Young Hercules (Novelization) Transcript

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Young Hercules (Novelization)

Young Hercules
A novelization by Mel Odom.
Based on the teleplay by Andrew Dettman & Daniel Truly.
Story by Rob Tapert and Andrew Dettman & Daniel Truly.

Copyright 1999 by Studios USA Television Distribution LLC.

Chapter One

      Hercules hooked his fingertips over the thin lip of rock above him and pulled himself up a little farther. During the last hundred feet, the climb up the mountain had been a matter of inches. Wind blew over him, cooling him as he sweated from his struggle. His arms, back, and legs ached from the strain. Anyone normal, he knew, would have given up a long time ago. But he wasn't normal. He was the son of Zeus, a half-god, and he had things to prove.

      He found a toehold and shoved his boot against it, pushing himself up another few inches. He pulled with his fingers again. The rock crumbled under his fingertips, and he started to fall.

      And me without the wings of Icarus!

      Frantically, Hercules swung for another grip. He slid his fingers into a narrow fissure on the mountain's face. The rough stone bit into his flesh, but he hoped it would hold.

      C'mon, c'mon!

      The fissure held, even though a cascade of small pebbles tumbled over him. His feet slipped. Now he was dangling from one arm. The coiled rope on his shoulder brushed against his cheek, and the backpack slammed against his spine. He took a deep breath and, without thinking, looked down. His stomach rolled.

      Big mistake, he realized. Looking down is always a big mistake.

      The highest trees of the forest were hundreds of feet down now. Birds flew well below him. Hercules grinned, remembering that no one from his village had ever climbed the mountain because it was so dangerous. That alone might have interested him in the climb at some point. But today he was here for another reason.

      Hercules took a deep breath and looked back up. Okay, no more looking down. He scanned the harsh rock for another handhold above him and found it. He hooked his fingers into it and started up again.

      Finally, after long moments and summoning patience he usually didn't have, Hercules reached the top of the cliff. He caught his breath, then walked to the ragged edge and peered over. Up where he stood, Hercules felt he was more on an equal footing with the sky than with the forest far below.

      Man, that's a lot farther down than it looked up from below, he thought. When he had looked up at the mountain, he'd been concerned, wondering if he could manage the climb. Now the distance seemed even more impossible.

      But, by the gods, it's going to make a great story, isn't it? Hercules grinned and stretched his fingers, working the kinks out of them.

      He walked to the other side of the mountain. The drop raced down a surface that was almost as straight as a stone mason's ax cut. No one, not even he with his incredible strength, could climb down that. But that was where he had to go. That was where the legends said the cave would be.

      A silvery glimmer of the river that ran through the mountain snaked between the trees and bushes below. The legends had all agreed that the river sprang from the Cave of Ares. The cave cut into the base of the mountain on this side, and no human had ever entered it.

      No human or half-human. But that's going to change today. Hercules grinned. Getting into the cave was only part of the challenge that had brought him here.

      He'd first learned about the cave from a traveling merchant who had come to the village bazaar nearly a month ago. Local legend labeled the cave as forbidden to mortals, a place where the god of war had stashed fortunes and trophies he'd taken in battle.

      Hercules had come to the mountain seeking one of those trophies: an urn that had reportedly belonged to Zeus. My father. He'd found mention of it in the temple documents he'd searched after hearing the story. Ares hadn't taken all of his trophies fairly, and Hercules felt certain the urn had been one of those. No way could he let Ares take something from Zeus. Hercules had decided to journey to the cave to get the urn. Hercules intended to give it back to one of the priests at the temple of Zeus.

      Okay, time to get this done. It's not going to get any easier, and erosion takes too long.

      Hercules dropped the heavy coil of rope from his shoulder. Carrying the rope up the cliff had been hard, but getting to the cave below was impossible without it. Sweat from his exertions covered him. His leg and back muscles quivered with fatigue. But excitement filled him.

      At eighteen years old, Hercules stood tall and lean, but he still had his full growth ahead of him. His skin was bronze from the summer sun, and his hair blond. He wore a sleeveless leather shirt and leather pants, and leather bracers covered his forearms from his wrists nearly to his elbow. Old Chadduz the cobbler had made his knee-high boots, a gift from his mother on his last birthday.

      Working quickly, growing more excited about the adventure, Hercules tied one end of the rope around a thick tree. Then he wrapped a piece of blanket around his ankles and tied the other end of the rope over it. He let out a breath and threw the rope's slack into the yawning abyss, then watched as it unfurled to its full length.

      Breathing evenly, trying to relax, Hercules inched to the cliff's edge. The wind plucked at him with breezy talons, blowing hard enough to almost knock him off balance. He stood his ground and gazed down at the leafy canopy. He'd carefully measured the rope, but he didn't know if it was the right length.

      At least, not until after I take this jump.

      The rope trick was something he'd learned from a traveling acrobat troupe that had come through the village after the spring rains had passed. If he had measured the distance properly and if the rope held, he thought the jump would work. Of course, he wouldn't know for sure until he did it.

      He reached over his shoulder and took the oil-soaked torch from the pouch on his back. He slammed the torch head against the rock shelf at his feet. Sparks flared, then fire wreathed the head of the torch.

      Holding the torch tightly, Hercules leaped, throwing himself out from the cliff and falling headfirst in a swan dive. He fell so fast the wind ripped through his hair, but the flame stubbornly clung to the torch.

      He plummeted and spotted the silvery gleam of the river below. The ground came up quickly. At the bottom of the river he saw broken and scorched skeletons lying scattered in all directions, like toys abandoned by a careless child.

      Hercules kept falling, his eyes drawn to the empty sockets of a skull lying face up. How long does it take to become a skeleton in those waters? He really didn't want to know, but the thought filled his mind. He waved his arms, trying to stay in control of the dive. Too much flailing, though, and he'd smack into the mountainside and maybe rip himself to shreds. Small pieces probably reduce to bone even faster. The crackle of the torch's flame struggling to stay lit popped in his ears. He saw his image reflected in the River of Skulls, growing larger and larger, and for a moment he didn't think he was going to stop, thought maybe he'd measured the rope too long and he was going to plunge right into that deadly river.

      Then the rope snugged tight, pulling his ankles together hard enough to hurt even through the padding of the blanket. Briefly, he thought his legs had pulled from their sockets. His sudden stop only inches above the river's surface also made him lose his grip on the torch.

      The flaming brand dropped into the river. A small, fiery explosion puffed up when it touched the water. Hercules already knew the water held a strong acid. That explained how the bones of the dead had acquired their burned, crusty look.

      Now, that'll keep out the tourists, Hercules thought. He ignored the loss of the torch and twisted his body until he could see into the mouth of the cave at the base of the mountain. The entrance was more than ten feet high, and forbidding looking. Weak yellow light came from inside, intriguing him even further, but darkness swallowed the distance. Hercules' sense of adventure flared, overcoming his wariness of the acidic water. He was so near the prize he'd come to claim.

      Slogging through the River of Skulls wasn't a good plan, he knew. Even if he didn't get killed, he'd be badly burned and in no shape to climb back up the rope. Hanging upside down, Hercules glanced at the jagged edges of the cave's mouth, then started swinging.

      When he swung high enough toward the cave, he jammed his fingers against the nearest ragged edge of rock, scrabbling for a hold. Pebbles and rock chips flew, tumbling into the River of Skulls. Hisses and smoke boiled up from the rocks as moss burned away from them.

      Hercules swung again, feeling the rope slip just a little. He thought about the way the swinging was rubbing the rope against the rock above. Not good. He flailed again and managed to lock his fingers on a rough ridge above the cave mouth. He reached back with his free hand and untied the rope from his ankles. Holding onto the ridge, he dropped, twisting to land on his feet with a thump that echoed into the throat of the cave.

      The rope drifted back to hang over the river of burned bones.

      Cautiously, Hercules walked into the cave, drawn by the weak, flickering light. The cave was damp and cool, and it smelled like old death. His nose wrinkled in disgust, but he kept moving. Even walking quietly, he heard his steps echo.

      He followed the twists and turns of the cave's tunnel. Ahead of him flaming torches sat on top of carved stone columns lining both walls of the tunnel. The floor was littered with decaying skeletons.

      Halting, Hercules studied the burning torches. They stood at shoulder height to him, the flames wavering in the small breeze wafting through the cave. He knew they weren't normal torches. Normal torches would need replacing. Hercules didn't think Ares trusted anyone to take care of the torches.

      Hercules looked back the way he'd come. Only his footprints marred the dust that covered the smooth stones of the floor. No one had been through the tunnel in years.

      Crouching, he gathered a handful of dust and looked at the torches again. He knew that the gods didn't leave their trophies and personal belongings unguarded.

      Hercules blew gently on the dust in his hand, guiding a cloud of it between the first pair of stone columns. When the dust gusted between the columns it revealed lines of light burning between them. Hercules knew the lights had to be trip wires for whatever trap lay just ahead.

      He stood, then swung his fist through one of the lights. Immediately, a jet of flame leaped from the stone column, blossoming into a fireball three times the size of his head. Flames shot from the other columns as well, spraying again and again. The heat washed over him, hot enough to sear.

      That's not good. Hercules glanced around. He didn't intend to give up now. The flame jets had a rhythm between blazes. All he had to do was find a way through them.

      The bright flames ripped away the shadows near him, revealing discarded weapons and armor on the floor. A rectangular shield drew his eye.

      He picked up the shield and shook it free of dirt and grit. The arm straps looked strong enough and the padding behind the shield face looked thick enough to block some of the heat.

      If that doesn't work - fssst! Flash-fried to a crackly crunch.

      Picking up the shield in both hands, Hercules counted down the timing of the fiery bursts. When he was ready, he moved forward with all his speed and lifted the shield to block the jet of flame. Fire struck the shield, curling over the sides. None of it touched him.

      He took another step and whirled, getting the shield up just in time to keep from getting crisped by the second stone column. There was no time to think as he moved on to the third column, and the whirling dance with death continued.

      He kept moving, losing count of how many times he blocked the flames. The shield grew steadily hotter in his grip. He didn't get the shield up quite in time on the next one, and his hand got singed. He stopped the impulse to dodge away too quickly and concentrated on regaining the rhythm.

      Covered with sweat and breathing hard, he burst free of the last stone column. Gratefully, he tossed the overheated shield to the stone floor.

      Should have brought marshmallows, he told himself. He meant the thought to bolster his own courage, but it didn't help as much as he'd hoped. He took a deep breath of the cool air. The flames continued to blaze brightly behind him as he stepped deeper into the tunnel. No matter what lay ahead, he wasn't turning back.

~

      The sky burned red and orange over the battlefield where men and horses lay dying. Smashed battle chariots added to the carnage. Carrion birds had gathered, gliding patiently on the slow winds above.

      Ares looked out over the scene in satisfaction. Despite having taken part in the battle himself, he still looked fresh. It was one of the perks of being the god of war.

      He sat astride a heavy warhorse, watching as soldiers under his control chained a few pitiful moaning survivors to the wheels of overturned war chariots. It's always good to have a few prisoners left over to torture, Ares thought. A cruel smile touched his lips. He was tall, broad across the chest, every inch a warrior born. His hair was thick and black, and a neatly trimmed beard set off the high planes of his rough-hewn face. His creased leather armor had seen years of hard usage.

      The captured men groaned in pain as Ares' warriors secured them to the chariot wheels, and the sound was music to Ares' ears. Being a god meant making mortals suffer. Otherwise, where was the fun of godhood?

      A horse's hooves clomping against the hard-packed earth of the battlefield behind him drew his attention. He turned to look at the rider.

      She wore studded leather armor and heavy pants. Her long black hair trailed down her back, and excitement flushed her beautiful face.

      Ares returned her smile, then looked past her at the city of Corinth. Black smoke curled up from the city. Some of the battle had spilled over its walls before he'd marshaled his army and shoved the opposing forces back again. The damage left broken men, chariots, and structures scattered across the ground. Corinth and its king had become one of his pet projects, something to while away the boredom that was the curse of immortality.

      "Discord," Ares called out in greeting. "How's King Aeson doing?"

      "He grows weaker and weaker," Discord replied. A pleading note entered her voice. "Let me finish him off, Ares. Please. I haven't killed a monarch in centuries."

      Ares shook his head, amused by her wheedling. "No, sister. We need him alive a tad longer." He pointed to one of the men chained to a chariot wheel. "Care to spin a wheel?"

      Discord frowned, showing her disappointment. "Maybe later. There's other news - about our half brother Hercules."

      Ares glanced at her sharply. Hercules had been a sore point for a long time. "Father's half-mortal mistake? Haven't given him a thought in years. Still in diapers? Playing in his sandbox?"

      Discord's malicious grin told him she didn't buy his lack of interest. They knew each other too well for that. "He plays in your temple, even as we speak."

      Ares didn't ask how his sister got her information. She was always snooping somewhere, hatching schemes of her own. Most people couldn't hide things from her. He remained calm. "Hmmm. He's probably after that urn I stole from Zeus. The little runt is trying to score points with Dad." It was the only thing among all the valuables Ares had that might capture Hercules' attention.

      "He's not so little these days," Discord replied with a taunt in her voice. "He's eighteen now. Tall, exceptionally strong, and quite handsome." She licked her lips in anticipation. "Let me go rip his face off."

      Ares shook his head, drawing a small dagger and twirling it idly in his fingers. "No need. He can enter the cave, but he'll never exit. Remember - I designed it!"

Chapter Two

      Hercules stared at the treasures scattered around the main chamber of the cave. Light from torches cut through the darkness. A king's ransom sat everywhere he looked. He'd never seen anything like it.

      Now, that's what I call a treasure trove!

      Gold and silver statues and figurines, as well as ingots and coins, poured across the floor. Precious gems shone bloodred, deep sea blue, tiger's-eye green, and amber yellow. Crowns and scepters in dozens of different shapes were casually tossed about.

      Ares obviously doesn't care much about the trophies he's collected, Hercules thought. Looks like he doesn't even visit. All that matters to him is acquiring them. As Hercules looked at them, he wondered how many battles, wars, and lives the treasures represented.

      Hercules walked into the room cautiously, looking for any further traps. Ares had kept the journey to the main chamber interesting, and if Hercules had been slower or weaker, he'd have been dead already. A mortal man would have died in minutes. But then, a mortal man wouldn't have trespassed in Ares' temple. Hercules grinned, enjoying his triumph.

      Hercules felt pretty good about defeating his half-brother's traps. Not only had Zeus spurned Hercules, but none of his half brothers of half sisters from Mount Olympus had shown an interest in him either. Well, Zeus is going to have to acknowledge me when I return the urn to his temple. Nobody else has bothered to try to return it.

      Smoke from the torches curled up and pooled against the ceiling. Hercules walked on into the room, past mounds of gold and silver. As he looked at the amount of treasure the cave contained, he got worried. Finding Zeus's urn in the middle of all the confusion was going to be a lot harder than he'd thought.

      Then a sparkle of dark green and silver attracted his attention. He turned toward it, spotting an urn placed in a position of importance on top of an altar.

      He walked past ivory tusks and a collection of gold bowls and pitchers to stand in front of the urn. The altar the urn sat on caught the light. Hercules looked up from the urn to the huge snake head at the top of the altar. The white marble snake looked fierce and evil. Only its head and part of its neck were visible; the rest of it lay hidden behind the wall.

      The altar was creepy, but Hercules forced himself forward. He stared at the urn, seeing through the dark green glass. Another snake was rendered in the bright silver of the urn's cap. The hooded snake was poised, ready to strike.

      Standing in front of the urn within easy arm's reach, Hercules laced his fingers and cracked his knuckles. He smiled and told himself, Zeus has to notice me now. I'm going to be the one to return the urn to him.

      He reached for the urn. The glass felt cool and smooth. He lifted it from the wrought-iron perch that held it and gazed more deeply into its depths. He saw nothing at all and couldn't imagine why Zeus would want something like it.

      Was the urn always empty? The temple records had mentioned that the urn held something but hadn't said what.

      Breathing a sigh of relief, Hercules turned and retraced his steps. Guess I beat Ares' security system. He grinned, then lost the grin when a low hissing noise came from behind him.

      Slowly, he turned to face the altar.

      The snake's huge eyes burned with ruby fire. The black tongue lunged out, stopping only inches short of Hercules. In the next heartbeat, the snake broke free of the marble skin that encased it. The creature rose up tall, nearly to the top of the huge cavern. Hisses echoed all over the treasure vault.

      That's a big snake, Hercules thought.

      With the sound of scales shushing over stone, the snake sped free of the wall, striking at Hercules. Its mouth gaped open wide enough to swallow him, and there were plenty of fangs to help him go down easier.

      Oh, man! Hercules jumped to one side, barely avoiding the snake. He clapped a hand on top of the urn, holding it shut. Even though it looked empty, he didn't want the urn's lid to come off. There was no telling what Zeus might have stored inside the urn that mortal eyes couldn't see. Or even half-mortal ones.

      Landing on his side from the jump, Hercules rolled to his feet as the snake went past. He didn't know if the guardian creature was twenty, thirty, or forty feet long, but it was easily the biggest thing he'd ever seen. He took out a black cloth pouch from the backpack, stuffed the urn inside the pouch, and pulled the drawstrings tight.

      The snake coiled around, knocking over treasures and scattering gold and silver coins in all directions. It set its sights on its prey, then struck again.

      Hercules turned and ran. A hollow boom thundered through the room. He thought at first the snake had knocked something over. Then he noticed a stone door had slammed shut on the corridor he'd come through. He looked around the room, spotting three other doors.

      Okay, Door Number One, Door Number Two, or Door Number Three?

      All the doors were closing in rapid succession.

      Throwing himself to the left, Hercules avoided the snake again, then ran for the door that was still most open. Halfway closed already, the door continued closing quickly. In desperation, Hercules threw himself down and forward.

      The dust coating the stone floor made it as slick as he'd hoped, allowing him to glide across the surface as thought it was ice. He skidded under the door, flattening himself. He gripped the bag with the urn tightly, watching the closing door miss him by inches as he slid under.

      Before the door closed completely, Hercules saw the snake stop short. Its black eyes stared at him, dark hunger gleaming in their depths.

      Reading the menu?

      Then the door thumped closed.

      Breathing a sigh of relief, Hercules looked at the stone door and smiled. Well, it'll bash out what little brains it has before it gets through there. That's gotta hurt.

      Confident, he started to get to his feet - then froze as a huge spiked metal ball swung at him out of the shadows covering the opposite wall. He had no time to move. Instinctively, he released the bag and put his hands out in front of him. He narrowly missed getting sliced and diced by the razor-edged spikes on the ball as he caught it.

      But that would have hurt even more than banging your head against a wall, Hercules told himself. He pushed the iron ball back, and it slammed into the wall, burying the spikes and sticking there.

      Shoving himself to his feet, he grabbed the bag. A flight of stairs led up, and he figured anything up was good. He ran, listening to the snake thud against the door again and again.

      Oops! He spotted the trip switch at the top of the staircase too late to stop. The steps folded, lying flat and creating a slide. Off balance, Hercules rolled and tumbled to the foot of the staircase.

      Dazed, he shook himself and got to his feet again. He noticed that the snake's next thud took longer to happen than the last. It's almost knocked itself out, he thought. That's gotta be it. Right?

      Then it came again, the thump immediately sounded different, followed by the crack of mortar and the crash of falling stone. Or maybe it was just getting a better swing.

      Hercules looked back and saw the snake crashing through. The creature smashed into his chest, knocking him back into the stairs. He hit the stairs hard enough to knock the wind out of him. Before he could move, the stair steps righted themselves, becoming a stairway again.

      Move! Move!

      The snake drew back to strike again. As its head came forward, Hercules slammed the bag into the side of the snake's head. He figured anything belonging to Zeus could handle one small - okay, big - snake. He swung the urn against the snake's jaw again, putting all his strength into it.

      The snake took a second to recover while Hercules got to his feet. Cocking his head to one side, the snake fixed him with its hateful glare. It hissed and opened its fanged mouth.

      Man, I've seen smaller doorways!

      Before it could strike again, Hercules sprinted up the staircase. At the top, he dashed to the right, following the corridor. He heard the snake's scales scraping against the floor in hot pursuit.

      Rocks and skeletons littered the stone floor, but Hercules avoided them with the grace of a deer, running and jumping for all he was worth. The snake started closing the distance, its hissing growing louder in his ears.

      Hercules spotted the spiked poles on the side of the corridor ahead of him and sprinted harder. The poles came free of the wall behind him, swinging toward each other. If he'd walked through the area, he'd have gotten spiked. He knew the snake was too long to avoid them.

      Movement in the corner of his eye warned him as two blades swung free of the roof overhead. He stopped, watching as the two razor-edged glimmers of steel scissored together in front of him with a metallic whisper.

      He turned back to the snake. Now it was writhing between the two spike-filled poles.

      "Guess you aren't very bright after all," Hercules told it.

      The snake hissed angrily and broke free of the poles. The spikes stayed buried in its neck as it slid forward.

      Timing the swinging blades, Hercules dashed through, then turned and faced the snake. It struck, not paying attention to the blades. The razored edges swung again and neatly lopped off the snake's head.

      Heads do roll, he thought as he watched.

      Green snake blood splashed across the front of Hercules' shirt and chin.

      He tried to brush the green blood from his face and clothing, but it was too sticky. Now, that's attractive.

      A rumble sounded overhead. He looked up in time to see the first of the rocks tumbling free of the roof. By the time he started running again, the whole cavern was collapsing.

