Author’s Note: I do not claim ownership for characters owned by Universal/RenPics, just borrowing them for a little season non-profit fun. Comments always welcome!
Well they say that it's a shame
If you have nothing to believe
And if you can't hold on to something
You might as well die where you sleep
You don't need a prayer
And there's no price to ask why
Sometimes you'll find an answer in the sky
And it's all so much bigger than it seems
And it all overwhelms us now and then
And I'm banking on a chance we believe
That good can still control the hearts of men
This life's a long old road
We shouldn't have to walk alone
But if you find the right companion
You won't feel so worn out when you've grown
All life is precious
And every day's a prize
And sometimes you'll find an answer in the sky
"Answer in the Sky" by Elton John
“Well,” Hercules asked his partner, “what do you think?”
Iolaus didn’t answer right away as he continued to spy on the small valley town of Lycia from their vantage point above on the ridge. It was a cautionary measure they normally didn’t feel was necessary, but when the opportunity for a little recognizance had presented itself even the often reckless hunter thought it was a good idea. Neither of them fully trusted a vague call for help, especially not when it came from Aphrodite.
“I don’t know,” the hunter finally answered. “Everything looks intact and it seems to be business as usual down there. They don’t seem scared, like they are under attack. But something’s definitely off. They seem kind of... sad.”
Hercules fixed his gaze back on the village below. He could see nothing appeared damaged but as far as picking up on the mood of the place he was at a loss. But the demigod was not about to doubt his partner and his hunter’s instinct, so he reached out a clapped a hand on his shoulder.
“Then how about we go down and see what we can do to cheer them up?”
“Here it is.” The magistrate halted in front of the giant, gleaming statue of Apollo that was the centerpiece of the otherwise nondescript village, gazing up reverently at it and missing the simultaneous eye rolling of his guests behind his back. As the elderly man turned to face them the warriors composed themselves, biting back their disdain as they dutifully and politely observed the shrine. Hercules had to admit it was a pretty good likeness, or would have been if it had been sneering rather than benevolently beaming. The left hand bore Apollo’s trademark lyre but the right was held aloft and cupped, though it was empty. A strange sculptural choice that suddenly made the reason they had been summoned clear to the observant demigod.
“There’s something missing from his hand,” he pointed out.
“It’s the Star of Apollo,” the old man answered dejectedly. “The sun god himself gave it to our village many years ago. Undoubtedly a priceless jewel, but its true worth becomes unmeasurable around this time. Every year on the winter solstice night, the Star begins to glow with a brilliant light and all who are touched by it are healed of whatever ails them.”
“When did you first notice it was missing?” Iolaus asked.
“A few days ago,” the magistrate replied. “But we only bring out the Star for solstice. The rest of the year we keep it locked up for safekeeping. Nobody checks on it regularly, so it could have been stolen months ago.”
“And do you keep it secret as well as safe?” the demigod demanded, a slight edge of accusation to his voice. He was well versed in the toys of the gods but had never heard of any such Star of Apollo and it was immediately clear to the magistrate that he didn’t approve of something with the potential to do good being hoarded.
“It’s not out of selfishness that we hide it,” the elderly man protested quickly. “And we never turn away any stranger to our town that comes seeking aid. But we don’t advertise our gift because... well, for exactly this reason. Someone has stolen our Star and now our people are left without hope.”
“Well, not without hope,” Hercules told him, more kindly as he realized there was no real greed or ill will within the man. He was merely trying to do the best for his people, so the demigod decided to stow the moralizing and let him off the hook. “Iolaus and I will do what we can to get the Star back.”
“Oh, thank you, Hercules!” the man burst out gratefully, taking the demigod’s hand and squeezing and pumping for all he was worth. “Thank you both!”
“It’s ok, really,” Iolaus assured him with a grin, taking a small step away and putting his hands behind his back as the man dropped the demigod and turned to him. “You can thank us when we return successful.”
“I’m afraid we don’t have much to offer,” the old man said soberly, misunderstanding the hunter’s words as asking for payment. “We can scrape up a few dinars for you but despite our riches in health, we are mostly a poor town...”
“We don’t want your money,” Hercules was quick to assure him. “We just want to get your jewel back for the people who need it.”
“Then come,” the magistrate urged them, “and meet some of them. We have some desperate cases this year and the theft of our Star has left them without hope of salvation. Perhaps you can restore their faith, and if the gods are willing, the reward for your labors will be seeing them healed and whole.”
The elderly fellow escorted the two warriors to a small building that served as a hospital for the town. There were a few critical patients there, but as word spread through the village that Hercules and his partner had come to help them, more people began to gather, growing heartened that perhaps all might yet be well this solstice. Most of the maladies needing healing were relatively minor things that could be mended with care and time. Broken bones, a few burns and wounds, the odd toothache or back pain. Those patients stayed in the background for the most part, cheering on the heroes that had come to their aid but letting the warriors interact with and reassure those that were surely going to die without the Star. A boy who had been thrown from a horse and sustained critical internal injuries. An old woman with incapacitating pneumonia. A hunter, slashed by the tusk of a boar, whose wound had gone bad and was poisoning his blood. And a little girl who had been suffering from some unknown illness for months, wasting away until there was precious little of her left. But she had strength enough to hug Iolaus after he very animatedly acted out one of his and Hercules’ adventures for her and the other children. Her mother broke down in tears, saying that it was the first time in weeks that her daughter had smiled. And the hunter took her hand, staring into her eyes with a fierce determination flashing in his gaze, and promised her that he and Hercules would get the Star back.
“It doesn’t leave us much time, though,” he sighed as he and his partner left the hospital, wandering over to sit on the bench near the well to hash out a plan of action.
“Yeah, I know.” Hercules sighed too and then glanced sideways at his friend. “You thinking what I’m thinking?”
“Oh yeah,” Iolaus chuckled. “He had me at ‘priceless jewel’.”
“We’ll leave at dawn,” the demigod decided. “And hopefully it won’t take us too long to track down Autolycus.”
“That might actually be the easy part,” the hunter said thoughtfully. “I think I know where he might be.”
But before Iolaus could answer he saw his partner tense slightly, his narrowed gaze sweeping the area in front of them for a moment before he relaxed. The signs were all subtle to an outside observer, but after all their long years fighting together there were no subtleties between the two old friends.
“Who?” the hunter asked under his breath, knowing that one of the gods had made an appearance but realizing it probably wasn’t Ares or one of his flunkies since Hercules didn’t seem bothered.
“Do you mind?” the demigod asked, acknowledging his partner with a jerk of the head in his direction.
“Sorry, Sweetcheeks,” Aphrodite sniffed as she materialized before his eyes. “I just didn’t want mortals to see me in this state.” She dabbed delicately at her teary eyes with a bit of lace. “I must look awful.”
“You look radiantly beautiful as always,” Iolaus told her truthfully. “But what’s with the waterworks?”
