seconds before he rejoined the fight.

      That left the one he'd downed with his pack. He was getting up and was holding something. It was metallic, whatever it was. The sunlight glinted off it.

      Cheiron braced himself for yet another frontal attack, so he was surprised when the human dived down toward his forelegs.

      Before he could rear up and spin away, Cheiron found he could not move. The man had put something - probably that gleaming object - on the lower part of his forelegs. After that he was totally motionless. He could not even speak.

      The centaur could hear one of the humans climbing out of the water and the other two getting up off the wooden dock. But he could do nothing about it now.

      "Looks like we got us another one, Elias."

      "Yup. That makes it an even dozen. Ares will be pleased."

      Cheiron did not like the sound of that.

      "Looks like the Syracusans are gonna get themselves some good, solid centaur slaves. C'mon, let's get our horsey loaded."

      Slavers, Cheiron thought with disgust, and it looks like I'm the twelfth centaur they've captured. King Aeson, Jason's noble father, had outlawed the practice of slavery in Corinth, but that didn't stop some raiders - especially against centaurs and satyrs and others not deemed human.

      These raiders had help. Ares must have provided the shackles. Only a god could create something that would render him completely immobile like this. But why, Cheiron thought, would the god of war want to send my people into slavery? It doesn't make sense.

      Some said that the ways of gods were beyond mortals' understanding, but Cheiron had found the opposite to be true. The gods' ways tended to be very simple and direct. Selling centaurs into slavery might prove useful to Ares. ‘‘Would this start a war, Cheiron wondered, or was this another of Ares' revenge schemes against Hercules?

      One of the men applied more ordinary shackles to Cheiron's legs and arms. They were linked with chains. When the magical shackles were removed, Cheiron was still unable to move without tripping over his own four feet.

      However, he could now speak. "You will regret this action."

      "Oh, really? These are human lands, centaur. Nobody cares about you here."

      Given the lack of response to the attack on him, Cheiron had to admit that the man had a point. Still, he was no ordinary centaur, and his captors needed to know that.

      "On the contrary. I am Cheiron. I run a local military academy. One of my students is the crown prince of this land. You can rest assured that he will take offense at this action."

      The man, who had been called Elias by one of his comrades, laughed. "You hear that, boys? The prince is his friend!" He leaned in close to Cheiron. The scarf fell from his face, revealing a scared right ear, a scraggly chin, and dirty teeth. "And Zeus is my uncle. Haw! C'mon, let's get him outta here."

      Cheiron was slowly led away from the docks.

      No one moved to help him.

~*~

      "Uh-oh. You hear what he said?"

      Discord sighed. She had been hoping that Strife wouldn't actually talk. She liked him better when he was silent. Pity, he almost never was.

      The two gods sat on a couple of crates, watching Elias and his crew capture the last of their dozen centaur slaves on the docks. If anyone with divine blood had been on the dock, he would have seen two black-haired people dressed alike in black leather: a man, tall, pale, and skinny, and a woman, short and dangerously pretty.

      But only mortals were around. Gods were invisible to mortals unless they chose to reveal themselves. Strife and Discord did not choose to do so now. After all, they had been charged by Ares to watch over Elias’s venture. They would get involved only if something went wrong.

      So far, nothing had. Discord was almost disappointed.

      "Yes, I heard," she said to Strife. "What about it?"

      "You realize who that is? It's that guy who runs the academy Twerp-ules goes to. Chevron!"

      Sighing again, Discord said, "That's Cheiron, you moron. And yes, I know who it is. So what? Elias has his twelve centaurs. There's not a single thing baby brother can do about it."

      Strife giggled. "I guess not. Oh, Uncle Ares will be so thrilled!"

      Discord sighed a third time. What an idiot, she thought. If she'd learned one thing over the centuries, it was that Ares was never thrilled about anything. She had certainly tried her best. No, the best you could hope for was that he wouldn't get angry.

      And so far things were going well, so Ares wouldn't get upset.

      Too bad, she thought with a smile. He's so much fun when he's upset. And this whole thing has been going a little too smoothly. I'm getting bored.

      "Come on," she said, getting up off the crate.

      "Where're we going?" Strife asked.

      "Somewhere more interesting. I hear there's a nice little feud brewing between a couple of rich families in Thessaly."

      "But what about-"

      "We'll check in later," Discord said, before disappearing in a flash of light.

      She didn't bother to check if Strife followed. She didn't really care one way or another.

Chapter Four

      "Is this or is this not the most beautiful day in the world?" Iolaus asked.

      Hercules had to smile at the grin on his friend's face. Iolaus had a point. Hercules, Iolaus, and Jason were headed north through the woods toward the docks. The sun shone through the trees from a cloudless blue sky, it was warm but not too hot, and a nice breeze blew. Hercules could hear a stream flowing to his right. That stream would empty into the sea that the docks serviced. "It's a nice day, yeah."

      "Did I say 'nice', Herc? No, I did not. I said, 'the most beautiful day in the world.' And do you know why it's the most beautiful day in the world?"

      Jason had a grin on his face as wide as Iolaus's. "Maybe because we're picking up Cheiron at the docks, which means no more Kostas?"

      "See? Jason understands," Iolaus said, clapping the prince on the shoulder. There was a thwap of flesh against leather. "That's why they pay him the prince money."

      Hercules laughed. "Come on, Kostas wasn't that bad."

      "Compared to what, an earthquake?" Iolaus asked.

      "Look, Cheiron wouldn't have brought him in without a good reason."

      "Right," Iolaus said. "He wants to torture us."

      "Could've been worse," Jason said, rubbing his chin. "He could've put Fiducius in charge again."

      Iolaus laughed. "How is that worse? Then we might've been able to go to Kora's."

      Grinning, Jason said, "What do you care, buddy? You're broke, anyhow."

      "I'm not broke," Iolaus said, trying to sound serious, "I'm frugal."

      Hercules barked a laugh. "Frugal? You?"

      Picking up a branch off the ground, Iolaus started swinging it like a sword. "That's right, me." This is the new, improved Iolaus."

      "Buddy," Jason said, now slapping Iolaus on the shoulder, "you don't need that second word. Any new Iolaus is automatically improved."

      "Hey!" Iolaus said. He gently hit Jason on the arm with his stick. It struck just below the tattoo on his right bicep. "Is that nice?"

      "Oh, yeah?" Jason looked around quickly, then found a stick of his own. "Nobody strikes the crown prince of Corinth and gets away with it. Have at you!" Jason cried in a voice that might have been intimidating if he wasn't laughing while he said it.

      Under other circumstances, Hercules might have joined the fun. "Come on, guys," he said. "We're going to be late meeting Cheiron. Quit horsing around."

      Jason whirled and laughed. "We're going to be late meeting a centaur and you want us to quite horsing around?"

      Did I really say that? Hercules thought with a small sigh.

      He didn't get the chance to respond, though. Iolaus took advantage of Jason's distraction to swing hard at the prince's weapon. The stick broke, and a large piece went flying off toward an oak.

      Jason stared at the small twig that was now no wider than his fist.

      His eyes went wide as he stared at Iolaus. "That was my favorite stick! My father gave me that stick! I'll kill you for that!"

      "In your dreams, pal," Iolaus said.

      Then Jason leaped at Iolaus, and they both fell to the ground.

      Hercules shook his head. As with the "sword fight", they weren't really trying to hurt each other. They just rolled around in the dirt, laughing, Jason's mock anger quickly gone.

      The son of Zeus was grateful that Jason could laugh about that subject. Months earlier Jason had been given a beautiful sword and shield that had belonged to his father, King Aeson. Hercules was jealous - his father had never given him anything like that. In fact, his father had never given him anything. So Hercules had called in a favor to the gods' metalsmith, Hephaestus, to make him a sword of his own.

      Hercules had broken Jason's sword with his new one and almost lost Jason's friendship. Eventually they did make up - aided by Hephaestus replacing King Aeson's sword with a stronger one.

      That was what Hercules valued most about Iolaus and Jason - and Lilith. No matter what happened, they were friends first and foremost. And nothing, not their own stupidity, not any number of plots by Ares or Lucius or anyone else, could break that friendship apart.

      Right now it didn't look as if anything would break Iolaus and Jason apart. They were rolling around like wheels on a wagon, neither one gaining the upper hand for more than half a second.

      "Guys, come on, we're going to be late! And if we're late, Cheiron's going to give us That Look."

      Jason and Iolaus stopped rolling around and gazed up at their friend. Hercules noticed that Jason looked relatively clean and kempt, but Iolaus was covered in dirt and his blonde curly hair was a complete mess. Even though they've both been rolling around the same, Iolaus was a lot dirtier. How does he do that? Hercules wondered.

      "You mean - That Look?" Iolaus said.

      Hercules nodded.

      Jason said, "The I'm-not-going-to-say-a-word-but-boy-do-I-disapprove look?"

      Again Hercules nodded.

      Iolaus and Jason got up and brushed the dirt off themselves. Or, at least in Iolaus's case, as much dirt as he could. "We'd better get moving," Jason said.

      "Definitely," Iolaus said.

      They started walking briskly in the direction of the docks.

      Chuckling, Hercules muttered, "Glad you see it my way," and followed.

~*~

      When they arrived at the docks, it was past midday, which meant they were late. Great, just great, Hercules thought. Cheiron's going to kill us.

      To make matters worse, there was not a centaur to be found on the docks. They found the ship that Cheiron had sailed on - the Poseidon's Trident - but no Cheiron.

      They did find several members of the dock patrol, though, and they were questioning the crew of the Poseidon's Trident.

      "Oh, great, the DPs," Iolaus muttered.

      Hercules sighed. Iolaus had given up being a thief, but he still didn't trust law enforcement.

      "Something must have happened," Hercules said, hoping that, whatever it was, Cheiron was okay.

      At the sight of the dock patrol Jason's entire demeanor changed. Gone was the big grin and the relaxed gait. Now he stood ramrod straight, a serious expression on his face. He was in full prince mode.

      All the members of the dock patrol wore leather armor, swords in belt scabbards, and form-fitting helmets. Jason went straight up to the one whose helmet had a design on it. Hercules assumed that meant he was the ranking officer.

      "Sergeant, what's going on here?" Jason asked.

      The sergeant - a tall, well-muscled, unshaven man - looked down at Jason with a sneer. "We're conducting an investigation here, boy. Kindly remove yourself before we remove you."

      Jason scratched his cheek with the finger that held his signet ring. It glinted in the midday sun. "Would you like to repeat that, Sergeant?"

      Hercules hadn't seen a face get so filled with dread since Cheiron had caught Iolaus dipping Fiducius's hand into a bowl of warm water while the bursar was napping.

      The sergeant got down on one knee, his head bowed. "Please forgive me, Your Highness. I didn't realize-"

      Now Jason looked antsy. He had never gotten entirely comfortable with being treated like royalty, even though he had every right to be. "Easy, Sergeant. It's okay. It was an honest mistake. Now, please tell me what's going on."

      The sergeant rose. "It isn't anything for you to concern yourself with, Your Highness. Apparently something involving a centaur. It's nothing."

      Hercules clenched his fist. If something had happened to Cheiron...

      "What centaur?" Jason asked in a tight voice.

      Chuckling, the sergeant asked, "Does it matter? Some people shackled up some centaur or other and took him off. Nobody was hurt."

      "The centaur was hurt," Hercules said.

      The sergeant's face got less deferential. "And you are?"

      "He's my friend," Jason said quickly, "and he has a point. Who was the centaur who was captured?"

      Looking confused, the sergeant said, "I'm not sure. He was traveling on this boat." He pointed at the Poseidon's Trident. "According to the first mate, he disembarked, then waited over there." The sergeant pointed at a less crowded section of the dock.

      Iolaus shook his head. "It had to have been Cheiron."

      "Did anyone know who the men were that took him?" Jason asked.

      "They covered their faces, according to the witnesses," the sergeant said. "However, they did carry slaver manacles."

      Closing his eyes, Jason let out a long, deep breath. Hercules did the same, mainly to keep his temper under control. He couldn't believe that this had happened.

      "This is all our fault," Hercules muttered. "If we had gotten here when we were supposed to, Cheiron wouldn't have been captured."

      "Or," Iolaus said, "those guys would now have four slaves instead of one."

      Hercules supposed that Iolaus had a point, but he still couldn't help feeling responsible.

      "Um, Your Highness," the sergeant said slowly, "I don't really see what the issue is. I mean, it was only a centaur."

      Jason looked up and fixed the sergeant with a look that brought the fear back to his face. "Sergeant, the centaur who was kidnapped and taken into slavery was Cheiron, my instructor at the Academy and one of the finest people I've ever known."

      "I-I'm sorry, Y-your Highness, we-we will, of c-course-"

      "You will do everything you can to find out what happened to Cheiron. This is your top priority, do you understand me? As Zeus is my witness, if you don't, you'll be cleaning cesspools for the rest of your career."

      "Of-of course, Your Highness, we'll-"

      "Good. Make your reports directly both to the palace and to the Academy."

      "The Academy?" the sergeant asked, confused. Hercules was equally confused. Why would Jason want reports to go there?

      "That's where I'll be. And if I'm not, make the reports to Fiducius or Kostas."

      Hercules approached his friend. "Jason, we're not going back to the Academy."

      "We have to," Jason said. "We have to let Kostas know what's going on."

      "We're not going anywhere. We have to find Cheiron!" Hercules said.

      The sergeant said, "Don't worry, young man, we'll find your teacher."

      Leading Hercules and Iolaus away, Jason said, "I have every faith in you, Sergeant." Once they were out of earshot, he added, "Look, let the sergeant do his job."

      "What, we're going to trust this to Mister 'It Was Just A Centaur'?"

      Jason smiled, "Oh, I think he's motivated now."

      "So what?" Iolaus said. "You think people around here are going to talk to the DPs? Those guys took Cheiron in broad daylight in the middle of a crowded dock. Nobody stopped them, and now nobody will say they saw anything. Trust me - the slavers paid off the dock workers. They may have even paid off the DPs. Either way, nobody's going to talk. The DPs are the enemy."

      Hercules couldn't believe that. "That's crazy. They're the law."

      "Yeah, and if dock workers were perfect, law-abiding citizens, that would matter." Iolaus sighed. "Look, guys, I worked the docks when I ran with Cradus's gang. Trust me, the DPs aren't going to find out anything from these people. It goes against the code."

      "Maybe, maybe not," Jason said. "I have to give the DPs the chance, though. And we really have to tell Kostas and everyone else at the Academy what happened."

      Hercules gritted his teeth. "All right, fine. But once we fill everyone in, we're going after Cheiron."

      "Absolutely," Iolaus said.

      Jason said nothing. Hercules had a feeling this was going to be one case where princely duty would have to be weighed against friendship.

      Well, Hercules thought, maybe it won't come to that. Maybe that sergeant isn't as much of an idiot as he seemed. Maybe he'll find Cheiron.

      As they headed back toward the Academy, Hercules wondered how Kostas would take the news.

Chapter Five

      "He was what?"

      Iolaus had expected Kostas to react exactly this way, and he did. The veins on Kostas's forehead even bulged the way Iolaus had predicted.

      They were in one of the Academy's smaller rooms. Iolaus stood next to him with his arms folded, leaning against the wall. He looked both angry and guilty.

      Jason and Kostas stood in the middle of the room as the prince filled the substitute instructor in. "Cheiron was kidnapped. By slavers, apparently."