      He ran, following the corridor. He didn't get hopeful about his escape till he saw light up ahead. When he spotted the rope hanging out over the River of Skulls, he grinned again. He couldn't reach the rope, so he jumped for it, grabbing it and starting up at once. He laughed, not minding the blood on his shirt at all.

~

      Iolaus gazed around the bazaar, thrilled at all the prospects for adventure before him. Adventure and profit, Iolaus reminded himself. He passed through the crowds with purpose, his target already chosen and his plan already in place.

      His brown hair fell to his shoulders in curls a number of girls had found attractive. His blue eyes held the light of laughter, but he kept his handsome face from showing it. His clothes were rough leather, the best he was able to afford, and he wore a loose-fitting shirt over his vest. He knew his appearance set many of the merchants' teeth on edge. They knew trouble when they saw it.

      Iolaus walked with an easy gait, listening to the voices of the hawkers calling out their wares. Carts with fruits and vegetables sat beside folding panels with clothing hanging from them. Cages of chickens sat next to staked goats. Farmers sold milk straight from the cow.

      The villagers milled through the offered goods, making selections and haggling over the prices. Squeals of excited children ripped through the frenzied conversations and the animal noises.

      Iolaus looked through the crowd, spotting Occam matching his stride twenty feet away in another aisle. Occam was taller and heavier even though he was still in his teen years, someone most people would fear at a glance. He had the wide-eyed face of an ox and the brute shoulders of one. He grimaced at Iolaus.

      A grin touched Iolaus' lips, but he erased it quickly. It was a good day to be young and free. And nimble-fingered.

      He altered his course for the jeweler's booth he'd selected. Stopping in front of the booth, he glanced at the bowls containing rings and bracelets. Other containers held gems of many different colors and spools of silver ready for beating into jewelry or decoration.

      The fat jeweler stood behind the booth and watched Iolaus suspiciously. The pockmarks and scars lining the left side of the jeweler's face made his expression severe. "Don't stand too close, boy," he growled. "This booth is for customers with coins in their purses."

      Iolaus nodded good-naturedly and acted as if he was going to walk away.

      Before he took a single step, Occam burst through the crowd. He held a wickedly curved knife raised in one hand and screamed at the top of his voice. He grabbed Iolaus' shirt front, almost yanking him off his feet.

      Occam plunged the knife into Iolaus' chest. The young thief grabbed his chest. Blood exploded and ran down his fingers. Occam pulled his crimson-smeared blade back and shoved Iolaus toward the jeweler's booth.

      Iolaus hit the booth, struggling for a moment. Then he went deathly limp.

      Occam ran off through the crowd.

      "Help!" the fat jeweler screamed. "Help! Get the doctor!" He picked Iolaus' head up by the hair and gazed into his face.

      Iolaus was dead weight.

Chapter Three

      In the marketplace, the jeweler screamed over his shoulder. "Get the undertaker! Never mind, I'll get him myself! He's bleeding all over my jewels! All over my cart!"

      Iolaus couldn't help himself. The situation was just too funny. As soon as the fat jeweler ran off squawking to get the undertaker, the young thief burst out laughing.

      The laughter alerted the jeweler, and the man turned back around with a shocked expression.

      Quick as he could, Iolaus snatched up handfuls of gems and jewelry, stuffing them into the pouch belted at his waist. The jeweler's expression changed from shock to outrage.

      "Stop!" the jeweler screamed, pointing. "Stop him! My boss will kill me!"

      Iolaus ran, pushing his way through the puzzled crowd. Two other boys in the area took off running at the same time. They shoved into people and booths, creating even more confusion.

      The jeweler continued to yell for help, but Iolaus noticed the man didn't hesitate to help himself to some of the gems and baubles. The guy was robbing his own boss, and Iolaus knew the blame would be placed on him. The merchant's fat hands seized everything they could in darting movements that showed years of practice.

      Man, thieves are everywhere, Iolaus lamented. He ran hard, knowing the peace officers would be along at any minute. They always proved much harder to avoid than greedy sellers.

      The young thief pounded through the twists and turns of the bazaar aisles. He'd mapped his escape route early that morning after the bulk of the vendors had set up for the day's business. For the most part the merchants set up in the same spots they always did. That made Iolaus' memory work simple.

      Despite all of his running, Iolaus still wasn't out of breath by the time he reached the rug seller's stall. He ducked quickly under the rugs hanging on display and plunged out of sight. Occam and the others were waiting inside.

      "That's the last time I use a pig's bladder," Iolaus declared. He pulled the blood-filled organ out of his shirt and threw it onto the ground. Occam's knife had sliced a hole in it when he'd stabbed him. The peace officers were already searching the bazaar. Iolaus heard their shouts as he divided the loot quickly. He was as fair about it as he thought was necessary.

      Occam looked at his share. "A handful for each of us and a bagful for you? How is that fair, Iolaus?"

      Iolaus gave him one of his best shocked expressions. "Hey, I died for this stuff."

      Occam seemed on the verge of continuing the argument, but the sound of excited voices interrupted him. At first Iolaus thought the peace officers had already discovered their hiding place. He peered through the overlapping rugs.

      A knot of villagers careened through the bazaar, circling something.

      Iolaus stripped off his bloody shirt and dropped it to the ground. After checking to make sure the blood hadn't soaked into the vest underneath, he stepped back out into the bazaar to watch the crowd.

      He strained to see what was going on, glimpsing Hercules in their midst. Irritation stung Iolaus. Hercules was no better than him, yet the other boy rarely hung out with Iolaus or his friends.

      The young thief went forward, hoping that Hercules was in some kind of trouble.

~

      Attracted by the hubbub of voices, Alcmene paused in her haggling with a vegetable vendor. She was a beautiful woman, dressed in her best garments, and had her dark hair pulled back. The tomatoes the vendor was selling looked really good, but the price the man was asking even at this time of the season was outrageous.

      When she stepped away from the crowded booth to get a better look, a fat merchant with a pockmarked face almost ran her down. "What's going on?" she asked.

      "I was robbed today!" the merchant shrilled. "The thief got half of my goods!

      Alcmene sympathized with the man, but thefts happened regularly in the bazaar. "No," she said, ignoring the merchant's complaints and pointing toward the group of people moving through the bazaar, "I mean over there."

      The merchant paused in shoving jewelry into his coat sleeves, something Alcmene considered definitely suspicious. "Some kid stole something from the cave of Ares," he said. He shook his head in disapproval.

      Fear surged immediately through Alcmene, followed by a flicker of pride she felt guilty about. She knew only one kid in the whole village foolish enough - and brave enough - to attempt such a feat.

      "Hercules!" she said, and moved toward the crowd.

~

      Iolaus heard Alcmene's voice and watched her push through the crowd surrounding Hercules. The young thief smiled. Maybe I'm going to have a better day than I thought. It wasn’t often that goody-two-shoes Hercules got busted for doing something wrong. Iolaus couldn't imagine what it could be. But I definitely want to be there to see Hercules get what's coming to him.

      "Iolaus," Occam persisted.

      Iolaus dropped his hand on the other boy's shoulder. "Later." He jogged toward the crowd, waiting to see the fireworks.

~

      Despite all the attention he was getting from the crowd around him, Hercules felt awkward. Normally he tried to stay out of the limelight. His mother had told him to remain quiet about his birthright and not to demonstrate any of the strength he was only now growing into.

      Still, it was hard not to enjoy the attention. I am the son of a god, after all. He brandished the urn with pride, trying to answer the flood of questions.

      Then his mother's voice blotted out all others. She stepped from the crowd and grabbed him by the arm. "Hercules, you stole from a god?"

      Hercules flushed, feeling guilty and angry all at the same time. "It doesn't belong to Ares. He stole it from Zeus."

      "Don't worry. I'll put it back."

      Hercules turned to face the new speaker, recognizing Iolaus at once. The young thief seized Zeus's urn in both hands. Closing his fist on the urn, Hercules prevented Iolaus from snatching it away, but Iolaus' efforts knocked the top off.

      A glowing energy ball erupted from the mouth of the urn, leaping skyward. The crowd fled the area at once, screaming in fear as supernatural winds sprang up.

      "Oops," Iolaus said.

      The force ripped the urn from even Hercules' grip. He watched it fall to the ground, not believing the destruction that was taking place around him. He put an arm around his mother and hurried her out of harm's way, keeping her on the ground despite the pull of the winds.

      The winds gathered speed and strength, becoming a full-fledged twister. The winds ripped into the stalls and booths, overturned carts and blew them away. Carpets, baskets, and clothing sailed through the air, followed by tents and even small chickens, ducks, and goats.

      Caught near the eye of the twister and not possessing Hercules' strength, Iolaus was lifted off his feet. The twister yanked him upward and toward the eye. Frantically, he grabbed a nearby hitching rail and held on. But the strain he was under showed he couldn't last long.

      Hercules guided his mother to a pole and held her safe.

      Alcmene stared, horrified, at Iolaus. "Hercules," she pleaded, "do something! Save Iolaus!"

      Hercules felt angry with the young thief. Iolaus was the one who'd spoiled his moment of triumph and his chance to claim Zeus's attention. "That petty thief?"

      "Please!"

      Hercules resisted a moment more, but he couldn't ignore his mother's plea. After making sure his mother had a secure grip on the pole and would be safe, Hercules sprinted for the hitching rail. Before he got there, Iolaus lost his grip, spinning up into the sky. He rose as high as the stone buildings ringing the bazaar.

      Thinking quickly, Hercules shrugged the rope off his shoulder. He knotted one end around the hitching rail and the other around his waist, watching Iolaus rise higher in the sky.

      Hercules leaped into the twister's pull, reaching for the young thief. He flailed his arms, barely keeping his balance. "Give me your hand, Iolaus!" he yelled, reaching for the young thief.

      Iolaus reached back, but the surging wind kept them apart by inches.

      Hercules kicked out, forcing himself toward Iolaus, and finally succeeded in grabbing his wrist. Iolaus wrapped his own fingers around Hercules' wrist.

      "Hercules," Iolaus said. "What are you doing up here?"

      The wind snapped them around like puppets at the end of a string. Only, this particular string was attached to a hitching post that was starting to wriggle free of the ground.

      "Hercules," Alcmene yelled, "get down now!"

      "You heard your mom," Iolaus said.

      Whipping his body against the winds, Hercules swam toward the twister's outer edge. He hoped he could break free of the whirling winds with his great strength. He reached the edge of the twister just as the hitching post pulled free of the ground. With a final kick, he pulled Iolaus from the twister as well. They fell.

      Iolaus screamed the whole way down, till he landed hard enough to knock the air from his lungs.

      Hercules groaned. Now, that hurt. He ached all over from his adventures in Ares' temple and now the twister. He sat up with effort.

      The twister's eye exploded overhead. Rainbow sparkles filled the sky, and a crash of thunder rolled over the bazaar.

      Two peace officers shoved their way through the angry crowd milling through the wreckage, trying to find their goods. The peace officers seized Iolaus by his arms. Iolaus fought briefly but couldn't get away.

      Hercules watched, confused. Maybe they think he's responsible for the twister. He started to explain that it was his fault. He should have been more protective of Zeus's urn.

      Before he could say anything, a fat merchant with a pockmarked face joined the peace officers and pointed at Iolaus accusingly. "That's him! He took everything I had!"

      Iolaus struggled again. "He's lying! I didn't take that much!"

      "Lock him up for life!" the merchant insisted. He leaned in toward Iolaus. "You'll never amount to anything!"

      "Says who?" Iolaus responded.

      The peace officers dragged him away.

      "Thanks for nothing, Hercules," Iolaus called out.

      The merchant looked at his ruined booth and all the other damage that had been done to the bazaar. He glanced back at Hercules. "Yeah. Many thanks."

      Hercules flushed with embarrassment when the rest of the crowd echoed similar sentiments. Their grumbles echoed around him, some of them punctuated with curses.

      Alcmene rushed to Hercules' side, running a hand over his face as she looked at him worriedly. "Are you all right?"

      "Is he all right?" the merchant demanded angrily. "He brought down the wrath of Ares! Look at our bazaar - destroyed. Now I'll have to move!"

      Alcmene shot the man a harsh glance. The merchant wilted under her glare and stalked off without another word.

      Hercules forced himself to speak, but his voice felt thick in his throat. "I was only trying to return what belongs to Zeus."

      "You ruined this place!" the jeweler shouted over his shoulder. "Stealing never gets you anywhere!"

      The accusation made Hercules feel even worse. How could things go so wrong when all he was trying to do was the right thing?

~

      "Hercules?"

      Turning from the view of the night-draped mountains outside the door to his home, Hercules watched his mother as she laid their dinner on the table. Their home was modest, well lighted by the candles Alcmene had put out and the twisting flames in the fireplace. Until lately, he'd never thought about how small it was.

      Alcmene crossed over to him and put her hand on his shoulder. "Do you know the meaning of the word forbidden?"

      "Uh-oh. Here comes the 'you're wasting your life' speech." Hercules shook his head, not wanting to hear it. "How was I to know there was a cyclone in that urn?"

      His mother sighed. "When you're not staring at Mount Olympus, you're dreaming up new schemes to get the attention of your father."

      Hercules objected gently. "That's not all I ever do. And who wants to impress him anyway?"

      "Hercules, be honest with yourself. Zeus fathered you - and then he abandoned you. I know that hurts. And of course, you're trying to prove yourself to him. But sometimes you jeopardize others."

      Never as much as today. Still, he felt he had to defend himself. "Not intentionally. Besides, Zeus doesn't care about me. Why should I waste my time thinking about him?"

      Alcmene locked her eyes with his, not letting him hid behind his false words. "Because I know you want to take your place - as his son."

      He lied to her then, something he almost never did. And when he did, it was always about this subject and only because he thought it was what she wanted to hear. "Not really." He walked over to the low bench in front of the fireplace, hoping the conversation would end.

      His mother followed him and seated herself beside him. "You have to remember that you're half mortal."

      "Yeah," he said bitterly. "Stuck between heaven and earth. So I guess there's no place for me anywhere."

      "Yes, there is. 'To whom much is given, much is asked.' Learn to use the powers that you have. Go to Cheiron, at the Academy."

      His mother had talked about the Academy and its legendary headmaster before. It all seemed too far away, too impossible. How could he leave her? And that wasn't the problem anyway. Hercules looked at her, trying to explain it. "Power? Ares has power. He showed me that today. My father must be laughing at me." He looked at Alcmene. "Not that I care."

      Alcmene paused for a moment, then spoke in a softer voice. "When Iphicles left, it broke my heart. He was-"

      "Jealous of me," Hercules interrupted, "Because I'm a half-god. I don't know why. I'd give anything to be like him - an ordinary man." He still remembered how upset his mother had been when his older half brother had left the family home in anger.

      "And now I'm losing my other son."

      Hercules started to disagree, but his mother shushed him with a raised hand as if he was a child again.

      "Go to Cheiron," Alcmene said. "He's wise. He'll teach you."

      Hercules' throat ached with the effort of speaking. "Everything I need to know I can learn from you."

      She stroked his face and smiled, shaking her head. "No. It's time." Tears filled her eyes, and she hugged him close.

~

      Hercules stared out at the night, not believing his mother was sending him on his way now instead of waiting for morning. It had even started to rain. But maybe sending him now was the only way she'd have the strength. Maybe morning would have made us both weak, he thought.

      Now she was strong in her convictions, able to let him go. And his own anger at the events that had happened that day pushed him on. He'd embarrassed himself. Everyone in the village was already talking about what had happened in the bazaar.

      Alcmene watched him from the doorway, barely visible in the candle glow spilling out of the house behind her. She waved.

      Hercules waved back at her, swallowing the lump in his throat. Then he glanced down the path that was the beginning of his long journey and took the first step. He told himself that the wetness running down his face was only the rain. He knew it wasn't.

Chapter Four

      Hercules passed through the guards stationed at the front of the Academy. Old and scarred from past battles, the Academy sat on a hill. High rock walls ringed the stone and wood buildings. None of them looked fancy. The Academy was designed for work and study, and to be easily defended against its enemies.

      Now, this is a place for warriors. The ring of steel on steel echoed in the distance and made Hercules smile for the first time since leaving his mother's house days earlier. Maybe I belong in a place like this. After all, my half brother is the god of war. Family traditions and all.

      Hercules followed the directions given to him by one of the cadets and made a final turn around one of the large buildings that took him to the practice fields. Dozens of cadets, all training to be warriors, practiced in the loose sand that filled the center court.

      Pounding horse's hooves drew Hercules' attention. He adjusted his backpack and watched the rider.

      The young man was muscular and of medium build. A tattoo marked his right arm, visible in the sleeveless vest he wore. His short-cropped dark hair caught the light, framing a handsome square-chinned face that looked regal and intense.

      The young man grasped a sword in his right hand. Melons sat on poles in a line before him, at just the height of a standing man's head. As he rode towards them, he rose in his stirrups and swung the sword. The keen edge sliced through the melons one after another, revealing the bright red meat inside.

      I wouldn't want to be a foot soldier against this guy, Hercules thought. Unless I was really short.

      When the rider finished his pass, Hercules turned away and kept walking. According to the directions he'd been given, the gymnasium lay on the other side of the practice fields.

      In the practice fields in front of the gymnasium, cadets punched heavy bags with thudding smacks. Others worked on martial arts movements. Still more groups practiced with wooden replicas of knives, swords, maces, and axes, smashing them against the shields of other cadets.

      The rider who'd attacked the melons so intently reined up at the front door of the gymnasium at the same time Hercules arrived there. The rider slid down from the horse with practiced ease.

      "Excuse me," Hercules said. "Can you tell me where to find Cheiron?"

      "Sure." A confident smile lit the young man's face. He stuck out a hand, and Hercules took it, wrapping his fingers around the young man's forearm. "I'm Jason. Follow me." He turned and walked up the stone steps leading into the gymnasium.

      Hercules followed. More cadets moved with grace and skill on the polished wooden floors. The high ceiling and generous windows permitted a lot of light to enter the huge room. The smell of sweat and leather permeated the building.

      "He'll be around here somewhere," Jason said, glancing about.

      Hercules actually meant to keep in step with the young man's long strides, but all the activity drew his attention. He'd heard lots of stories about Cheiron's Academy, not so much about the master himself as the battles he'd fought in. The buildings weren't as glamorous as Hercules had believed they would be, but they gave a sense of solidness.

      He was distracted by a group of fencers, pausing to watch as their lightning-quick practice swords licked out at one another. Another area held a peculiar post with a number of rods sticking out of it. A student attacked the post with his bare hands, striking and blocking the different rods while another student spun the post. Farther on, a group of students somehow sat impossibly quiet on mats. They had their legs folded, hands resting on knees with their palms turned up.

      Hercules watched in amazement, then realized he'd lost Jason.

      "The best way to make your dreams come true is to wake up," a man's voice stated.

      Drawn by the deep voice, Hercules turned and peered over a stack of crates.

      A man stood there, carefully inspecting a crate of short swords. He was bare-chested except for an ornate harness made of small metal plates. His hair hung past his shoulders, kept out of his eyes by an unadorned leather headband. His face showed the passage of years, and the mustache and goatee showed a light sprinkling of silver.

      "Pretty good observation," Hercules said sarcastically, resenting the man catching him standing there gaping. "For a janitor."

      The man seemed to take no offense. "Well, a wheel has many spokes."

      "Yes, and a bird has wings, a dog has paws, a bull has horns," Hercules said, rolling his eyes. "But you've probably observed that, too." He gazed around the gym, looking for Jason or anyone who could be the famous warrior Cheiron.

      "Why did you come here?" the man asked as he continued sorting through the swords.

      "My mother's idea," Hercules answered as he watched two cadets battling each other with padded cudgels while standing on top of poles buried in the ground. "Which I'm beginning to wonder about. Look at those two."

      One of the cadets moved forward in an obvious attempt to set himself up for a swing. His foot missed the pole, and he fell to the mats below.

      "When is that going to happen - in real life?" Hercules asked sarcastically. "This might be a huge waste of time."

      "Time makes all men equal, doesn't it?"

      Hercules glanced at the man in irritation. "Do you always talk in riddles?" Then he shook his head. "Don't answer that. I'm looking for the world-famous Cheiron."

      The man looked at him levelly. "I'm Cheiron."

      The cold chill of immediate embarrassment filled Hercules. "Oh. And I'm off to a really great start."

      "You're Hercules," Cheiron said calmly, "son of Zeus, Alcmene's child. I see the resemblance." He moved from behind the crates, revealing himself.

      Hercules stared at the battle master in open amazement.

      From the waist up, Cheiron was every inch a warrior. But below the waist, he was a dark-haired horse. Four strong legs supported him. His long tail switched from side to side.

      "No," Hercules said, not believing what he saw. "Wait a minute. You can't be-" Words failed him.

      "Yes," Cheiron said, folding his arms.

      Hercules recovered his composure. "No offense, but I heard you were a great warrior. What can I learn from you - galloping?" He hadn't meant to be mean, but the image of him galloping alongside the centaur cracked him up. Run, cadet, run like the wind! He didn't think so.

      Before Hercules could make a move to defend himself, the centaur warrior moved like lightning. He grabbed Hercules' arm and flipped him through the air.

      Hercules landed hard on his back, totally caught off guard. As he sat up, he saw that all the activity in the gymnasium had come to a halt. Jason stood nearby, trying to hide his amusement. Everyone's attention was on Hercules. And they were all laughing.

      This is not the entrance I was hoping to make. He glared up at Cheiron but didn't say anything. For a moment he considered throwing himself at the battle master and getting a couple of throws in himself. Then he changed his mind. He'd already made enough of a mess of things.

      Cheiron folded his arms again. A slight smile twisted his lips and pulled at his hooded eyes. "No offense taken."