“That little girl in there just broke my heart,” the goddess of love wailed. The two heroes looked at each other in horror, and with a flurry of hand gestures each tried to pawn off the chore of somehow consoling the despondent goddess on the other. But abruptly she turned off the tears and smiled at her favorite mortal. “Although, you really did a number on her, Sweetcheeks. I have a feeling in a few years she’s going to be sending me petitions with your name on them!” Then Aphrodite crumbled before their eyes once more. “If she lives that long. You are going to bring Apollo’s Star back in time, aren’t you, Hercules?”
“Yes,” the demigod answered quickly. “Of course we are. Iolaus already has a lead. We’ll have it back before you know it.”
“Good.” Aphrodite took a deep breath and seemed to calm down.
“Um, Dite?” Iolaus began tentatively, knowing he was foolishly tempting fate but unable to reign in his curiosity. “Please don’t take this the wrong way, but why do you care?”
“It’s a long story,” she replied. “But it’s because of Apollo.”
“And that’s another thing,” Hercules interjected. “I know how little he thinks of mortals. I have a hard time believing he would ever willingly lift a finger to help one, let alone a whole village.”
“He wasn’t always like that.” Aphrodite looked at them both, receiving skepticism and lingering hostility aimed at the sun god. She shrugged and with a wave of her hand conjured up a plush couch draped with silk. Settling herself on it delicately, she made herself comfortable and produced goblets of wine and a tray of sweet morsels before she began to speak. “There was a time when Apollo was the most loved god on Olympus. He was pure and he was good and he shone with a light that had nothing to do with the sun. And he shared Zeus’ fascination with mortals. He watched them, and he helped them, embracing the healing nature of his divinity and considering it his duty to share that with the mortals who came to him in need.”
“I’m just having a hard time reconciling that image with the Apollo I know who’s tried to kill me,” Hercules muttered, shaking his head.
“Yeah,” Iolaus agreed, “what happened to turn him into an egomaniacal jack wagon like all the rest of the gods? Uh, present company excluded, of course,” he amended quickly after Hercules elbowed him sharply in the ribs.
“He fell in love,” Aphrodite continued. “With a mortal woman named Clymene. She was from here in Lycia. But she was in love with another mortal and rejected Apollo.”
“And let me guess,” the demigod concluded sarcastically, “Apollo didn’t take that too well.”
“No, it was Hera who flipped out,” the goddess explained. “When old horse-face found out a ‘mere mortal’ rejected a god, she like totally snapped and started blasting fireballs.”
“Yeah, she’s good at that,” Hercules murmured wistfully, for the memories of what his stepmother had done to his family were never far from his heart.
“Was Clymene killed?” Iolaus asked softly.
“No, she escaped the blaze. But a few of the villagers died and a great many more of them were severely injured. Including Clymene’s fiancé. He was near death and not expected to live out the night.”
“I’m guessing again,” the demigod piped up. “This all happened on the winter solstice.”
“Yes,” the goddess confirmed. “And Apollo was horrified at what Hera had done in his name. So he plucked a star from the sky and infused it with his healing gift and gave it to the people of Lycia. All who the star shone upon were healed.”
“Even Clymene’s fiancé?” Iolaus asked.
“Apollo loved her enough to want her to be happy, even if it was with another man. Clymene got married and had many children and grandchildren and lived a long, full life.”
“And the Star still shines in Lycia every solstice over her descendants,” Hercules mused.
“And Apollo was left with a broken heart that eventually consumed him,” Aphrodite finished sadly. “The only way he could deal with the pain of his loss was to convince himself that mortals were beneath him. And the only way to avoid any future pain was to never love anyone but himself ever again.”
“Wow,” Iolaus said thoughtfully, “I always thought Apollo was just a jerk by design. It never occurred to me that maybe there was a reason behind it.”
“Reason or not, he chose to turn his back on humanity and strike out against it,” Hercules reminded him. “And no amount of heartbreak can justify that. But still, it’s nice knowing that he had some nobility at some point in his existence.”
“Yeah, and I’m with Dite. That nobility should be honored. We’ll get the Star back. You can count on us, Aphrodite,” the hunter promised her.
“Bitchin’!” the goddess exclaimed happily as she jumped up and all her conjured comforts disappeared in a puff of pink, fragrant smoke. “Good luck, Hercola! You too, Sweetcheeks! I’ll catch up with you on the flip side of solstice. Gotta run now. Discord has been stealing my massage oils and I don’t even want to think about what that skank has been using them for.” Aphrodite shuddered and then her lovely face twisted into a fierce scowl. “It’s time somebody finally showed that little witch the meaning of boundaries!” The goddess vanished with a bright flash of lightening that glittered with pink and silver sparkles but nonetheless left a patch of scorched earth behind.
“Well,” the demigod said finally as he recovered from Aphrodite’s erratic mood swings, “never a dull moment with my sister around.”
“No kidding. Hey, Herc? Do you suppose goddesses... you know...”
“Well, do you think they go through... um... you know, the monthly...”
“Iolaus,” Hercules interrupted him patiently, “stop and think for a second and make sure you really want to ask that question out loud.”
“On second thought, no I don’t,” the hunter agreed sagely. “Never mind.”
“Come on,” Hercules chuckled as he got up from the bench. “Let’s go find some food and a decent place to sleep tonight. We’re going to need to be on the road at first light.”
"Yeah, because it's a long walk to Antioch."
"Antioch?" the demigod questioned, giving his friend a sidelong glance. "What makes you think Autolycus is in Antioch?"
"Remember that birth announcement we got a few days ago? I would bet that Autolycus got the same one."
"The one from King Alexandros?"
"No, the one from Stavros the stable boy," Iolaus told him with heavy sarcasm. “Of course the one from Alexandros!”
"Ok, so he and Cupcake have had a son," the demigod conceded, ignoring his partner's remark for he had to admit it had been a dumb question. "I know Autolycus was the one who brought them together, but do you really think this is the sort of thing that would make him drop in for a visit? It doesn't really seem like his style."
"You didn't see him, Herc," the hunter argued. "He really had it bad for that girl. I think he genuinely cared about her. But even if he's over it now and not feeling sentimental, that announcement would have served as a reminder of the sapphire that we made him give back. The girl or the jewel, either one could be the one who got away and more than enough reason for him to return."
"Well, I guess it's as good a place to start as any," Hercules shrugged, not entirely convinced of his friend's logic but not having any better ideas. And as it turned out, he shouldn't have doubted Iolaus for Antioch was precisely where they found the King of Thieves, oogling over both the showgirl turned queen and the precious blue sapphire he'd previously been forced to leave behind. When questioned, Autolycus denied stealing the Star of Apollo from Lycia but he did admit to having been approached about the heist a week prior. On his way to Antioch he had stopped in a tavern in Bottia for a hot lunch and a cold drink and had been recognized by a shady, cloaked figure who had told him about the Star and offered him a finder's fee if he were to acquire it.
"And what did you say?" the demigod demanded.