      Kostas shook his head. "A free individual was taken into slavery. This sort of thing would never happen in Crete."

      "Of course not," Hercules said. "Slaver's legal in Crete."

      "That's not what I meant, godling," Kostas snapped. "Cheiron's not a slave by anyone's definition."

      "Try telling that to the dock patrol," Hercules muttered.

      "Be that as it may-" Kostas began.

      Before he could continue, Lilith came running into the room. "Jason, Ophistus is coming."

      Iolaus rolled his eyes. Ophistus was serving as regent of Corinth while Jason studied at the Academy. He also took Jason away every once in a while to tutor him in all the things Jason needed to do in order to be king. Iolaus hated it when Ophistus showed up. His presence usually put Jason in a bad mood, and everyone's mood was bad enough right now.

      Kostas frowned. "Ophistus?"

      "My regent," Jason said.

      Within seconds Ophistus entered, followed by half a dozen men in armor. All of them, including Ophistus, had the crest of Corinth on their chests. Two of the soldiers carried the Corinthian flag, which had the same design.

      Now Iolaus was really worried. Ophistus wouldn't have come with an entourage unless he intended to take Jason back with him.

      "Your Highness, I'm afraid your presence is requested at the palace."

      Right again, Iolaus thought. I should go to work as an oracle.

      "We're a little busy here, Ophistus. Can't you handle it?"

      Ophistus shook his bald head. "I'm afraid not, your Highness. The Centaur Nation has expressed outrage over the abduction of their citizens."

      Hercules winced. "Cheiron?"

      "Among others," Ophistus said with a nod. "A dozen centaurs have been taken by slavers over the course of the last week. Apparently one of them is some kind of prince of other. These abductions happened on Corinthian soil, so the centaurs are blaming us. They intend to declare war."

      "News travels fast," Iolaus muttered.

      "We can't let them do that!" Hercules cried. He unfolded his arms into a pleading gesture. "It's not like those guys were working for Corinth!"

      "Sadly, the centaurs don't see it that way," Ophistus said with a sigh. "If there had been only a couple of abductions, or if none of those taken had been prominent, the centaurs' reaction might not be so extreme. But so many kidnappings in so short a time - with one being this prince, and another being someone as respected as Cheiron - has them out for blood. However, there is hope. I've convinced them to send an emissary to talk. He'll be here the day after tomorrow. But you must speak for the crown, Your Highness," he said to Jason. "If it is anyone else less than the highest authority, the centaurs will be insulted."

      Jason took a deep breath. Then he nodded. "All right, Ophistus. We'll leave right away." Then he walked over to the window where Hercules and Iolaus were standing. "I'm sorry, guys, but I've got to do this," he said in a quiet voice.

      "You want us to come with you?" Hercules asked, also quietly.

      Iolaus smiled. Obviously, Herc didn't want Kostas to hear this. "Nah, I'll be fine."

      Iolaus stopped smiling. The words sounded like the carefree Jason whom Iolaus knew and loved. But the face was wrong. That big I'm-funnier-than-you'll-ever-be grin of his was missing.

      Jason was worried. And that made Iolaus worry too. He may have been training to be a warrior, but Iolaus wasn't in a rush to go to war anytime soon.

      The prince continued whispering to Hercules. "I'd rather you kept an eye on the dock patrol. Make sure they do their job, so I don't have to do mine, you know?"

      "Count on it," Hercules said.

      "Yeah, what he said," Iolaus added.

      "Thanks, guys." Jason clapped Hercules on the shoulder, gave Iolaus a thumbs-up, then turned back to Ophistus. "Let's go."

      As the royal contingent started to leave, Kostas said, "All right, cadets, it's almost dinner time. Report to the dining hall, then to bed. I suspect it'll be an early day tomorrow."

      Once again Iolaus smiled. Okay, he thought, here comes the part where Herc tells Kostas he wants to go after Cheiron and Kostas says no.

      "Kostas," Hercules said, walking up to the instructor, "I want to go look for Cheiron."

      Laughing, Kostas said, "Absolutely not. This is a job for people qualified to handle it, godling. You're just a cadet."

      Shaking his head, Iolaus thought, I do love it when they follow the script. Now Herc is going to say he feels responsible, and Kostas will still say no.

      "I am qualified," Hercules said. "I stopped a war once before, between the centaurs and the Amazons. And Cheiron was my responsibility. I blew it, and I want a chance to fix it."

      "You're right. Bringing Cheiron safely back here was your responsibility. And yes, you did blow it. Picking up someone at the docks was a simple task. Why would I even consider letting you attempt a much more difficult one?"

      "Look-"

      Kostas held up a hand. "This discussion is over, godling. Yes, Cheiron was your responsibility. You are mine. I will not make the mistake of letting you out of my sight again. Now report to the dining hall with everyone else."

      Before Hercules could say anything else, Kostas turned on his heel and left.

      "Great," Hercules muttered.

      Iolaus hopped down off the windowsill. "Come on, Herc, did you really think he was going to go for it?"

      Hercules sighed. "Not really, no. But I wanted him to."

      "Yeah, well, that's life. Now, if Cheiron were here-"

      "If Cheiron were here, it wouldn't matter," Hercules snapped. Then he walked off toward the dining hall.

      Figures, Iolaus thought with a sigh. He's taking all of this personally. As usual. And there's no way in Tartarus he's going to let someone else handle it now.

      Iolaus followed Hercules into the dining hall. He wondered whether he'd have to follow Hercules farther than that.

~*~

      Hercules stared down at the dining hall table. The cook had made some kind of rabbit stew. Hercules just stirred it around his plate. He couldn't bring himself to actually eat any of it. Besides the fact that it was probably awful, he was too worried about Cheiron. There was no way the idiot sergeant was going to find him. And if he didn't, the centaurs would start a war.

      And it's all my fault, he thought. I was supposed to pick him up, and I was late. I should have insisted that the guys quit messing around.

      Hercules looked across the table at Lilith and Iolaus. Lilith was eating bits and pieces of her stew. Iolaus plowed through his as if it were his last meal. Hercules almost smiled at that. Iolaus always ate as if he expected the food to be taken away from him at any minute.

      He knew he could trust his friends to do what he asked. "Listen, guys," he said, "I'm going to need you to cover for me."

      "Why?" Lilith asked.

      "Because I'm going to sneak out to try to find Cheiron."

      Lilith smiled. "Sorry, Hercules, I can't do that."

      Hercules almost flinched. He couldn't believe Lilith wouldn't help him. "Why not?"

      "I can't cover for you because I'm going with you."

      "Yeah," Iolaus said. "Me, too."

      Shaking his head, Hercules said, "I can't let you do that. It might be dangerous."

      Iolaus had a piece of rabbit meat in his mouth when Hercules said that. He sputtered it onto his plate.

      "Yuck," Lilith muttered.

      "Dangerous?" Iolaus said, wiping his mouth. "You're worried that it's too dangerous?"

      "Look-" Hercules started.

      Iolaus, however, wasn't letting him get a word in. "Right, it's much better if we stay here. At the Academy. Where we spend each morning beating each other with sticks while standing on poles. Not to mention our breaks and holidays, where we get to deal with all the crazy members of your family, both god and half-god, plus Bacchae, giants, basilisks, satyrs, phoenixes-" He turned to Lilith. "Did I leave anything out?"

      "War-crazed Amazons and centaurs," Lilith said.

      "Right, war-crazed Amazons and centaurs. So, yeah, a bunch of punk slavers are way too dangerous for us."

      Hercules was about to say something, but then Lilith interrupted.

      "Besides," she said, "I owe Cheiron too much. I mean, come on, would Kostas have let me into the Academy? Cheiron gave me something that even the Amazons couldn't: a chance to be a warrior. I'm not just going to sit here when he's in trouble."

      Again, Hercules started to say something, but this time Iolaus interrupted.

      "Not to mention the chance he's given me. Not just letting me in in the first place, but letting me stay. I mean, let's face it, he could've kicked me out on my ear anytime. The Fates know I messed up enough times, even with you guys covering my butt. But he didn't. He's given me a chance no one else would."

      Hercules hesitated. They seemed to have stopped pleading their cases. Maybe now he could get a word in. "there's no way I can talk you out of it?"

      Lilith and Iolaus looked at each other. Then they looked at Hercules and both said in perfect unison, "No."

      Shaking his head, Hercules decided that his friends were insane. And also that they had pretty much defeated him.

      "Fine," he said, holding up his hands. "I surrender."

      "Good," they both said.

      A though occurred. "Iolaus, you said you used to work the docks when you were with Cradus's gang, right?"

      Biting down on a piece of rabbit, Iolaus nodded.

      "Maybe that's the best place to start. You said that the people there wouldn't talk to the dock patrol. Maybe they'll talk to someone they know."

      Iolaus smiled. "Yeah, that could work. But, uh, I'd need to go alone."

      Hercules frowned. "Why?"

      "Look, I know how these people talk, and I know how to talk to them. Plus, they know me."

      Hercules rubbed his chin. "Why can't you just vouch for us? Say we're part of your new gang or something."

      Iolaus shook his head. "They don't know me that well. It's been years since I worked the docks - I've been out of the game awhile. They won't trust me that much." He grinned. "And besides, they'd spot a goody-two-sandals like you in a snap. Trust me on this, okay?"

      Lilith laughed. "Trust you?"

      "Yeah, me. I can do this."

      "All right," Hercules said. "We'll sneak out before dawn."

      Don't worry, Cheiron, Hercules thought as he finally spooned some stew into his mouth. We'll find the creeps who took you, and we'll stop them. I promise you that.

Chapter Six

      "Where is he?"

      Hercules couldn't help but laugh at Lilith's question. They were back in the same forest that Hercules, Iolaus, and Jason had gone through the previous day, not too far from the docks. Lilith and Hercules were waiting for Iolaus to come back from his fact-finding tour.

      He had left them here when he went off, promising to be back within three hours. That was four hours ago.

      Lilith and Hercules and Lilith had spent the time sparring. Hercules wanted to be ready to take on the slavers. So did Lilith.

      But now they were sick of sparring and wanted to get a move on.

      Hercules let out a long sigh. "I don't believe this. I mean, I know he's always late, but this is ridiculous."

      Lilith picked up a rock and tossed it into the stream. It made a small splash, then sank. "So what do we do now?"

      Grinning, Hercules said, "Fish?" They were right by a stream, after all.

      "Oh, very funny," Lilith said. "I never even learned how to fish. That wasn't something Dad would've done with me even when he was alive."

      Lilith sounded a little bitter. Hercules couldn't blame her. Her parents and older brother, Marcus, had been killed by bandits when Lilith was a child. She and her other brothers were raised by her sister until she went off to the Academy.

      Hercules sat down on a nearby rock, figuring he might as well be comfortable. Besides, he was out of breath. Lilith was a very good sparring partner.

      "Well, at least you knew your father," he said. "I'm still waiting to meet mine."

      "That must've been rough, growing up," Lilith said. She was walking around, picking up pebbles and small rocks.

      Hercules almost laughed. His home life was a whole lot easier than Lilith's, so it was kind of weird to hear her concern.

      "We had some problems," Hercules said, "but not a lot. Mom dealt with it pretty well."

      "I'm not surprised," Lilith said. "Your mother's really great." She now had a good collection of pebbles cupped in her left hand.

      Hercules smiled. Lilith had met Alcmene when she'd joined him, Iolaus, and Jason for the festival of Persephone at his village. "Yeah," he said, "she really is."

      Lilith sat on the ground facing the stream. Leaning her back against the rock Hercules was sitting on, she dumped the pebbles in a pile next to her. "My sister always meant well. She wanted me to be a good little woman and marry some nice guy."

      "Oh, yeah," Hercules said with a smile, "That'd be real rough, marrying some nice guy."

      Lilith swatted Hercules lightly on the ankle. "You know what I mean. I didn't want that. But it's what she wanted for herself." She picked up a couple pebbles and started tossing them into the stream with each sentence. "She never understood how I felt." Splash. "She never even tried." Splash. "She just did what she thought was best for me."

      "Why wasn't it best for you?" Hercules asked without thinking.

      "Why should it have been?" Lilith asked back, a little angry. "I mean, does anyone ask you why you go to the Academy?"

      "Well, no," Hercules admitted, "but-well, let's face it, Lilith, there aren't a lot of female warriors out there. Except the Amazons."

      "So that means I can't be a warrior?" Splash.

      "Of course not," Hercules said. "But look at it from your sister's side. I mean, out of nowhere, she's got the responsibility of raising you and your brothers by herself. The only thing she could do was what she knew, and what she knew-"

      "Was to raise me to be like her," Lilith finished. She sighed and tossed another pebble. Splash. "I guess so. But I had to be a warrior. She never even tried to figure out why, even when I told her."

      "Maybe she thought it was a little weird. Or just a phase, or something."

      Lilith shook her head. "This wasn't a phase." She grinned. "Deciding to wear palm leaves on my wrists when I was eleven was a phase. But being a warrior... I'd wanted that ever since my parents and Marcus died. I remember when the bandits started attacking - I felt so powerless. I hated it. There was nothing I could do. I just had to hide, hoping they wouldn't come and kill me, too. I never wanted to feel like that again."

      Hercules had heard part of this story before, when he and Lilith had been trapped in a cave by Ares. "So you want to become a warrior so you won't feel that way."

      "Exactly." Splash. "If something like that ever does happen - if I'm ever in trouble, or someone I care about is - I won't just sit in a corner and cry the way I did then. I'll fight." She turned to look up at Hercules. "That's why I'm here now. Cheiron's in trouble, and I'm not going to just sit around."

      "I know what you mean. Remember when Ares had Morpheus send those nightmares after me? Cheiron was the one who figured it all out. He helped me rescue you guys from the dreamworld. And I've learned so much from him. Not just about fighting. I mean, anybody can show you that, but he's also shown me when not to fight. That can be at least important, and I'd never have known that without him." Hercules smiled. "That's probably already saved my life once or twice."

      "Yeah," Lilith said. Splash. "I can't believe that someone would take him as a slave."

      "I know. Half the people on the docks didn't think it was that big a deal. The dock patrol, too. I mean, they didn't even care, because it was 'just some centaur.' It's crazy."

      They went on talking from there, first about Cheiron, then about Kostas when he was yelling.

      They were also starting to get hungry. That's when they realized their biggest mistake. They had brought food along, but Iolaus was the one carrying it. He'd taken it with him when he'd gone off. "He'll probably have eaten it all by the time he gets back," Hercules said.

      Luckily, the area was full of goosenberry bushes. Hercules and Lilith started picking. When they'd gotten a couple of handfuls, they sat down to eat them. Hercules sat back on his rock, Lilith back on the ground next to him.

      "These aren't the ones that put you to sleep, are they?" Lilith asked as she was about to pop one in her mouth.

      Hercules laughed. "No, those are farkenberries. Farkens'll put your candle right out. Goosens are fine, though."

      "Great," Lilith said. She chewed on the pulpy fruit, then looked up at the sun. It was getting close to midday. "Where is he?" she asked again.

      "Right here," said a familiar voice from behind them. Hercules turned to see Iolaus jogging toward them, looking a bit winded. "Sorry I'm late, but I finally got a lead. I figured it was better to be late than to come back on time without anything. Hey, cool, goosenberries!"

      "So you know where Cheiron is?" Hercules said anxiously, getting up off his rock. He didn't need Iolaus thinking about food. Lilith got up, too.