~

      Hercules followed Jason through the gym, past groups of cadets on the practice mats. He'd been grateful to get away from Cheiron. The centaur hadn't said anything more about the disrespect Hercules had shown him, but Hercules still felt bad about it. Even if the centaur hadn't been Cheiron, he hadn't deserved to be treated that way.

      "Supper at dusk," Jason said quickly. "Lanterns out at eight. Morning bell is at four o'clock."

      "Get up at four?" Hercules couldn't believe it. "That's for farmers with cows."

      Jason glanced at him, still moving among the warriors in training. "And cadets with a purpose."

      "Yeah, well, I only have one purpose here. To impress my father." Now that he was away from Alcmene, Hercules felt better about admitting it. Around his mother, he couldn't talk about such things because they hurt her. But here he could be honest with himself and with others. To an extent.

      "Most everyone here is the son of somebody famous. Is your dad wealthy?" Jason asked.

      Hercules thought briefly about how to answer the question. Telling him I'm the son of Zeus after getting thrown by Cheiron, after insulting him, is definitely not a good idea. "Sort of. He has resources." Now there's an understatement.

      "Powerful?" Jason asked.

      "You could say that."

      "Is he in politics?"

      "He's"- Hercules fumbled for an answer -"fairly well connected. What about your father?"

      Jason shrugged. "He's a politician. Aeson, king of Corinth."

      Hercules couldn't believe it. Aeson was one of the most powerful men in the region, and Jason seemed so down to earth. The young man had to know what his father represented, the power and prestige that Aeson's name carried. But Jason seemed to just accept it.

      Jason walked through the next door. "Here's your bunk."

      The barracks room was spartan. The bunk beds were little more than hardwood planks with thin mats spread over them. The blankets looked thin.

      "Thanks," Hercules said. He sat on the bed, glad to take the weight off his feet. "It's been two weeks since I've slept in a bed." Once he'd left home, he'd walked as straight as he could to the Academy. The nights had been cold and the ground hard. The time had been lonely. Few people traveled the roads through the hard country.

      Jason shook his head. "I wouldn't get too comfortable there."

      "Why?"

      He took Hercules by the arm, pulling him from the bunk. "No rest during training hours. Sorry."

      Hercules stood. He felt even more tired after getting the chance to sit for a moment.

      Jason turned, gesturing toward a slim young man with olive coloring and almond-shaped eyes. "This is Alcestor."

      Hercules nodded.

      Jason introduced him to the others. Mikos was a short youth with dark curly hair and a shy smile. Thamus was tall and lean, his hair braided. Liardus was tall and black, and had a cold smile that never quite touched his eyes. Enyo was the youngest of them and dropped his gaze when Hercules shook his hand.

      "Now I want you to meet your training partner," Jason said. "the guy you'll spend every moment of every day with. Hercules, this is-"

      Hercules recognized the guy even from behind. There was no mistaking that cocky swagger and the attitude that radiated from him. Still, seeing him at the Academy was surprising. "Iolaus?"

      Iolaus glanced up at him, clearly as surprised as he was.

      Hercules pulled his hand back. So did Iolaus.

      "It took you two weeks to get here?" Iolaus asked with obvious disbelief. "I've seen faster turtles."

      "Yeah," Hercules said angrily. "As they passed you by on the road." During his two-week trip to the Academy, he'd had plenty of time to remember how the young thief had interfered in his plans to get Zeus's attention.

      "Oh, I'm laughing." Iolaus stepped forward, clenching his fists.

      Hercules met him halfway.

      Before they could come to blows, Jason stepped in between them. "Come on, guys, let's hit the track!"

      Hercules let out a tense breath, then nodded. He followed Jason out of the barracks.

      Outside on the track, under Cheiron's watchful eye, Jason led the pack of runners, but Hercules stayed close behind. His travels had gotten him in shape for the rough terrain spread out before him. He ran, pounding his feet against the ground.

      Iolaus matched his pace, and Hercules found the young thief's presence irritating. There's no way someone like Iolaus should keep pace with me.

      "How'd you get here?" Hercules demanded, his breath coming a little faster. "Steal Cheiron's key?"

      "No," Iolaus responded. "He wants me to keep an eye on you." He grinned at his own wit.

      "Yeah?" Hercules said. "Well, with me as your training partner, you'll wish you'd never gotten in here." He reached down and slapped the young thief's leg in midstride, causing it to cross over in front of the other.

      Iolaus tripped and fell face forward on the ground.

      Then Hercules spotted Cheiron under a group of trees slightly ahead of them. The centaur gave him a reproving glance. Okay, so I'm not winning any points, Hercules thought stubbornly. That was still worth doing.

~

      "Know your comrades," Cheiron stated. He paced in front of the ten-foot-tall wooden wall in the outer practice field. His hooves clomped on the sand, marking cadence with his words. "The deeper your knowledge, the greater your trust."

      Hercules waited impatiently in line with the other cadets. Even though over the last few days he's shown in a dozen different ways that it was a waste of time pairing him with Iolaus, Cheiron just hadn't gotten it. You'd think by now Cheiron would have understood. It was just horse-sense, right? I have enough knowledge of Iolaus to know not to trust him.

      Jason and Enyo ran to the bottom of the wall. Jason leaped for the top and caught a hold while Enyo slid up under him, caught his foot in his hands, and shoved Jason farther up. Once he was on the top of the wall, Jason reached back down for Enyo. The other boy grabbed Jason's hand and pushed up the wall while Jason pulled.

      Hercules and Iolaus dashed to the wall next. Hercules leaped for the top of the wall and caught it. Iolaus put his hands under Hercules' foot and pushed. Hauling himself up, Hercules sat on the wall.

      Iolaus reached up his hand. "You heard the centaur. 'Knowledge brings trust.'" He swapped glances with Hercules, who took his hand. With Hercules pulling, he was at the top of the wall in no time.

      Hercules stopped pulling just short of the top of the wall. Iolaus looked at him, eyes widening in understanding. Hercules released his hold, watching as Iolaus fell all the way back to the ground. He landed awkwardly and hard.

      "Guess you don't know me well enough," Hercules said, barely able to restrain the smile that threatened to explode across his face.

      Cheiron raised his voice, piercing Hercules with his gaze. "You can't pick up a pebble with only one finger."

      Hercules broke eye contact, feeling bad. But not too bad. Iolaus deserved everything he got. Hercules still didn't understand how the young thief had gotten accepted to the Academy, much less assigned to him. The gods definitely weren't favoring him lately. But then, they never had.

~

      Iolaus watched Hercules shifting uneasily on the elevated poles inside the gym. He sensed a chance to get back at him. Hercules accepted the padded cudgel Jason handed him and went back to trying to find comfortable footing.

      Iolaus grinned, then twirled his own cudgel. In his years, he'd learned confidence was everything. Girls liked it, and men resented and sometimes feared it. He leaped nimbly up on another pole opposite Hercules, landing with ease.

      Hercules shifted uncertainly, moving to face his opponent.

      Iolaus wanted to laugh out loud at Hercules' ungainly movements but didn't only because Cheiron was watching. Instead, Iolaus leaped again, turning a backflip and landing on another pole. He'd barely touched down before he jumped again, spinning a complete circle in the air this time before landing easily.

      "The point is to be the last man standing," Jason said. As the cadets' captain, he seemed as much in charge of their training as Cheiron. "Balance is key."

      Iolaus spun the cudgel again, making it flash.

      Hercules tried to mirror the movement, but keeping up with the spinning cudgel and his footing was too much. He fell and landed on his back.

      "Looks like Hercules is a little off key," Iolaus observed, smirking.

      The other cadets laughed until a glare from Cheiron silenced them. Obviously the centaur didn't share in their enthusiasm or see the humor in the moment.

      Hercules got up and jumped on top of a pole. He glared at Iolaus.

      The young thief shifted confidently, knowing Hercules' anger was going to work against him. Sure enough, Hercules came at him as directly as an enraged bull, swinging the cudgel at Iolaus' feet.

      Nimbly, Iolaus leaped over the wild swing and shot his own cudgel at Hercules, who ducked back, wobbling uncertainly on the poles. Iolaus landed on his own pole. "Balance," the young thief said, then dodged another blow, "is"-and slammed his own cudgel in Hercules' chest-"key!"

      Knocked off balance, Hercules dropped his cudgel and flailed his arms in an attempt to get his balance. He crashed to the mats below.

      Take that, musclehead. Iolaus performed a double back-flip, landing effortlessly on his feet. He pumped his cudgel in the air in triumph. Without warning, something slapped into his back and knocked him from the pole. He barely managed to keep his face from slamming into the mat.

      Cheiron came to a stop in front of Iolaus. His voice, though soft, carried reproach. "Respect all warriors, friend and foe alike. You're on thin ice, Iolaus."

      Glancing at Hercules, Iolaus saw the other boy's look of disappointment turn into a smile. I've had it, Iolaus thought. There's no fighting the system. Hercules gets away with being a jerk, and I can't even win when I win. I'm outta here.

~

      After lights-out in the barracks room, Iolaus crept out and headed for the stables. What few personal items he'd brought to the Academy after the village peace officers had finished with him fit comfortably in the single small bedroll. He wasn't sure where he'd go, but he was definite about going.

      Inside the stable, he glanced around and selected a sure-footed gelding. He took a saddle from the rack against the wall and threw it over the horse's back.

      "Thin ice?" he repeated out loud angrily. "That four-footed know-it-all." He patted the gelding on the neck. "No offense." He stepped and something squished underfoot. Looking down, he saw what it was and got disgusted. "Man, how do you guys live like this? It's everywhere."

      The horse only nickered as if in protest.

      Iolaus grabbed a fistful of straw and scraped the dung off his boot. "What are you upset about? I'm breaking you out of here too." He bridled the animal, stepped into the stirrup, and pulled himself into the saddle. The gelding shifted beneath him as he turned him toward the door.

      "What if he doesn't want to go?"

      Wheeling, Iolaus spotted Hercules leaning against the doorway. He'd never even heard Hercules come after him.

      Anger welled up in Iolaus. "He'll learn to live with it. Get out of the way!"

Chapter Five

      Hercules stepped sideways, filling the doorway. He folded his arms and stared at Iolaus. After the way Cheiron had embarrassed the young thief that day, Hercules had thought he might try to leave. Running away had always been Iolaus' solution to all his problems.

      "I don't think so, training partner," Hercules said. "We're responsible for each other. And I'm not taking the blame for you again."

      "Again?" Iolaus glared at him in disbelief.

      "Yeah," Hercules said "First the twister. then tomorrow there'll be a horse and a jackass missing."

      Iolaus shook his head. "I'm only taking the horse."

      Hercules smirked. "I know."

      Iolaus glared, angered by the insult. He kicked the horse in the sides, urging it forward, then hauling back on the reins to make it rear a little. "Move or I'll give you a horseshoe tattoo."

      Reluctantly, Hercules stepped aside.

      Iolaus rode forward, not wasting any time in getting out of the stable.

      "It's your life," Hercules said, extending a hand. "Well, good luck."

      Iolaus took the offered hand but looked wary.

      Before Iolaus got clear of the door, Hercules reached up and grabbed a handful of Iolaus' leather vest. "Forgive me," he told the young thief sarcastically. "I'm only concerned for your well being." He yanked Iolaus from the saddle and threw him into the dung-covered straw. Then he offered a hand to the young thief.

      "It's the thought that counts," Iolaus said, rising from the straw. Before Hercules could react, Iolaus slammed a fist into his face.

      Pain exploded in Hercules' head as he flew backward. He landed in a pile of dung-covered straw, too. He flipped up and went right at Iolaus. Stopping Iolaus was no longer important, but putting him in his place was. Hercules swung at Iolaus, but the young thief dodged away.

      Although Hercules had greater strength, Iolaus had greater speed. The horse had stopped only a few feet away. Iolaus ran under its legs, bounded from a fence rail on the other side, and back flipped to kick Hercules in the face.

      Hercules went backward but recovered as quickly as Iolaus had. He punched Iolaus in the chest, knocking him backward. He followed quickly, wanting to make the most of his advantage, but he was too slow. Iolaus kicked out with both feet, driving Hercules back.

      They threw fists and elbows at each other, and launched kicks whenever they had secure footing. Hercules got pummeled ferociously, but he gave as good as he got. The small stable worked against him, but its size also made it harder for Iolaus to use all of his acrobatic skills.

      Hercules punched again, knocking Iolaus backward. The young thief stumbled, then leaped up into the air and landed on the top pole of the fence behind him. He balanced precariously for a moment.

      Before Iolaus could firmly set himself, Hercules kicked the pole free. Iolaus started to fall but twisted in midair and landed on the horse. "This is where I wanted to be in the first place."

      Hercules yanked him from the saddle, but Iolaus twisted in his grasp and tangled his legs with Hercules'. They both fell, rolling across the stable muck. Iolaus scrambled to get away. In seconds Hercules slid his arms around the young thief's neck and shoulder in a wrestling grip, straddling Iolaus' back and shoving the young thief's face into the dung-encrusted straw.

      "How does that taste?" Hercules demanded.

      A feminine throat cleared, drawing their instant attention.

      Surprised, Hercules looked up at the girl who stood before them. Iolaus looked up as well. Her beauty stunned them both.

      She was a vision in suede and leather armor, and her blond hair hung in loose ringlets past her shoulders. A sheathed sword rode at her hip. Her intense green eyes glittered in the lantern light, making her features even more defiant. She held the reins of the horse standing quietly behind her.

      Hercules scrambled to his feet, followed quickly by Iolaus. "Can I help you?" Hercules asked.

      "Do I look like I need help?" she asked sarcastically.

      "I thought maybe you were lost," Hercules said uncertainly.

      "This is Cheiron's Academy," Iolaus said helpfully.

      She gave them a glance. "And you must be the grossly inept stable boys."

      "Here," Hercules offered, "Let me do that." He reached for the horse's reins. Man, she's so beautiful.

      She slapped his hand away in a blur of movement. "There must be manure in your ears. I said I don't need help. Ever." She led the horse to the other side of the stable and tied it to a hitching post.

      "Then we don't even need to tell you where the guest quarters are," Iolaus said smugly. He grinned at Hercules, but the mask of muck he wore partially dimmed his triumph.

      "No," she told them, "because I'll be staying in the barracks. I'm a cadet."

      Hercules saw the look of surprise on Iolaus' face and tried to keep a similar one from his own. There is no way she could be a cadet.

      "A cadet?" Iolaus repeated in disbelief, turning to glance at Hercules. "You can't be a cadet. I mean, after all, you're - I mean, well, you're-"

      Realizing Iolaus was about to embarrass them both even more, Hercules stepped to the young thief's rescue. "Short," he said weakly. Oh man, now there's a bright answer. I should have let Iolaus hang himself. Only we'd have both been hung. This can't get any worse.

      The girl moved quicker than Hercules would have believed possible. Seizing a rake from the wall nearby, she reversed it and swept his and Iolaus' feet from under them. They both fell back into the dung-filled straw. He felt the squishy piles under him. Okay, it can get worse.

      "You guys are not only covered with it," the girl said, "you're full of it." She stepped on them both as she headed for the barracks.

      Sitting up, his fight with Iolaus already somewhere far in the back of his mind, Hercules watched her go. I've never met anyone like her. He glanced at Iolaus. "Still going? Or are we done with this?"

      Iolaus grinned. "I'm done with this, and I've found a whole new reason to stay." He smiled dreamily. "She stepped on me."

~

      Working on the climbing ropes the next morning with Iolaus, Hercules watched Cheiron enter the gym with the girl at his side. She was even more beautiful in the morning light.

      As she passed, the cadets grew aware of her and halted in their practice. Neither Cheiron nor the girl seemed to notice. Even across the distance, Hercules heard the centaur talking to the girl.

      "You'll learn the value of the team," Cheiron said. "Surrendering yourself to the one self."

      Hercules climbed down the rope, followed by Iolaus. He watched as the cadets continued to freeze in their tracks. The girl gazed in awe at all the activity in front of her, never noticing they'd stopped their work behind her.

      Cheiron grinned slightly. "Go."

      The girl left the centaur's side and walked towards the climbing ropes.

      Hercules watched her, admiring the way she moved. She had a sure-footed grace and a confidence that he found intriguing. And he didn't even know her name.

      "We should get back to work," Iolaus said.

      "Sure," Hercules said. "After you."

      Iolaus made a face at him. "I'm only cooperating because you didn't say anything to Cheiron about last night."

      Hercules shook his head and frowned. "Don't do me any favors. I'm not one to kiss and tell." Then he noticed the girl was coming straight at them.

      She stopped, looking them over judiciously. "You two clean up fairly well," she said, "for manure handlers." She reached for Hercules' rope.

      Remembering how she'd treated them the night before, he pulled the rope away. "Pardon me. For a moment there I forgot. No help." He was aware that every cadet in the gym was watching them.

      She reached for Iolaus' rope, who also pulled his away.

      "Right," Iolaus said. "Sorry."

      Quick as a cat taking a mouse, the girl snatched the ropes from both their hands. Then she pulled and leaped, flipping up to grab a new handhold, pulling and leaping and flipping again to grab another handhold even higher. In seconds she was at the top of the ropes, smiling down at them.

      Wow! That's fast! Hercules whispered to Iolaus, "You know, she really doesn't need any help."

      Cheiron's voice rang out behind them. "Well done, Yvenna."

      At last, Hercules thought, the mystery girl has a name.

      Yvenna slid down the ropes and walked off. Everyone in the room watched her go, awed by the display of physical discipline.

      "Cadets!" Cheiron barked. "Resume the exercises!"

      All the cadets went back to their tasks, but Hercules hesitated a little longer. I know her name, he thought, but she's still a puzzle. What drives her?

~

      Yvenna dreamed deep in the night after lights-out. The nightmares waged war again in her mind. The ring of steel meeting steel punctuated the cries of the frightened and of the dying.

      Heart pounding, she awoke. She couldn't catch her breath, and perspiration drenched her. She exhaled, clearing her lungs till she was able to take deep breaths again.

      She looked to her left where Hercules bunked. Of all the cadets she'd met so far at the Academy, he seemed the most honest. And he has the cutest eyes.

      Even in the shadows, she saw that his bed was empty. Where could he have gone?

      She knew it wasn't any of her business, and she had her own agenda here. Reluctantly, she lay back and tried to sleep.

~

      Hercules moved on the elevated poles by the light of flickering lanterns. It was quiet in the gym, and there were no other sounds than his own labored breathing. Sweat covered him as he whirled the padded cudgel. He ducked, dodged, and spun. I can do this. I can do this.

      "These night sessions of yours have brought much improvement."

      Startled, Hercules missed one of the poles and crashed to the ground. He glanced up and saw Cheiron step out of the shadows. Much improvement - until now.

      "You startled me," Hercules said, remaining on the ground.

      "Always anticipate the unexpected," Cheiron advised. He nodded in satisfaction. "Very good work, Hercules."

      Feeling an uncertain glow of pride start within him, Hercules got to his feet. "This was my own little secret." Being beaten on the elevated poles had gotten unbearable. His pride had demanded the extra training even though he'd had to give up sleep to get it. A true son of Zeus would master such a thing.

      "Now it's ours," Cheiron stated. He handed Hercules a strip of cloth. "Here."

      Hercules took it, not comprehending. "What's this for?"

      "You're ready to progress to the next level." Cheiron's smile carried a hint of challenge. "Try it blindfolded."

      Hercules couldn't believe it. I've finally gotten good enough to move without falling. He can't expect me to do it blindfolded. "You don't quit, do you?"

      Cheiron's voice hardened. "Never-never-never-quit."

      Hesitantly, Hercules tied the strip of cloth over his eyes. And the lesson began again.

~

      Iolaus hated sword-stacking duty in the gym. Metal clanked against metal, and his arms already ached from the effort. The only thing that made it bearable was-

      Actually nothing makes it bearable, he realized when he thought about it. At least, nothing made it bearable until Yvenna walked by. The swords dropped from his arms and clattered against the floor.

      Yvenna gave him an amused glance and kept going.

      Abandoning his work, Iolaus raced up behind her and tapped her on the shoulder. "Hey."

      She turned abruptly, assuming a martial arts stance that he recognized too late to respond to. She grabbed his arm and flipped him onto a nearby canvas.

      Iolaus lay there. "I was only trying to get your attention."

      Yvenna nodded and released him. "You got it."

      Cautiously, Iolaus got up, putting some distance between himself and her. He'd noticed how Hercules had watched her. Some triumphs don't have to involve me fighting Hercules. He looked forward to Hercules' reaction when he saw Yvenna on his arm. Girls could never resist him.

      "If you need-I mean want, or would like a partner, I'm available at the drop of-"

      Yvenna cocked an eyebrow. "Some swords?"

      Embarrassment burned the back of Iolaus' neck, but he forced himself to go on. "What I'm saying is I can lose Hercules. He's a lot of dead weight to carry, even for someone of my advanced level."

      "I see," Yvenna said.

      Iolaus nodded. "The fact is, he's actually holding me back."

      Yvenna didn't look convinced. "Can I go now?" She turned and walked on.

      Taken by surprise, Iolaus lost a couple steps before he caught up to her again. Time to try a different tack. "Wait. May I apologize for saying that you were-"

      She cut him with her gaze.

      "-short?" Iolaus finished weakly.

      "Yeah," Yvenna said, totally unmoved. "That was a really cheap shot. Is that all?"

      Iolaus gave up the approach, frustrated. "Are you ever nice to anybody?"

      "I tried that once," Yvenna said. "It's not nearly as much fun." She left him standing there with his mouth open.