"I told the guy I wouldn't do it, of course," the thief said with exaggerated innocence. "It would be wrong to deprive all those poor people of their healing stone, especially right before solstice."
"He wouldn't meet your price, huh?" Iolaus accused him.
"What he offered was nothing less than insulting for a master such as myself," Autolycus declared. "After all, if I'm going to steal from the gods, the payoff has to be worth the risk."
"What happened to the thrill of the challenge and the need to keep yourself sharp?" the hunter reminded him. "Aren't you the guy who bragged about swindling two gods in one day?"
"Yes, but spending the day chained to you, Blondie, was enough to scare anyone straight. Thanks mostly to the two of you, a lot of the gods are gunning for me. Apollo is one of the few that doesn't have it in for me so I'd really rather not piss him off."
"Autolycus," Hercules began sternly, "tell me the truth. Did you steal that jewel? Whether for hire or just freelancing?"
"I've never even been to Lysia," the thief protested. "I am not your man this time, big guy. I've got big plans for solstice and I don't intend to spend the holiday dodging fireballs or acting as the butt of some twisted god's joke."
"I believe you," the demigod told him. "But unfortunately your plans are going to have to be put on hold. We need you to come with us."
"What? Why?" Autolycus sputtered. "What do you need me for?"
"Yeah," Iolaus agreed, "What do we need him for?"
"Because we're on a major time crunch to get that stone back by solstice," Hercules patiently explained. "Once we track it down, the quickest way to reclaim it may very well be to steal it back."
"So, you need another.... favor," Autolycus drawled, always delighted to have the demigod at his mercy. "I knew you'd be back recruiting your partner before long."
"Hey, he's already got a partner," Iolaus told him in exasperation. "One that used to be a thief, remember? We don't need you, pal. Herc, we don't," the hunter insisted as his friend put a restraining hand on his shoulder.
"We need all the help we can get on this one," Hercules told him gently. "I don't like it any more than you do and I know we're probably just complicating things unnecessarily..."
"I'm standing right here, you know," Autolycus pointed out in annoyance. "And none of this matters anyway because I already told you that I have plans."
"And I told you that you're coming with us," the demigod countered quietly, but in his I-mean-business voice. "I've let you get away with a lot over the last few years, Autolycus, because at heart I think you're basically a good guy and occasionally you can be useful. But if you want me to continue to look the other way and let you slide, then you're going to have to keep redeeming yourself. Helping a village of sick and injured people is a good way to do that. Whoever you're planning to rob will still be there after we get Apollo's Star back. Do I make myself clear?"
"Crystal," the thief muttered in resignation. "Fine. Since I'm obviously an invaluable member of the team and you can't possibly do this without me, I'll go with you. But you owe me big for this, buddy."
"Yeah, I'll do my best to think of some way to repay you," Hercules said dryly. "In the meantime, tell me about the guy who approached you to steal the jewel."
"I never got his name. He was about my height, clean shaven, dark hair down to his shoulders," Autolycus recalled. "Kind of wiry but I got the feeling he was stronger than he looked. Real arrogant jerk, too. Maybe not entirely all there, if you know what I mean."
Iolaus couldn't help noticing that his friend tensed slightly as the thief was talking, but just then they were summoned to dinner. Cupcake had effortlessly embraced her new role as queen and received them graciously, as did her diplomatic husband. Once the formal greetings were over, though, they sat down to a lighthearted meal, lavish but peppered with easy banter and the queen's vivacious laughter. Hercules talked politics with Alexandros and engaged Cupcake in a variety of topics and admired their newborn son as he cradled him in his strong arms like a pro. But Iolaus could not forget his earlier unease, and as soon as dinner was over and they got a minute alone together he asked him what was wrong.
"The way Autolycus described the guy who tried to hire him," Hercules told him, shaking his head slightly. "It just gave me a bad feeling."
"Why?" the hunter asked. "It wasn't very specific. I mean, that could have described half the men in Greece."
"I know, but I just had this weird feeling that he was talking about someone we knew. Someone that was going to turn out to be big trouble. One of those half god feelings."
"Great," Iolaus sighed. "Bad news from our past, Autolycus, and a ticking clock. This is shaping up to be a solstice I think I'm going to wish I could forget. Sure we can't throw a monster or two in there somewhere?"
"We don't have the stone yet, buddy," Hercules reminded him with a grin. "And anything can happen on the way to Bottia."
“I still don’t understand why we had to involve that mortal!” The man positively spat out the last word like it left a bad taste in his mouth. “I am more than capable of stealing the Star. I proved that, didn’t I?”
“We’ve been through this a half dozen times already!” Discord snapped impatiently. “Hercules is going to think that the king of buffoons stole it so we needed that idiot to lead him here to us!”
“But why play these games?” the man persisted as he paced restlessly across the cold, dark, dusty room. “I could have stolen the Star and then gone after Hercules.”
“You don’t have to go after him, he’s coming to us. After all, it’s always better to face your enemy on the home turf where you know the ins and outs.” Discord’s ruby lips twisted into an evil smile. “And where you can have a few surprises waiting.”
“I don’t need any help from you!” he insisted angrily. “I’ll finish Hercules on my own. I am the son of Zeus, the same as he is.”
The goddess rolled her eyes and tried to reign in what little patience she possessed. He may have had the same father as Hercules, the same strengths, but this guy definitely did not have the same sound mind. There were more than a few bats flying around in his belfry and Discord was going to greatly enjoy smoking him when this was all over. But for now she needed him, and needed him as calm and sane as he could get.
“That’s right, baby,” she purred as she prowled around him, running her hand over his chest. “And once Hercules is dead by your hand, I’ll take you to meet Zeus. Up to Olympus, where you belong. That’s what you want, right?”
“Oh, yes, Mother!”
“I am not your mother, you dimwit,” Discord screeched as she shoved him hard across the room. “I’m Discord. A goddess, remember? Mommy dearest is dead. Her body is decaying in a field somewhere and her soul is down below with Hades. Oh, why am I even wasting my time with a lunatic freak like you?!”
“Don’t be mad,” he begged as he knelt down before her. “I won’t let you down. I got the Star for you, didn’t I? And I will kill Hercules for you, too. Just give me a chance. I won’t fail you, Discord.”
The goddess considered his words as she glared down at him. She had never really thought that this loser could actually kill Hercules, but there was always a chance he could surprise her. He hated Hercules enough and was just crazy enough to make it happen. If he did fail, at least he’d have been a thorn in Hercules’ side for a bit, an entertaining diversion from Aphroditzy who had been screaming for her up on Olympus for days. And maybe he’d be able to distract the mighty hero long enough for her to get a little payback on those two mortal whelps who had dared use Artemis’ bow on her and lived. At the very least, the deranged freak had managed to get the Star. It was a powerful tool of the gods that never should have been in mortal hands in the first place. And without it, mortals would suffer and die and that thought was enough to evaporate some of her anger. Besides, she had nothing better to do. Might as well let these events she’d put in motion play themselves out.