      Iolaus nodded. "In an old, abandoned castle on an island about half a day's sailing from here. The place is a wreck, but apparently the stables are in good shape. That's where they're keeping the centaurs."

      "How many?" Lilith asked.

      "Twelve, including Cheiron. They're keeping them there until a boat comes to take them to Syracuse. But that's not the best part," he added with a grin.

      "What?" Hercules asked, suddenly worried.

      "I not only got us this info, I got us free passage to the island on a boat that sails tomorrow at dawn. They're bringing food and stuff to the slavers."

      Lilith smiled. "That's great!"

      Hercules wasn't so sure. "Free passage?"

      "Basically, yeah."

      I knew it, Hercules thought. "What does 'basically' mean? You didn't steal anything, did you?"

      "No!" Iolaus said, sounding outraged. "I told you, I've given that up."

      Hercules believed Iolaus, but he had to be sure anyhow. "Well, then, how did we get free passage?"

      Now Iolaus seemed nervous. "I said I'd do them a favor."

      "You'd do them a favor."

      "Well, okay, that we'd do them a favor."

      "We would?" Hercules was liking the sound of this less and less.

      "Okay, okay, that you would."

      "Me?"

      Next to him, Lilith was trying not to giggle.

      "All right, look, the ship that we got passage on is a cargo ship. Besides the trip to the slavers' island, they're hauling some stuff from a metalsmith's to Egypt. That's pretty heavy, so I told the ship's captain that I had a very strong friend who'd be more than happy to load up the boat for them."

      Hercules couldn't believe it. "A strong friend?"

      "Well, okay, not just a friend. An ogre." Looking at Lilith, he added quickly, "And his wife."

      "Iolaus-"

      "Look, I was desperate, okay? Nobody would talk to me. Half the people there weren't even around when I worked the docks. This guy, though, he wouldn't shut up about his heavy shipment and how in Tartarus was he going to get it all loaded."

      Lilith was still grinning. "So you grabbed the opportunity."

      Iolaus pointed at Lilith and looked at Hercules with a pleading expression. "See? She understands."

      "Yeah, but - an ogre?"

      Iolaus snorted. "Come on, Herc, you think anybody would believe me if I said my best friend was the super strong son of Zeus? They'd laugh me off the docks."

      Hercules closed his eyes and rubbed his temples with his fingers. He suddenly had a very big headache. "Let me get this straight. You didn't think they'd believe that you knew the son of Zeus, but they did believe that you're best friends with an ogre."

      "And his wife," Lilith added with a grin.

      "Right, and his wife."

      Iolaus shrugged. "What can I tell you, Herc? We live in a very strange world."

      "I never thought that until I met you," Hercules muttered.

      "Come on, Hercules," Lilith said. "You did say you would do anything to help Cheiron."

      "How am I supposed to help Cheiron if I'm an ogre?" Hercules asked.

      "Oh, you'll make a great ogre," Iolaus said. "Besides, this is the only ship that's going to the island before they take the slaves off. The only other way out there is to hire a boat, steal a boat, or swim." Iolaus counted off the three choices on his fingers. "We can't afford to hire a boat. I've given up my thieving ways, so we can't steal one. And I, at least, can't swim."

      For the second time in less than a day, Hercules realized that he was defeated. "All right, fine, whatever."

      "One other thing," Iolaus said.

      Hercules wasn't sure he could take much more of this. "What?"

      "We can't tell the DPs, or Jason, anything."

      "Why not?"

      Iolaus sighed. "Because the slavers have at least one guy in the dock patrol on their payroll, and half the dock workers. That's part of why I had such a hard time. And also why nobody helped Cheiron - or the DPs afterward. We have to keep this to ourselves."

      "That's crazy," Hercules said.

      "No, it's necessary. Herc, if they have a guy on the inside, it means that anything we tell the DPs of Jason will get back to this guy. Which means it'll get to the slavers, and they'll be ready for us."

      "Why don't we go to the guy who's on the take?" Hercules asked.

      Iolaus shifted nervously again. "Well, we could - if we knew who it was."

      Rolling his eyes, Hercules said, "You didn't find out?"

      "I tried! But the only way to get that out of him was to promise that my friend the ogre would go with the metalsmith's shipment to Egypt and unload it there, too."

      Hercules groaned. "All right, then, I guess it's just us."

      "Yup. Now, can I have one of those goosenberries? I'm starved."

      "What about the food we brought from the Academy?"

      Iolaus gave him a look. "Are you kidding? I finished that hours ago."

      Figures, Hercules thought.

Chapter Seven

      "Are you ready to receive the envoy, Your Highness?"

      Jason took a final look at himself in the mirror before answering Ophistus's question. He looked tired. This was hardly surprising. After riding back to the palace, he'd gotten a poor night's sleep, spent the day preparing for the centaurs' arrival, then gotten another poor night's sleep. Jason had never before had to negotiate with people who wanted to start a war. He was more than a little nervous about it.

      Now, sooner after dawn than he would have liked, he had just finished getting dressed. He wore a dark blue velvet jacket over a white linen shirt, and tight blue cotton pants. Ophistus always insisted he wear this, or something like it, when he performed his royal duties. Jason hated the outfit. He would much rather have been in his usual leather vest and matching pants.

      But he didn't have much of a choice. He couldn't very well go to a major diplomatic meeting looking like a cadet. He was, after all, trying to stop a war, not look as though he was going to fight one.

      "Yes, Ophistus, I'm ready," he said. "Let's go."

      Although he was nervous, Jason was pretty sure he could deal with this problem. After all, the slavers were outlaws. The centaurs could hardly hold the entire nation of Corinth responsible for them. And the centaurs certainly wouldn't fight a war over something that wasn't the crown's fault.

      Jason had been dealing with Cheiron long enough to know that the centaurs would listen to reason. His plan was to offer them the chance to join forces with the dock patrol and the army in trying to find the slavers.

      Cooperation, he thought. That's the ticket.

      Ophistus led him through the hallway. They walked between a huge pair of columns into the large meeting hall.

      The room was open on the end Jason came through, except for the columns. The flag of Corinth hung on one wall. Another was decorated with a shield and two crossed swords under it. The shield and swords had hung there so long, Jason had a feeling that they'd fall apart if anyone actually tried to use them in combat.

      A long marble table occupied the center of the room. Pedestals were placed at various points around the room. On them sat vases decorated with renderings of great battles fought over the years.

      Jason hoped that his battle against the Centaur Nation would not be on a vase years from now.

      Normally, the table was surrounded by high-backed wooden chairs. This day half the chairs had been removed. Centaurs didn't sit, after all.

      Ophistus had brought two advisers besides himself to aid the prince. Jason recognized one: Balian, the captain of the palace guard. King Aeson had always trusted Balian, and Jason saw no reason not to do the same.

      Opposite Balian and next to an empty chair sat Kokiadis. Jason had never met the old man until yesterday, but Ophistus said he was Corinth's minister for external affairs. Jason hadn't had to deal with any external affairs before.

      No one else was present.

      Both men got up as Jason entered. He sighed. It was just more stupid ceremony as far as he was concerned. They were just going to have to sit down again. But he knew they would remain standing until he sat.

      As he fell more than sat into the ornate chair at the head of the table, Jason asked, "Where are the centaurs?"

      "Late, of course," Kokiadis said as he took his seat. "You'd think creatures with four legs could move faster."

      Ophistus took the empty seat next to the minister, which was to Jason's right. "The envoy was sighted approaching the castle a few minutes ago. They should be here any moment."

      Just as Ophistus said the word "moment," a guard entered. Standing at attention, he announced, "Your Highness, the delegation from the Centaur Nation as arrived."

      "Show them in," Jason said. The guard turned crisply and left the room, then came back, leading in four centaurs. Hiding a smile, Jason thought, Four of us, four of them. I get the feeling that was on purpose.

      Kokiadis made a show of scratching his head with his right arm, blocking his face from the centaurs' view. Then he muttered to Ophistus, "Look at how they're dressed. It's barbaric."

      Ophistus, to his credit, ignored him.

      In fact, the centaurs were dressed the way centaurs usually dressed. They wore simple leather vests that looked almost like harnesses. Centaurs didn't go for dressing themselves up for ceremonies the way humans did. Jason got a mental image of a centaur shopping for clothes at the bazaar in the capital. For the second time, he had to hide a smile.

      The centaurs had come unarmed, of course. Even if they'd tried to bring weapons into the palace, the guards would have confiscated them. But if they had tried, the guard who announced them would have mentioned it. Jason decided to take their coming unarmed as a good sign.

      A centaur with gray hair and a matching mustache stood at the end of the table, facing Jason. The others, all much younger, took their places on either side.

      The gray-haired one spoke: "I am Makhunni. I speak for the Centaur Nation. These are my comrades-in-arms, Linzner, Melnis, and Hassell."

      Jason first introduced his advisors. "And I am Jason, crown prince of Corinth. And, uh, I speak for Corinth."

      "It is good that you do," the centaur said. "Indeed, it is only because of you that we speak at all. We know that you are a student of Cheiron, and that Cheiron has called you honorable."

      Jason was both surprised and flattered. He had no idea that Cheiron thought so highly of him. Not to mention saying nice things to his comrades. Have to remember to thank him when this is all over... he thought.

      He didn't let himself finish the thought: ...if we find him. He refused to think that way.

      Makhunni went on. "So we now give you this chance to explain why you have betrayed your teacher before we destroy you in warfare."

      Kokiadis stood up. "How dare you-"

      Jason said, "Kokiadis, sit down."

      "Your Highness, he-"

      "I said, sit down. The centaurs will be treated with the same respect you'd show me, is that understood?"

      Kokiadis glowered at Jason, then slowly sat down. "Of course, Your Highness."

      Jason gave Makhunni what he hoped was a contrite look. "Please accept my apology for our minister of external affairs, Makhunni. He is very protective of his prince."

      "And we are protective of all our people," Makhunni said. "Even thieves such as Sinis, who is one of the twelve taken. And especially respected warriors such as Cheiron, not to mention Tyldus, who is in line to be our next war chief."

      Again, Kokiadis scratched his head. "War chief," he muttered. "They are barbarians."

      Jason ignored the minister. "We share your concerns over the illegal actions taken by these slavers. Cheiron is very important to me personally. And anyone who breaks the law is someone I want to see captured quickly."

      "Oh, so there are laws against this kind of thing in Corinth?" Makhunni said snidely.

      He sounds like Kostas, Jason thought glumly.

      Ophistus said, "His Royal Highness, the late King Aeson, may he enjoy his time in the Elysian Fields, abolished slavery in Corinth when he first came to power."

      Makhunni didn't even look at Ophistus but continued to stare straight at Jason. "And does the son follow the laws of his father?"

      "Absolutely," Jason said with all the sincerity he had. "My father thought taking anyone into slavery was wrong. I share those beliefs and continue to enforce that law."

      "And yet our people were taken into slavery with ease."

      "We're looking into that right now," Jason said.

      Makhunni laughed. "Oh, are you? How lucky for our twelve brothers that the two-legs are looking into it. You'll excuse us if we don't bow down in thanks."

      This was not going the way Jason had hoped. "We welcome your help in our pursuit of these outlaws."

      "So we, too, can fall victim to them and be sold? Do you think me a fool?"

      "Of course not, but-"

      "This is not the first time this kind of thing has happened to centaurs in two-leg lands. If Corinth cannot protect its centaur population, then Corinth needs centaurs running it. It is as simple as that."

      "We don't want a war, Makhunni. We can settle this peacefully."

      "Really?" Makhunni laughed. "If you are so eager for peace, why are your troops mobilizing?"

      Balian answered that. "They are searching for the slavers who have committed this act, as are the dock patrol."

      Makhunni asked, "Dock patrol?"

      "Cheiron was taken at the docks, so they were called in first," Jason said.

      Again Makhunni laughed. "And you expect us to sit back and wait for a bunch of two-leg soldiers to find kidnapped centaurs?"

      Jason was getting tired of the term two-legs. "We have offered to let you participate in-"

      "Yes, yes, yes, your oh-so-generous offer. The fact is, Prince Jason, that you wish us to do nothing."

      "What I wish, Makhunni, is for you not to declare war on Corinth," Jason said a bit more loudly than he meant to. Calm down, kiddo, he thought. The worst thing you can do now is lose your temper. Remember what Cheiron told you about anger being a warrior's worst enemy.

      In a much steadier voice he said, "Corinth is not responsible for this. A war between out nations would be a waste of time and lives."

      "On the contrary. A war would be very valuable to us. It would show the world that the centaurs are tired of doing nothing. We have been shunned by two-legs, and done nothing. We have been called 'hooves,' and done nothing. We have been forbidden from inns and taverns and markets, and done nothing. We have seen our people taken into slavery, and done nothing. Today that ends."

      Balian said, "Such discrimination does not happen in Corinth."

      "Oh, I am sure, Captain, that such practices are illegal. But can you look me in the eye and tell me that it does not happen?"

      Jason remembered the sergeant at the docks. He remembered Iolaus's words at the docks yesterday: "Those guys took Cheiron in broad daylight in the middle of a crowded dock. Nobody stopped them." Iolaus chalked that up to the slavers paying people off. But it was just as likely that nobody helped Cheiron because nobody cared enough about a centaur to do so.

      For his part, Balian said nothing. He couldn't even do as Makhunni asked and look him in the eye.

      "As I suspected," Makhunni said with a small smile.

      "Makhunni, at least give us time," Jason said, trying not to sound as desperate as he felt.

      "Time?"

      "Give us until sunrise tomorrow to make good on our word and find Cheiron and the other eleven centaurs. At least give us a chance to prove that we're on your side."

      "Is there any reason why we should?"

      Ophistus answered that. "You said that centaurs have suffered indignities for years without response. What is one more day?"

      "I swear to you," Jason said, "in the name of my father, King Aeson, that I will do everything in my power to find your people and free them."

      Makhunni simply stared at Jason. The prince could not read the centaur's expression. He hoped that the envoy couldn't read his, either. Jason was trying to project an air of royal authority. Unfortunately, all he felt was a very large knot in his stomach.

      Jason tried one more tactic. "You said that Cheiron called me an honorable man. Would you ignore his word so easily?"

      Now Makhunni smiled. "You make a good point, Prince Jason. Very well. We shall give you one day. But no longer. We have made camp outside of your palace. We shall return to this room at this time tomorrow. If Tyldus, Cheiron, Sinis, and the others are here, we will take them home in peace. If they are not, there will be war."

      Without another word, Makhunni turned around and left the hall. The three other centaurs followed quickly behind.

      As soon as the centaurs were gone, Jason let out a long breath.

      "That was very well done, Your Highness," Ophistus said once the centaurs were gone.

      Jason didn't feel as if he had done well.

      "You think so?" Kokiadis said with a bark of laughter. "That was pathetic! Bowing and scraping to a group of half-human barbarians. You can't negotiate with livestalk! Let them rant and rave. If they insist on carrying out their silly wishes, we'll crush them like-"

      "Kokiadis," Jason interrupted, "how old are you?"

      The minister blinked in surprise. "Er, I've seen sixty years. Why?"

      "That strikes me as just about the age to retire, wouldn't you agree, Ophistus?"

      "Yes, Your Highness," Ophistus said with a nasty smile. "I would agree."

      "Retire?" Kokiadis started to turn a shade of red. "Your Highness-"

      "The prince," Ophistus interrupted, "is giving you a chance to retire with dignity. Or you can refuse and be removed from your position by royal edict. That, of course, will leave a black mark...."