~

      That afternoon, after practice was finished, Yvenna walked away from the Academy to the river at the bottom of the hill. It was forested there, and she felt the spot would afford enough privacy for a relaxing swim.

      The water looked clean and refreshing, as if it would dissolve the remnants of the nightmare that had stayed with her that morning when she'd waked. She walked along the bank till she reached an area where trees grew thick.

      A running figure broke out of the trees to her left. She recognized him at once and smiled, knowing he hadn't seen her.

      Hercules left the bank in a long dive and hit the water cleanly. He disappeared under the surface, then came up a moment later, shaking the water from his eyes. "Whoa, that's cold." Then he spotted her, a mortified look taking shape on his face.

      "What are you doing here?" Yvenna demanded.

      Hercules worked his mouth, but nothing came out.

      Yvenna gloated inside. It was good to catch him so off balance. She grinned at him coyly. "Were you following me?"

      "No I didn't," he objected. "I was taking a bath."

      "I was going to take a bath here," she told him, trying to make him even more uncomfortable.

      "Excuse me," he replied, trying to assert himself. "I didn't see the sign that said Women Only. I'll leave."

      That wasn't exactly what Yvenna had expected him to say. He is shy. "No," she said, walking closer to the water."No, I've told Cheiron that I want no special treatment. Treat me like one of the guys."

      "Not like any guy I know." Hercules shook his head. "It's all right. I'll come back later."

      Yvenna smiled and sat on the riverbank. "Suit yourself."

      "Fine." He hesitated. "So - if you'll just turn around-"

      "Turn my back on you?"

      Hercules nodded hopefully.

      She almost took pity on him, then shook her head, laughing inside. "Never. Besides, I've been to Athens. I've seen statues. We're both mature cadets."

      Hercules looked totally helpless.

      Yvenna sat and waited.

      Then a panicked voice rang out. "Help me!"

      Yvenna turned and saw a runner come stumbling around the curve of the riverbank.

      "I must find Jason of Corinth!" the exhausted man cried, holding up an official-looking scroll. "It's urgent!"

Chapter Six

      Hercules studied Jason's face. Man, that looks like bad news. He and Iolaus sat quietly in the barracks room with the prince as he read the scroll the runner had brought.

      Jason maintained his composure, still the strong leader Hercules had met that first day at the Academy. When he was finished, Jason closed the scroll and handed it to Hercules.

      "What's it say?" Iolaus demanded.

      Hercules read from the scroll, starting somewhere after the official introduction parts. "Your father has been unconscious for two weeks. Strength diminishing daily. Have tried all available medicines. Corinth in disarray. Come home immediately." He closed the scroll

      Jason paced, as close to losing his self-control as Hercules had ever seen. "This is unbelievable," the prince said. "I saw him only two months ago. He was so strong."

      "Maybe it's just a bad case of the fever," Iolaus said.

      "There are remedies for that," Hercules stated.

      Iolaus shrugged. "Hey, I'm only saying I think he'll be okay. Probably a temporary condition."

      "I hope you're right," Jason said.

      Hercules looked at his friend somberly. "If not, you'd better get there as soon as possible."

      Jason pulled a long sword from his kit by the bunk bed. He stared at its gleaming length.

      That's not a common infantryman's sword, Hercules realized. It had jewels and intricate glyphs etched into the metal.

      "True." Jason twirled the sword expertly, then sheathed it with a flourish at his side. "Especially if there's chaos in the city. It's my duty." He pulled a bag from his kit and started packing.

      Hercules tried to decide what to do. Jason was a friend, but Hercules still had his own destiny to find. His mother had felt it lay here, at the Academy. He couldn't just walk away. But he didn't think he could let Jason go off alone with the heavy burden on his heart.

      Iolaus leaned in close to Hercules. "You mean Jason might become king?" the young thief whispered.

      Anger sparked inside Hercules. "What's the matter with you?"

      Iolaus avoided the question with a grin, then bounded to his feet and put his hand on Jason's shoulder. "You're going to need advisors. And I've got my finger on the public pulse."

      Hercules jerked up from his booth and approached them. "You'd steal it if you could," he accused.

      Jason shook his head. "I don't want to think about the throne now."

      For Jason to become king, Hercules knew, his father would have to die. "Jason, I'd like to go with you." Just to make sure Iolaus didn't go unsupervised.

      "I'm in," Iolaus added. "I always wanted to be a personal friend of a king."

      Jason looked at the young thief sharply. "Iolaus, I'm the same as I always was."

      Iolaus agreed with a nod. "Of course. But with power."

      "Jason," Hercules said, "We don't need him." Taking Iolaus along was like running with a sharp knife at your throat.

      "Yes, you do."

      "No, we don't."

      Jason stepped between them, obviously irritated. "Guys, put your differences aside. I may have need of you both."

      Iolaus grinned in triumph.

      If I ever need Iolaus' help, Hercules thought bitterly, it's only the last resort before I shake hands with Charon, the boatman to Underworld.

~

      The noonday sun burned down on the seashore. Hercules tried to sort out the number of days they'd been on the read but didn't know if he'd lost a day or maybe even two in his calculations. They'd traveled fast and they'd traveled hard. He watched the incoming waves, also trying to remember what a real night's sleep was like.

      Jason had remained grim and focused, his mind busy with all kinds of dark thoughts. Iolaus had been the opposite, always talking, though Hercules couldn't always remember what the conversation had been about when he finished.

      They ate lunch as they went, juggling apples, bread, and cheese. Thankfully, Iolaus hadn't insisted on talking about Yvenna. Hercules; thoughts hadn't strayed far from the girl cadet either, but he hadn't talked about her at all.

      "I've heard of 'eat and run,'" Iolaus griped. "I just never thought it meant at the same moment."

      He up-ended the goatskin containing soup they'd bought from a peddler they'd met on the road.

      "Sorry, Iolaus," Jason apologized. "I can't afford to waste time."

      Iolaus yanked the goatskin away and made a face. He spat out the soup and made gagging noises. "Five dinars for this lousy soup? Highway robbery takes on a new meaning."

      "And you know all about robbery," Hercules said, unable to resist.

      Iolaus frowned at him but didn't say anything. He shifted his attention to Jason. "When you're king we won't eat like this."

      Man, Iolaus, you have no tact at all, Hercules thought. Jason had obviously been worried about his dad all day.

      Jason spoke in a low tone, "When I'm king. I don't want to even consider life without my father."

      Hercules kept his voice soft. "You'll get through it."

      "But he's always been there for me," Jason explained.

      Hercules couldn't help wondering what that must have been like. There was so much he'd missed. But he'd already known that from watching the other fathers and sons in his own village. The tone in Jason's voice brought it all back. How do you get the attention of your father when he's the king of the gods?

      "Oh, yeah," Iolaus said. "My dad was there - about two weeks out of the year. The rest of the time he'd be off at some war. I mean, I wouldn't recognize him out of armor."

      "When I was a boy," Jason said, "my father would take me fishing, and we'd wrestle all the time. We'd dive off the cliffs at Delos."

      Hercules swallowed a mouthful of apple. "Really? Wish I'd had that."

      "So?" Iolaus challenged. "I never did things with my old man, and look how I turned out."

      Hercules and Jason both looked at him in reproach.

      Iolaus ignored them. "Anyways," he said to Hercules, "it's not Amphitryon's fault that he died while you were young."

      Without thinking about what he was sawing, Hercules blurted, "Amphitryon was not my father."

      Iolaus stopped in shock. "Whoa! Did Alcmene keep that quiet. Who's your real dad?"

      Hercules shook his head, knowing he'd said too much. "Never mind. It doesn't matter."

      Iolaus hurried and caught up to him. "Come on," he wheedled, "Who is it? Somebody in the village? Anybody I've met?"

      "No," Hercules said. "Even I haven't met him."

      "Have you ever tried to see him?" Jason asked.

      "Not yet," Hercules replied. "But maybe one of these days-" He changed subjects, pointing at the ling, ragged coastline that lay ahead of them. "Come on. Let's pick up the pace."

~

      Ares, dressed in regal robes instead of the warrior's black armor that suited him so well, stood over the comatose for of King Aeson in a small bedroom behind the throne room. The king of Corinth lay on a plush bed stamped with silverwork, wrapped in blankets that bore the royal seal.

      Only the slight rise and fall of the king's chest separated him from the land of the dead. Ares watched the movement with resentment.

      "Still hanging on, Aeson?" Ares taunted. "Very noble of you - almost kingly." If it hadn't been in his plans for the old man to live as long as he had, Aeson would have already been dead.

      The king was a middle-aged man who bore the scars and marks of a long life filled with adventure and responsibility. His hair and his full beard held a mix of black and gray. His ringed hands lay crossed over each other.

      "Lord Pelias," a voice called.

      Ares grinned. His newest identity was an absolute thrill even now. The histories of Corinth had mentioned that the king had lost his brother in the wars, but no one knew if he was alive of read. That made it easy to step into the role. Ares stepped out of the bedchamber and into the throne room. "Enter."

      A member of the Corinth artisans' guild entered the room and bowed nervously. The man looked harried, covered in stone dust. "King Pelias," he amended in a quavering voice. "That is to say when you are king when the other king is no longer king and you are king at last. And a good king at that."

      Ares dropped comfortably into the ornate throne. "And?" he asked, waving the man to get on with his story. Mortals were always annoying, but it was amusing to watch them in the full throes of fear.

      Realizing he still had his cap on, the man doffed it with hasted. "The work on your statue proceeds, Lord Pelias. We'll be finished in two weeks' time."

      "Two weeks?" Ares roared.

      The man cowered. "We are not married to two weeks. We could step it up."

      "But I so wanted to unveil it at the king's funeral - and that could be any day," Ares stated. "Finish it soon, or you'll join the others at the gates." Nearly every day there were new dead hung up on the poles along the outer walls.

      The artisan shivered. "Yes, my lord." Dismissed, he turned to scurry out of the room and nearly ran over Discord. The artisan bowed to her, turned and bowed to Ares, bowed to Discord again, and finally stumbled out of the room.

      "Stupid, helpless, incompetent mortals," Ares growled in disgust.

      Discord wore a long, flowing white dress, like a lady of the court. She perched on the edge of the throne by Ares and lazily adjusted the folds of her dress.

      "What's the point of this stupid charade?" she asked petulantly. "Why do you pretend to be Aeson's long-lost brother, Pelias? Let them know you're Ares and lay waste to this place."

      Ares pushed himself out of the throne. He paced and thought over his sister's simple, ruthless plan. He found he kind of liked it. But still, his own plan held clever details with a number of ramifications. He much preferred those. "Oh, sister, don't you see? This way brother kills brother. Uncle destroys son. I enjoy the symmetry."

      Discord pulled at her white gown, her distaste obvious. "Well, how long does this play-acting go on? I hate these clothes."

      "Yes, white is not your color. Not very exciting."

      She licked her bloodred lips and grinned at him. "What I'd find exciting is torching this city."

      "And slaughter so many innocents?" Ares asked, acting shocked. "Not a bad idea. Perhaps - in good time."

      Discord settled onto the throne, making herself at home. "Oh, did I mention your plan is unfolding like a black rose? Jason is on his way here."

      Ares smiled in satisfaction. Of course his plan was working. Intricate though it was, he'd made it. His plans didn't often fail. Corinth was going to be merely one more bauble in a long line of conquests he'd made. "Tell me Hercules is with him."

      "Consider yourself told." Discord jumped up from the throne. "Now let me ambush them on the road and send them packing to Tatarus!"

      "You're such a firebrand," Ares complimented her. "How easily you forget. Our dear half brother cannot be killed at the hand of either one of us - by order of Zeus."

      Discord whispered conspiratorially. "I'll do it quickly. Zeus might never know."

      "Patience," Ares advised. "If Hercules is tragically killed, along with his heroic friends, in an untimely, hideous, bloody accident-"

      "I love it when you talk like that," Discord told him. "And I've arranged one."

      Ares looked at her with pride. "Pretty sneaky, sister. What have you done without telling me?"

      An innocent smile curved Discord's lips. Her eyes gleamed with malice. "Only sent out the welcome wagon."

~

      "Are we almost there? Where's the red carpet? The food and wine? The nubile young women?"

      Hercules ignored Iolaus' whining voice as they crested the latest in a long line of sand dunes. The loose sand made walking even harder, and the sun was relentless. He'd spent a large part of the last few miles wondering how cool the sea would be. Maybe I could talk Jason into a swim for just a few minutes, Hercules thought. One look at Jason's face, though, told him it would be impossible to distract his friend. Hercules sighed and continued tramping through the sand.

      As they crested the dune, he spotted two black chariots racing toward them. The drivers and the men with them wore leather armor decorated with rings that also served as increased protection from sword blades. The horses were sweat-streaked, showing miles of hard use.

      The extra men in the chariots bore spiked maces. They showed every intention of using them and being happy about the opportunity. On closer inspection, Hercules saw the four warriors wore leather masks as well.

      That does not look good. "Here's your welcoming committee," Hercules told Iolaus.

      Only yards from them, the chariots separated. A chain hung between the chariots, ripping through the sand and scattering clouds of dust.

      Moving quickly, Hercules shoved Jason and Iolaus in separate directions. They flew out of harm's way, but the chariots were on Hercules before he could move. The chain caught him across the stomach, flipping him and knocking the wind out of him. He glanced back at his friends.

      The extra men in the back of the chariots had bailed out when Hercules had shoved his friends clear. The men lifted their maces and attacked Jason and Iolaus as the two got to their feet. Jason and Iolaus both ripped their swords free of their sheaths. The battle joined even as the chain dragged by the chariots flipped Hercules again. He landed on the other side of it and hung on stubbornly.

      He could have gotten free by letting go, but he had a plan. It actually wasn't much of a plan, but it worked for him. He also didn't have much time.

      The chariots closed together. For the first time, Hercules noticed the spinning razor-edged steel triangles sticking out of the center of the wheel hubs on the chariot to the left. If the drivers succeeded in pinning him between them, the flashing blades would slice and dice him. The drivers pulled on the reins, bringing the chariots even closer together as he held onto the chain.

Chapter Seven

      Desperate, Hercules pulled on the chain between the two chariots as the spinning blades closed in on him. If he could only break them, he knew he would have the chance he needed. Getting his grip while being pulled across the sandy beach as full gallop was hard. But finally he locked both fists on the chain and yanked as hard as he could.

      The chain links shattered just as the deadly razor edges were only inches from his face.

      Hercules clung to the end of the broken chain at the back on the chariot on his left. He immediately dropped behind the chariot, rolling as he was dragged through the sand.

      Tightening his grip, Hercules pulled himself up the chain hand over hand toward the chariot. The driver glanced back and saw him, then yanked his horses from left to right to try to shake Hercules free. Hercules twisted and turned at the end of the chain like a fish fighting a line. He kept climbing, spitting out the sand in his mouth.

      He reached the chariot and pulled himself on board. Finding his balance, he stood and grabbed the driver's shoulder. He spun the man around and punched him in his masked face.

      The chariot driver's head snapped back.

      Before the man could recover, Hercules picked him up and threw him from the chariot. Grabbing the reins, Hercules turned the horses around, then whipped them back up to speed as he headed toward Jason and Iolaus.

      He looked over his shoulder, watching the second chariot driver stop long enough to pick up the man Hercules had thrown out of the captured chariot.

      Jason feinted toward his opponent, then launched a roundhouse kick at the man's head as he ducked away. The kick stretched the man out in the sand. Iolaus flipped over the other guard's sword blow and landed behind the man before he could recover. Almost nonchalantly, the young thief slammed the flat of his sword against the man's head and laid him out. Both Jason and Iolaus sprinted towards the approaching chariot.

      Hercules slowed the team only a moment, long enough for his friends to leap on. Then he whipped the reins over the horses' backs, driving them forward at a full gallop.

      The second chariot came up quickly, gaining speed as the team stretched out their galloping legs. Their hooves clapped thunder against the ground, louder even than the rushing rattle of the chariot wheels. The first driver had picked up a mace and stood ready to use it.

      "Get us out of here," Iolaus yelled to Hercules.

      Knowing he couldn't outrun the other chariot, Hercules steered his team toward it. He closed in on the other chariot, getting close enough to reach out and touch it. He closed in on the other chariot, getting close enough to reach out and touch it.

      The chariot driver stared at them in astonishment. The man swung his mace at Iolaus, who ducked wildly beneath it.

      "Are you out of your mind?" Iolaus screamed.

      Hercules pointed at the wheel on Iolaus' side, indicating the flashing blades sticking out from the hub. He pulled the team toward the other chariot again. This time he matched up the blades with the other vehicle's wheel spokes. Metal shrilled as the keen edges shopped chips from the spokes and bared white wood. Hercules handed the reins to Iolaus, who struggled to maintain control over the pulling team.

      The blades shredded the narrow wheel spokes, dropping the other chariot's axle into the sand. At the same time, Hercules knocked the second man's mace away with a backhand block and grabbed a fistful of his shirt. He yanked the man from the chariot as the axle caught in the sand and flipped the rig into the air.

      Out of control, the chariot overturned. The team broke free of the traces and ran away as the driver crashed into the ground.

      Hercules held his prisoner in one hand, suspending him over the spinning wheel blades. He lowered him an inch or two, knowing the man would get the idea.

      Jason slipped in beside Hercules and addressed the man struggling to keep his feet above the whirling razors. "Who sent you?"

      "Pelias," the man answered without hesitation.

      A troubled look filled Jason's face. "Pelias is dead."

      The man shook his head. "Pelias is king."

      Hercules glanced at Jason, seeing the hard lights in his friend's eyes.

      Jason held his control, total ice. "Lose him," he said.

      Hercules shoved the man away, watching as he hit the sandy ground and went bouncing and rolling away. Hercules held his questions, knowing Jason didn't have any answers.

      He wouldn't know anything until they reached Corinth.

~

      The afternoon sun drew crimson streaks across the sky when Hercules guided the chariot to a stop on top of one of the hills overlooking Corinth. The walled city sat on top of a hill overlooking a fertile valley. A river cut through the valley, shimmering blue with smudges of the orange sky reflected in it.

      Hercules had never been to the city before, but he'd heard a lot about it from his mother. He gazed at it in wonder.

      They rolled into the forest and chopped branches and small trees. Working quickly and carefully, they left the chariot hidden in a mass of underbrush beneath a copse of trees. There was no question about what they had to do next. Jason had to get into the city, and Hercules and Iolaus were going with him.

      Then they walked down the hill and found the first of the dead hanging on posts.

      "This isn't right," Jason said as he gazed at all the corpses.

      Now, there's an understatement. "When did you last see your uncle?" Hercules asked.

      "My father told me he died in battle when I was a baby."

      They continued on to the city gates. Hercules gazed on both sides of the trail. More corpses hung from wagon wheels, days dead and rotting in the sun.

      Jason paused all of a sudden, then turned and walked over to one of the bodies. He looked up into the dead face. "Zandarus," he whispered in a hoarse voice. "My father's most trusted advisor." He glanced at Hercules, obviously shaken. "and the rest, all his inner council."

      I wonder how Iolaus feels about that advisor' position now? Hercules thought. But he didn't say anything. The harsh deaths of these people unnerved him as well.

      He studied the city walls. Corinth's walls were tall, and the watchmen strategically posted. Getting in would be difficult.

      "Pelias' orders," one of the watchmen yelled. "No one in, no one out."

      "I count three guards at the gate," Hercules said. "Let's take them."

      "No." Jason was firm. "I don't want any more of my people killed. Not even the guards."

      "Digging a tunnel might be a little time consuming," Iolaus pointed out. He paused for a moment. "Wait - does anybody have some of that soup left?"

      "Soup?" Hercules couldn't believe it. "We only ate a short time ago."

      Iolaus frowned and shook his head. "Work with me here, guys. I have a plan."

~

      Iolaus had stolen clothes before but never from dead men. Back in the forest, while filling Jason and Hercules in on his plan, he'd washed the clothes as clean as he could in a nearby stream. Even so, a certain stench still clung to them. Iolaus supposed it helped with his disguise.

      Now he staggered down the road leading to the main gate. The three guards watched him as he walked closer. He hoped they'd be less likely to spot Jason and Hercules sneaking up on them.

      Hey, this is working so far, he thought. Neither Jason nor Hercules had shown much support for the scheme, but neither had they come up with anything better. Like I told them, simple is best. And there's nothing more simple than a guy who's had too much to drink.

      He kept staggering, ignoring the guards' yells for him to go back.

      "Ninety-nine goatskins of wine on the wall," Iolaus sang in an off-key voice. He also sang as loudly as he could, hoping to cover whatever sounds Jason and Hercules made while sneaking up on the guards. "Ninety-nine goatskins of wine-"

      "Go away," the first guard ordered.

      Iolaus weaved to a stop in front of them and swayed from side to side, hamming up the part. Acting was one of the things he liked best about thieving. It really wasn't that much fun taking things when no one was around, even if it was more profitable.

      "Ah!" Iolaus roared. "Just the six guys I wanted to see." He grabbed the first guard by the shoulders, pointing at him with two fingers. "You two come join me for a drink." He pointed at the second guard. "And you two as well, because" - he pointed at the third guard - "they're buying!" He laughed uproariously.

      The first guard batted Iolaus' hat off. "Move on, or spend the night in jail," the man said. "The gates are closed."

      Iolaus staggered up and tried to look outraged. "Closed! They can't be closed!" He fisted the guard's uniform and pulled himself up to lay his head on the man's shoulder. "I love you guys, I really do!" He blew his nose noisily on the man's shirt sleeve.

      Feeling the man shift suddenly, Iolaus knew the blow was coming. He prepared himself for it, but the fist to his stomach still took his breath away.