“All right, Lucius,” she said generously. “I’ll give you one more chance. Bring me Hercules’ head. And then I’ll make sure all your wildest desires come true.”
Discord began to laugh and Lucius joined in, the maniacal sounds echoing loudly through the quiet gloom.
"This is it," Autolycus said as they entered the village of Bottia and came to a halt in front of a small tavern. "This is where I met him."
"Ok, we'll check it out. Iolaus, why don't you go talk to a few of the people in the marketplace and see what you can find out?" Hercules suggested, eager to give the two adversaries a break from each other, as well as garner a few minutes of bickerless peace for himself. The hunter nodded and set off down the street and the demigod entered the tavern, yanking the reluctant thief along with him. But before he could ask any questions, the very large tavern owner swept down on them, angrily accusing the king of thieves of skipping out on his bill and helping himself to a few money pouches on his way out. A withering look from Hercules convinced Autolycus his only option was to make restitution, which he grudgingly did. Everyone thanked Hercules, mistakenly believing that he had apprehended the thief and had brought him back to return what he'd stolen. In the interest of time and goodwill that would hopefully inspire willing information, the demigod did not correct them but instead inquired about the man Autolycus had met there the day he'd committed the robberies. The tavern staff and some of the patrons knew of the man and reported that he'd been coming in sporadically for a month. But nobody knew his name, for he kept to himself and gave off an air of both superiority and danger. It soon became clear that no one would miss him if he never came back. Hercules thanked them and they left the tavern, for the king of thieves was still getting glared at with equal measure of hostility and suspicion and the demigod figured they’d be better off waiting outside for Iolaus. Not to mention he didn’t exactly trust Autolycus not to try to reclaim some of those dinars that he’d had to return...
The hunter showed up a few minutes later with parcels of bread and cheese and smoked venison which he divided into three even portions and distributed. He had gotten pretty much the same story from the people he'd spoken with in the market, but with one additional detail.
"They said he shows up every few days," Iolaus relayed. "He comes in from the east and then heads back that way when he leaves. They told me there’s nothing out there except for an old abandoned castle and some of the villagers think he may be squatting there."
"Then that's where we'll look first," Hercules rationalized.
"Yeah, there's just one more thing, Herc," the hunter cautioned him. "For weeks he's only been buying enough supplies for himself. But the last trip he made here he brought a cart and loaded up enough for..."
"An army," the demigod concluded grimly.
"Well, enough for a band of thugs, anyway."
"Oh, no," Autolycus protested. "This is where I draw the line. I said I'd help you find the guy and steal the Star back. But you never said anything about battling armies! The hero bit is your gig, not mine. So have at it, best of luck, but I'm not going any further and you can't force me!"
"You're right, I can't," Hercules admitted. He had bullied the thief into coming this far, but he couldn't in good conscience force him into a dangerous situation. So the demigod took a deep breath and let it out slowly, wishing he didn’t have to go this route but not having any choice. "That's why I'm asking you to come with us, Autolycus. As a... favor."
"I'd like to help, really I would, but I’m not risking bodily harm or damage to this million dinar face for a strictly charitable venture.”
“Think of what it will do for your reputation,” the demigod cajoled him.
“Oh, yeah, the king of thieves goes soft,” Autolycus scoffed. “That will do wonders for my legend. Look, you can handle an army by yourself, Hercules. And I’m sure Mr. I Used to Be a Thief here can handle getting the Star. So, you don’t need me.”
“He’s right, Herc,” Iolaus agreed solemnly. “We’ve got it covered. Besides, the spoils divide up better by two than three.”
“Spoils?” Autolycus repeated, perking up. “What spoils?”
“Well, it stands to reason,” the hunter casually explained. “If this guy stole the Star or had someone else do it for him, chances are it’s not the only valuable object in his collection.”
“On second thought, I suppose my reputation could benefit from a shot of good will,” the king of thieves amended quickly. “And we just can’t let those poor people of Lycia down, now can we?” He quickly wrapped up the remains of his meal and tucked it away inside his tunic before pushing away from the wall of the tavern and starting for the road. “Come on, what are you waiting for?”
“Why would you do that?” Hercules demanded of his partner in exasperation.
“Hey, he’s coming with us, isn’t he?” Iolaus shrugged as he brushed a few crumbs off his vest. Not surprisingly, there was nothing left to wrap up and take along.
“I suppose, but I would have thought you’d be glad to see the back of him. You two haven’t stopped carping at each other for five minutes since we set off.”
“Well, old habits die hard I guess,” the hunter concluded as he fell into step beside his partner, easily keeping up with his long stride as they hurried to catch up with Autolycus. “But I’ve been thinking and you’re right, Herc. It’s solstice eve and we are going to be hard pressed to get that jewel back to Lycia by tomorrow night. We need all the help we can get and I have a feeling Autolycus is going to prove himself useful before everything is said and done. You know, one of those full-mortal type feelings.”
“Or he’ll grab the jewel and cut and run,” Hercules said with uncharacteristic cynicism.
Iolaus had to admit he’d thought the same thing himself, but then again, when everything was said and done in Syros Autolycus had come back to admit his guilt, unwilling to let an innocent man die in his place. And when everything was said and done after he’d stolen Artemis’ bow, he did help get it back to save Hercules. And when everything was said and done in Antioch, he had let Cupcake go so that she could find happiness and live the life she deserved. And when everything was said and done at the circus, he had saved a baby from the giant chicken that was Discord and helped Iolaus take her down.
“No, Herc,” the hunter said quietly, yet with conviction, “I don’t think that he will.”
Though the pressure of time was weighing heavily on the trio, they mutually decided that it was just too risky to try to enter the castle in broad daylight, choosing instead to wait for the cover of night to sneak in, maybe unnoticed, and look for the Star. They passed the time observing the structure and could see no signs of life whatsoever and they began to wonder if they were barking up the wrong tree. But the hunter did a little scouting and came back to report he’d found a trail and tracks that indicated that a large group of men had come that way only a couple of days prior. So when the sun finally dipped below the horizon and the shadows over the land grew long, Hercules led his companions up to the decaying building.
“Autolycus, you go in from the east. Iolaus, take the west.”
“What are you going to do?” the thief asked.
“I’m going in through the front door,” the demigod stated boldly.
They split up and Iolaus headed for the west side of the castle. His only option for entry was a second story window, so he gripped a handful of the thick vines that were clinging to the stone and he began his arduous climb. The hunter had made it about halfway up when a familiar head poked out of the window he was targeting. A rope immediately slithered down and Iolaus gratefully snatched it up, his climb made much easier with the aid of the thief’s grappling hook.
“Thanks,” he panted as he levered himself over the window sill. “Not that I couldn’t have made it on my own...”
“I’m sure you could have. Whether or not you would have made it before solstice is debatable,” Autolycus told him. “Come on, we’ve got a situation.”