      Part of Jason really wanted Kokiadis to refuse. Then he could do up a royal edict, putting in writing that the minister had referred to an official envoy as "livestock." But that was petty, and he knew it.

      "Very well, then," Kokiadis said through gritted teeth. "If you wish to throw away my years of experience over a personal disagreement, that is your right, Your Highness. As of now, I retire."

      With that, he got up from his chair and left.

      "May I commend you," Balian said, "on a good move, Your Highness. I never understood what your royal father saw in that idiot."

      Jason didn't know if the captain really felt that way or if he was just being nice to his prince. Not that it really mattered.

      "Balian, go to where the centaurs are camped. If they don't want to stay in the palace, fine, but see to whatever needs they have. Then get me an update on the investigation. And make sure everyone knows that we have a deadline." With the emphasis on dead, he thought.

      "Of course, Your Highness," the captain said. He rose, bowed, and left.

      Jason then turned to his regent. "Ophistus, see if you can find me a new minister of external affairs. Preferably one who isn't a class-A jerk."

      Ophistus smiled as he got up. "With pleasure, Your Highness."

      When he was gone, Jason was alone in the large meeting hall. He felt as if he were alone in all of Corinth.

      But he knew that wasn't true. He had one other thing on his side: Hercules. Jason knew his friend could find Cheiron before the centaurs declared war.

      He had to.

      Wherever you are, buddy, he thought, I hope you're going better than I am.

Chapter Eight

      "That's an ogre?" asked Captain Gilmanides of the Marina.

      Under the rags and bits of leaf and twig that he'd covered himself with, Hercules rolled his eyes. It was bad enough that he had to pretend to be an ogre. Now the guy they needed to fool into thinking Hercules was an ogre didn't believe him. Plus, the rags and twigs and stuff covered his face so much that he could see only right in front of him.

      "Of course he's an ogre," Iolaus said, sounding shocked. "Why would I lie about something like that?"

      Smiling, Gilmanides said, "I don't know. But that doesn't mean you wouldn't."

      Hercules thought bitterly, Score one for the ship captain.

      The captain took a puff on his pipe, then squinted at Hercules. "He doesn't look like an ogre."

      Iolaus put his hands on his hips. "And how many ogres have you ever seen?"

      "Er, well, none, but-"

      "Then you're not exactly an authority on the subject, are you?"

      "With more amusement, Hercules thought, And score one for Iolaus.

      "All right, then," Gilmanides said, "why is he hiding his face?"

      Hercules had expected this question to come up, so he started waving his arms around and yelled, "Unnnnnnh!" Part of the disguise was sensitivity about his appearance - and also that he spoke only in grunts.

      Iolaus put a hand on Hercules' shoulder. "Hey, now, Kostas, calm down, okay? It's going to be all right. Eve, would you mind comforting your husband?"

      Lilith walked over to Hercules and said, "There there" in a comforting voice. Hercules grunted a few more times for effect.

      "Look, Captain," Iolaus whispered to Gilmanides, "my friend Kostas is very sensitive about what he looks like. You know all those stories about how ugly ogres are?"

      Gilmanides nodded.

      "Kostas wishes he looked that good."

      Frowning, Gilmanides said, "That bad, huh?"

      Iolaus nodded. "Worse. But he's great with the heavy lifting." He turned to Hercules. "Hey, Kostas! Why don't we get started?"

      "Unnnnnh," Hercules said.

      "Great." Iolaus turned back to Gilmanides.

      "Where's the cargo?"

      Gilmanides pointed at five huge burlap sacks.

      Smiling, at Hercules, Iolaus said, "Go to it, buddy."

      Hercules shambled over to the sacks, trying to look ogre-ish. The sacks were all stuffed. One of them was open enough that he would see a couple of very thick pieces of metal inside. If that was what was in all of them, it was no wonder Captain Gilmanides was having problems getting them loaded. Hercules wondered how the sacks had been transported to the docks in the first place.

      He gathered the material that made up the mouth of one of the sacks and gripped it firmly. Then he picked up the sack. It was a strain, but he could handle it.

      Gilmanides' jaw dropped. His pipe fell to the dock at his feet. "Sweet mother of Zeus," he muttered. "Five of my strongest men tried to lift that sack yesterday. They couldn't hold it for more than half a second."

      Grateful that Gilmanides couldn't see him grinning under all the rags, Hercules asked the captain, "Unnnnnh?"

      "What?" Gilmanides asked.

      "He wants to know where to put the sack," Iolaus explained.

      "Oh, uh, of course. Petros!" he called out over his shoulder.

      After a moment a man roughly the size of the Parthenon came to the top of the gangplank. This, presumably, was Petros.

      "Yeah, Skipper?" Petros asked.

      Pointing to Hercules, Gilmanides said, "Show this, ah, ogre where to put the cargo."

      Petros looked over at Hercules, and then his jaw dropped.

      To his credit, he recovered pretty fast. "Uh, follow me," he said.

      "Unnnnnnh," Hercules said, and started slowly up the gangplank with his burden - if he went too fast, he risked putting too much stress on the wood.

      As he did so, Iolaus looked at Gilmanides and grinned. "Satisfied?"

      "I don't care if he's really an ogre of Zeus himself under those rags. If he can haul my cargo, he's welcome on my ship."

      Lilith cleared her throat.

      Gilmanides smiled and then bowed to her. "As is his wife, as well." He looked over at Iolaus. "And even his friend."

      "Thank you."

      As Petros led him belowdecks, Hercules smiled, thinking, We may pull this off after all.

~

      Strife was worried.

      He and Discord hadn't checked on the slavers all day. They had, at least, kept an eye on the centaur delegation. Discord had made sure that Makhunni got a rock stuck under his left rear hoof. That upset him and also made the group late for the meeting with Prince Jason. Both good things.

      But Discord kept claiming she was bored and going off to do other things: The feuding families in Thessaly. A property dispute in Thebes. She even took Strife's suggestion to Ares and started a rockslide in Amphipolis.

      It's almost as if she wants to annoy Ares by doing a bad job, Strife thought.

      Now Discord was lounging on a large black couch in a small castle, while Strife sat nervously on the arm of that same couch. Until yesterday, both couch and castle had belonged to one of those feuding Thessalian families.

      "Look, Discord, shouldn't we be checking up on things the way Uncle Ares asked us to?"

      Discord buffed her black fingernails on her black leather glove. "There's nothing to check on. The slavers are sitting on their little island. The centaurs are sitting outside the palace waiting for morning so they can declare war. The Corinthian troops are stumbling around trying to find something they'll never find. What's to check on?"

      Strife fidgeted. "I just think we should be, you know, doing something. I mean, I don't want to get on Uncle Ares' bad side."

      Discord looked up at him. "Strife, when have you ever been on Ares' good side?"

      "Well-" Strife thought for a moment. "Okay, never, but I don't want to be on his really, really bad side."

      Discord got up. "Fine. Why don't we check on that ship that's bringing food to the slavers?"

      Strife didn't get it. "What's the big deal about some supply ship?"

      Rolling her eyes, Discord said, "Security, you moron! That's the only contact with the outside world the slavers have until they go to Syracuse tomorrow. So it's one way someone might find them."

      "Oh, yeah, well, of course, I knew that," Strife said. In fact, he hadn't even thought of it. But why tell Discord that?

      After all, he was trying to make a name for himself as a god. A name that wasn't idiot or twerp or geek. Or moron, for that matter.

      "Let's check it out, then," Strife said with a smile.

      They both disappeared in a flash of light and reappeared on the deck of the Marina. The boar was sailing along at a decent speed through the Gulf of Corinth. Soon they'd be at the unnamed island that Ares had found for the slavers to use.

      "Everything looks normal," Strife said with a shrug. Mortals were wandering around the boat doing all the dorky things mortals had to do to keep their boats from sinking. Strife didn't understand any of it. Luckily, he didn't have to. Such things are beneath a god's notice, Strife thought happily.

      Some tall mortal dressed in rags shuffled past where Strife and Discord were standing. His shoulder knocking into Strife's arm.

      "Hey, watch it!" Strife yelled. Stupid mortals.

      "Unnnh. Sorry," the mortal muttered, and went on shuffling to the other end of the floor. Or deck, or whatever it was mortals called it.

      "Well, gee, Discord," Strife said, "what a good thing it was that we came to this boring boat. Can we go now?"

      Discord put her head in her hands. "For once in your immortal life, could you try using that pea that Zeus replaced your brain with?"

      "What?"

      "Strife, what just happened?"

      "Duh! Some stupid mortal crashed into me." What is with her today? Strife wondered.

      "Right," Discord said slowly. "and what did the mortal say after he crashed into you?"

      "He was sorry. So what?"

      "As a general rule, Strife, do you talk to people you can't see?"

      Strife frowned. He was getting totally confused. "Of course not. Unless Hera's doing that disembodied-voice thing of hers, but-"

      "So why, if we're invisible to mortals, would that guy have said he was sorry after bumping into you?"

      Again, Strife said, "Duh! He could see us, obvious-" He cut himself off. "Uh-oh. He's a god, isn't he?"

      Discord smiled and blinked. On anyone else, the smile would have looked pretty and friendly. On Discord, it looked as if she's just found something good to eat. "More like a half-god. Look over there."

      She pointed at the other end of the deck. The guy dressed in rags was now talking to two young mortals, a boy and a girl. Strife didn't recognize the girl. But he knew the guy with the blond curls.

      "That's Yuck-ules' buddy! Rudolphus!"

      "Iolaus, actually," Discord said.

      "Whatever," Strife said, waving his hands. What did it matter what his name was? "But that means that the guy who bumped into me-"

      "Is Hercules. So what do we do about it?"

      Discord had a glint in her eye that Strife hadn't seen since they'd unleashed a basilisk on Corinth.

      "Uh, panic?"

      Making a tcha noise, Discord said, "No, stupid. Watch."

      Strife watched as a harsh wind suddenly started to blow. The wind never hit the sails, but it did hit the person in rags and his two friends.

      Suddenly the disguise flew off. The face of the being Strife hated most in the world was revealed.

      "It is him!"

      Hercules and his pals tried to grab at his disguise and put it back on, but most of it flew overboard.

      Discord laughed. Strife tried to laugh, too. But, as usual, it came out as more of a giggle. Strife hated his laugh. He wanted it to sound scary. Instead, it sounded more like a little kid with a new toy.

      Strife hated when he sounded like a little kid. It was so - so ungodlike.

      "And now," Discord said, "for Phase Two."

      Discord walked across the deck to one of the sailors, who was tying some ropes. Then she seemed to literally walk inside him.

      The sailor made a jerking motion, then said in Discord's voice, "Hey! That's no ogre! It's some kid!"

      At least, Strife heard Discord's voice. The mortals on the ship would hear the sailor's own voice.

      The captain came running onto the deck. Strife placed himself next to the captain and whispered right into his mind.

      "That's no ogre. He's a fake out to ruin you. Stop him."

      The captain blinked. Then he said, "That's no ogre! He's a fake out to ruin us! Stop him!"

Chapter Nine

      Lilith sighed. She should have known things were going too well. And where had that wind come from?

      Three of the sailors moved toward them. One of them was the huge second mate, Petros.

      "Now, play nice, kids," Petros said. "If you do, we'll let you jump overboard. You know, peaceable-like."

      "I'm afraid we can't do that, pal," Hercules said.

      Petros laughed. "You hear that, fellas? He can't do that."

      The other two laughed. Lilith didn't see what was so funny. Then again, these three seamen probably thought they were just a bunch of dumb kids, but she knew what Academy cadets could do in a fight.

      Well, she thought, we'll show 'em.

      After he was done laughing, Petros said, "You're not going to be in any shape to do anything once we're through with you. Let's get 'em!"

      The three sailors ran to attack each of them.

      Lilith wished she had insisted they bring weapons. They had talked about it but decided not to. The armory at the Academy was kept locked. Iolaus was pretty sure he could break in, but doing so, would take too long. Both he and Hercules decided it wasn't worth the risk. At the time, Lilith agreed.

      Now she wasn't so sure.

      However, these guys weren't armed, either. In fact, she hadn't seen any weapons anywhere on the Marina. So that probably made it a fair fight.

      One of them lunged forward at her. She ducked, then punched him in the stomach. It was like punching a rock.

      "Got a little spunk, eh, girl?"

      "More than a little," Lilith said as she kneed him.

      That surprised the man, and he stumbled backward several steps.

      "Nobody does that to Xandar and gets away with it! Especially not some girl!"

      Lilith quickly judged the distance between her and Xandar. It would be tough doing a cartwheel on a rocking boat over such a short distance. But she'd once managed one in the middle of a cave-in - and her leg had been broken then, and she was being attacked by the god of war. All in all, this was probably a lot easier.

      She did the cartwheel. It brought her feet down onto Xandar's head with a thud.

      The two of them went down in a heap. Lilith scrambled to her feet faster than Xandar did.

      Xandar did not look happy. He grabbed Lilith's left ankle.

      She kicked him in the head with the right one.

      Unfortunately, Xandar didn't let go of her ankle. He yanked on it, and Lilith fell to the deck.

      Xandar crawled over to Lilith and wrapped his big, meaty hands around her neck.

      "Think you're some kind of fighter, eh, girl?"

      Lilith wanted to say, "No, I know I'm some kind of fighter." But she could barely breathe, much less talk.

      She did remember Cheiron's lessons, though. "Never use both hands when one will do," he'd told her once during a sword-fighting drill.

      Xandar had never learned that lesson. He was using both hands to try to strangle her. One hand by itself could have fit around her neck. A smart fighter would have used the other hand to pin her arms.

      So Lilith boxed Xandar's ears.

      He jerked his head back and cried out in pain.

      That gave Lilith an opening. She punched him in the chest with the heel of her hand, just the way Cheiron had shown her.

      This time Xander fell onto his back and hit his head on the deck. He didn't move.

      "Never underestimate the power of a woman," Lilith said. Then she smiled, thinking, I like the sound of that. Have to remember it.

      She looked around to see how the guys were doing.

~

      This is not going according to plan, Iolaus thought as one of the sailors leaped at him.

      Yesterday, when he was exhausted after six straight hours of sparring, Iolaus couldn't do a backflip.

      That was then. Just before the sailor hit him, Iolaus did a perfect backflip. Or it would have been perfect if he hadn't been standing with his back to the railing.

      His backflip took him over the rail and straight down into the Gulf of Corinth.

      Why me? Iolaus thought as he went splashing into the water.

      He barely remembered to hold his breath before he submerged. Iolaus managed to resurface and tread water. Unfortunately, he knew he wouldn't be able to do that for more than a minute or two, and he couldn't swim.

      Above, he could hear the sounds of Herc and Lilith fighting. Iolaus didn't know how things could have gone so wrong. And where did that wind come from, anyhow?

      Then Iolaus looked up and saw a lifeline. It was a dinky wooden boar suspended by ropes from two wooden struts. The struts overhung the railing, so all you had to do was untie the ropes and the boat would wall into the water. The boat would hold just three people. Perfect, he thought with a grin.

      Somehow, Iolaus managed to paddle his way over to the keel. The hull was made of wooden slats. Each slat jutted outward slightly - barely enough for a handhold, but barely was all he needed.

      He got up to where the lifeboat was hanging. The knots used on the rope were very secure. At least, secure against an ordinary sailor, Iolaus thought. He'd untied tougher knots when he was a ten-year-old trying to get into the local thieving gangs.