      "Oh," Iolaus groaned. "You shouldn't have done that." He doubled over and made retching noises. "Here comes lunch." He squeezed the goatskin beneath his shirt, covering the movement with his body. As he hacked and coughed, he spilled the sour soup over the guard's shoes.

      The man jumped back as his buddies laughed.

      Looking past them, Iolaus saw Jason come up behind one of them and drive the guard to the ground with a flashing set of punches. Hercules grabbed his two guards and slammed their helmeted heads together with a resounding clonk! Before either man could recover, Hercules grabbed their hands and flipped them onto their backs, slamming them with enough force to knock them out.

      Iolaus crowed with delight as he shed his disguise and joined the others as they ran through the gate.

~

      Hercules followed Jason, who guided them through the shadows of the inner city. Corinth didn't look quite as grand as he'd thought it would. The few citizens out in the streets seemed to creep around like mice in a tiger's den. The soldiers acted imperious, shouting and yelling at people who didn't act fearful enough of them.

      "Regular thriving metropolis of Corinth," Iolaus whispered sarcastically.

      Hercules didn't feel the observation came at a proper time, but it was dead on.

      "My father wouldn't fortify the city like this," Jason declared quietly. His eyes roved the darkness, and they stole across another street, closing on the palace. "It's siege mentality."

      Hercules surveyed the palace ahead of them. Tall, elegant, and built of whitish stone, it stood behind a wall. Guards blocked the gate.

      "Not that I mind being a castle crasher," Iolaus said, "but how do we get in?"

      Eyeing the wall surrounding the palace, Hercules said, "Teamwork. Let's go." He led the way into the shadows when the guards were busy with their conversation.

      He stood at the base of the wall, then motioned Jason up onto his shoulders. Iolaus took the rope Hercules offered him and scrambled over both of them with the agility of a monkey. Once he reached the top of the wall, he secured the rope and dropped it down to them.

      After all the hours of practice in Cheiron's gym, Jason and Hercules easily went up the rope. On the other side, Jason took over the lead again, guiding them through a garden area. At an ornate sundial near tall flowering plants, the prince dropped down and pressed a combination of stones making up the base. It swung aside, revealing a tunnel. They went inside.

      Jason reached up and pulled the sundial back into place. Complete darkness covered them. "Keep a hand on the wall," the prince advised. "Follow it around. The floor's level."

      Minutes later they came to a halt, Hercules waited tensely in the dark. He never liked being in darkness when his mind was active. It conjured up too many things. And it was definitely active now.

      Jason opened a hidden door, then raced across a hall to another door. "My father's bedroom," he said, grabbing the handle. He shook it, but the lock held it closed.

      "Give me a minute," Iolaus said. He knelt and went to work on the lock with a pick.

      He didn't learn that at the Academy, Hercules thought. But he didn't say anything.

      Iolaus looked up at them and smiled. He turned the handle and pushed. The door opened silently.

      Candlelight filled the room beyond. Jason led the way in, breaking into a run till he reached the motionless figure on the bed. King Aeson looked terrible, his flesh gray from sickness.

      Hercules followed, watching the other doors leading into the room. He wasn't sure what kind of reception they were going to get if the guards found them.

      "Father!" Jason said, grabbing his father's hand. "Thank the gods, he's still alive. Can you hear me, Father? It's Jason." He pressed the king's hand to his face.

      A lump formed in Hercules' throat as he watched Jason. Hercules had always had his mother's love, and had always wondered what it would have been like to take part in Zeus's life. Or have Zeus take part in his life. He lost his train of thought when the door behind them exploded inward.

      A tall man with dark hair and a thin, sculpted beard strode into the bed chamber. Several guards with spears followed him, spreading out immediately.

      "Who disturbs the king?" the bearded man roared.

      Instinctively, Hercules stepped between Jason and the man. The prince was sealing with his own emotions at seeing his father in a bad shape. Jason might not handle himself well.

      The bearded man looked Hercules over from head to toe.

      "Jason, son of the king," the prince answered, his voice full of command.

      The bearded man smiled and started past Hercules. "My dear nephew! I'm your uncle - Pelias."

      Hercules didn't like stepping aside because he was still suspicious of the man. But he did.

      Pelias embraced Jason, who didn't return the gesture.

      "What have you done to my father?" Jason demanded.

      Pelias drew back and spoke soothingly. "Only summoned Corinth's finest physicians. Sadly, to no avail. We all die, Jason."

      "What ails him?"

      "None of them could say," Pelias said. "It would take the Golden Fleece itself to save him."

      Hercules' heard beat a little faster at the mention of the fleece. The fleece was a part of Zeus's history.

      "The finest physicians?" Jason didn't sound as though he believed the man's words.

      "I know how heartsick you must be, but imagine my loss - not being near my beloved brother for all this time, only to have him snatched away so cruelly."

      "And where exactly were you?" Hercules demanded.

      Pelias shifted his attention to Hercules. The man's dark eyes glittered. "I was a prisoner of war for eight years. I finally escaped, only to be lost at sea these last twelve years."

      "It's a big sea," Iolaus observed, his tone stopping somewhere short of insult.

      "Why are soldiers in the city?" Jason asked.

      "It's a time of chaos," Pelias answered. "With great sadness, I restored order and assumed the throne."

      "Yeah," Iolaus said smugly. "Well, you can cheer up. Jason's here to claim his birthright."

      "In the name of my father," Jason declared.

      Hercules figured the announcement would take away some of the tension of the moment, but it didn't. Instead, the soldiers moved in with their spears at the ready.

Chapter Eight

      Hercules stared at the advancing soldiers in disbelief, falling back to better protect Jason and Iolaus.

      "If only he agreed," Pelias said, indicating the comatose form of the king. Pelias whipped out a royal scroll and started reading. "'I, King Aeson, being of sound mind but failing body, name as successor to the throne my brother, Pelias.'"

      Jason stepped forward and snatched the scroll. He stared at it, searching for an answer in the words. "You forced him to write that!" He lunged for Pelias, but the guards protected Pelias with their spears.

      Hercules crabbed Jason by the shoulders and pulled him back. Hercules stepped in front of his friend.

      "Are you calling me a traitor?" Pelias demanded hotly. "You risk assaulting the acting king? These are death offenses!"

      "You wouldn't dare!" Hercules stood face-to-face with Pelias. For a moment, Hercules thought the acting king was actually going to strike him. Then the moment passed.

      "No," Pelias said, "I wouldn't. But I'd like to - very much." He flicked his gaze to Jason. "I'll banish him instead. Guards, escort my nephew and his friends out of the city."

~

      The soldiers didn't hesitate to throw Hercules, Jason, and Iolaus out at the front gate. Once the guards had released him, Jason started back to the gate. "I'm not leaving my father in the hands of Pelias," he told Hercules. "He'll have to kill me!"

      Hercules grabbed his friend's shoulder, hating how helpless he felt. He could only imagine what Jason was feeling. But he'd also gotten the distinct impression that Pelias would have no problem at all having Jason killed.

      Jason fought against Hercules' grip on his shoulder for a moment. But he wasn't able to break that hold.

      Locking eyes with his friend, Hercules said, "Jason, what's the most important thing to you at this moment?"

      Jason was breathing hard, his face flushed. He was as close to being out of control as Hercules had ever seen. "Saving my father's life."

      Hercules nodded. "Then let's save it. Let's get the Golden Fleece."

      Jason looked at him, calming down. "Yes."

      Iolaus interrupted them. "What's the Golden Fleece?"

~center>

      They took the main road out of Corinth. By the time they cleared the first hills on their way back to the chariot they'd hidden, they were deep into planning the quest.

      Hercules could barely restrain his own excitement. "We'll need help from some of the other cadets. I'm sure they'll do it if you ask."

      Jason was more doubtful. "Impossible."

      "We go back to the Academy," Hercules said, "recruit some other cadets, and set sail for Korsenia." He didn't know how many would agree to go with them, or even where they'd get a ship, but it was possible. It had to be.

      "Korsenia?" Iolaus repeated.

      "Do you know how many men have died trying to obtain it?" Jason demanded.

      Iolaus tried to break into their conversation. "What's the Golden Fleece?"

      Hercules and Jason continued to ignore him.

<center>~

      Later, after they'd recovered their hidden chariot, the subject of how many men had died trying to get the Golden Fleece came up again. It had become a major sticking point in their plans.

      "Probably hundreds," Hercules admitted as he held the vehicle effortlessly across the sandy shore. With the chariot, they would cut their time getting back to the Academy.

      "It can't be done," Jason insisted. "It's a dream."

      For a can-do guy, Hercules thought irritably, Jason can really be a stick in the mud. "Then let's make it come true. I'd save my father if I had the chance."

      "You're out of your mind."

      Totally frustrated because he hadn't been able to take part in the conversation, Iolaus turned from the chariot's side. "Guys, what's the Golden Fleece?"

~

      Even back at the Academy barracks, the argument raged on between Hercules and Jason. But they finally relented and answered Iolaus' questions.

      "The Golden Fleece is the skin of a ram," Hercules said, "made of pure gold-"

      "Pure gold?" Iolaus asked. "Stop right there. I'm in.

      "-sacrificed to my father by a king named Phrixis." Hercules continued on, lost in the memory of the stories. "The gold means nothing. The fleece's real power is to heal any illness."

      Jason whirled Hercules around. "'Sacrificed to my father'?" he repeated. "Are you saying that your father is Zeus?"

      Hercules couldn't believe he'd revealed so much. He'd tried so hard to keep his own secret, but the excitement had burned within him. I can't lie to them. Not after everything we've been through and everything we've got facing us. He nodded.

      Jason rolled his eyes. "I was right. You're out of your mind."

      "I swear it," Hercules said softly. "On my mother's life."

      "Well, now I see why Alcmene kept that news under her hat," Iolaus said. He felt Hercules' arm. "And all these years, I thought it was just heavy weightlifting that made you so strong."

      Jason grew quiet, looking at Hercules. His gaze told Hercules he was starting to believe him. "Son of a god or no, it's far too dangerous. We could all be killed."

      That statement seemed to shake even Iolaus out of his gold lust. "Oh." He glanced at Hercules and shook his head. "Hercules, if Jason says it can't be done, it can't be done. Next idea."

      Hercules ignored Iolaus, knowing Jason was the one he had to convince. "Sure, Iolaus is scared-"

      Iolaus got in his face. "Don't call me a coward. Son of Zeus or not - I'll go anywhere you go!"

      "-but you and I," Hercules continued, looking past Iolaus, "we can pull this off, stop Pelias, and save your father."

      Jason reflected on Hercules' words. "And Corinth."

      Wow, Hercules thought, watching Jason, what must it feel like to be responsible for a whole country?

      Surprisingly, Iolaus lent support to Hercules' cause. "Look, the gods have to be watching over us with Hercules aboard."

      "All right," Jason said, "we'll do it! I'll speak to some of the others." Once he had a plan of action, all his old confidence seemed to come back. He turned and marched from the room.

      Iolaus shook his head and glanced at Hercules. "Son of a god, son of a king. I'm definitely moving up on the social ladder. By the way, have you spoken to him about this?" He jerked a thumb up to the ceiling.

      "Not recently," Hercules said, not wanting to admit he'd never talked to his father. "But he'll want to see me after I steal the fleece." He has to. This is a real hero's quest.

      "Don't you mean we?" Iolaus asked.

      "Yeah," Hercules said. "That's what I said - we."

~

      Hercules worked at his calisthenics with the small group Jason had organized. They'd claimed part of the exercise floor as their own, trying to keep Cheiron from catching on.

      Jason, Iolaus, Enyo, Thamus, and Liardus worked in perfect cadence, already well on their way to becoming a unit under the prince's hand.

      "The six of us," Hercules said, "plus Mikos and Alcestor." He glanced over the counter to where Cheiron was keeping a closer eye on them than usual.

      "Fine," Jason said. "Provisions?"

      "I'm on kitchen duty," Liardus said.

      "Weapons?" Jason asked.

      Hercules held up his fists. Since he'd admitted to being the son of Zeus and undertaking the quest for the Golden Fleece, he'd felt more confident than he ever head. "I've got mine right here."

      Iolaus rolled his eyes. "I can get swords."

      "Transportation?" Jason asked, moving on.

      No one had an answer.

      Hercules started to get edgy. Surely someone knows somebody who has something.

      "My uncle owns the Argo," a feminine voice said.

      Surprised, Hercules turned and saw Yvenna standing there. She gazed at them coolly.

      Before anyone could say anything, Cheiron stamped closer, gazing at them. "Pair off for wrestling."

      The boys split up immediately.

      Hercules grabbed Yvenna and pulled her onto one of the mats as his partner. They started to circle each other, arms thrown out to the sides. Watching her move so naturally and easily, Hercules wondered how he'd forgotten how good she looked while he'd been planning the theft of the Golden Fleece. "You can get a ship?" he asked.

      Yvenna nodded. "But you didn't even ask me on this mission." She stepped forward and locked up with him, pitting her strength against his.

      "I was going to," Hercules said. "Really." Actually, the thought had crossed his mind, but only fleetingly. Yvenna had been so stand-offish that he figured she wouldn't want to go.

      "Sure," Yvenna said sarcastically. Without warning, she flipped him, landing on top. She pressed down against his wrists, straddling his chest, holding him down.

      "No," Hercules said. "I swear. You're one of the best warriors I've ever seen."

      "In the gym?" Yvenna asked. "Yeah. You'll say anything now to get what you want."

      Hercules looked up at her, staring deep into her eyes. All that newfound confidence had suddenly opened up a whole bunch of new possibilities. He hadn't had much to do with girls back in his village. He'd always stood apart from most kids his age. But with Yvenna, he felt they were equals.

      "Come with us," he said. "We need you." Then he surprised himself by adding: "I need you."

      Slowly, as if knowing there was more going on than his words revealed, Yvenna released him. "I'll think about it." She got to her feet and walked away.

      Hypnotized, Hercules watched her go.

~

      Several nights later, only a few minutes after lights-out in the Academy barracks, Hercules crouched down and kept watch in the corridor where Jason had arranged for all of them to meet. Too keyed up to sleep, Hercules was the first one there.

      If everything went according to plan and they gathered the supplies they needed, they'd be leaving in a matter of minutes.

      Jason arrived next, followed in quick succession by Iolaus, Mikos, Alcestor, Thamus, Enyo, and Liardus.

      Hercules peered anxiously for Yvenna. Where is she? And what are we going to do if she can't get the ship?

      A moment later he heard light footsteps coming down the corridor. Hercules' heart beat faster. Then Yvenna stepped around the corner, grinning as conspiratorially as the others.

      "I', glad you came," Hercules told her.

      She shrugged.

      Iolaus laughed. "I can't believe we slipped past the old geezer."

      Light from a torch suddenly invaded the corridor, followed by a bulky figure. The sound of horse's hooves rang on the stone floor.

      "That would be me, I presume," Cheiron said.

      Hercules froze, not believing they'd gotten caught. He had no doubts about what the battle master was going to do. It was game over, and they hadn't even gotten started.

Chapter Nine

      Cheiron walked forward, holding the torch aloft so the light fell over the whole group. The battle master's lined face was hard as stone.

      Jason stood up to meet him, and Hercules could tell from the prince's stance that he was about to make a case for them.

      Cheiron didn't give him a chance. "No, I won't stop you. Do what you must do. And if you remember nothing else, remember this." He raked them all with his gaze. "The pack gets its strength from the lead wolf, but the lead wolf draws his strength from the pack."

      Hercules memorized the saying. Cheiron had a disturbing habit of expecting cadets to repeat them in the middle of exercises.

      "Go," Cheiron commanded. "The gods be with you."

      Jason nodded and waved the rest of them into motion.

      As Hercules started to pass, Cheiron dropped a hand on his shoulder, stopping him.

      What did I do wrong? Hercules asked. Is he going to let everyone go but me? He can't do that!

      Cheiron locked eyes with Hercules. "You're the lead wolf," the centaur said. "But are you doing this for purely selfless reasons? Or does Hercules, son of Zeus, have a personal agenda?"

      Hercules squirmed under the penetration gaze. Cheiron knows exactly why I'm doing it. "What if I do?" Hercules responded.

      "Then you'll never succeed," Cheiron answered flatly.

      Dismissed, Hercules dropped his gaze and hurried after the others. I can do what I'm doing for the reasons I'm doing it. It's my life I'm risking. And it's going to benefit Jason and King Aeson as well as me.

      But he got the definite feeling that none of those arguments would mean anything to Cheiron.

~

      "He's late," Jason declared impatiently. "How long are we going to wait?"

      Hercules sat on one of the dock pilings, gazing around the docks stabbing out into the ocean. The rest of the village beyond the dockyard was dark, scattered up the steep hillside beyond. Only a few torches and lanterns lit up the night. The smell of brine was strong, and Hercules was beginning to believe his nose would never be the same again.

      The Argo was moored at the end of the dock, rising and settling on the gentle swell of the waves. A giant eyeball painted on the side of the bow caught the light. She was a two-masted ship with a bowsprit and a shallow draw, perfect for intercostal ports.

      Even at night the docks bustled with business as laborers unloaded ships and hauled other cargoes on. Hercules watched the frenzied activity and shook his head. For a secret mission, this sure seemed public.

      "My uncle Argus won't let me down," Yvenna insisted.

      As if in answer to her statement, a man's voice cut through the murmuring conversations. "Excuse me. Coming through. Gangway!"

      The laborers and sailors stepped aside, allowing through a rumpled young man who looked as though he'd just gotten out of bed and dressed in the dark. His clothes were wrinkled and mismatched, and the tricorner hat on his head sat at a jaunty angle. Over his shoulder he carried a duffel bag.

      "Oh no," Yvenna whispered.

      The young sailor stopped at the ramp leading up to the Argo. "Gangway." He laughed at his own joke. "That's pretty funny. Gangway, get it?" He pointed to the ramp. "Hi, Yvenna." Then he turned his attention to the others. "Captain Attica at your service."

      Hercules gave him a half-hearted salute.

      "Where's Uncle Argus?" Yvenna asked.

      "Dad couldn't make it," Attica said. "Scurvy. I only have a mild case of it."

      Immediately, Hercules and the others pulled back.

      Attica roared with laughter. "Only kidding! You're all in good hands. Let's go aboard!" He swung around, pulling the duffel bag up over his shoulder. It kept going and slapped him on the back, knocking him from the gangway. He dropped like a rock into the water but surfaced immediately. "Everything's okay! Go on aboard! Don't wait on me!"

      Hercules gazed down at the flailing man in the water, then back at Yvenna. Things were not progressing smoothly.

~

      Ares walked into the bedroom, smelling the scents of oils and soaps thick in the air. He was happy. Everything was progressing exactly on schedule, except maybe a few more mortals than he would have liked were still breathing.

      Discord sat in a tub, luxuriating in the steamy water. Bottles of different sizes and colors lined the wall on the other side of the tub.

      "They've set sail for Korsenia," she said.

      "See, sis?" Ares smiled at her. "Patience brings rewards. I told you Hercules would go after the fleece. He's still desperate to prove himself to Dad."

      "There are nine cadets in all," Discord said. "Without Cheiron."

      Ares grinned. Discord's scrying powers were truly magnificent. "Perfect!" he exclaimed. "Lambs to the slaughter. When I think of all the heroes that I'm dispatching at once - it's beautiful. But what to wear to the funeral?"

      Discord looked at him. "So now I can bait the trap?"

      Spotting the small model of the Argo beside the tub, Ares picked it up, inspecting it closely. "You really want to see half brother dead, don't you?"

      "Yes."

      Ares placed the model boat in the tub in front of her. It bobbed on the water. "Very well. Go get him."

~

      The Argo cleaved through the turquoise water. Her yellow- and white-striped sails belled with the wind, and all the rigging stayed tight. The bowsprit bobbed up and down, making the footing tricky for Hercules as he climbed through the rigging. They'd been under way for a couple days. All the cadets had worked on ships before, so they handled the sails and the tiller with practiced ease.

      The problem is, Hercules thought as he scrambled through the main sail rigging, the work never ends. Even so, the sun felt good against his back. He finished tying off the new ropes he'd woven into the rigging and glanced over to Iolaus, up in the crow's next. Jason manned the tiller.

      Yvenna stood in the bow, looking out to sea. To Hercules, she looked like somebody with a lot on her mind. He'd noticed that lately she hadn't been as talkative as usual, but he couldn't figure out what had brought about the change.

      He climbed down the rigging and dropped to the rolling deck, then he walked up behind her. "You look a little uneasy," he said. "Seasickness?"

      Yvenna hesitated for a moment. "I wish it was."

      "It's understandable," Hercules said. "We're all concerned about what lies ahead."

      She shook her head. "No, it's more like what's behind." She looked up at him, and her eyes were bright with unshed tears. "Hercules, there's something you should know about me. I'm not what you think."

      Hercules lowered his voice, meaning to come across as playfully. "What do you mean?" He leaned into her, close enough to smell the soap in her hair and lose the stink of the brine for a moment.

      "Hey, you two idlers!" Attica roared. "Yvenna, trim that jib!"

      Yvenna glanced at Hercules as if she wanted to say something more, but she climbed into the rigging and left it unsaid.

      He watched her go, trying to figure out what was on her mind.

      "Hercules," Attica yelled, "swab the deck."

      Swab the deck? Hercules turned and looked at the ship's captain.

      "We'll have no lay-abouts on my watch." Attica was sitting in a deck chair under an umbrella. A tankard of ale rested nearby. He held a book on his knees. The pages fluttered. "Wee that? You made me lose my place!"