The thief led him out of the room they were in and down a long corridor, coming to a halt at the top of a staircase that led down to the main entrance of the castle. Hercules had presumably not let himself in quietly, for the massive, heavy door that barred the way was lying in two pieces on the floor. His arrival had most likely been expected, as he’d been greeted by a man who was currently holding a sword on him. A man that looked familiar...
“Lucius!” the hunter swore under his breath.
“You know him?” Autolycus asked.
“Yeah,” Iolaus replied grimly, “but we haven’t seen him since we were kids. He’s Hercules’ half brother.”
“I’m going to hazard a guess and say that there’s some bad demigod blood between the two of them.”
“Years ago he tried to kill Hercules, attacked his mother and went after Jason,” the hunter explained. “So yeah, you could say they have a score to settle. Lucius has this crazy idea that there can only be one son of Zeus and that he’ll get his father’s attention if he takes out all the competition.”
“Question,” Autolycus ventured. “All these divine relations Hercules has floating around? Are ANY of them normal and well adjusted?”
“Ah, not really,” the hunter replied wearily. “Come on, let’s go.”
“Go where?” the thief demanded. “Aren’t you going to help settle the score?”
“No, Hercules can handle Lucius,” Iolaus said dismissively. “More importantly, he’s distracting him so we can find the Star.”
“So what’s your plan? Search the place room by room?”
“What if it is?”
“No, it’s a good one,” Autolycus told him airily. “As long as you want to have the Star back by solstice. Next year’s solstice, that is.”
“Do you have a better idea?” Iolaus demanded.
“Don’t I always?” the thief countered smugly. “Now, if you truly are a master at your craft, as I am and you are not, you can make a few educated guesses as to where the Star is stashed and cut your search time down to minutes instead of days.”
“All right,” the hunter agreed, rising to the challenge, “we’ll check the tower.”
“Nope, too far. You’d want to keep the Star where it could easily be checked on and within reach in case you need to grab it and run.”
“Well, then it’s hidden downstairs.”
“Too close,” Autolycus argued. “You don’t want to have it on hand so your enemy can just scoop it up. You want to make him work for it.”
“So what is your educated guess then, oh master?” Iolaus snapped impatiently.
“I would say that right here is a good place to start.”
The thief turned around, considered the options and began to walk down the long corridor that ran to the south of the castle. Iolaus followed him, grumbling to himself, but after a moment he forgot about how much fun it would be to pound the ego out of his companion and his blue eyes began to dart around suspiciously. Something was wrong, he could feel it. They were being watched. He quickened his pace to move a little closer to Autolycus as he strode down the long hallway that was lined with rotting tapestries, peeling portraits, moldy carpet and rusted suits of armor, all poorly lit by sporadic candles on the walls. A warning bell went off in the hunter’s mind and he quickly gave the thief a hard shove, sending him sprawling out of the way just as an axe that was held aloft by one of the seemingly empty suits came crashing down to the floor where the king of thieves had just been standing. The rusted mail made the man inside heavy and clumsy and Iolaus dispatched him quickly.
“All right,” the hunter muttered as he checked the next suit in line and found it empty. “Where are all your friends hiding?”
“You had to ask, didn’t you?” Autolycus shouted as heavily armed men began pouring out from one of the rooms up ahead. He yanked a sword free from one of the suits of armor as Iolaus drew his own from his scabbard and the two frequent adversaries once again found themselves at each other’s backs. But for all their mutual dislike, the pair did make a good team and each man silently vowed to protect the other as the hostile mob surged toward them.
“I have to admit,” Hercules said as he dodged another vicious slash, “that I’ve wondered over the years what had happened to you. But I don’t think I ever wanted to know the answer this much.”
“Oh, but I never had to wonder what happened to you, Hercules,” Lucius told him, savagely kicking an overturned chair out of his way. “No, the songs and stories have told me everything I needed to know. And the more your fame and legend grew, the bigger the flame of hatred flared inside of me.”
“Why?” Hercules demanded, once again at a loss as to how his half brother’s twisted mind worked.
“Because you don’t deserve it!” Lucius shouted, his eyes blazing wildly. “I am the only worthy son of Zeus!” He attacked ferociously and Hercules was backed up against the wall by the fireplace. But he grabbed an iron poker and used it to block the sword, repelling Lucius just enough to get himself into a better position.
“I’ve met Zeus,” Hercules told him angrily as he blocked another blow. “And I’ve been to Olympus. I can tell you for sure that he wouldn’t want to you kill your half siblings in his name. And what’s more, I can tell you that this pedestal you have him and the Olympians on is completely unwarranted. You’ve been wasting your life, Lucius, by trying to curry favor with Zeus. He doesn’t deserve this abject devotion.”
Lucius paused in his attack, his sword lowering to his side.
“How can you speak about him like that?”
“Because I know him,” Hercules said, gentling his tone. “Zeus is my father and I love him. But he’s also caused me a lot of pain over the years, along with more disappointments than I can count. He’s absent, he’s flawed, he’s manipulative and he’s never, ever going to measure up with the ideal you’ve built of him. Let it go, Lucius, and start living your life for you, instead of for a fantasy that doesn’t exist.”
In the blink of an eye Lucius attacked in a frenzy, screaming out words like “infidel” and “blasphemer”. Hercules had been hoping he could get through to the man, but the attack sadly hadn’t been unexpected and he managed to repel him again, even though madness was lending him strength and fury.
“You are still my half brother,” Hercules yelled as he tried to retreat, “and I don’t want to hurt you!”
“But I want to kill you!” Lucius seethed as he raised his sword and rushed forward. “And once the great and mighty Hercules is dead by my hand, I’ll finally be honored for the true son of Zeus that I am!”
Iolaus was most accustomed to fighting on a battlefield or the open road or a village square. And as his fighting style was somewhat on the bombastic side, he much preferred having room to move and was finding the confines of the corridor a bit claustrophobic. But it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, for it meant that the enemy mob could not surround them and only a few were able to attack at one time. And even with his mobility hampered, Iolaus was a superb warrior who was easily able to handle an onslaught of three or four at a time, together with Autolycus who went out of his way to avoid fights but who was skilled in his own right and more than able to handle himself. Especially against a group of thugs who relied more on their meanness and brute strength as opposed to any real ability. The thief clashed his borrowed sword though it was not his weapon of choice, using the blade mostly as a defense as he punched his way through his attackers. Iolaus, on the other hand, whirled his own blade with deadly skill, knowing this was not the time or place to show mercy. They fought bravely and complimented each other well, taking a few hits but mostly just doling out the blows. And when the battle finally wound down and the dust settled, all of the men were either dead, injured beyond threat, or unconscious. Autolycus took it upon himself to rip down a few of the fraying tapestry ties and bind the living while the hunter took a moment to study their attackers, his mind rapidly turning over.
“They look like Discord’s mercenaries,” he concluded, prodding at one of the prone men with the toe of his boot.
“What gave it away?” the king of thieves asked. “The bad leather, the brainlessness, or the smell?”