      As he worked on the knot, he thought, Wonder how Herc and Lilith are doing.

~

      Great, Hercules thought as Petros moved toward him. Just once I'd like to meet someone who doesn't want to beat me up. Just once - is that too much to ask?

      Petros was grinning. About half his teeth were missing. He was a head taller than Hercules and twice as wide.

      He also didn't much like Hercules. Or, rather, the ogre Hercules was pretending to be. The entire time Hercules had been hauling the sacks, Petros kept muttering, "Lousy ogre, making me look bad."

      Hercules had the feeling this was where Petros tried to get his own back.

      "You're just a skinny little kid, ain'tcha?" he said. "You won't be too much work, I'll bet."

      Hercules reared back and punched him.

      As the surprised Petro wobbled on his feet, Hercules said, "Bet again."

      "You'll pay for that!" Petros yelled. Hercules noticed that more than half of the big man's teeth were now missing.

      Moving faster than Hercules thought someone so large could move, Petros threw a punch at Hercules' head. The impact knocked Hercules towards the railing.

      As he skidded on the deck, Hercules found that he was oddly grateful that Petros had gone after him instead of Lilith or Iolaus. That punch would have taken a mortal's head off.

      Petros was on him before he could get up, grabbing Hercules by his raggedy shirt. Hauling him to his feet, Petros said, "I ain't finished with you yet, little man."

      Hercules kneed Petros in his massive stomach. That forced him to let go of Hercules' shirt. Then the son of Zeus grabbed Petros by his shirt and, with a grunt, picked him up.

      "By the gods!" Petros cried as Hercules hauled the man over his head.

      Then, with a yell of effort, Hercules threw Petros right at the sail.

      The big man went straight through the sail, then fell through the roof of the wheelhouse, collapsing it.

      Oh, man, my back is gonna hurt for a week, Hercules thought. that guy was heavy. But it was worth it for the look on his face when I picked him up.

      Hercules glanced around quickly. Lilith had taken care of her opponent. Iolaus was nowhere to be seen.

      Hercules saw no sign of Strife of Discord. That just made him angrier. He hadn't realized they were there, at first. He could hardly see a thing in the ogre disguise. Once that wind started blowing, though, he knew that the gods were at work. And then he caught sight of two people in black leather, giggling their stupid heads off, and he knew which gods.

      But they were gone now.

      As for Captain Gilmanides, once again he was standing with his mouth hanging open. The rest of the crew was doing the same.

      This is the big moment, Hercules thought. Is Gilmanides paying the crew enough to go up against someone who can throw Petros through the sail? Hercules was betting that the captain wasn't.

      "Guys! Jump!"

      Hercules turned around. Iolaus's voice had come from beyond the railing.

      He and Lilith both ran over to see Iolaus sitting in the Marina's lifeboat. The boat was now floating free in the water.

      Grinning, Hercules leaped over the railing. Lilith did the same. They both landed in the water with big splashes and swam to the lifeboat.

      As he climbed aboard and grabbed the oars, Hercules heard Gilmanides yell, "Get after them!"

      A couple of sailors jumped into the water and started swimming toward the boat.

      Hercules started rowing as hard and fast as his arms would go.

      One of the sailors managed to reach the lifeboat. Lilith knocked him in the head, and he let go.

      "You realize they'll catch up to us pretty quick," Iolaus said.

      Speaking between grunts as he rowed, Hercules said, "No, they won't. It'll take them at least half an hour to replace the ripped sail. And they can't steer with the wheelhouse busted. They can only move as fast as the current. And we're going faster." He let out a quick breath. "Now shut up and let me row."

~

      Ares remembered when this castle was built. It was when the island had a name and a place of importance in the land that would later be called Greece. The castle was the center of a huge empire that included land on both sides of the Gulf of Corinth.

      He also remembered the king who had it built. The king had said, "Build me a castle that will never fall."

      Ares remembered all the monarchs who occupied it after that king. He remembered all the generals who defended it. He remembered the armies that tried and failed to capture the castle that would never fall. But for three centuries, it stood.

      Most of all, though, Ares remembered the day it finally did fall. An army of more than ten thousand stormed the island and laid siege to the castle. It took them almost a month, but eventually they broke through. Ares smiled happily at the memory. It was one of the greatest battles he had ever witnessed.

      In the end the castle that would never fall fell. Now, centuries later, only Ares remembered it. No one in Greece even knew the name of the island. Mortals come and go so quickly, he thought with a smile. Even their buildings return to dust. The only thing that stays the same is war.

      The thought gave him a warm and fuzzy feeling.

      Ares appeared in what was left of the castle. Now, for the first time in centuries, both the island and the castle had a purpose. they were the temporary headquarters of Ares' little band of centaur slavers. Ares had transported himself to where Elias was eating a bowl of stew.

      "Do you ever not eat?" the god of war asked.

      This time, at least, Elias did not spit out his food. He swallowed what was in his mouth and said, "My lord Ares! I take it you wish an update?"

      Ares was glad to see that Elias didn't bow and scrape. I like a mortal who learns from his mistakes, he thought. So few of them do.

      Aloud, he just said, "Yes."

      "You'll be happy to know that the news is good, my lord. We have captured twelve centaurs, as you instructed. A couple of them claimed to be important in some way, but we didn't put much stock in that."

      "Everyone's important to someone, Elias," Ares said. "If you were captured by some stranger, it's possible that even you would be missed."

      "Only by the people I owe money to, my lord," Elias said with a chuckle.

      Ares smiled.

      Elias stopped chuckling. "Ahem. As I was saying, my lord, they've all been taken. Only one of 'em gave us real trouble. Calls himself Sinis. He almost got out of the manacles."

      At Ares' surprised look, Elias quickly added, "The regular slaver manacles, my lord, not the ones you gave us. Apparently Sinis is some kind of thief back in horseyland."

      "As far as you're concerned, Elias, he's just another piece of merchandise." And another spoke in the wheel of my plan, the war god added to himself with a small smile. "Where do you have them penned up?"

      "In the stables. I must thank you again, my lord, for suggesting this place as a hideout. It's in the middle of nowhere, and the stables are still in fine shape for holding the hooves."

      "And how are you getting them to Syracuse?" Ares asked impatiently. Elias's gratitude didn't interest him. Many gods liked the adulation of mortals. Ares tended to consider the source. A mortal complimenting a god was like a dung beetle complimenting a human. Hardly something he wanted or cared about.

      "We've hired a boat, my lord. It'll be here and ready to sail for Syracuse at sunrise tomorrow."

      "Excellent. The centaurs are just about to declare war. Once the slaves are out of Corinth, that part will go more smoothly. I take it the authorities have been dealt with?"

      "Of course, my lord." Elias sounded insulted. "We have a man in the dock patrol and in the army."

      "What about the palace guard?"

      Elias winced. "I'm afraid I couldn't manage that, my lord."

      Ares shrugged. "No matter."

      Elias was looking at him like a puppy. Ares supposed a bit of praise was in order. "I must say, Elias, this is going smoothly. You seem to have covered your bases very well."

      "Thank you very much, my lord!" Elias said with a wide grin. "I promise, I won't let you down."

      Just then Strife and Discord appeared in the castle. "Uh, Unc, we got us a little tiny eensy-weensy problemo."

      Ares closed his eyes and counted to ten. "What 'problemo' is that?"

      "My lord?" Elias said, sounding confused.

      Sighing, Ares realized that Discord and Strife hadn't made themselves visible to the slaver. "Let him see you," he said impatiently.

      Elias blinked in surprise as they did so. "If-if you wish me to depart this m-meeting of the gods, my lord, I-"

      Putting up his hand, Ares said, "Stay, Elias. I have a feeling this concerns you." In fact, Elias sounded as though he wanted to be somewhere else. Being in the presence of one god was one thing. Sharing space with three had to be scary.

      But what scared Elias didn't really matter to Ares. What Strife and Discord had to say did.

      "Well?" the war god prompted. "Spit it out."

      "Er, well, it's really not much of anything," Strife said, twisting his hands around. "I mean, just a tiny little insignificant-"

      "Strife, I know for a fact that it hasn't been that long since the last time you tried my patience. So you should know what happens when you do. Get to the point."

      "Ah, well, you see, Unc-"

      Finally Discord spoke up. "It's Hercules."

      Ares felt a snarl build up in the back of his throat. "What?"

      "He's on his way here with two of his friends, Iolaus and Lilith."

      The snarl moved to the front of Ares' throat. Iolaus was nothing. True, he'd helped Hercules right after Ares killed King Aeson. Ares had blinded Hercules, and Iolaus had served as his eyes. But still, he was just some boy thief.

      As for Lilith, Ares remembered tormenting her in a cave. She had held up very well, which had surprised the war god at the time. If he could get her away from Hercules' do-gooder influence, she had the makings of a great warrior.

      And then there was his meddling half brother...

      Ares destroyed one of the freestanding walls with a lightning bolt.

      "My lord?" Elias said with a squeak.

      Taking a deep breath, Ares said, "Sorry," even though he wasn't. "It's just extremely frustrating. It's not enough that the little twerp has to get out of my own traps for him. Now he has to go and mess with plans that don't even involve him!"

      "Look," Discord said, "we can handle it, if you want."

      "I don't want. Why didn't you stop him?"

      "We tried, Unc!" Strife whined. "We-"

      Shaking his head, Ares said, "I don't want to hear it. Both of you, get out of my sight."

      "What-ever," Discord said, and she disappeared.

      Strife, though, didn't. "C'mon, Unc, I can fix this! Really, just give me a chance to-"

      "Don't make me angry, Strife. You wouldn't like me when I'm angry."

      Ares didn't think it was possible for Strife to go any paler, but he did. Then he disappeared. And about time, too.

      Still sounding frightened, Elias asked, "My lord, this Hercules person. Is he a god?"

      "No, just a pest. But he's a pest who's half a god, so don't underestimate him."

      "What do we do, my lord?"

      "Stick with the plan. This castle fended off armies for centuries. It's not up to its old standards, but it ought to be able to hold off three kids."

      "Even one that is half a god?"

      "Yes, well, there is that." Ares thought for a moment. Then he snapped his fingers. A creature suddenly appeared in the middle of the room. About the size of a pony, it looked like a cross between a dog and a lizard.

      With another snap of his fingers, the wall Ares had destroyed put itself back together. The difference was, a very long chain was attached to it this time. The other end of the chain was on the creature's collar.

      "This," Ares said with a smile, "is Graegus, my dog of war. He should be able to take care of my half-brother. Without Hercules, the other two will be easy pickings."

      "Thank you very much, my lord," Elias said, sounding relieved.

      "Just remember to feed him raw meat every few hours. Oh, and the more you feed him, the bigger he gets."

      "That's good to know, my lord. Uh, will we have to take him on the boat?"

      Ares was tempted to say yes just to see the look on Elias's face, but now wasn't the time to indulge. "No. Once you're on the boat, you'll be safe from Hercules. I'll summon Graegus home then."

      "All right, my lord. Thank you."

      Saying nothing in response, Ares transported himself back to his temple.

      If it wasn't for Zeus's stupid protection order- Ares cut off the thought. Zeus had put Hercules under his special protection: No Olympian god was allowed to harm a hair on his little head. And even without the order, gods didn't kill other gods. That was the sort of thing that would set a nasty precedent.

      So, Ares thought, I'll just let Elias and Graegus do my dirty work for me.

      All of a sudden Ares wished he hadn't scared Strife off. In the mood he was in, he needed something to punch.

Chapter Ten

      "You call that a castle?" Lilith asked.

      "No, the guy at the docks called it an old, abandoned castle," Iolaus said. "I call it an ex-castle."

      It hadn't taken long for them to get within sight of the castle - or ex-castle - once they beached the lifeboat. Hercules had taken the time to get rid of the remaining ogre rags. then they headed up the beach and into the forest. They had found a sturdy tree to climb to scout the slavers' hideout. Since it was spring, the trees were in full bloom. The leaves would provide good cover as they spied. There was still enough light to see by, though it would be dark in a couple of hours, and they were far enough away that the distance and the leaves would hide them from any sentries. Hercules stayed on guard at the base of the tree.

      Lilith and Iolaus jumped down.

      "Ex-castle is right," Lilith said. "It's just a bunch of broken walls surrounded by a pit."

      "I guess the pit's where the moat used to be," Hercules said.

      "Probably," Iolaus said. "There aren't even any real rooms. Just a bunch of open-air sections."

      "What about the centaurs?"

      Lilith shook her head. "We couldn't see them."

      "Didn't you say they were in the stables?" Hercules asked Iolaus.

      Iolaus nodded. "But we couldn't see any stables from this angle. They're probably around the other side."

      "What about the guards?"

      "Only two that we could see," Lilith said. "One on each side of the pit."

      Hercules looked around. The tree that Lilith and Iolaus had climbed was one of the few that was sturdy enough to support their weight. This forest wasn't very old, and manyu of the trees weren't much taller than two human-lengths. The tree probably hadn't started to grow until after the castle fell, he thought.

      Briedly, Hercules wondered about the castle. He'd never heard of it or this island. He wasn't even sure which city-state it belonged to. Maybe none of them," he thought, which probably makes it the perfect hideout for creeps like Elias.

      Aloud, he asked, "Did the guards follow any pattern?"

      Iolaus nodded. "They signal each other regularly. If we take out the guy on this side, we won't have long before the guy on the castle side knows we're coming."

      Hercules shook his head. That didn't leave them with too many choices.

      "There is one thing, though," Lilith said.

      Frowning, Hercules asked, "What?"

      "There's a ditch about three hundred paces to the west. It probably leads from the pit to the gulf. The guard's been very cerefully avoiding the ditch."

      "So you're saying we should sneak in through the ditch," Hercules said.

      Lilith shrugged. "It's the only oepning I could find."

      "Yeah, but we'll be sitting ducks for both guards when we hit the pit," Iolaus said.

      Smiling, Hercules said, "Maybe not. I've got an idea. Come on, let's check out that ditch."

      The three of them went due west to the ditch, maintaining their distance from the castle. Hercules wondered why the sentry avoided the ditch. When they got there, he had his answer.

      The mud wasn't the reason, though the ditch was filled with it. No, the reason was the little creatures that were slithering around in the mud. Every once in a while one of them broke the surface. The creatures were small, fast, and green.

      "Baby ghidras," Iolaus muttered.

      Hercules rolled his eyes. "Those are not baby ghidras. They're baby sea serpents."

      "Oh, come on, Herc. Those don't look anything like sea serpents."

      "Look, I know I paid attention in Cheiron's mosnter recognition class. and I know you were busy carving Kora's name into your desk."

      "I was not!" Iolaus protested.

      This time Lilith rolled her eyes. "Come on, Iolaus. Everyone knows you have a thing for Kora."

      "I do not have a thing for Kora. Besides, I was carving her name in the chair, not the desk."

      "The point is," Hercules said, "I know a sea serpent from a ghidra, and these are sea serpents."

      "How can you be so sure?" Iolaus asked, refusing to admit he was wrong.

      Sighing, Hercules said, "Because that guard wouldn't be avoiding this ditch if it was full of ghidras. Ghisras don't even grow teeth until they're full size. But sea serpents are poisonous as soon as they're hatched."

      "Doesn't thus kind of kill the plan?" Lilith asked.

      "Nope," Hercules said with a grin. "Because we were smart enough to come prepared. You see, there's only one thing a baby sea serpent likes better than chowing down on human flesh."