      Hercules ignored the man and glanced up at Yvenna working on the jib sail. He wished he could help her.

~

      Jason stood at the porthole in the galley and watched the restless shrugs of the wine-dark sea. His thoughts were of his father and Corinth, and the unrest that Pelias had brought to the city. Jason hadn't gotten a good night's sleep since he learned of his father's illness.

      What would he do without his father? It was too much even to contemplate.

      Wanting to free himself of his dark thoughts, Jason glanced at the cadets sitting at the long, narrow table in the galley. Yvenna sat across from Thamus. Iolaus and Enyo were just entering with their meals.

      "So I told him," Iolaus said, "'Hercules, don't touch the urn!'" He took a seat at the table. "But does he listen? He drops it, and out flies this tremendous twister, which sucks him right up into the sky! I'm thinking, Act fast, Iolaus."

      The young thief had the attention of everyone at the table.

      "Then what happened?" Enyo asked, hanging on every word.

      Iolaus looked down at his plate, then over at Jason. "Hey, Jason, why the child-size portions?"

      "Just to be on the safe side," Jason answered, "We're rationing the food."

      The galley doors banged open, and Attica backed into the room. Plates filled his hands, and bananas stuck out of his pockets. Around his neck hung a string of dried sausages, and he balanced a tankard of ale at his fingertips.

      "Can someone get that galley door?" Attica asked. "My hands are full."

      "I'll say," Iolaus agreed. "That's about six months' worth of grub."

      Attica drew himself up to his full height. "The captain has unlimited access to the larder. Union rules! I'll be in my cabin, Call me at eight bells."

      Hercules stepped inside and held the door open until Attica passed through. He looked around the room. "Thamus, your turn at the wheel. Relieve Liardus."

      Thamus got up and left as Hercules seated himself at the table.

      Jason watched them, feeling proud. He couldn't have picked a finer bunch of friends to share this adventure with. However, a nagging voice in the pack of his mind reminded him that the voyage had barely begun. There was no way of knowing all the dangers they would face. He moved from the porthole and joined the group at the table.

      "So what happened next?" Enyo asked Iolaus. "How did you save Hercules from the twister?"

      Not believing what he was hearing, Hercules looked up at Iolaus, across the table from him.

      Iolaus at least had the good taste to appear somewhat embarrassed. "Whoa." He waved the question off. "Enough about me. It's boring." He turned to Yvenna. "So, Yvenna, what brought you to the Academy?"

      She shook her head. "It's not important."

      Hercules saw the pain in her eyes again and he wished he could help her. Maybe talking will help. "No, really," he said, "We'd like to hear it."

      The others around the table agreed with him.

      "Not long ago," Yvenna said in a reluctant and heavy voice, "marauders attacked my village. We fought hard. Many were killed. Most of the rest are now slaves. I watched my own mother die." Her voice broke. "I vowed to avenge her death and free my people." She looked at Hercules.

      Stunned, Hercules looked back at her, searching for words. "I'm... sorry."

      "Why do you come with us when you have your own mission?" Jason asked.

      "It's personal," Yvenna answered. "Once we obtain the fleece, I'll know I'm ready."

      We've all got our own agendas, Hercules realized. I wasn't the only one Cheiron should have talked to.

      Iolaus picked through his food, but he grinned at her. "I'd love to have seen how many of the raiders you took out. I'll bet they didn't see that coming. I mean, from a" -he hesitated- "from a short person."

      Of all the bone-headed things you've managed to say, Iolaus, Hercules thought, feeling embarrassed for Yvenna, that was just one of the really big ones. Quiet descended over the table.

      Yvenna reddened and left the table abruptly, obviously totally uncomfortable. She crashed through the galley door and went up on deck.

      "Way to go, Iolaus," Hercules said.

      "What?" Iolaus demanded. "What did I say?"

      As the others started giving Iolaus grief about his lack of social graces, Hercules got up from the table and went after Yvenna.

Chapter Ten

      Yvenna didn't stop. She raced across the deck and climbed the stairs to the prow castle. She stood at the railing, stopping only because there was nowhere else to go. The full moon hung in the sky, providing plenty of light.

      Hercules followed her, walking up to join her. He felt nervous, wanting to do something but not knowing what he could do or what she would allow him to do.

      Yvenna whirled around on him angrily, tears glittering in her eyes. "What do you want?" she demanded.

      Hercules spread his hands and spoke softly. "Nothing." He shrugged. "Only to apologize if Iolaus said something stupid. Sometimes he can't help it."

      Yvenna hesitated for a moment. "It's just... nerves. I'll go relieve Alcestor on the watch." She started to walk away.

      "Wait," Hercules said. "Something's bothering you. Why don't you tell me about it?"

      She started to speak, then appeared uncertain. "Never mind." Her voice broke slightly. "It's not important."

      "Yvenna," Hercules said softly, "once in a while, it's okay to need somebody."

      She appeared to consider that. Her hands made hard fists on the prow railing. She took a deep breath, then spoke in a voice constricted with repressed emotion. "I wasn't truthful back there. When my village was attacked... I ran and hid in the woods. From there I watched the death of my whole family. I didn't do anything. I was too afraid."

      Hercules reached for her, holding her close in his arms. It felt natural to try to comfort her. "That's the past," he soothed. "Let it go. If you had stayed, you might have died, too. I'm glad you didn't stay."

      She was quiet for a time, hanging on to him hopefully. "Well, if I can help get the fleece, then I'll know I’m ready to go back and wreak vengeance. And pray that the gods forgive me for being a coward." She let out a long, shuddering breath.

      Hercules felt the tension go out of her body. "Whatever went before," he said, "I know you're not a coward."

      "I hope you're right," she told him. After a moment more, she pushed against his chest, forcing his grip open. She left without another word.

~

      Early dawn painted the morning sky tangerine and threw down orange sparks that lay across the turquoise sea. Hercules watched the clouds overhead and wondered if the weather would hold. The wind had picked up overnight. Even now, the sails belled with the breeze.

      He'd drawn the early rudder work and held the great wheel easily on the course Attica had set. The wind ruffled his hair, giving him a feeling of freedom that disappeared when he thought of the quest they were on.

      Yvenna's words had haunted what little restless sleep he'd gotten. She's worried whether she's going to prove herself good enough to go back and free her people from tyranny, he thought guiltily. And me? Me, I spend my time worrying about impressing a father I've never seen. His own reasons for coming didn't measure up with hers. He almost felt ashamed. But a father's love, isn't that worth a journey to the ends of the earth?

      A haunting sound interrupted his reverie. He jerked his head up and peered to port. There, in the swirling early morning mists that would soon burn off, he saw the land he was following. He didn't know the name of the island, but he'd come upon it nearly an hour ago. Attica had given directions to follow any coastlines Hercules saw and to keep them to the left.

      As he listened, Hercules realized that the sound was some kind of song. It was a haunting melody, full of sadness and longing.

      Jason, Iolaus, and the others came running up onto the deck. They streaked to the railing and peered out.

      Surprised, Hercules watched them. He hadn't thought the sound was loud enough to penetrate belowdecks. The song continued, growing stronger till it filled every breeze that blew by them.

      "That sounds like a woman," Jason said. "Where's it coming from?"

      "It's coming from that island," Hercules said.

      Iolaus took the spyglass from the main mast. It was a wooden rod fitted with a series of polished glass magnifying lenses staggered one after the other. Iolaus moved it slowly, focusing on the shoreline.

      Jason unfolded a map and studied it. Hercules new his friend had been following the course laid out by Attica. Nobody really trusted the ship's captain.

      "That's Ithra," Jason said. "But it's supposed to be uninhabited."

      Even with his naked eye, Hercules could see crumbling ruins up the hill from the shoreline. Stone columns lay crooked and shattered over piled of debris that must have once been a village. Hercules didn't like the interest shown by all the others. They already had a mission.

      "Whoa!" Iolaus cried suddenly, still peering through the spyglass. "Female in distress! Drop anchor!"

      The cadets galvanized into action, getting ready to adjust the sails to change course.

      "No," Hercules interrupted, "we can't stop now. I'm on a mission."

      They all froze, looking at him. The haunting melody keened around them, seeming to find a home in the sails themselves.

      Jason stared at Hercules as if he'd done something wrong. "We all are."

      Hercules didn't understand the prince's reaction. If Jason agreed they were all on a mission, then what was the problem?

      "Put me in a dinghy," Iolaus crowed. "I'll take care of the problem myself."

      Liardus and Thamus instantly joined in, volunteering their services as well.

      Hercules locked the wheel into position, then moved forward. "Jason, I say we press on."

      Yvenna looked at him doubtfully. "But if that woman really needs help-"

      Hercules couldn't meet her gaze. More than anything, he wanted to keep going. There was danger enough without making additional stops.

      Jason folded his map with deliberation and faced Hercules squarely. "We're going ashore."

      Hercules stood there and they left him alone.

      Jason yelled out orders, getting the sails trimmed and taking the wheel himself. In short order they turned for Ithra.

      The sound of the haunting melody grew louder in Hercules' ears as he stood at Jason's side. The land grew steadily closer. Spotting a cove, Jason steered for it.

~

      Leaving the Argo at anchor off the beach where Iolaus had spotted the woman, Jason commanded that the dinghy be lowered. The cadets piled in and eased down to the water using the block-and-tackle rigging that hung over the ship. Attica decided to stay with the ship, not very happy that they'd chosen to go ashore either.

      Hercules went with the others, but their enthusiasm for the rescue of a beautiful woman didn't rub off on him.

      The cadets oared toward shore, then abandoned the dinghy when they reached the shallows. Hercules pulled the small boat onto the sand himself. Only Yvenna held back when the others, led by Iolaus, approached the woman walking toward them.

      She was tall and beautiful, Hercules had to admit, with raven locks cascading down her back. The woman wore a brocaded corset, over a short, sheer skirt. She carried a peach in one hand and walked as though she didn't have a care in the world. A seductive smile turned up her lips.

      There's no way she's shipwrecked, Hercules thought. Not looking like that. And if she fell off a ship, it was definitely a pleasure cruiser.

      The cadets crowded around her.

      "Were you shipwrecked?" Jason asked.

      "Are you hurt?" Liardus asked.

      "Are you stranded?" Thamus asked.

      Iolaus grinned, shrugging through the others with a thief's ease. "Are you available?"

      Hercules joined them. Yvenna was at his side.

      The woman didn't answer any of their questions. She didn't speak at all. She just smiled a little wider, then bit into the peach. The juice ran down her chin until she wiped it away delicately.

      "Boy," Iolaus said enviously, "would I like to shake hands with a peach." He looked at the rest of the group. "Guys, go on. I'll take it from here."

      Nobody moved.

      Then the woman crooked her finger at them all, drawing them in closer as she backed away.

      "She doesn't seem all that upset anymore, does she?" Yvenna said.

      Hercules didn't answer. He was starting to get a bad feeling about the whole business. Before he could say anything, he had to hurry to keep up with the others. In the distance, he saw a storm starting to gather out at sea.

~

      The journey didn't last long, but the woman never spoke once. She led the cadets down the shoreline to a huge cave. Hercules didn't know why the others weren't asking her a lot of questions, or even inviting her to accompany them back to the Argo.

      Hercules wanted to ask her, but every time he started to, the question seemed to evaporate from his mind. When he saw the interior of the cave she'd led them to, he forgot about it altogether.

      Torches lit the interior, taking away some of the darkness brought on by the approaching storm and the shadows cast by the stalactites hanging from the ceiling. Tables were heaped with an impossible selection of meats, cheeses and fruits. Another table held a roasted pig on a spit as well as an assortment of roasted birds. Fishing nets took the place of tablecloths.

      "Food!" Iolaus roared. "No more mini meals!" He led the charge to the tables, scooping up handfuls.

      Enyo drank from a bubbling fountain, sticking his head in so it trickled into his open mouth. After drinking his fill, he pulled back and wiped his lips, looking totally contented. "Sweet! Like no wine I've ever tasted."

      Unable to contain the dread that hovered around the parts of his mind that didn't feel blurry, Hercules told Jason, "Something's not right here. Let’s leave."

      Jason shook his head in disbelief. "No, the men deserve a night to rest. It's as if the gods planned this." He walked over to join the rest of them.

      "That's what I'm afraid of," Hercules said. But no one paid any attention to him. After looking at the woman a moment, he forgot that he himself had any problems with the cave full of food.

~

      Hercules sat in a corner of the big cave with Yvenna and watched the party. He'd drunk and eaten as well, and the uncomfortable uneasiness that coiled in the back of his mind was nearly gone. But the remnants clung with the tenacity of a fishhook.

      The feast lasted for hours. Darkness swallowed the light outside the cave's mouth, and still the mounds of discarded bones piled up around the stalagmites rising from the cave floor. Empty gourds and crustacean shells lay in scattered abandon.

      The woman moved among the cadets. She was the perfect hostess, serving and enticing. Then she began to dance, her arms and legs moving flawlessly, drawing every eye in the room.

      Hercules saw the jagged streaks of lightning as the threatening storm broke free outside. He promptly forgot it in the next moment. Nothing outside the cave mattered.

      He looked at Yvenna. "Well, doesn't look like we're sailing tonight. So, when in Ithra-" He took the empty wine cup from her hands, then leaned forward and kissed her. He fully expected to get slapped for his efforts and couldn't believe he'd been so bold. He'd never kissed a girl before.

      Surprisingly, she kissed back. They separated, looking into each other's eyes.

      Feeling giddy, Hercules leaned back in his chair.

      At a nearby table, Thamus reached for a roasted bird.

      Jason slapped his hand away. "Hands off! I'm the leader."

      The woman laughed, her deep, throaty chuckle filling the cave. She kept dancing, her arms and legs flashing hypnotically.

      Hercules refilled their wine cups from the bubbling stream and returned to Yvenna. He had to step around Jason and Thamus while they continued to fight over the roast chicken.

      For a moment Hercules felt he should try to stop them. But the feeling quickly passed. His biggest interest was getting back to Yvenna with the wine. Before he could, Iolaus spun abruptly and punched Jason in the face, knocking the prince backward.

      In another corner a razor-edged blade flashed as Alcestor moved to attack Mikos, who'd drawn his own weapon. Steel rang against steel as they fought. Hercules shook his head, barely hearing the hysterical voice in the back of his own mind. He knew they shouldn't be fighting, by it was okay, wasn't it? He returned to the small table he shared with Yvenna, carefully placing down their drinks.

      "Are you feeling a little weird?" he asked both the Yvennas he saw suddenly sitting on the other side of the table.

      Both Yvennas smiled at him, but they didn't say anything. They stood up together and drew back their fists. The next thing Hercules knew, both those fists crashed into his jaw.

Chapter Eleven

      Hercules flew backward, driven by the force of Yvenna's punch. Pain flared along the whole side of his head. He landed on his back, then rolled to his feet. Suddenly, things in the cave no longer seemed okay. Each cadet was fighting with another. Their swords and knives flashed. Nearby, Jason drew his sword back and aimed it at Thamus' neck, intending to behead him.

      "No!" Hercules roared, shoving himself toward Jason. He grabbed the prince's arm, stopping the blow by sheer inches. "No!" It felt good to be saying no. Someone should have been saying it a long time ago.

      Jason's mouth was torn in a ragged grimace, and madness shone in his eyes.

      Still holding on to Jason's sword arm, Hercules grabbed the prince by the shoulder with his free hand. He shook him. "Jason! Jason!"

      For a moment Jason seemed to be listening.

      The Iolaus grabbed the prince by the shoulder, spun him around, and walloped him with a round-house punch, Jason crashed backward across one of the banquet tables.

      Hercules' senses spun. As long as we're in this cave, nothing's going to be okay. His head still felt thick and heavy, and thinking was hard. He glanced around the room, wondering where to start.

      Across the room, the woman had finally stopped dancing. Surprisingly, none of the cadets came close to her. None of the flashing blades came close to her.

      Hercules stared at her, trying harder to clear his head.

      The woman's image shimmered like a mirage on a hot day. First she was the dancer, then in the next moment she was younger, harder, and evil-eyed girl with coal-black hair.

      She's not human! The realization took Hercules' breath away. The girl caught his gaze, and his head felt woozy again. He turned away from her. His heart hammered in his chest as he saw with what fury his friends were fighting. They could easily kill one another.

      Engaged in heavy swordplay, Alcestor chased Mikos out of the cave.

      Dizzy, Hercules raced to Yvenna. The girl warrior drew back her hand and swung again. He ducked beneath the blow, letting it slide harmlessly over his shoulder. Then he ripped her belt from around her waist. She drew her knife and slashed at him, but he batted her hand away.

      When she pulled back to slash again, Hercules trapped both her hands behind her back and used the belt to tie her to a stalagmite. After securing her, he wheeled back to the others.

      Iolaus pummeled Jason with a flurry of kicks that drove the prince back and down. Jason was unconscious before he hit the ground.

      Hercules grabbed a length of rope from the cave floor. Fashioning the rope into a noose, he body-blocked Iolaus onto the floor. Before Iolaus could recover, he looped the noose over his feet.

      Turning, Hercules flipped the other end of the rope over a jutting rock near the top of the cavern. Iolaus struggled and yelled as Hercules hauled him up and left him hanging upside down. He tied the rope to a stalagmite and stumbled toward one of the tables.

      He hooked his fingers into the fishing net tablecloth and yanked it clear. Dishes clattered to the floor all around him. He whirled the net over his head and threw it over Liardus, Thamus, and Enyo. They tried to pull it off, but Hercules was on them in a moment despite the dizziness swimming through his head. With three swift blows, he knocked each one of them out. They sprawled on the floor.

      Hercules remembered that Alcestor and Mikos were fighting outside the cave. He tried to go after them, but his legs wouldn't work right. He stopped and picked up a sword, then leveled it to run through Iolaus' heart. He struggled against the force possessing his mind, but he knew he was going to lose. "Iolaus, defend yourself!"

      Iolaus flailed, barely managing to grab the staff from the ground as he hung upside down. He slapped the staff against the sword, turning the blade.

      With his slowed reflexes, Hercules wasn't able to dodge Iolaus' next swing. The staff collided with his temple, and blackness swallowed him whole.

~

      Gazing at the unconscious bodies scattered around her in the cave, Discord angrily resumed her own shape. She crossed the room, her eyes locked on Hercules.

      It's incredible. He saved himself as well as them. The spells she'd used were very old and came from the blackest of magic. The siren spell alone that had lured the Argo to Ithra's shores was almost a lost art. She was especially proud of it.

      Yet Hercules still lived.

      Discord cursed the luck. The friend Hercules had suspended from the rock continued to flail. She put him to sleep with a gesture, ridding herself of the annoyance. She took the sword from Hercules' hand. Reversing it quickly, she put the tip against his chest over his heart. One push and this particular problem will be out of our lives forever. No one will save Corinth. Her arms trembled from the desire to put her weight on the sword and end Hercules' life.

      Only the threat of Zeus's protection kept her from doing it. If she killed Hercules by her own hand, Zeus would know. And Zeus would punish her.

      Angrily, Discord threw the sword away and disappeared. Hercules would never make it back to Corinth, she felt sure. Ares had placed too many dangers ahead.

~

      "Wake up! Wake up! Someone cut me down!"

      Groggily, Hercules opened his eyes and discovered he was still in the cave. Pain stabbed into his throbbing head. He sat up, running a hand through his hair and finding the large knot on his skull.

      "Somebody cut me down!"

      Hercules looked up at Iolaus hanging upside down only a few feet away.

      "I've got him," Jason said. He raked a knife across the rope and Iolaus dropped to the stone floor with a thump.

      Looking back to where he'd been eating with Yvenna, Hercules saw her just starting to wake. He got to his feet carefully and went over to her. Gently, he loosened the belt securing her to the stalagmite.

      "What happened?" Yvenna asked.

      "You don't remember?" Hercules searched his memory and thought he remembered most of what had happened. But the events seemed so distant they could have happened to someone else.

      "Only the first part," Yvenna said. Her eyes gleamed as she looked at him. "You and me."

      That's a good thing to remember, Hercules thought. His face warmed in embarrassment.

      "All I remember," Iolaus growled, stomping over to face Hercules, "is that you tried to run me through with a sword!"

      Hercules nodded. "I was hoping you'd knock me out."

      Iolaus gasped unbelievingly. "Oh, that's great. If I'd missed you, I would have been a shish kebab."

      Jason joined them. "What happened to that strange woman we came to rescue?"

      "Probably out looking for more victims." In terse sentences, Hercules filled them in.

      Jason frowned when he finished. "We'd better get out of here." He glanced around. "Where are Mikos and Alcestor?"

      "I found them." Liardus stumbled into the cave, a look of horror on his face. He pointed. "Out there."

      Jason led the way. Hercules was at his side, already imagining the worst. He spotted the tangle of bodies on the beach.

      Alcestor and Mikos had died with their swords in their hands. And they'd died fighting each other. Hercules' throat went dry. "This was what she intended for all of us. To kill one another."

      "We'll bury them," Jason said in a quiet voice, "with the honor they deserve."

      "I knew this trip was doomed," Iolaus said, staring down at the bodies. "Now we're all in jeopardy." He pointed at Hercules. "This is all your fault!"

      "Mine?" Hercules rebelled at the statement, even though the same thought had already been running through his mind. Cheiron had warned him. He just hadn't listened. "You're the one who wanted to rescue the damsel in distress."

      "You're the one who wanted the fleece!"

      "For Jason's father."

      "Or for yours!"

      Hercules couldn't say anything else. There was no more argument left in him. Iolaus was right, and Alcestor and Mikos were dead.