“Take your pick,” Iolaus answered absently. “But if Discord is involved, then this whole thing was a setup for sure. She used the stone to lure us here and then sicced Lucius on Herc.” He glanced back down the corridor, toward the stairs, a hint of worry for his friend flitting across his features.
“On the upside,” Autolycus reasoned, “if the stone was just the bait and nobody here really cares about it, then nobody will notice if we grab and go.”
“Right,” the hunter agreed after a moment, forcing his attention back on the mission. “Hey, I’ll bet it’s in that room where all those men were hiding.”
“I’d take that bet but I know you don’t have anything I want,” the thief told him as he moved a few steps down the corridor and ran a hand over the wall. “There’s a slight irregularity here.”
“I don’t see anything,” Iolaus argued as he moved closer and had a look.
“There,” Autolycus said triumphantly as he pointed to one of the sconces on the wall that was missing a candle.
“So?” the hunter shrugged, his frustration beginning to rise.
In answer, the thief gave the sconce a twist and turned it upside down. There was a click and a section of the wall slid away, revealing a hidden door. Autolycus extracted a pick and unlocked it easily before pushing it open cautiously. They both peered inside to see a room that was pitch black apart from a single lamp hanging from the ceiling and shining a small band of light around a gem that was resting on a pedestal in the middle of the floor.
“All right, I’m mildly impressed,” Iolaus admitted grudgingly. “Can you see any traps?”
“No. And I also don’t see that horde of treasure that you promised me, either.”
The two men glanced at each other briefly before squaring their shoulders resolutely and stepping into the hidden room. Within the circle of light they were unable to see anything around them and as Autolycus approached the pedestal he tried not to think of how he was an illuminated sitting duck for anything that might have been lurking in the blackness surrounding them and just tried to focus on the jewel while Iolaus hovered close by, sword drawn and at the ready. There was no doubt that the gem before them was the one they sought, for it was fist sized and star shaped and glittered with all the hubris of a god. The king of thieves went over and over the pedestal but he could see no trap or trick or security measure of any kind and eventually realized he was just going to have to take the plunge.
“Well,” he said a touch nervously, “here goes nothing.”
With great care he reached out and wrapped his light fingers around the gem, sliding it into his palm and lifting it from its perch, poised to drop it and run at the slightest provocation but none ever came.
“Piece of baklava,” Autolycus proclaimed as he relaxed. “And I have to admit, I’m rather insulted. This was so beneath a thief of my caliber...”
“No,” Iolaus countered, shaking his head as his posture grew even more tense. “Something’s not right. It can’t be this easy.”
“Why not?” the thief demanded. “Why do you always have to be so negative. Maybe the fates smiled on us and luck was with us and it IS this easy.” A low growl rumbled from the darkness in front of them and Autolycus gulped audibly. “Or, maybe not. Listen, Curly, monsters really weren’t part of the deal, you know, and this kind of thing really isn’t my forte...”
“Stay behind me,” Iolaus commanded, glancing over at his companion. As he did so, a large, black shape came barreling out of the darkness toward him. The hunter dove out of the way as the beast slipped back into the shadows. He got to his feet, sword poised, but he couldn’t see anything beyond the small circle of light that he occupied. “Autolycus,” he called out, wisely keeping his gaze focused on the inky darkness this time. “Get out of here. Take the Star and start for Lycia.”
They were the words the thief had been hoping to hear, but for some reason when he reached the door he hesitated and looked behind him. The hunter’s instincts were serving him well, ensuring that he twisted and dove out of the way in the nick of time as the beast repeatedly attacked and retreated back to the shadows. But he was strictly on the defensive, for he couldn’t fight what he couldn’t see. And he couldn’t keep up the dance forever; before long he would start to tire and the creature would get in a lucky shot. Cursing the shred of nobility that always seemed to pop up within him whenever he was around these two jerks, Autolycus turned around and rejoined his companion.
“I told you to get out of here!”
“Monsters may not be my forte but I happen to know a lot about getting around guard dogs,” the thief told him as he reached into his tunic and pulled out the dried venison he had stashed away earlier. “Get ready.” Autolycus held up the meat and whistled invitingly. “Come on, boy. Come get your treat.”
The creature came bounding out of the darkness once more, beelining for the king of thieves and the snack he offered. But before he could reach him he found Iolaus’ sword and the beast screamed and recoiled, falling in the shadows with a heavy thud. They watched the massive rear paws kick for a moment in the very edge of the light, then the creature went silent and still. Iolaus went over to it, kicking at one of the paws with his boot. When it didn’t move he reached down and grabbed a paw, straining as he pulled the monster into the light.
“What are you doing?” Autolycus questioned.
“I just wanted to get a look at this thing,” the hunter answered distractedly. The black, shaggy beast really was dog like, but of enormous size and sporting massive claws and fangs.
“Well, you can stay here with your new pet if you want to,” the thief declared as he turned and started for the door, “but I’m getting out of here.”
“Autolycus! Look out!”
In the split second he had to process the situation, Autolycus saw a second beast coming out of the shadows toward him from the right, and Iolaus and his bloody sword rushing at him from the left. There was no time to react, and a heartbeat later they both hit him, all three crashing to the ground in a chaotic frenzy.
The fire poker went skittering across the floor, but fortunately it took the sword along with it.
“No matter,” Lucius said with a malevolent grin. “I’d rather destroy you with my bare hands anyway.”
“I don’t have time for this,” Hercules growled, blocking the blow that came at him and using the momentum of his opponent to swing him past and lob him at the far wall. Lucius hit hard and was momentarily dazed, but the blood of Zeus also flowed through his veins and he shook off the impact and got to his feet largely unfazed.
“Ah, yes,” he spat contemptuously, “the great Hercules must go and aid the mortals he champions. When will you learn they are beneath you?”
“I used to hate you, Lucius,” Hercules told him sadly. “But now, I think I just pity you. All these years, so twisted in your delusions and your malice... You’ve missed out on everything good there is to be had in life.”
“What is that?” he hissed as he circled around his foe predatorily. “Friends? Family? An honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work?”
“For a start.”
“Everything I’ve missed out on has been because you’ve taken it from me!” Lucius screamed as he launched himself at his enemy with a ferocity that only the mad can possess. Hercules was at first a bit hard pressed to block him and a few of the savage punches got through. But then he went on the offensive and struck back, unleashing a volley of combinations on his half brother. They may have been equally matched in strength, but while Lucius had spent his years bullying mortals unlucky enough to get in his way, Hercules had honed his skills fighting the likes of Strife, Hades and Ares. His skills and experience far outweighed those of his opponent, and once Hercules decided to stop trying to reason with Lucius and just put an end to things he got the upper hand quickly. But Lucius wouldn’t quit in his madness and kept coming back for more, getting tossed all around the room until he barely had the strength to get up again. Then after one good right hook that sent him crashing up against the fireplace, he slid down to the ground and was still. Hercules approached him and reached down with the intent of checking him out, but Lucius hit him with a fistful of ashes from the fireplace. Momentarily blinded, Hercules tried to wipe his tearing eyes and managed to see his half brother speeding out of the broken door, fleeing from the castle into the night. He started after him, but a shout from up above halted him in his tracks.