      All three of them, even Iolaus, remembered that part of the monster recognition class. They all said at the same time, "Goosenberries."

      "Too bad we didn't find any farkenberries," Lilith said. "That would put them to sleep, too."

      "Yeah, but they don't grow around here," Iolaus said.

      Hercules added, "Neither do goosenberries. So the guard has to keep his distance."

      "So what's the plan?" Iolaus asked. "I mean, okay, we slog through the mud and ruin our nice clothes. Not that you care, since you still smell like an ogre. A sea serpent comes near, we toss a goosenberry at it. That's all fine. But what happens when we hit the moat?

      Hercules smiled and put his arm around Iolaus's shoulder. "That's where you come in."

      "Why don't I like the sound of that?"

~

      Kazantzakis, "Kaz" to his friends, hated guard duty. After all, his specialty was busting heads. You wanted a head busted, nobody was better at it than Kaz. Ask any tavern owner from here to Thessaly. So when Elias hired him, Kaz figured he'd get to bust heads.

      No such luck. He'd gotten guard duty instead. Wandering around the same patch fo grass. Signaling the guy on the other side of the pit. All to make sure nobody attacked a bunch of walls on an island in the middle of nowhere. Elias said that the walls used to be a castle and the pit was its moat. Now, though, they were just broken walls and a pit surrounded by a forest.

      Nobody ever came into this forest.

      That was because nobody ever came to this island. Elias didn't need guards - which meant no heads to bust.

      Plus there was the ditch that was full of poisonous snakes. Kaz wasn't afraid of snakes, but he didn't want to be poisoned, either.

      "Help! Heeeeeeeeeeeelp!"

      Kaz looked around quickly. The guard on the other side of the moat hadn't moved.

      "Heeeeeeelp!"

      After a second Kaz realized that the screaming was coming from the ditch. Kaz wondered what kind of idiot would be fown there with all the snakes.

      Then it occurred to him that this might be a great chance to bust heads.

      Whistling a happy tune, Kaz gave the "okay" signal to the guy at the castle, then jogged over to the ditch. If comething went wrong, he'd give the "problem" signal. But he didn't need any help yet. Not if it was just some idiot who needed his head busted.

      Kaz leaned over. He saw a little guy covered in mud.

      "Help!" the little guy yelled. "The snakes! They're everywhere! I can't move my legs! You gotta help me! The snakes are gonna get me!"

      Kaz was disappointed. Some dumb kid covered in bud wasn't much in the head-busting department, but he would have to do.

      Kaz got down on his stomach and reached out. "Gimme yer hand."

      The kid reached up and grabbed Kaz's hand. Kaz pulled him up. He didn't bother being gentle about it. After all, this kid was obviously an intruder, so there was absolutely no reason to be nice to him.

      "Ow!" the kid said as he landed with a thud on the grass. "Take it easy, will you? I've been poisoned!"

      "what're you doin' here, kid?"

      "I told you, getting poisoned! I can't move my legs! You gotta help me!"

      Kaz leaned in at the kid. If he didn't start talking sense in a minute, Kaz was going to bust his head. He could hardly wait.

      Suddenly Kaz found himself being kicked in the stomach. Then he was rolling over into the ditch.

      That lousy kid! He'd said he couldn't move his legs! He'd lied to Kaz!

      He heard the kid say, "Come on!" Then he heard three sets of footfalls running by and jumping into the pit. The little creep had friends!

      "Hope you're happy, Herc," the creep said. "I'm all covered in mud."

      "A small price to pay to free Cheiron, don't you think?"

      "You're just mad 'cause you had to dress up as an ogre."

      Kaz was thrilled. Here he thought it would be another boring day staring at the same five small trees. Now he had three heads to bust!

      He tried to get up, but his feet slipped in the mud. That sent him to the ground again with a squelch of mud and water.

      He tried to get up again. He slipped and fell again. Kaz wasn't enjoying this at all.

      He tried getting up more slowly this time. This time he got to his feet. But then the snake bit him. Surprised, Kaz lost his balance and fell into the mud again.

      Luckily, falling down knocked the snake off him before it could really sink its fangs in. Kaz grabbed the baby serpent and crushed its little head. That wasn't as much fun as busting that kid's head was going to be, though.

      For the fourth time Kaz tried to get up. This time he finally made it. And no snakes tried to bite him.

      Now Kaz was really angry. He'd been looking forward to a good head-busting. He had not been looking forward to a mud bath. Kaz intended to take out his anger on the kid's face. He slowly clambered through the ditch to the pit.

      By the time he got there, the kid and his two friends were climbing up to the other side of the pit. Then they started fighting the guard on the castle side.

      No, make that two guards - the other guard had called for help.

      Kaz didn't care about the other two. He went straight for the kid who'd thrown him into the ditch, the one covered in mud - who was about to have a busted head.

      Climbing out of the pit, Kaz found himself standnig right behind the kid. The gods were smiling on Kaz today.

      Reaching out one large hand, he placed it on the kid's shoulder and turned him around.

      "Oh, uh, hi there," the kid said through mud-caked lips.

      "You threw me in the mud!" Kaz said.

      "Well, uh, actually, I kicked you in the mud."

      Kaz reared back and punched the kid in the face. The kid fell into a muddy heap on the ground.

      Finally Kaz had gotten to bust a head. It felt good.

      He looked around, only to see that the two guards were also on the ground and the kid's two friends were gone.

      Shrugging, Kaz picked up the kid and brought him inside the castle walls. Elias would want to know about this.

~

      "Great, now what do we do?" Lilith whispered. She and Hercules were hiding behind a wall, watching the big guy take Iolaus into the castle.

      Hercules frowned. "Well, if we're lucky, that guy was too angry at Iolaus to notice us."

      Lilith gave him a look. "Come on, nobody's that stupid."

      "Yeah, probably not," Hercules said. He scratched his head. "We'd better just stick with the plan. Now that we're up here, we'll be able to avoid the guards more easily. There are so many walls and bushes and things, we should be able to hide - especially now that it's twilight."

      Nodding, Lilith agreed. Cheiron had taught them lots of ways of sneaking around. He had also told them that dusk and dawn were the times when visibility was worst, so they were the best times for a sneak attack.

      "We should split up," Hercules went on. "I'll go after the slavers to try to free Iolaus. You try to find the stables to free the centaurs."

      "Right," Lilith said. She was glad. She wanted to be the one who freed Cheiron.

      "Good luck," Hercules said.

      "You, too."

      He ran off, staying close to the ground. He was moving toward the middle of the castle.

      Lilith stayed on the outskirts, moving around the perimeter of the pit in search of the stables. They had to be on the other side of the castle, since they hadn't seen it from the tree.

      At one point Lilith was almost caught by another sentry. She slipped quickly behind a bush.

      Not making a sound, but hearing her heartbeat pound in her ears, Lilith crouched behind the bush until the sentry passed by without noticing her.

      Once the entry was out of sight, she slowly and quietly continued moving forward.

      As she went around one bend, she saw some flickering torchlight. Then she saw a structure. The stable - perfect!

      Crouching close to the ground as she walked, she headed for the back of the wooden building. As she approached, she could hear voices coming through a small window in the back wall.

      "We've got problems. Kaz found some kid nosin' around. Says there's a coupla others wandering around. Elias wants everyone inside for a quick meeting. Except you, Nikolos. You get to keep an eye on the hooves."

      Lilith knelt on the ground, then peeked quickly through the window.

      The stable was set up about as she expected. Stalls lined the walls on either side. Above the stalls was a hayloft that went all the way around the inside of the stable. Opposite the window were large double doors.

      The centaurs were locked up in the stalls. They all had manacles on, too. Lilith saw Cheiron in one stall. She recognized a couple of others, from when the Amazons and centaurs had almost gone to war a while back.

      Three men were walking out of the stable. One man remained behind. Lilith assumed this was Nikolos.

      "Hey, little girl," said a voice from behind, startling her.

      Lilith whirled around to see a large man standing over her. It was the sentry she'd avoided earlier. She elbowed the sentry in the stomach.

      "Urrrrrrrgh! he cried as he bent in half, clutching his belly. Lilith then clubbed him in the jaw.

      I hate being called "little girl," she thought.

      Lilith didn't have much time. They'd leave one guard on the centaurs for only a few minutes while Elias had his little meeting. And they were bound to notice that the sentry she'd just flattened was missing from that meeting.

      She took another peek inside.

      "So," Nikolos was saying, "you hooves think you're gonna be rescued or somethin', huh? Well, forget it. I bet whoever Kaz found is just a bunch of bandits looking for a hideout. We'll get rid of 'em. So don't go gettin' your hopes up, right?"

      Nikolos laughed, then turned his back to the window.

      Lilith went back about ten paces, then ran straight at the window. She dived in headfirst, landing on her hands. Then she did a perfect sumersault and landed on her feet in a defensive crouch.

      Nikolos turned around. "Wha-" he started to say.

      He couldn't say anything else, because Lilith kicked him in the jaw.

      Rubbing the jaw, Nikolos said, "Oh, so you want to play, eh?"

      He took a punch at Lilith, which she ducked. She unleashed a kick at him, which he dodged.

      This went on for several minutes. Nikolos was a good fighter. Lilith found herself lost in the ducking and punching and kicking and dodging.

      "Lilith! Behind you!"

      The voice belonged to Cheiron.

      Turning around, Lilith saw three more men enter through the door. They had vicious smiles on their faces.

      "Get her!"

Chapter Eleven

      "You wished to see me."

      Jason turned to see that Makhunni had entered the throne room. The prince had been pacing. The sun was just setting, and there had been no news from the dock patrol or the army. Even the people who knew that the centaurs had been kidnapped had no idea where they'd been taken. And according to most of the reports, many people didn't seem to care much. Jason was starting to see why Makhunni was so angry.

      "Yes, I did," Jason said. He started to go to his throne, then changed his mind. Sitting there would put him in the position of power. Of course, most of the time that was why one would sit on the throne in the first place. But Jason wanted to speak to Makhunni individual to individual, not prince to envoy. He had even changed out of his nice clothes, going back to his more comfortable leather vest and pants. Jason figured that the centaur would react better to someone dressed casually.

      He indicated a pair of rhytons. The drinking cups were made of fired clay and had figures of satyrs carved into them. "Can I interest you in something to drink?"

      "No, thank you," Makhunni said, shaking his head.

      The centaur trotted over to one of the room's many decorative vases. It showed Zeus battling the Titans.

      After taking a drink from one of the rhytons, Jason said, "You like it? It just came in from Athens. Part of our trade agreement. It's a new style of clay work, actually. I like it better than the local work. It's a red-figure instead of the old black-figure stuff. You see, they leave the figures in the red of the clay and then paint the black around it, and you're not even a little interested in this are you?" he finished.

      Makhunni actually smiled. "I'm afraid that we don't go for this sort of - decoration. Our tools and such are practical. We are creatures of the outdoors. In fact, even this room is uncomfortable for me."

      Jason hadn't thought of that. "I'm sorry, but-"

      "No, no," Makhunni said. He sounded surprisingly pleasant. "For the moment, at least, this is a human land. Humans prefer enclosed spaces. Centaurs do not. Have you noticed that the Academy where you study has large rooms, only wide doorways, and no actual doors?"

      Jason nodded.

      "That is by Cheiron's design. It is, I'm sure, the only way he can stand to live admidst two-legs architecture." Makhunni smiled again, but it wasn't a very nice smile this time. "That will have to change when we conquer you."

      Jason sighed. And the conversation had been going so well...

      "Look, Makhunni, I wanted to ask you one last time to reconsider."

      "Reconsider?" Markhunni barked a laugh.

      "Yes. I don't want to go to war over this. In fact, I don't want to go to war, period. War should be a last resort."

      "That is an unusual attitude for a prince of the realm to have."

      Jason shrugged. "Not one who's been trained by Cheiron. See, he's the one who taught me that. And it's a pretty good way to think."

      "Perhaps. But that platitude does not change the facts. Twelve of our nation have been kidnapped on Corinthian soil. they were taken solely because they are centaurs. Worse, one of those twelve is our war chief's heir. another is one of our most respected soldiers. We are warriors. We cannot sit and wait for someone else to take action, especially not outsiders. We must act."

      "Fine. No problem. But this isn't the right act. All you're going to do is suck your nation and mine into a pointless battle. People will die on both sides. and Cheiron and the others will still be slaves."

      "You don't understand."

      Jason shook his head. Being reasonable was getting him nowhere, so he moved over to the throne. Stepping up to it, he glanced at the golden fleece that hung above and behind it. He had led Hercules, Iolaus, and the others to get the fleece in order to save his father's life. His father had still died in the end, killed by Ares. But the fleece was Jason's. He swore he would never let it leave Corinth's throne room for as long as he lived.

      Jason seated himself on the throne. As Ophistus always insisted, he sat up as straight as his spine would allow. He rested his hands on the throne's flared armrests.

      "Maybe I don't understand centaur ways as much as I thought. But I do understand this: Corinth has a strong army. We've successfully defended out borders for decades. You know how you said the people of Corinth are prejudiced against your kind? Well, those same people will see you invade and believe all the lies they've heard about centaurs being subhuman. They will rally behind the army."

      Jason leaned forward. "And I have the golden fleece. Against a powerful giant and the god of war himself, I won the fleece. I think it will take more than even the mighty Centaur Nation to take it away from me."

      Makhunni seemed unimpressed. But then his facial expression had hardly changed the entire time that he'd been in Jason's presence. Makhunni either scowled or smiled snidely. Why should he act any different now?

      "If that is all, Your Highness, I would like to return to our camp."

      Nodding, Jason said, "Of course. You are all free to come and go through the palace as you please."

      Makhunni nodded back. "Thank you, Your Highness. Until morning, then."

      It wasn't until after the envoy had left the room that Jason realized something. For the first time, Makhunni actually called him "your Highness."

      Maybe speech-making boy brought home the bacon after all, he thought with a smile.

~

      Hercules had managed to sneak around the bits of wall that made up the castle castle without being seen. He was actually a little grateful for the mud that had gotten on his clothes. It made his light brown shirt darker, so it was easier for him to hide in the shadows.

      Of course, he thought, I could have just left the ogre rags on. But as soon as he and the others were safely away from the Marina, he wanted that junk off. I can't believe I let Iolaus talk me into that stupid disguise, he thought.

      Following the sound of voices, he came upon a meeting of the slavers. He had found a good hiding place behind one of the larger walls. He couldn't risk looking. The sun hadn't set yet, and the slavers had lit their torches, so there was still plenty of light. If he stuck his head out from behind the wall, he'd be seen. He could, however, clearly hear them talking.

      "Looks like we got us a couple of snoops, boys."

      "I got one of 'em, here."

      "Ow! Hey, watch it!"

      Hercules smiled. That was Iolaus's voice.

      "All right, then we- Wait a minute. Where's Stavros?"

      Several people made odd noises, which boiled down to nobody having seen Stavros.

      "All right," the first speaker said. "You three get back over to the stables and keep an eye on the hooves. Kaz, tie up the little twerp up and keep an eye on him. The rest of you, look for the other two." He then described both Hercules and Lilith. "And don't assume they're weak! The girl fights like a demon, and the boy is half god."

      Hercules' mouth fell open as he wondered, How does he know that? And what we look like?

      Then he remembered Strife and Discord on the boat.

      Shaking his head, Hercules put the two gods out of his mind. He'd deal with them later. Right now, he needed to figure out a way to free Iolaus.