      Yvenna stepped in front of Hercules and backed Iolaus away with her own anger. "Are you forgetting? Because of Hercules, we're all alive!"

      Iolaus gestured at the bodies. "Not all of us."

      Jason held up his hands. "Enough arguing. Both of you, stop it."

      Turning on the prince, Iolaus said, "The gods are angry because of Hercules. I've seen this happen before - when I almost got killed in the twister. I say we turn back."

      Hercules met Jason's gaze, knowing the decision for what they were going to do as a group depended on what the young prince decided.

      Jason looked at Hercules. "We go on. For my father's sake." He glanced down at the bodies. "And theirs."

~

      Ares felt the dagger blade rake across his throat. The edge pressed hard enough to make an indentation, but not hard enough to draw blood. He followed the line of the blade to the hand, then up the slender arm to Discord's angry face. They were alone in the throne room of Corinth.

      "I was this close to killing him," she snarled.

      "But you showed admirable restraint," he told her softly.

      Discord drew back her blade and sheathed it. Frustrated, she marched across the room and seized a vase of flowers. With an angry yell, she hurled the flowers at the nearest wall. The vase smashed, and water and flowers sprayed across the floor.

      "You never were one for flowers," Ares commented.

      "I hate losing!" Discord screamed. "I hate it!" She picked up a chair and smashed it across a table. Only kindling hit the floor.

      Ares ignored her behavior. He'd seen much worse from her. Mortals weren't dying - yet. "Don't you see, sister? You can never really enjoy winning if you haven't lost. I revel in the anticipation of final victory."

      "Oh, Hercules bests you - for the second time - and it doesn't bother you at all?" Discord ripped an antique tapestry from the wall then shredded it.

      Ares shook his head. "He's won a battle, a skirmish. It's like a board game. Hercules defeated one of my lesser pieces." He glanced at her as she continued to rage around the throne room. "And also my queen, whom I dearly love. But I have other pieces, other moves."

      Two servant girls entered the room, dressed in diaphanous gowns.

      "Ready for your massage, Lord Pelias?" one of them asked.

      Ares smiled in anticipation, but he pointed to Discord, who was breathing like a blacksmith's steam bellows.

      The girls nodded and walked over to Discord.

      "You're so generous," Discord said.

      Ares shrugged. "And you're so high maintenance." He left his sister to the massage, his mind flicking quickly though all the options open to him. Getting the Golden Fleece wasn't going to be easy for Hercules and his friends. In fact, Ares planned for it to be deadly.

~

      Hercules sat alone at a table in the Argo's galley. He shifted from side to side on the bench with the pitch and roll of the ship. The others had decided to stay away from him. He didn't know if it was because he acted as if he wanted to be alone, or if they wanted nothing to do with him. Lost and confused, he stared into the cup.

      Cheiron was so right. And my selfishness - my selfishness might have killed us all.

      Yvenna pushed through the door.

      He looked at her but didn't say anything.

      "I couldn't sleep," she said.

      "Join the party," he responded, because not saying anything would have been rude.

      She sat across from him. "Don't keep blaming yourself for what happened on Ithra."

      "Why do you always think you know what I'm thinking?" he asked angrily.

      "Somebody," she said gently, "told me, 'Once in a while it's okay to need others.'"

      Hercules sighed and felt most of his anger leave him. He hated that, because it left so little else behind. "Cheiron warned me that doing this for a selfish reason meant failure. Maybe because of me the whole voyage is doomed."

      "I want to avenge the death of my family. That's selfish."

      "No," Hercules disagreed. "You want to spend your life helping others. That's noble, but it's not for me."

      "Right," she said sarcastically. "The guy who saved all of us back there in the cave."

      "Only from the danger I put you in."

      The boat rocked suddenly. Hercules had to make a grab to save his drink.

      Jason staggered in through the door. "Whoa! High winds tonight." He looked at Hercules. "Anyway, Korsenia's off the starboard bow. We'll reach it by sunrise." He walked to the table where he had the charts and maps laid out.

      "Better prepare for the worst," Hercules said.

      "Why?" Yvenna asked.

      "Legend says that the fleece hangs in a hut on the island," Jason said.

      "And doom awaits all foolish enough to try to take it." Hercules toasted Jason with his cup.

      "Maybe we've already overcome doom," Yvenna suggested, "Back on Ithra when we escaped the siren."

      The ship shuddered again. This time water splashed and sluiced down the steps leading to the galley. Iolaus followed the water down, spluttering and breathing hard. He was soaking wet.

      "It was a giant single wave," Iolaus said. "It was unearthly, like nothing I've ever seen. Swept over the deck. Enyo was washed away. I'd be gone too, but my foot was caught in the rigging."

      Hercules pushed up from the bench and rushed toward the steps. "Where?" Cold fear rattled down the ridges of his spine. "Maybe we can-"

      Iolaus seized him by the shirt. "He's gone."

      "No," Hercules said, thinking quickly, trying to get himself to believe. "We can turn the boat around-"

      "He's gone!" Iolaus repeated.

      "No!" Hercules argued.

      "He's gone! It's too late!" Iolaus yelled.

      "And we're not even on the island yet," Jason stated quietly.

      "That's the third time you almost got me killed," Iolaus told Hercules.

      "But you're alive," Yvenna told him angrily. "So pull yourself together. We all knew this was dangerous coming in."

      Iolaus faced her. "I don't mind facing danger. But let it be mine." He whirled back on Hercules, putting his face close. "I don't want to battle your demons!"

      Hercules couldn't hold the accusing stare. He turned from Iolaus and trotted up the steps. There had to be answers. Otherwise they were just throwing their lives away, and he couldn't bear to believe that.

Chapter Twelve

      The wind howled across the Argo's decks. The sail-cloth strained the rigging, popping and cracking against the masts. Storm clouds writhed across the blue-cast moon.

      Hercules looked into the raging waters throwing white-capped foam around the ship. He thought briefly of Enyo but knew at a glance there was no way they could have saved him. How can everything I've tried to do turn out so very wrong? I'm trying to do good by helping Jason save his father.

      He felt guilty because he knew that wasn't all he was trying to do. He was trying so desperately to attract the attention of Zeus.

      He looked at the roiling black heavens and spoke softly. "Father, I've never asked you for anything. Ever. But I need your help now. I'm afraid." He hated admitting that, hated admitting the weakness. "Not for myself. But for all these people I dragged along. Don't let them die." He searched the skies for any indication of an answer.

      Only the howling wind swirled around him.

      He hardened his voice. "Answer me!"

      The ship pitched and rolled on the unruly waves.

      "At least give me a sign that you know who I am!"

      Water slapped over the bow and ran in rivulets at his feet.

      "Fine!" Hercules shouted. "Disown me. Dishonor me. Destroy me if you will - but show yourself to me! I live because of you. You made me! You loved my mother once. Have you no love for me? Your son?" He took a deep breath, turning loose all the anger inside him to quell the fear at his daring. "If not, strike me down right now!"

      He threw his arms out, waiting for one of Zeus's mighty thunderbolts to burn into his flesh. Even when his father struck him dead for daring to insult him, at least it would be some kind of confirmation of who he was and how much he mattered.

      No thunderbolt came.

      Feeling totally empty, Hercules dropped his arms to his sides. There was no answer. He knew he had to accept that, but he had no idea how to even start.

~

      "Quiet little town, isn't it?" Iolaus whispered as they crept nervously ashore. Hercules had to agree but didn't say anything. Jason and Yvenna flanked Iolaus, who led them through the Korsenian village in search of the Golden Fleece. Thamus and Liardus followed them. All of them had their swords drawn and moved cautiously.

      The Argo lay anchored in the shallow waters of the coast. The dinghy they'd rowed in on sat on the beach out of reach of the tide. During the night, the storm had vanished, leaving only a clear morning.

      Hercules moved with the group but felt dead inside. He'd slept very little. Mostly he'd lain in his hammock and tried to think things through. Nothing had come to him, and he didn't know what he was going to do once they finished the quest for the Golden Fleece.

      If they survived.

      The village was a modest assembly of small huts with roofs and walls made of bundled straw. Fishermen and their families had probably lived in the village, but no one was there now. Even the livestock was gone.

      Or killed, Hercules couldn't help thinking when he saw all the poles with animal skulls on them.

      Only the sound of their footsteps crunching through the sand and the rock echoed around them. They walked through the village, peering into hut after hut as they searched for the fleece.

      Just as Hercules started to feel certain they'd come on a fool's quest after all, he spotted a hut in the center of the village decorated with elephant tusks. The tusks were stuck on the roof and also framed the door.

      They all stopped, waiting nervously. Then Hercules led them forward, entering the hut. Only one thing was inside.

      The Golden Fleece lay stretched on a decorative wooden frame. Sunlight from one of the windows gleamed against the spun gold fibers.

      "Oh, come on," Iolaus groaned. "I can take that with my eyes closed."

      Jason brandished his sword, studying the interior of the hut. "Go get it, Iolaus."

      "We'll cover you," Hercules added. I hope.

      Casually, showing no sign of fear, Iolaus crossed to the Golden Fleece and took it from the frame. He turned around triumphantly, holding it in his arms. "What'd I tell you? Piece of baklava."

      Before anyone could respond, one straw wall exploded inward and landed in a heap. Hercules and the others flew backward and landed in a heap. Hercules and Jason scrambled to their feet at the same time, facing in opposite directions to better cover the group.

      "What was that?" Jason demanded. "An earthquake?"

      "No," Hercules said. "A foot." He pointed with his sword.

      A giant set of toes stuck through the wall, connected to a giant foot that was bigger than all six cadets together. A leather sandal encased it. As Hercules watched, the foot drew back. Jason turned with him as the others stood with their weapons drawn.

      The roof tore off with a screech, and bright morning light rushed to fill the hut. A giant, bearded head blotted out the sky. An evil grin filled the round face. Dark hunger slitted his eyes. He breathed down on them in anticipation. The stench was as big as the giant himself.

      "Whew," Iolaus complained. "Chew on some parsley. It'll help."

      The giant grabbed a tusk from the front of the hut, handling it like a throwing dagger, and hurled it at Iolaus. Iolaus ducked but the pointed end of the tusk pierced his shirt and pinned him to the support pole at his back.

      Grinning, the giant reached for Iolaus and the fleece, raising his great hand like a hammer.

      Hercules ran, narrowly avoiding the huge fist, and ripped Iolaus free of the pole just before the giant smashed the pole to pieces. He hurled Iolaus through the nearest window, then jumped out the window as well. Jason and the others had already gotten clear.

      Shoving himself to his feet, Hercules joined Jason with Iolaus at his heels. The giant threw the roof of the hut aside and roared with rage. Out in the open, Hercules saw the creature had to be at least sixty feet tall and brutishly broad. Despite his size, his leather armor was neatly pieced together.

      "I'd like to meet his tailor," Iolaus said.

      Jason scanned the village. "Obviously, he's not afraid of us."

      The giant plucked another tusk from the front of the hut.

      "Are you kidding?" Hercules asked. "We're like mice to a cat."

      "Look out!" Yvenna flung herself at Jason, knocking the prince to one side just as the giant threw the tusk. Yvenna and Jason both went rolling. The tusk embedded itself in the ground where the prince had been standing, and quivered.

      "The fleece!" the giant roared. "Give me the Golden Fleece!"

      The sheer strength of the voice knocked the cadets from their feet. The giant threw two more tusks, narrowly missing the cadets as they dodged.

      "Scatter!" Hercules commanded. "He's got strength and size on his side, but we've got him outnumbered. We have to use that against him. It's our only chance."

      Unfortunately, the giant was big enough to cover almost one end of the village. The cadets ran between two stone buildings that held the giant back for a moment. Then the monstrous creature locked his hands together and smashed through the rooftops. Once he tore off the roofs, he punched out the walls, ripped through the windows, and yanked the buildings apart.

      Hercules and Iolaus peeled off from the group, dodged around another hit, and hid behind a wagon with a broken axle.

      Iolaus let out a sign of relief and tightened his grip on the fleece. "I don't think he saw us."

      Heart hammering, mind working furiously about how to get control of the situation, Hercules shook his head. "I don't think so either."

      The wagon lifted in front of them, seized easily by the giant.

      Hercules and Iolaus watched the giant holding the wagon, his lips drawn in an evil rictus. "Wrong," Hercules said.

      Iolaus led the charge between the two rug racks. "And you thought you were strong," he told Hercules.

      The wagon sailed over their heads, smashing the rug racks around them. They changed course, trying to find cover. Glancing over his shoulder, Hercules saw the giant rip a wheel from another wagon and roll it at Yvenna.

      Yvenna tried to outrun the wheel, but it gained on her steadily, closing with crushing force. At the last moment, she threw herself into the air and flipped over the wheel. The wheel smashed into a hut, collapsing the wall.

      Still in motion, Yvenna grabbed a nearby milk bucket from the ground. She set herself and whirled around with the bucket at the end of her arm. "Take this!" she yelled, throwing the bucket.

      The bucket sailed true, and Hercules had hope for a moment when it crashed into the giant's head. But the giant only flicked it away in irritation. He took two long steps, then kicked a huge woven basket at Yvenna, knocking her down. He kicked another basket into Thamus, then threw a barrel at Liardus that flattened him. The giant roared in triumph, then swung his attention back to the Golden Fleece in Iolaus' hands. He thundered in pursuit.

      Hercules and Iolaus fled, sprinting as fast as they could. Their speed was no match for the giant's long steps. Spotting two stone pillars ahead, Hercules guided Iolaus over behind them.

      The giant overtook them and smashed the pillars to pieces with his massive fists.

      Not good, not good, not good, Hercules thought frantically. He pulled Iolaus down behind a wagon loaded with flour sacks. "Any ideas?"

      "Tell him we had the wrong hut?" Iolaus asked hopefully.

      At least he's not blaming me for this, Hercules thought. At least, not right now. He took the Golden Fleece from Iolaus, then threw it to Yvenna. She, Jason, Thamus, and Liardus ran over to join them. "Get this out of here!"

      Yvenna looked uncertain for a moment after she caught the fleece. When the giant came closer, she ran.

      Peering over the wagon, Hercules watched as the giant lifted his foot, intending to stomp them. Hercules stood and thrust up with his sword, sinking the sharp blade into the giant's foot.

      The giant roared in pain and fell backward, crashing against the ground with the force of an earthquake. He smashed two huts beneath him and lay still.

      "All right!" Iolaus shouted, bounding to his feet. "Hercules did it!"

      Before the celebration could begin, the giant rose, towering above them. He kicked the flour wagon into them. They scattered again, but the giant plucked up flour sacks and threw them.

      Hercules saw Iolaus and Jason smashed down in midstride by the flying flour bags. Then a flour sack smashed into him, knocking him from his feet and sending him crashing into the wall of a hut behind him.

      The giant slammed the heavy bags into Liardus and Thamus as well. Then, after stunning all the cadets, he closed in for the kill. Hercules tried to get up to face him, unwilling to leave his friends at the giant's mercy, but even his great strength failed him for the moment. He watched helplessly.

      "Is this what you want?" Yvenna yelled. She stood on a rooftop and waved the Golden Fleece. "Come on, you major case of bad breath."

      Hercules pushed himself to his feet, swaying uncertainly. "Yvenna, no." She can't taunt the giant like that! But a part of him thought it was one of the bravest things he'd ever seen: one small mortal challenging a roaring monstrosity. He glanced at Iolaus, who was also getting to his feet, "Quick, get that barrel."

      The giant walked back to Yvenna and reached for her. She flipped out of the way of his massive fingers, dancing across the rooftop.

      "What's you have for breakfast?" she taunted. "A couple of raw cows?"

      "Give me the fleece," the giant shouted, "or I'll crush you!"

      Yvenna offered it to him, but when the giant reached for it, she snatched it away. Her sword, hidden by the fleece, flicked out and slashed his finger.

      Enraged, the giant put his finger into his mouth and sucked on it.

      Yvenna spun, taking advantage of the giant's distraction, and threw the Golden Fleece over the side of the building. She turned back around, setting herself into a sword stance, her body perfectly in line with the blade.

      Almost casually, the giant backhanded her and sent her flying from the rooftop.

      Hercules took frozen for a moment as Yvenna sailed dozens of yards and thumped to the ground. Then he thrust himself back into action as the giant came at them.

      He yanked a sagging door from the nearby hut and slammed it across the barrel Iolaus had positioned. "Get on," Hercules told Jason and Iolaus.

      They did so at once, dropping that end of the door to the ground.

      Moving quickly, desperately aware of the giant closing in on them, Hercules grabbed one of the tusks the giant had flung at them. He jumped onto the other end of the door, throwing Iolaus and Jason into the air.

      "Land on the door!" Hercules commanded.

      They yelled and flailed, but came down hard on their end of the door. Hercules shot up into the air just as the giant reached for him. The huge fist closed just under Hercules' boots.

      Hercules drew the tusk back as he came level with the giant's chin, then slammed the tusk home between the giant's eyes.

      The giant staggered back and went down in a loose tumble, dead before he hit the ground.

      Hercules landed on his feet and sprinted toward Yvenna with the other cadets close behind.

      She lay in a broken heap on the ground.

      "Yvenna!" he yelled hoarsely as he ran to her, hoping he wasn't too late.

Chapter Thirteen

      Hercules knelt beside Yvenna and gently cradled her in his arms. Tears misted his vision. He couldn't lose her after all of this. It wasn't fair.

      Jason dropped to his knees besinde him, then cut his gaze to Iolaus. "Find the fleece. She needs it!"

      Iolaus ran, yelling out orders to Thamus and Liardus.

      Hercules tenderly brushed strands of hair from Yvenna's beautiful face. "Yvenna," he said softly.

      When she spoke her voice was whisper soft. "I didn't run this time."

      It hurt Hercules' throat to speak, but he forced himself. "No. You're a hero."

      She smiled through her pain, eyes dimming.

      Hercules kissed her, putting all of his heart into the kiss, knowing not much time remained. He hoped that kiss could tell her what he felt, and how strong that feeling was inside him.

      "Promise me," she whispered.

      "Don't talk," Hercules pleaded as he looked around for Iolaus. Where is the fleece? It's the only chance she has. "Where's Iolaus?"

      "Promise me," Yvenna said again.

      Hercules looked into her eyes. "What?"

      Yvenna tried to speak again, but her eyes closed.

      Iolaus ran up and draped her with the Golden Fleece. They all watched, waiting, but nothing happened.

      "It's too late," Jason stated quietly.

      Hercules continued to hold her and didn't know how he was going to let go.

~

      Later they placed Yvenna's body on the funeral pyre they'd built down on the beach. Hercules held the flaming torch while the others stood quietly around him. He felt so empty inside, even worse than he'd felt during all those years he'd grown up without a father and constantly feeling that absence.

      Jason spoke, his voice strong and clear. "May they receive you warmly in the Elysian Fields. You died a warrior, Yvenna." He turned to Hercules.

      Heart bitter and heavy, Hercules threw the torch onto the pyre. Even with his great strength, it was the hardest thing he'd ever had to do.

      The flames caught at once, blazing up through the carefully constructed pyre. It became a whirling inferno.

      The others left, and only Hercules and Iolaus remained.

      "I'm sorry," Iolaus whispered. He put his hand on Hercules' shoulder, offering what comfort he could. "And also, for what I said before. About you doing this for your father."

      Hercules stared into the fire and spoke what he knew to be true in his heart. "I don't care about him. Or the rest of the gods, Iolaus. I don't care about any of it." Unable to bear it any longer, he turned and walked away. The whip-crackle of the burning wood filled his hearing as he followed Jason and the others to the dinghy.

~

      In the throne room of Corinth, Ares considered the pieces on the game board in front of him. It held a clever puzzle, but nothing he couldn't conquer given time. And immortality gave plenty of that.

      Discord whirled into the room, stopping in front of him and leaning on the game table. "They're coming back," she accused.

      Ares concentrated on the pieces. "Hmmm. A draw."

      Frustrated, Discord ripped off her fancy dress. She wore her armor underneath. "Did you hear me? The charade's over. Hercules returns - with the fleece. I swear, I'll kill him this time."

      Ares stood. As much as he loved his sister, she never had the true patience it took to use her immortality to its full advantage. She wanted everything yesterday, or today. He hardened his voice. "Stay out of this, Discord. Go back to Olympus."

      Discord stomped her foot. "No! I don't want to!"

      "I said, go!" Ares looked at her, summoning up his power. A smoking ball of force jetted from his hand and slammed into discord, knocking her back.

      Her screams filled the room. Then a swirling vortex opened behind her and sucked her away.

      Ares sat heavily in the chair before the game board. His anger, always his downfall as so many had told him, almost got away from him. The thought of Hercules' interference and the protection handed down by Zeus was too much. "Now it's brother against brother. Endgame." He lunged forward and swept the pieces from the board.

      Hercules can come back, but this is where I'm going to bury him, he promised himself.

~

      Hercules leaped from the Argo's prow and landed on the dock with the mooring line in his hand. He knelt and quickly wrapped the thick hawser rope around the cleat. Iolaus tied off the stern mooring line.

      Night covered the harbor, but the work went on. Laborers unloaded arriving cargoes and loaded departing ones. Ships' captains and first mates yelled out orders. Smaller barges serviced the large ships farther out in the harbor.

      Thamus lowered the gangway and led the rest of them down the plank.

      Horse's hooves thudded against the wooden dock.

      Hercules turned and watched Cheiron step out of the shadows. The laborers and sailors cleared away from him, gossiping between themselves as they passed. The centaur battle master ignored the comments and the interest, his eyes locked on Hercules and the other cadets.

      Quietly, in a halting voice, Jason told the story of the voyage.