“Lucius is getting away,” he protested, hesitating.
“Forget him,” Autolycus yelled down from the top of the stairs. “And get up here! Hurry!”
Something in the king of thieves’ voice made his blood run cold, and Hercules forgot about Lucius as he bounded up the stairs and followed Autolycus down the south corridor. He took in the scene of the hired thugs that littered the floor, the hidden room with two dead creatures, and Iolaus lying between them, covered in blood.
“You’re going to be all right, buddy,” the demigod repeated soothingly for the twentieth time as he pressed a wad of bandages against the gaping claw wounds in his friend’s abdomen. “It’s just a lot of blood, that’s all. It’s all right. You’re going to be ok.”
“How can you keep saying that?” Autolycus finally blurted out as he paced restlessly nearby.
“What else would I say?” Hercules demanded tightly.
“He knows the truth,” the thief insisted. “And he doesn’t deserve this kind of patronizing.”
Hercules was on his feet in an instant, grabbing Autolycus by the shoulder and forcing him backwards up against the wall.
“And what is the truth?” he snarled in a whisper. “Huh?” For the first time in his life, the king of thieves realized the wisdom of holding his tongue and didn’t answer. “He’s going to be all right,” Hercules said finally as he released him and took a step back. “That’s the only truth there is.”
“Ok,” Autolycus conceded, for he suddenly realized that all of Hercules’ reassurances weren’t for the hunter, but rather for the demigod’s benefit, to keep him calm and focused. And he had a hunch that Iolaus realized that, too.
“Look, we’ve got to do something or he’s going to bleed to death,” Hercules murmured, pushing his hair back with a hand stained with his friend’s blood. “I need to go outside and find some yarrow. Stay here with him.”
“Me? But I...”
“I’ll only be gone a few minutes,” the demigod insisted. “Just stay with him, all right? Keep pressure on those wounds and yell if anything... if you need me.”
“All right,” the thief said in resignation. Hercules ducked out, leaving him to hover uncomfortably over the prone man for a moment before he sighed and crouched beside him, pressing his hands firmly over the terrible wounds. “Hey, Iolaus. Are you with me?”
“Can’t get rid of me that easily,” the hunter murmured weakly as he opened his eyes. “Where’s Herc?”
“He ran out to get some supplies. He’ll be back in a minute. Just relax and don’t try to talk, ok?”
“No,” Iolaus protested. “We need to talk while he’s gone.”
“Look, Blondie, if this is some deathbed confession about how you’ve always had deep affection for me and admired my vast talent, I don’t want...”
“Hardly,” the hunter told him with a chuckle that turned into a moan and a wince.
“Ok, then what’s so urgent?”
“Autolycus, you know you have to take the Star back to Lycia.”
“Are you delirious? That jewel is your only chance. I mean...”
“I’ve had lots of second chances over the years,” Iolaus reminded him. “More than my fair share of reprieves. And I can’t ask for another, not if it’s going to take one away from somebody else. We can keep the Star here for tonight and save one life, or you can take it back to Lycia and save many lives. There’s just no question.”
“Yeah, but you’ve personally saved a lot of lives over the years,” Autolycus reasoned. “My own included. And you’ll go on from here to save a lot more. You can’t not factor that into the equation.”
“I made a promise to those people,” the hunter explained. “I promised we’d get the Star back to them and they’d be healed. I can’t use it to save myself if it means they all die.”
“Well, why can’t we take you back along with the Star?” Autolycus bargained. “Then you can all be healed.”
“I think we both know I’m not going to make it back to Lycia,” Iolaus said ruefully. “And trying to undertake that journey is just going to kill me faster.” He reached up a shaking hand and clasped it around the thief’s wrist. “Look, I don’t want to die. And I’m not going to give up. I’ve come through bad stuff before and there’s a good chance I can pull through this. But I don’t want to live if it’s as a man who didn’t keep his promise and let a whole village down for selfish ends. Hercules... Well, he’s got a blind spot when it comes to me. He can never see past it for the greater good and he’ll never agree to take the Star back. That’s why you have to go and do this, Autolycus. Please, promise me you’ll take the Star back to Lycia. One last favor to me. Please, promise me.”
“All right, I promise,” Autolycus finally gave in. “I’ll return the stupid Star to Lycia.”
“And after solstice?”
“What about it?”
“Promise you won’t steal the Star back again?”
“Ok,” the thief grinned in spite of himself. “I promise that, too. Now quit harping at me and shut up, would you? You need to save your strength.”
“Autolycus,” Iolaus murmured sincerely as he closed his eyes, “I’m glad you came with us.”
The thief didn’t answer, but after a minute he pulled out the cloak he kept hidden within the folds of his tunic for quick change disguises and draped it over the hunter.
“Now don’t get any blood on that,” he admonished sternly. “If you do... well, I suppose I’ll have to overlook it.”
Hercules returned to the castle and for a moment he froze, thinking that Iolaus had died. His friend was lying so still under the cloak and Autolycus just looked so... sad. But when the thief caught sight of him he jumped up and came forward.
“I’m glad you’re back,” he said in a voice that was trying a little too hard to be casual. “I’m not a nursemaid, you know.”
“Yeah, sorry,” the demigod told him, clapping him on the shoulder in understanding. “I’ll take over from here.”
Autolycus lingered in the background, watching the partners together for a moment. When Hercules started to treat those awful wounds he turned away, but not from queasiness. He had work to do.
An hour later the king of thieves had all of Discord’s mercenaries who were still alive locked up in one of the dungeon cells. He couldn’t find a key for the door, but it didn’t matter as he figured when it was time to move them Hercules could just rip the door off its hinges. Though it was more than they deserved, he gave them some water and few spare bandages so they could tend to their own wounded. Then he brought in water and wood and got a fire going in one of the less gloomy rooms in the south corridor. He gathered up the nicest tapestries and drapes that he found, shaking all the dust out that he could, and made up a cozy pallet in front of the fire. Hercules carried Iolaus to it and got him settled, and then he and Autolycus dragged the dead mercenaries into the hidden room with the two creatures and placed them inside. The thief shut the door to the room and locked it once more, noting as he did so that the sun had risen. It was the dawn of solstice.
Autolycus followed the demigod back to Iolaus’ room. Just moving him that short distance had started his wounds bleeding again, which made it obvious that he was never going to make it to Lycia. The thief was starting to have his doubts that the hunter would even make it til nightfall. It wasn’t fair or right, but there wasn’t anything he could do apart from honor the promise that he had made. So while Hercules was absorbed in tending to his partner, Autolycus quietly slipped out of the room and went down the stairs where he left the castle and started on the road to Lycia.