~

      Cheiron watched intently as Lilith fought the slaver Nikolos. So far, she had handled herself well. Nikolos was bigger and stronger than she was, but the cadet was a lot faster. And, Cheiron thought with pride, better trained.

      Not only that, but she had finally stopped leaving her left side exposed. Cheiron wondered if he had Kostas to thank for that.

      Lilith was also providing the distraction the centaurs needed. Since capturing them, the slavers had watched all of them very closely, particularly Sinis. with good reason, Cheiron thought sadly. Sinis was a very talented thief. Sinis had been Cheiron's pupil many years earlier. He would have made a fine warrior, but he'd chosen to be an outlaw instead.

      Sinis had almost escaped the slavers once, yesterday. After that, they put double manacles on him.

      The stables had six corrals, so the slavers had put two centaurs in each one. Cheiron had been put in with Sinis. The slavers wouldn't let them talk, but they didn't have to. Cheiron had taught Sinis the language of hand-and-hoof-signals. Centaur warriors had developed this "sign" language long ago, and Cheiron was grateful that Sinis still remembered it.

      He wished he could have taught it at the Academy. Unfortunately, the language required at least two hooves to work.

      In any case, Sinis had said he could get out of his manacles. But in order to do so, the guards had to be distracted. There had been no chance of that before. The slavers had wisely kept at least three guards in the stable at all times. One of them was always looking right at Sinis.

      Now, though, there was only one guard. And just when Cheiron had been trying to come up with a way to distract him, in came Lilith.

      He wondered if any of his other students were here, as well. He imagined Hercules at the very least would be trying to find him. The boy was incapable of not trying to be a hero. That quality could be frustrating at times, but right now Cheiron didn't mind it at all.

      "Did it!" Sinis whispered. His manacles fell to the ground at his feet.

      Cheiron was about to ask the thief to undo his manacles when he saw three more guards enter the stable.

      "Lilith!" he cried out. "Behind you!"

      "Get her!" one of the guards yelled.

      Luckily, the guards were all focused on Lilith. They didn't notice that Sinis was free.

      As the four slavers circled Lilith, Sinis picked the lock on Cheiron's manacles.

      "Free the others," Cheiron said. He rubbed his hands and stamped his hooves, trying to get the blood circulating again.

      Then he opened the corral gate and galloped straight at two of the slavers menacing Lilith. One of them turned around just in time to see Cheiron rear back and kick him in the face. The impact of the kick knocked the slaver into another one. They both fell into a heap on the dirt floor.

      The other two and Lilith were all taken by surprise.

      "The hooves are free!" one of the slavers yelled.

      Lilith recovered quickly. She took advantage of the slavers' shock by kicking one of them in the stomach.

      The one slaver who remained standing suddenly found himself surrounded by five very angry centaurs and one cadet. Out of the corner of his eye Cheiron saw Sinis trotting over to the corrals on the other side of the stable to free the remaining six.

      "Uh - I surrender?" the slaver said, throwing his hands up.

      "Very wise," Cheiron said.

      Within minutes all twelve centaurs were free and all four guards were bound and gagged. Then Lilith remembered the one she'd nailed outside. Two of the centaurs went to fetch him.

      "You didn't come alone, did you?" Cheiron asked.

      "No. Hercules and Iolaus are with me," Lilith said. She filled Cheiron in on what was going on.

      Cheiron was disappointed but not entirely surprised that his people were considering going to war over these abductions - especially considering who started this whole thing.

      "Now it makes sense," he said.

      "What makes sense?" Lilith asked.

      "Ares' involvement."

      "Ares? I thought it was just Strife and Discord."

      Cheiron then told her what he'd heard the slavers say when he was captured.

      Tyldus stepped forward. "We must get back to Corinth. This cannot lead to war."

      "What about Hercules and Iolaus?" Lilith asked.

      Sinis said, "Not to mention the other slavers. I doubt they'll let us just walk off the island."

      "Which raises the point of how we get to Corinth," Cheiron said.

      "The Marina needed its sail repaired," Lilith said. "It'll probably be here soon."

      Laughing, Sinis said, "I doubt the captian and his crew will accept the people who damaged their ship, along with a dozen of us."

      "One step at a time, Sinis," Tyldus snapped. "First we must repay out debt to this young lady and rescue her friends. Then we will see about getting home."

~

      Hercules crouched behind the wall. Only one guy was guarding Iolaus. It was the same guy Iolaus had kicked into the ditch earlier. The slavers' leader called him Kaz. Iolaus had his hands tied behind his back. He was also still covered in mud, of course.

      As Hercules racked his brain trying to come up with a way to stop Kaz without alerting anyone, he heard a noise behind him.

      "Well, well, well," said a voice. "What do we have here?"

      Before Hercules could turn around, a hand was on his shoulder. "Don't move, boy. Elias'll want to talk to you."

      "Tough," Hercules muttered.

      He grabbed the guy's wrist with both hands. Then he skipped and did a forward roll, taking the guy with him.

      "Yow!" the guy yelled as he flipped.

      The guy slammed to the ground on his back. Hercules then rolled over him. Still hanging on to the guy's wrist, he got to his feet. As he did so, he yanked the guy to his feet as well.

      "Hey!" Kaz yelled.

      Planting his feet firmly on the ground, Hercules swung his now-dazed attacker around as if he were a club.

      The guy's feet hit Kaz's jaw with a thud. Kaz fell to the ground in a heap.

      Unfortunately, two more slavers came running in.

      "There he is!"

      "Get him!"

      Well, why waste a good tactic? Hercules thought. He whirled the guy around again. And once again, feed collided with jaw, this time twice over.

      Hercules liked the idea of using his opponents as weapons. Have to remember that, he thought. It was the sort of thing only he, with his strength, could pull off.

      "Nice move, Herc. Now get me outta these ropes, huh?"

      Dropping his human club to the ground, Hercules ran over to Iolaus. "I like the mudpack," he said. "I hear it improves the skin tone." He started to untie Iolaus.

      "Yeah, yeah, yeah," Iolaus muttered. "This is just your way of getting back at me for the ogre thing."

      Grinning, Hercules said, "Now, Iolaus, would I do anything so petty?"

      "Absolutely."

      Hercules finished undoing the ropes.

      Iolaus started rubbing his wrists. "Thanks."

      "How come you couldn't get out of them yourself, Mr. Hotshot Ex-Thief?"

      "I could've. The problem is, the big bruiser over there" - he pointed at Kaz, who was sprawled on the ground - "said that if he saw me so much as move my wrists he'd bust my head."

      "Oh, we're going to do worse than that," said a voice.

      Hercules turned to see six people approaching.

      The one who had spoken said, "My name's Elias."

      "So you're the creep behind all this," Hercules said. He'd been hoping to meet the ring-leader. His fist had an appointment with Elias's face.

      "You've been a lot fo trouble for me, boys. Trashing our supply ship. Hurting my people. But it stops now. You see, I've got friends in high places."

      Hercules laughed. "Who, Strife and Discord? I've handled them before."

      "Actually, I was referring to Ares, god of war."

      Hercules stopped laughing.

      Next to him, Iolaus winced. At least, it seemed as though he winced. It was hard to tell with all the mud. "Ares," he muttered. "I hate that guy."

      I should've known Strife and Discord weren't working alone, Hercules thought. The younger gods' plans tended to be petty and small-scale. A scheme this complex was more Ares' style.

      "Your brother-" Elias started.

      "Half brother," Hercules snapped. He wanted as little connection to the war god as possible.

      Smiling, Elias corrected himself. "Your half brother figured you might be a pain. So he gave me a little help."

      Elias put his fingers in his mouth and whistled.

      A large, four-legged creature came ambling from behind one of the walls. It was as big as a horse, and twice as ugly.

      "Hercules, meet Graegus, Ares' dog of war. He's here to eat you."

      Graegus started moving toward Hercules and Iolaus.

      Iolaus started backing slowly up. "Herc, can we go home now?"

Chapter Twelve

      Months ago Iolaus had been given a choice by the magistrate. The first choice was to do jail time for being a thief. The second was to go to the Academy.

      Since taking the second choice, he had been attacked by a phoenix, the god of war, an Amazon tribe, several giants, a venom-spitting basilisk, a bunch of Bacchae, a wannabe assassin, and Hercules' half brother Lucius. He'd been framed for robbery by the god Strife, held hostage by his old gang, and sucked into the dreamworld.

      Now he was covered in mud, standing in a wrecked castle on an unnamed island in the middle of nowhere, about to be eaten by the dog of war.

      Jail was looking better and better all the time.

      Graegus leaped at Hercules. Iolaus jumped to one side. Herc jumped the other way. Unfortunately, Iolaus sisn't have the chance to see what Herc would do next because Elias and his gang were closing in on him.

      "Graegus'll take care of the demigod," Elias said. "But I think we can handle you, little man."

      "Oh, you think so, huh?" Iolaus said. He hoped he sounded tough. I probably sound like I'm going to cry, he thought.

      "Unless you think you can take us."

      "What makes you think I can't?" Iolaus asked, stalling.

      Elias laughed. "We're slavers, boy. We captured twelve centaurs. You're just a kid covered in mud. What can you do to us by yourself?"

      Iolaus was about to say something. Then he saw a movement behind Elias. When he realized what it was, he grinned.

      "By myself? Well, by myself I couldn't do much of anything. Except maybe get seriously beat up. But then again, you guys didn't really capture twelve centaurs. I mean, not all at once. You took 'em one at a time, right?"

      "Yeah, so?" Elias asked.

      "How do you think you'd do against all twelve of them at the same time?"

      He pointed behind Elias.

      Elias and his men whirled around to see Lilith ant twelve centaurs - twelve very unhappy-looking centaurs. They formed a cemi-circle around the slavers.

      "Gentlemen," Cheiron said calmly, "I would suggest that you surrender. It will be the least painful course for you to take." He smiled. "Though I doubt any of us will mind if you choose to fight."

      Three of the slavers threw up their hands.

      Smart men, Iolaus thought.

      Two of them attacked. "Lousy hooves!" one of them cried, going for Cheiron. As the slaver lunged, Cheiron calmly backhanded the man. The slaver fell to the ground.

      The other went for a younger centaur. This slaver dived for the forelegs. But the centaur saw him coming and reared up on his hind legs. Then he slammed back down, driving his forelegs into the laver's back.

      "Anyone else?" Cheiron asked sweetly.

      "No!"

      "Nuh-uh."

      "We surrender."

      Iolaus grinned even wider. Then he frowned and looked around.

      "Hey," he said, "where's Elias?"

      Then he heard the scream.

~

      Hercules dived to one side as Graegus leaped at him. He rolled and came up on his feet.

      Great, now what? he wondered. Hephaestus had told him about Ares' dog of war. The creature could actually eat human flesh. And the more he ate, the bigger he got.

      Exactly the sort of pet Ares would have, Hercules thought.

      He picked up a big rock from the ground and heaved it at Graegus. It bounced off the dog's head. Graegus shook off the pain, then ran at Hercules.

      Hercules leaped up at the last minute before Graegus's snout hit his face. Planting his hands on Graegus's head, he leapfrogged into the air, twisted around, and then landed on the dog's neck, his legs straddling it as he would a horse's saddle.

      He doesn't even look like a dog, Hercules thought. He looks more like a butt-ugly lizard.

      Graegus reared his head back and tried to shake Hercules off.

      And, Hercules added to himself, he acts more like a spooked horse.

      The dog lowered his head. Graegus's forelegs and paws were flat on the ground. Then he suddenly sprang up, straightening his forelegs and jerking his head back.

      Hercules tried to keep his grip on Graegus's neck. He failed and went flying into one of the walls.

      The wall rocked back and forth in the ground when Hercules hit it. That gave him an idea.

      Graegus tried for another bite. Hercules managed to scamper out of the way and get around to the other side of the wall.

      Then he pushed the wall.

      The fragment was about twice as tall as Hercules and as wide across as Graegus, and it wasn't very secure in the ground.

      At least, Hercules thought as he pushed, not secure if you're stronger than the average mortal.

      Even taking his strength into account, it too even more efford to knock over the wall than it did to throw Petros on the Marina. Hercules thought the muscles in his back would burst. Finally the wall did fall right on top of Graegus, just as the dog of war was about to make another leap.

      Graegus screamed.

      "Nice job, Herc," Iolaus said.

      Hercules looked up to see Iolaus and Lilith walking toward him. Behind them, he saw twelve sentaurs rounding up the slavers. Way to go, Lilith! he thought.

      "Everyone, get back!" he said, holding up his hand. "That wall won't hold Graegus for very long!" Hercules had only a minute to think of something before Graegus threw the slab off his back.

      Then Hercules saw something useful. He hadn't noticed it before, but a chain was attached to Graegus's collar. While the dog struggled to get out from under the wall, Hercules ran over and grabbed the chain. He gave it a sharp tug, and the chain went slack, having been yanked out of whatever it was attached to on the other end.

      Graegus started to get up. The slab of wall shifted on the dog's back.

      Iolaus and Lilith scampered back. The centaurs also kept their distance. Hercules quickly gathered up the chain and proceeded to make a lazzo out of it. The chain shone even in the twilight and was as light as a feather - Hercules recognized Hephaestus's work. Good thing, Hercules thought. I wouldn't be able to do this with ordinary chain.

      Graegus finally managed to shrug the slab off his back. The slab went flying, landing on the spot where Iolaus and Lilith had been standing only a few moments before.

      Hercules found another large rock and heaved it at Graegus's head. It knocked the dog over onto his side. Graegus would be back on his paws in a moment - but Hercules needed only a moment. He grabbed the improvised lasso, whirled it in the air over his head, and then threw it at Graegus's legs. Then he pulled the lasso tight.

      The chain tightened around Graegus's four legs. Suddenly, the creature found that it couldn't get up.

      Hercules looked around quickly. He found a column that looked to be fairly well dug into the ground. At least I hope it is, he thought as he dragged Graegus over to it.

      He wrapped the other end of the chain around the column, then knotted it.

      All the while Graegus suggled to move, but to no avail. The chains would not budge. Hephaestus did good work.

      "I believe that Graegus now knows how we felt," a young centaur said.

      "Yeah, well, I just wish I was doing this to the owner and not the pet," Hercules said. "I can't believe that even Ares would do something like this."

      "It is his way," Cheiron said. "Regardless, Hercules, you should all be proud of what you've accomplished today."

      "We'd be even prouder if we actually stopped the war," Iolaus said. "Which means we need to get our proud selves back to the palace."

      "Jason is meeting with a centaur envoy," Hercules explained. "If we can get back there while the envoy's still around, we can prevent the war."

      "That may be a problem," the young centaur said. "The boat that brought us here is gone. How did you three get here?"

      Hercules noticed the symbol on the centaur's vest. If he remembered correctly, that meant he was next in line to lead the centaurs.

      "A lifeboat," Hercules said, shaking his head. "It barely held the three of us, much less fifteen." Frowning, he took a quick head count. He saw only eight centaurs. "Where are the rest of you?"

      "Rectorus and Marthan are searching for Elias. Amius and Lukos are tying up the remaining slavers."

      Hercules' heart sank. "Elias escaped?"

      "They'll find him," the young centaur said.

      "Nevertheless, Tyldus," Cheiron said to the centaur, "we still have the problem of getting off this island."

      "What about the Marina?" Hercules said. "It's the supply ship we, uh, borrowed the lifeboat from. It had a ripped sail and a busted wheelhouse, but it'll probably be here soon."