      "You've done well," he told them. "All of you."

      Hercules felt a small flush of pride, but it went away quickly. Too much had been lost to think much of what they'd accomplished.

      "However," Cheiron said, "you've also learned the price of success. Alcestor, Mikos, Enyo, and Yvenna all paid with their lives. You must honor their memory."

      "We will," Hercules said tersely. "In Corinth when we save King Aeson."

      "On to Corinth!" Iolaus yelled, throwing a fist in the air.

      Jason's response was more sedate. "To Corinth!"

      "May the gods be with you," Cheiron said. He held Hercules back as the others started off. The centaur regarded the young half-god. "And so you've succeeded, Hercules, son of Zeus."

      The title jarred Hercules and made him feel uncomfortable. "Don't call me that," he said quietly. "It's no longer important to me." That wasn't quite the truth, but it was closer to it. He didn't need the name from his father, but there were still some unresolved issues and he knew it.

      "Good," Cheiron said. "Then no one need call you that ever again. The name Hercules will be enough."

      Hercules nodded.

      Cheiron clapped him on the shoulder. "Go. They need you."

      Hercules shook hands with the centaur. "Till I see you again." Then he hurried to catch up with his friends. If they traveled quickly, they could reach the palace that night.

~

      Jason's anger and bloodline got them through the guards at the gate and the palace this time. They'd come too far and suffered too many losses to allow anyone to stand in their way.

      Pelias sat on the bed beside the king, dabbing at King Aeson's brow with a wet cloth. He looked up in surprise as the cadets entered the room in a rush.

      "Leave him alone!" Jason ordered.

      Pelias stood up. "Jason! Have you done it?"

      Stopping short of his uncle, Jason held up the Golden Fleece fiercely. "This will cure my father."

      Pelias nodded. "That's my fevent prayer."

      Jason shoved the man aside, rushing to his father and laying the fleece over him. There was no response. "Father. Father, hear me. It's Jason." He adjusted the fleece frantically, trying to find the proper position that would trigger the magic within it.

      Hercules felt Jason's sorrow and watched helplessly.

      "Live!" Jason ordered. "Live!" He adjusted the fleece again.

      Suddenly, the Golden Fleece glowed, casting off a shimmer of pale light. In the next instant, color rushed back into Aeson's face. He took a deep shuddering breath, then blinked his eyes open.

      "Jason," Aeson whispered hoarsely. He reached up to touch the prince's face. "My son."

      "It's a miracle!" Jason declared in a loud voice. He turned to the other cadets. "The gods did this!"

      Pelias moved to the bed, as if to take a closer look for himself.

      Hercules took a step forward, fearing the worst. But Pelias offered no outward threat.

      Pelias leaned in to the king and put his hands on him. Too quickly for anyone to do anything about, he twisted Aeson's head in his hands. The king's neck broke with a sharp snap.

      "Nooooo!" Jason screamed in pained outraged. He drew his sword and swung at Pelias.

      Pelias stepped away quickly, avoiding the blade. "The gods give," he said with a sardonic smile, "and the gods take away." He whipped a sword from under his cloak in a practiced rush. When Jason closed on him, he easily parried the blow, then thrust his sword into the young prince's chest.

      Hercules caught Jason as his friend came stumbling back. He knew at a glance that Pelias had struck a death blow.

      "And that's for killing Talos, my giant," Pelias said. He swung smoothly to riposte Iolaus' attack. Steel met steel, and sparks shot through the air.

      After laying Jason gently aside, Hercules grabbed Pelias' shoulder and spun him around. "Your giant? Who are you?"

      Pelias grinned and flung off his royal robes. He wore jet black armor underneath that fitted him more surely than the robes of state ever would. "I'm your long-lost half brother," he answered. "Soon to be mourning your death."

      Totally awestruck, Hercules said, "Ares, god of war!"

Chapter Fourteen

      Looking at the tall figure in black armor, Hercules knew he was right. He studied Ares, then started circling the god warily while Iolaus and the other cadets shrank back in fear. No mortal dared take on a god.

      But Hercules was a half-god - and filled with anger. "A siren. A giant. And now you're attacking Jason? Why? This is between you and me."

      Ares moved easily, his feet gliding across the floor, making no sound at all. He slammed into Hercules' chest with the flat of his hand, driving Hercules backward. "Because you're under Father's special protection."

      Hercules didn't think he'd heard right. "The special protection of Zeus?"

      Ares nodded. "Himself." Without warning, he launched himself at Hercules. "Get ready to rumble, little brother!"

      Caught off balance, Hercules couldn't stand against the attack. He flew backward, crashing through the door and ending up in an inner courtyard, coming to a harsh stop at a pair of boots.

      Recovering slowly, Hercules gazed up the boots and found Ares filling them. He'd never even seen his half brother move.

      Ares reached down and lifted him from the ground.

      "Leave the others alone," Hercules croaked.

      "Done," Ares agreed. "And Dad's protection or not, you can go as well. To Tartarus!" He hit Hercules with a backhand blow, dazing him. Then he kicked him into a stack of oil urns that broke when he landed against them.

      Hercules fought to get free of the shards and get to his feet. However, the oil made footing treacherous. He looked desperately around the courtyard. A statue was being constructed beside the oil urns. The huge head hung suspended from ropes overhead, and poles stood to his left, jutting from the ground.

      Iolaus and the other cadets stood in the doorway, gazing on fearfully.

      Hercules didn't blame them for not coming to his aid. This was his fight. He pushed his feet into the ground, digging beneath the oil.

      Ares plucked one of the flaming torches that lit the courtyard from the palace wall. Grinning in triumph, he tossed the torch into the oil pooling in front of the broken urns. The oil caught at once in a yellow-and-blue rush of flames. The fire spread quickly, charging toward Hercules.

      Having found good footing, Hercules stood. He watched the flames streaking toward him and knew he could never go over them. He bent, then leaped skyward. Flipping in the air, he landed on two of the nearby poles under the ropes holding the statue head.

      Hercules wavered for only a moment, then found his balance. He gazed down at Ares.

      Surprise darkened Ares' features. Then he ran forward, toward the whirling pool of flaming oil that curled through the support poles. Lithely, he leaped and flipped, touching down with surefooted ease on poles opposite Hercules. He smiled confidently.

      Hercules lifted his clenched fists and assumed a martial arts stance. "I'm up for the challenge, brother."

      Ares laughed out loud. "Challenge? You're not even a diversion." Then he ran with incredible agility across the tops of the poles separating him from Hercules.

      Man, I could never do that. Watching the display of superior reflexes and skill, Hercules tried to prepare himself. The flames crackled on the ground, reaching up for him hungrily.

      At the last moment, Ares threw himself high into the air, flipping over Hercules and coming to a stop on a pair of poles behind him.

      Before Hercules could reset himself, Ares attacked in a flurry of punches and kicks.

      Instinctively, Hercules turned the punches and kicks aside, blocking them when he couldn't safely turn them. The sheer ferocity of the attack drove him backward, fumbling for steps as he moved.

      Finally, Hercules got the rhythm. He let the next punch go by, then lashed out with a fist. He clubbed Ares in the chest and knocked him backward. He followed up with a kick that caught Ares in the stomach.

      Ares flew backward but landed easily on another set of poles. He screamed in rage.

      Hercules set himself again, feeling more confident. Ares was the god of war, and he was holding his own. No quarter given, Ares came for him again.

      Giving himself over to the lessons Cheiron had drilled into him, Hercules blocked Ares' attacks, then launched counterattacks that Ares blocked in turn. Then Ares' foot slipped through his defenses, catching Hercules on the chin.

      Black comets whirled in Hercules' vision, but he responded automatically with a kick of his own. Overly confident about the success of his blow, Ares moved forward, stepping right into the kick. The force of the impact drove Ares back, up, and off the poles.

      Incredibly, he caught himself on his hands and flipped back to his feet as Hercules tried to fight the dizziness that threatened to overwhelm him. Instead of attacking Hercules, Ares kicked the pole Hercules stood on co uncertainly.

      Hercules fell toward the hungry flames below. He flung out his hands, grabbing the edges of the poles on both sides of him. Before he could pull himself up, Ares moved forward and kicked him in the face.

      Pain flared through Hercules' head, bright as lightning bolts and moving twice as fast. He forced himself to hold on as Ares kicked him again and again. Then, when Ares set himself and kicked again, Hercules lifted a leg and blocked.

      The impact threw Ares off balance. Hercules swung himself up and flipped backward, touching down on two poles.

      Before Ares could move, the poles he stood on suddenly started listing in opposite directions. He ended up doing a split on the poles, sinking down farther and farther.

      No mercy in his heart, remembering how Yvenna and the others had died, and how Ares had so cruelly killed Jason's father in front of him, Hercules ran forward. His feet met the poles with a speed and certainty he'd never felt before. He leaped, landing on Ares and driving him and the poles deeper into the ground.

      Flipping through the air to recover his balance after the impact, Hercules twisted and came down on two more poles facing Ares.

      The god shouted in rage. Then he twisted violently, spinning and rising till he stood again on poles facing Hercules.

      Wanting to keep his advantage, Hercules kicked one of the poles in front of him. The pole came out of the ground, one end flaming from the burning oil. It sailed straight at Ares, who barely managed to leap up over it.

      "Hey," Ares growled mockingly, "I'm beginning to think you don't like me." He rushed forward and delivered a spin kick to Hercules' head.

      Hercules refused to go down. He glared back at his half brother. "What gives you that idea?" He snap-kicked Ares in the chest, sending him flying backward.

      Surprised by the blow, Ares twisted and barely managed to catch one of the poles and stay out of the flaming oil. He glared up at Hercules as he pulled himself back up to his feet. He flipped through the sir, throwing himself far enough to end up in front of Hercules again.

      Oh man, he's good, Hercules thought, getting himself set for the attack. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Iolaus scrambling through the rigging holding the statue head above them. For the first time Hercules noted that the statue head looked exactly like Ares.

      Breathing heavily, Ares plucked one of the flaming poles from the ground. He twirled it, still flaming, in his hands like a combat staff.

      "Come on, Hercules!" Iolaus yelled from his perch. "Pick up a pole, big guy! Give it back to him!"

      Hercules glanced down and wrenched one of the poles from the ground. He rolled it in his hands, getting a feel for the weight and heft of it as the flaming end threw off sparks. He went on the offensive at once.

      "You want some of this?" Ares challenged, meeting him blow for blow.

      Hercules concentrated on his attack, moving the pole with military precision. He could almost feel Cheiron at his side, urging him on.

      Without warning, Ares launched his own attack, stabbing the pole at Hercules' feet, trying to make him fall.

      Hercules gave ground again, stepping back across the poles easily. Everything was coming together. He knew where every pole was. Seeing a break in Ares' attack, he swung his own pole, smashing the post out from under Ares' foot.

      Ares caught himself just before he fell. He threw himself high into the air and flipped backward, losing the pole. When he landed on another pair of poles, he reached down and yanked another one from the ground. Before Hercules could attack again, Ares broke the poles out from under Hercules' Feet.

      Hercules fell. Quickly, he braced his pole atop two other poles. Like an acrobat he dangled above the roaring flames.

      Ares slammed him in the chest with his pole, sending him flying backward.

      The breath crushed out of his lungs for the moment, Hercules flew backward at least ten yards. His back slammed against a pole, collapsing it. As it fell, he grabbed it and used it to flip himself up. He landed on his feet once more.

      Ares grinned at him, then hissed a stream of roiling fire in his direction.

      The fireball caught Hercules in the face, blinding him at once.

      "Nooooo!" Iolaus screamed.

      Staggered, Hercules held his hands in front of his face. He couldn't see them. "I can't see!"

      "Don't worry," Ares promised. "I'll be quick."

      Hercules felt vulnerable. The temporary blindness threw all the odds in Ares' favor.

      "Hang on, buddy," he heard Iolaus yell. "I'm coming. Left foot back."

      Trusting Iolaus, Hercules took the left step back. Fire blazed past his face, throwing heat over him.

      Iolaus continued calling out directions. "Here I come! Catch me!"

      In the next moment, Hercules heard Ares scream in rage, then felt feet slam onto his shoulders. He could tell that Iolaus was standing on his shoulders but facing in the opposite direction. "Iolaus?"

      "Yeah, buddy," Iolaus answered breathlessly.

      "You've got to be my eyes," Hercules said, not thinking twice about trusting him. He pitched Iolaus into the air, turning him around on his shoulders, then clamping on to his ankles to hold him in place. "I'd rather you were facing the right way."

      Iolaus started calling out directions, guiding the fight. It was difficult to move and keep both of them balanced, but Hercules accomplished it.

      "Right foot forward," Iolaus directed.

      "Never-" Hercules said to himself.

      "Right food forward," Iolaus said again.

      "-never-"

      "Right food more forward!"

      Hercules felt their balance teetering precariously. "-never-"

      Iolaus fell forwarding, plummeting. "Right foot out!"

      Without hesitation, Hercules shoved his foot out, catching Iolaus' foot as he fell. He held his friend's weight on his foot.

      "Whoa!" Iolaus exclaimed. "Right foot up!"

      Hercules pulled his foot up. "-quit!" He was grinning, knowing all the moves, trusting himself. Iolaus sailed above him, landing on his shoulders again. Hercules wrapped his fingers around his friend's boots.

      "Wow!" Iolaus said. "You're good!"

      Ares roared angrily. "Now put your foot in your mouth!"

      Suddenly, Hercules' vision cleared. He saw Ares striding at him, the flaming pole pulled back to strike.

      "Iolaus," Hercules called, "I can see again!" He threw Iolaus up to the swinging statue head.

      Ares punched the pole at Hercules' stomach.

      Hercules lifted his foot and kicked the flaming end of the pole, catching Ares in the stomach instead. Off balance, Ares flew backward, screaming. The god of war dropped into the lake of flames writhing up the poles.

      "All right!" Iolaus yelled from the swinging statue head. "You got him, Hercules!"

      Hercules peered at the flames where Ares had disappeared. I may have killed my own half brother. How should I feel about that? It can't have been that easy. Can it?

      Then movement gathered in the flames, and Ares leaped up, a blazing comet that landed on the support poles. Hercules stared into the god's face, seeing hate and pain in the clinging fire. He didn't hesitate, striding forward and launching a roundhouse kick that slammed Ares from his perch.

      Ares fell, landing in the fire again.

      Glancing up, Hercules looked at the massive statue head. It hung directly above where Ares had landed. He followed the net of ropes up to the single strand that supported it. "Iolaus," he called, pulling up another flaming pole, "jump!"

      Iolaus jumped at once.

      Hercules threw the pole at the support rope. The fiery end smacked into the rope. In seconds the flames burned through the rope and sent the heavy statue crashing down.

      "Nooooo!" Ares screamed.

      The thud of the statue smacking home cut him off.

      Hercules breathed a sign of relief, trembling on top of the support poles.

      Then mocking laughter came up from under the statue head. "This is only the beginning, Hercules!" Ares promised. The mocking laughter continued, finally fading away.

      Hercules didn't knw where Ares had gone, but he knew their struggle wasn't over. He swapped glances with Iolaus. They both knew it wasn't over.

      But it was over for now. He hoped that would be enough. The quest had already cost so many lives. Then he remembered the one that was still at stake. "We've got to help Jason!"

      Hercules made his way across the flaming poles as Iolaus leaped down and followed him. At the end, he made the long jump to the ground, then sprinted through the doorway Ares had knocked him through.

      Jason lay sprawled on the floor. He looked up at Hercules. "Are my people free?" he whispered hoarsely.

      Hercules knelt and took his friend up in his arms. "Yes."

      Jason's eyes dimmed, and his answer was slow in coming. "Thank you." His grip on Hercules' arm grew weaker.

      "The fleece!" Hercules urged. "Quick!"

      Thamus scrambled across the room and found the fleece, then tossed it to Liardus, who handed it off to Iolaus. Iolaus helped Hercules drape it over Jason.

      The Golden Fleece lay there only a moment before burning brightly.

      When Hercules pulled the fleece back, Jason's chest was smooth and unblemished. The wound had healed. Everyone started cheering and clapping one another on the back.

Epilogue

      "What do you mean you're not going to be king?" Iolaus exploded at Jason. "You can't just walk away from all of this! I mean, you owe it to your people to stay here and rule, don't you? And you'll need advisors to do that, right?"

      Hercules stood on the ramparts of Corinth's outer walls and shook his head at Iolaus. The young thief definitely had his own interests at heart. Still Hercules couldn't fault Iolaus completely. During the past three days they;d stayed at the palace. Servants had taken care of their needs, and the bed they'd slept in had been magnificent.

      It was a lot to give up. But he understood why Jason felt he had to.

      "I'm not giving it up," Jason replied. He was dressed in crown prince finery, but that was against his wishes. His advisors had suggested he array himself in royal clothes - at least until grieving for King Aeson was over.

      Iolaus bounced from the stone rampart where he'd been sitting. He put a hand on his temple as if he'd come down with a sudden headache. "Wait, you're not giving up being king, but you're not going to be king?"

      Jason considered the question a moment, then nodded. "Yeah, that pretty much sums it up."

      Iolaus shook his head and looked at Hercules. "Have you figured out what Jason's talking about?"

      "He's talking about going back to the Academy and finishing his training," Hercules replied.

      "But that's stupid!" Iolaus exploded again.

      Jason stared at him, arms folded across his chest. "You know, Iolaus, a king in several of the countries surrounding Corinth might have you put to death for such an accusation."

      Iolaus glanced at Hercules.

      "He's right," Hercules stated.

      "Let's not be hasty," Iolaus said, holding up his hands. "I helped save your life, remember?"

      "And that gives you special privileges when addressing the crown prince of Corinth?" Jason asked.

      Looking at Hercules, Iolaus said, "It doesn't?"

      Hercules shook his head.

      Iolaus blew out a disgusted breath. "Okay, it doesn't. I just think you're making a mistake, that's all."

      "I don't think so," Jason said, turning to look down at the city protected by the great walls. "Trying to be king now, that would be the biggest mistake. I've got to find out what I can be before I step into something like that."

      Hercules listened to the certainty in Jason's voice and realized he and the crown prince were thinking along the same lines. Hercules was still Zeus's son, but he was much more than that, as Cheiron had pointed out. Before Hercules tried to figure out what he was going to do about his father, he needed to figure himself out. And there was no better place to do that than the Academy.

      Hercules gazed down over the people and the streets. Peace reigned again throughout the city. He felt good about that, about his own part in it.

      "Corinth needs a king," Iolaus pointed out.

      "And they'll have one," Jason agreed. "As soon as I know I'm ready. Until then they'll have Ophistus and the other advisors I appointed. It's what my father would have wanted, I think."

      Iolaus started to object again.

      Hercules silenced him with a look. He was glad about Jason's decision. It showed the wisdom Jason was going to have in leading and caring for his people. And Hercules was glad he wasn't losing his friend's companionship.

      "I only hope that when that day comes that I rule as well as my father did," Jason said. Then he glanced up at Hercules. "Hey, maybe you'll get to meet your father one day. I mean, he does have that special protection over you."

      "We'll see," Hercules said.

      "Okay, so you're not going to be king right now," Iolaus said to Jason. I can live with that."

      Jason and Hercules stared at him.

      Iolaus shrugged self-consciously. "Fine, we can live with that. But we get visitation rights, right? I mean, we can come to Corinth occasionally with you to see how the advisors are doing. You know they're going to need to be checked up on, Jason. You never know what the mice will do when the cat's away."

      Jason nodded. "There are events I'll have to take part in - political talks, trade agreements, important weddings. Things like that."

      "Good." Iolaus rubbed his hands together and smiled broadly. "You'll want company, won't you? Hercules and I can be your bodyguards. Hey, maybe you can even appoint us as something. Personally, I wouldn't mind staying here and keeping an eye on things while you're at the Academy."

      "No," Hercules said. "Then Jason would have to appoint someone to keep an eye on you."

      "Okay," Iolaus said. "So when is the first event?"

      "Next month," Jason said. "There are some trade agreements coming up with the merchanters."

      "Fine," Iolaus said. "We can stay here long enough to take care of that."

      "We're going back to the Academy." Hercules said. "We can come back then."

      "I really don't see the sense-" Iolaus began.

      "You mean my plan sounds stupid?" Jason flashed a warning look at him.

      "No," Iolaus said. "No, I didn't mean that at all. We can come back. What's another trek with all the traveling we've been doing lately? So when do we leave for the Academy?"

      "Today," Hercules said.

      "Today?" Iolaus shouted.

      "Yes," Jason replied. "I sent a messenger to let Cheiron know when we'd be back. If we leave in the next hour or so, we should make it."

      "But there are good-byes to be said," Iolaus complained.

      "To all those girls in the taverns?" Hercules sasked. "I don't think they'll miss you as much as you'll miss them."

      Iolaus frowned.

      "There are too many memories here," Jason said. "I'm ready to go back to the Academy to clear my head."

      Hercules clapped his friend on the shoulder. "We can get started now." He was ready to get back himself. Yvenna was still heavy in his thoughts, and he wanted some of Cheiron's mind-numbing combat drills.

      Jason nodded.

      Together, they headed down the rampart steps to the city below.

      "Hey," Iolaus said, "I'm not ready to go."

      "We'll tell Cheiron why you're late," Hercules said. "You know how understanding he can be."

      Iolaus screamed in frustration. "Understanding? Understanding, you say? do you know how long I'll be on sword-stacking duty if I get back late?"

      Hercules laughed as he heard his friend's sandals slap on the stone steps behind them. For the first time in a long time he felt complete, standing on his own two feet instead of somehow in his father's shadow.

      It was a good place to be.