“It’s just me, Hercules,” Autolycus called out as he climbed the stairs. No response greeted him and he wasn’t sure if that was a good or a bad thing, but he continued on, taking the south corridor and stepping just inside the room where he had left his companions the day before. Hercules was on the floor, his back to the fire and Iolaus’ head resting in his lap.
“What did you do, run all night to get back here?”
“Well, I flew, actually. Part of the way,” the thief replied, patting his sleeve where he kept his grappling hook hidden. “Are you mad at me?”
“Let’s just say that I would find a lot of pleasure in taking that hook and ramming it up your...”
“Ok, I get it,” Autolycus interrupted quickly. “But just let me explain.”
“You don’t have to,” Hercules sighed as his large hand gently stroked his friend’s hair back. “I know Iolaus put you up to it. And he was right. You both were.” The demigod paused, then fixed a hard look on the thief. “You did take the Star back to Lycia, didn’t you?”
“Where is the trust?” Autolycus whined theatrically. “Yes, I took the Star back. And it worked like a charm. As soon as the lights went out, it lit up like the sun and healed everyone in the village. They were all very grateful, by the way.”
“Good,” the demigod said tonelessly. “Iolaus will be happy to hear it.”
The king of thieves stared down at the white face of the hunter, unable to see any sign that he was breathing.
“Is he...? How is he?”
“He’s holding on,” Hercules told him, but with a waver in his voice that made it clear he didn’t know for how much longer.
“Good. Then put him down and back off.”
“Curly here is about to wake up and I’m sure he’d prefer to do it in a manly way, as opposed to cradled in your arms like a baby,” Autolycus explained as he reached into his tunic and pulled out a small corked bottle. “I brought you a little solstice present.”
“What is that?” the demigod demanded suspiciously.
“This is a beam of light from the Star of Apollo,” the thief said grandly. “What? I promised I wouldn’t steal the Star itself, but I didn’t say anything about its byproducts.”
“You can’t contain light in a jar,” Hercules snapped angrily. “It’s impossible.”
The demigod looked back and forth from the thief to the jar in his hands, desperately wanting to believe what he spoke was the truth, even though it went against all logic.
“Hercules, you wound me,” Autolycus beamed with infuriating smugness, swiping a hand across his mustache. “After all, I am the king of thieves.”
“You are unbelievable,” the demigod muttered.
“I know you mean that in the best possible way. Now move, will ya? I’ve only got a little bit of this and I don’t want any to hit you by mistake.”
Hercules gently lifted his partner’s head and eased it down onto the pallet before he scrambled back out of the way. Autolycus took his place, tipping the bottle upside down over the hunter and wrapping his fingers around the cork.
“Hope this is enough to do it,” he whispered, giving the cork a hard yank.
A beam of light shot out of the container and went straight down into Iolaus, enveloping his whole body in a radiant glow before quickly fading away.
“Ow!” the hunter exclaimed as he threw off his coverings and leapt to his feet, dancing in place and shaking his hands rapidly. “What in the name of Tartarus was that?!”
“That, my friend,” Hercules announced with a giant grin as he stepped forward and slung an arm around his partner’s shoulders, giving him a tight one armed hug, “was Autolycus saving your life.”
“Well,” the thief demurred, “he saved mine first and I don’t like to be indebted to anyone. So we’re even now, ok?”
“Yeah, sure, whatever,” Iolaus agreed as he undid the bandages that were constricting his torso, puling them away to reveal perfect, undamaged skin. “I know there’s a story here and I want to hear all about it, but can we do it over breakfast? I’m starving.”
“Yep, he’s fine,” Hercules said, rolling his eyes though the gesture was with fond affection. “What do you say, Autolycus? Can we buy you breakfast at the tavern in Bottia? It’s the least we can do.”
“Thanks, but no thanks,” the thief told him. “I may be the hero of Lycia and bailed you two out yet again, but I don’t think the good people of Bottia are going to be welcoming me with open arms any time soon. Besides, I have a prior engagement.”
“Ah, yes, your solstice plans,” the demigod recalled with a touch of sarcasm. “I hope we haven’t made you miss out on anything important.”
“Well, I am going to be late, but I suppose Mother will understand. Especially when I tell her I was delayed because Hercules needed my help to save a village. You know how moms eat that stuff up. But you two crazy kids have fun and don’t forget about our friends down in the dungeon.” And with a flamboyant wave and bow, the king of thieves made his dramatic exit out the window with a triumphant yodel.
“Mother?” the two men asked simultaneously.
“Well, everyone’s got one after all,” Hercules concluded with a shrug.
“She must be so proud.”
“Are you sure you’re all right?” the demigod asked. “You really had me worried on this one.”
“Yeah, fine,” Iolaus assured him. “Was it the Star? Felt more like lightening. Hey, Herc..”
“It’s ok, Iolaus,” Hercules placated him. “The Star is back in Lycia. Autolycus found a way to help all of you.”
“Tell me about it on the way,” the hunter suggested.
So as they walked back to Bottia, Hercules told him about how Lucius had unfortunately gotten away and how Autolycus had gifted them with a solstice miracle. When they arrived at the town, Iolaus went ahead to the tavern and ordered them both some food while the demigod sought out the magistrate and placed the responsibility of the caged mercenaries back at the castle in his hands. Then he joined his friend and they both enjoyed a hearty meal.
“One thing I don’t understand,” Iolaus spoke up when his hunger was sated. “If Discord was behind all this, where was she? I would have thought she would have shown up at some point to gloat. Or maybe I was wrong about her...”
“I don’t think you were,” Hercules said thoughtfully. “I was a little surprised that Aphrodite never made another appearance, especially since she was the one who started us on this quest.”
“She was ticked off at Discord, remember? Maybe she found out Discord was the one behind the Star getting snatched and they’ve been, um...”
“Keeping each other busy?” the demigod supplied.
“I think that’s probably all the more speculating I want to do on that particular subject,” Iolaus declared wisely. “But there is something else I’ve been thinking about.”
“All that stuff Aphrodite told us about Apollo. You know, how he used to be a benevolent god that liked to help mortals. Herc, do you suppose he could ever go back to that?”
“I think that would take a true solstice miracle, unfortunately,” Hercules said, a bit wistfully. “But I suppose there’s always hope.”
“What he needs is to fall in love again,” the hunter theorized. “Who do we know that we could fix him up with?”
“Iolaus, my friend,” the demigod sighed with weary affection, “you’ve managed to defy death once again. Let’s not tempt the Fates quite so soon, all right?”
“All right,” he chuckled. “But Herc? There’s just one more thing.”
“Happy solstice, buddy.”
“Happy solstice, Iolaus.”
Disclaimer: Our golden hunter was not permanently injured during the writing of this story, and in fact he was rather a good sport about being nearly disemboweled. Autolycus’ mother did forgive him for being late, especially since he brought her a string of pearls that he *ahem* picked up for her along the way. And Mt. Olympus is recovering nicely from what became known as “The Great Solstice Catfight”.
Stories by Quiet Wolf
The Iolausian Library