      "Yeah, but Captain Gilmanides and his crew were helping the bad guys," Iolaus said. "And they're supposed to go to Egypt with all that metal you loaded."

      Cheiron looked at Hercules. There was a question in his gaze, but Hercules just said, "I'll have explain later."

      Tyldus smiled. "Don't worry. I'm pretty sure I can convince this Captain Gilmanides that our need is great."

      "Yeah," Lilith said, "but can they take a dozen centaurs, the three of us, and the slavers?"

      "The slavers will not be joining us," Tyldus said, no longer smiling. "They can stay here and rot. Fitting punishment for their crimes."

      Lilith was about to say something, but Hercules gestured and shook his head. Henotices Cheiron doing the same. Jason could always send another ship to pick up the slavers sot hey could stand trial.

      "Even so," Lilith said after a moment, "The ship isn't that big."

      "Well, it'll only need to take eleven centaurs," one of them said. "I'm not going back so that you can arrest me, Tyldus."

      "Sinis, don't be a fool," Cheiron said. "You can't remain here with these people - not to mention Graegus. What if he gets free?

      Sinis smiled. "So instead I trade Elias's chains for Tyldus's? No, thanks, Cheiron."

      Hercules was confused. cheiron must have need that on his face, because the centaur said, "Sinis here is a thief. He also," he told Tyldus, "is as much responsible for our being free as my cadets."

      Tyldus shook his head. "You don't need to plead his case, Cheiron. I know how useful he was." Tyldus looked at Sinis. "you have my word that you will be free to do as you please once we reach Corinth."

      Sinis smiled. "Good. I didn't really want to stay here. Besides, I have an appointment in Corinth. Some boy named Autolycus wants to learn how to pick locks. If I'm lucky, he hasn't given up on me."

      "Tyldus!" a voice cried. Hercules turned to see two centaurs galloping toward them. They both looked out of breath.

      "What is it?" Tyldus asked.

      "We lost Elias," One of the centaurs said.

      "What?" Hercules cried.

      "How did this happen, Rectorus?"

      "We followed his trail to the beach," Rectorus said between gasps. "we saw an indentation in the sand. It probably came from a rowboat being dragged out to sea. That's where the trail ends."

      Iolaus looked as outraged as he could while covered in mud. "That creep! That was out lifeboat! We stole it fair and square!"

      "Wait a minute," Hercules said. "He's out there rowing by himself with no supplies? It'll be night pretty soon. He's out of his mind."

      Cheiron smiled. "Perhaps he thinks Ares will watch over him."

      Hercules snorted. His half brother didn't exactly like it when his lackeys messed up.

      "However," the other centaur, whom Hercules figured was Marthan, said, "we did see a ship approaching."

      That's probably the Marina," Hercules said.

      "Come, then," Tyldus said with a smile. "Let us convince its captain that he should change course."

Chapter Thirteen

      "Your Highness, this is a surprise."

      Jason had to admit, he was glad to hear Makhunni say that. He had been hoping that the envoy would be surprised when he appeared at the centaurs' camp outside the palace. Jason had brought no guards with him - over Balian's loud objecton - not any other advisors, not even Ophistus, who had objected even louder than Balian. Just one little prince, he thought, and once last desperate shot.

      Jason had spent all day and night asking for reports and putting pressure on the army and dock patrol, but with no success. there had been no word from Hercules, either. Jason hadn't slept a wink. He wanted to do something, but he had to stay in the palace so he could get more reports that all boiled down to "nothing to report."

      The only thing left for him to do - besides sit and wait, which he hated - was to take one last try at Makhunni before the Centaur Nation declared war.

      "I've come to ask you to reconsider, Makunni," Jason said simply.

      "Have your people found our captured brothers?"

      Jason took a breath. "No."

      "Is it now morning?"

      "Yes."

      "The very morning by which you said you would make good on your word, as you put it, and find them?"

      "Yes, but-"

      "But nothing, Your Highness. Out of respect for you and Cheiron, I gave you an extra day. That day has come and gone. Unless you can give me one good reason why not, the Centaur Nation will go to war on your kingdom today."

      Jason was about to say something when he heard a rumble. It sounded like a stampede of horses.

      He looked past Makhunni, who had also noticed the sound and followed Jason's gaze.

      The prince didn't see anything at first. Then a beautiful sight came over the ridge: Centaurs, galloping quickly towards the palace, with Cheiron at the forefront.

      Breaking into a huge grin, Jason said, "I'll give you a dozen good reasons, Makhunni."

      Jason counted only eleven centaurs, but saw that three of them had riders - Hercules, Iolaus, and Lilith. Yes! he thought. they did it! I knew they could!

      A younger centaur took the lead, coming right up to Jason and Makhunni.

      "Makhunni," the young one said. "I should have known Father would send you to avenge me."

      For only the second time Jason saw Makhunni smile. A real smile, not the snide one he'd been using.

      "It is good to see you, Tyldus," Makhunni said.

      "Well, you wouldn't have if not for these three cadets of Cheiron's. They averted the god of war's plans."

      "Ares?" Makhunni said, his eyes growing wide.

      Tyldus nodded. "This was all his doing."

      Jason shook his head, thinking, I should have known Herc's family would be in on this.

      As Hercules climbed off his back, Cheiron said, "Tyldus, this is Prince Jason of Corinth. Jason, this is Tyldus, the son of our war chief. Also his heir."

      Jason reached up and clasped Tyldus's wrist in a warrior's handshake. "It's an honor to meet you, sir." He smiled. "And kind of a relief, too."

      "For me, also, my friend," Tyldus said.

      Turning to his fellow cadets, who had all dismounted, Jason said, "and, boy, am I glad to see you three. But, uh, next time don't cut it so close, huh?"

      "We'll work on it," Hercules said with a laugh.

      "You're lucky we got here at all," Iolaus said. "You ever try to convince a ship captain to change course and delay a shipment? All so he can help the people who ripped his sail, broke his wheelhouse, and stole his lifeboat? And take twelve cranky centaurs on a small boat?"

      "Uh, can't say as I have, no," Jason said with a chuckle.

      "It's a lot easier," Lilith said, "when those cranky centaurs are threatening to turn your boat into kindling."

      "Good point," Jason said. Then he noticed how messed up his friends' clothes were. "What did you guys do, swim in a muddy ditch?"

      "Don't even ask," Iolaus said.

      "This is nothing," Hercules said with a smile. "You should've seen us before we cleaned up."

      Jason opened his mouth, then closed it. "you're right, I won't even ask."

      "Very smart," Hercules said.

      Makhunni said to Tyldus, "I notice that Sinis is not among you. Did he escape?"

      "No, I let him go," Tyldus said. He held up a hand before Makhunni could react. "I know, Father will be a little upset when he finds out, and I'll deal with that. But Sinis is as much a hero in this little adventure as these three cadets."

      "Four cadets," Makhunni said. "Prince Jason argued very well for peace."

      Cheiron smiled. "I knew he would."

      Jason hoped he wasn't blushing. "The centaur envoy is kind. But the fact of the matter is, I was making it up as I went along."

      Cheiron's smile grew wider. "Congratulations, Jason. You have just learned the first lesson of diplomacy."

      The prince laughed. He wondered what Ophistus would have to say to that. Oh, who cares? he thought. The point is, we got a happy ending all around.

      "Hercules," Tyldus said, "on behalf of my people, I thank you. You will always be considered a hero to the Centaur Nation."

      Iolaus, who was now standing next to Jason, whispered, "Oh, sure, the big guy gets all the credit."

      "Thank you," Hercules said, "But it was the least I could do."

      "Well," Jason said, "I don't know about the rest of you, but I think this calls for a celebration. And since this is my palace, what I think, goes."

      Iolaus broke into a grin. "does this mean what I think it means?"

      Jason matched the grin. "That's right, buddy. Party at my place!"

~

      The god of war was not happy.

      The day had started out badly enough. A nice little war was browing in Zykanthos. Emphasis on was. Athena has stopped it, just because some grubby farmers went to a temple and asked her to. Ares had been furious, but Athena was Daddy's little girl, and Zeus wouldn't even think of reversing her decision.

      Then Ares checked on Elias and his slavers. He found them tied up on the island. Even Graegus was bound. so he changed the image in the scrying pool to the palace at Corinth. He saw a celebration that included both centaurs and humans.

      And right in the middle of it? Hercules.

      Ares couldn't believe it. If he hadn't spent so much time arguing with Athena and Zeus, he might have been able to stop baby brother from sticking his tiresome little nose into Ares' affairs. Looks like the Fates have decided to have all of Dad's favorite kids messing up my life today, Ares thought angrily.

      "My lord!" said an out-of-breath voice.

      Ares turned around to see a familiar form run into his temple.

      "Elias! How absolutely miserable it is to see you!"

      "Well, you see, my lord, I-"

      Holding up a hand, Ares said, "Don't even bother, Elias. I know what happened."

      Cringing, Elias said, "You do?"

      "Yes. I know that my tiresome little half brother and his friends got onto the island, freed the centaurs, defeated my dog of war, defeated your little bunch of slavers, and sent you off with your tail between your legs."

      "I am sorry, my lord. Your plan would've worked if it hadn't been for those meddling kids."

      "And you know, Elias," Ares said, putting his arm around the slaver's shoulder, "I have to wonder why you ran away. I mean, why did you leave your comrades behind?"

      Sweat was beading on Elias's forehead. "Well, you see, my lord, I wanted to inform you of what had happened, myself."

      In a tone a mortal would use with a six-year-old, Ares said, "Elias, I'm the god of war. You are a piddling little mortal. You can't possibly know something I don't."

      "Well, you see, my lord-"

      "You know what I think?" Ares asked in a light voice.

      "No, my lord."

      "I think you ran away because you didn't want to face the music. You didn't want to deal with either the centaurs or the Corinthians. You said to yourself, 'Self, I should run to Ares. Ares will help me. Ares is my friend.'"

      "Well, you see, my lord-"

      "Elias, if you say 'Well, you see, my lord' one more time, I'm going to use your bones for toothpicks."

      "Yes, my lord. Sorry, my lord."

      "The mistake you've made, Elias, is in thinking I'm your friend."

      "I don't think that, my lord!" The sweat on Elias's forehead was now dripping. "I merely thought I could throw myself on your mercy."

      "My mercy?"

      All pretense of politeness fled Ares. He removed his arm from Elias's shoulder and turned to face the little toad.

      "You're throwing yourself on my mercy?"

      "Well, you see, my lord-"

      Ares gestured. Elias went flying backward into the marble wall of the temple.

      "Do you remember what I said to you when we started this little wingding, Elias? Let me remind you. I said, 'don't mess up. I have a problem with lackeys who mess up.'"

      "Y-you did say that, my lord," Elias said. He wiped some of the sweat from his forehead.

      "Do you know what you said in response?" Ares asked.

      Before Elias could answer, Ares gestured. Power erupted from his hands and wrapped itself around the slaver. Elias cried out in pain as he was lifted into the air. "My lord, please!"

      "You said, 'You can count on me, my lord.' Well, I counted on you to start a war between Corinth and the Centaur Nation. Instead, Corinth and the Centaur Nation are having a party. This is not improving my mood, Elias."

      "I'm sorry, my lord!"

      Ares shook his head. Then he lowered his hand. Elias fell to the floor in a heap.

      "You haven't even begun to be sorry." Turning his back on the slaver, he called out, "Strife! Discord!"

      The two younger gods appeared before him.

      "Yeah, Unc?"

      "What is it?"

      "How did this happen?" He pointed to the scrying pool. It still showed Hercules, Jason, and the centaurs partying hearty.

      "Uh, well, maybe it's somebody's birthday?" Strife said.

      Ares snapped his fingers, and Strife went careening into the wall. He fell into a heap next to the whimpering Elias.

      "I'll try this again. How did this happen?"

      Discord shrugged. "How should I know? You told us to get out of your sight. So we got out of your sight."

      The war god put his head in his hands. "I don't believe this. For the first time in your lives, the two fo you actually listen to me, and it had to be now?"

      Again, Discord shrugged. "We figured you had everything under control. Besides, I've been brewing up something nasty in Thessaly."

      Ares blinked. "Thessaly?"

      "Mmm. At first I thought it was just some family feud. I fed the fires a little bit. But now it looks like it may lead to a nice, bloody civil war."

      Discord smiled. Ares smiled back.

      "You always did know how to cheer me up, Discord. Let's take a look at this nice, bloody civil war."

      "Uh, my lord?" Elias said in a tiny voice. "What about me?"

      Ares sighed. He'd forgotten about the slaver.

      "Well," the god of war said, "I'd say it's only a matter of time before the Corinthians find your home and arrest you. My advice to you would be to move."

      "So that's it?" Strife said, getting up. "What about Geek-ules?"

      "What about him? We're immortal, Strife. There's plenty of time to nail my dear half brother's hide to the wall. and there are always more wars." He broke into a grin. "That's the great thing about this job." He turned to Discord. "To Thessaly, sister."

      Discord smiled, and they both disappeared.

~

      Hercules sat in a corner of the reception room of Jason's palace. He drank from a rhyton full of goosenberry juice. The party was finally starting to wind down. It had been going on all day. It's amazing, he thought. Yesterday the centaurs were ready to go to war with Corinth. Now Jason and Tyldus are talking about alliances and treaties.

      Ares, he thought, would have a fit if he could see this. The thought gave Hercules a warm and fuzzy feeling.

      "So there you are, godling," said a familair voice.

      Fear gripped the son of Zeus's heart. He turned to see a scarred, tanned, bearded face. "Kostas."

      "The last time I saw you, I specifically told you not to go off on your own to try to rescue Cheiron."

      Nervously Hercules said, "Uh, yeah, that's true, sir, you did."

      "What do you have to say for yourself?"

      "Well, I, uh, I didn't go off on my own. Iolaus and Lilith came with me."

      "Who also were not allowed off Academy grounds."

      Figiting with the rhyton, Hercules said, "Well, yeah, but-"

      "If it were up to me, godling, you and your two friends would be expelled from the Academy."

      "Yes, sir, I'm sure."

      "And, in fact, that will be my recommendation. However, it isn't up to me. It's up to Cheiron."

      Then Kostas actually smiled. Unlike the ugly smile he had used on Jason the other day, this was a real one. "And the reason why it's up to Cheiron is because you rescued him."

      "I-" Hercules hesitated. He didn't know what to say.

      "Ten years ago, during the war we fought with the centaurs against Sparta, Cheiron saved my life. He also saved the life of my wife and child."

      That surprised Hercules. He hadn't pictured Kostas as the marrying type, nor as a father.

      "I owe him more than I can ever repay," Kostas continued. "And I will always be grateful to you for disobeying me to save him."

      He reached out his hand. Surprised and pleased, Hercules grasped the old soldier's wrist.

      "You have the makings of a decent warrior, Hercules. But I think you have a much better shot at being a great man. Don't lose sight of one because of the other. If you do, you might wind up like me."

      Without thinking, Hercules said, "Well, I wouldn't want that."

      Kostas actually laughed.

      "Of course, now that cheiron's back, I can head home."

      "Are you going to hire a boat?"

      "No need. I've got one of my own. Small cargo carrier. That reminds me, I'm taking some supplies. I'll need some help loading. I don't suppose you know anyone who does that sort of thing?"

      Hercules grinned, "No, but I hear Iolaus is good friends with an ogre."