Ares blinked in shock. "Father, you can't possibly be serious."
Zeus glared down on Ares from his ornate throne. "I'm completely serious, Ares. The Telaquir Amazons were your responsibility, and you have failed in it. That is regrettable, but there is nothing to be done. We have lived in peace with the other pantheons for millennia. I will not jeopardize that peace now just because you were embarrassed."
"This has nothing to do with embarrassment," Ares said through gritted teeth. Losing his temper in front of his father would do no good, and probably do quite a bit of harm. Worse, he couldn't even take out his frustrations on a piece of furniture, since Zeus kept the room bare save for his throne. The design was intended to remind petitioners that they were alone before the greatest power imaginable, and right now it was working far too well to suit Ares.
"Doesn't it?" Zeus asked with a chuckle.
"If we let Ogun get away with this, it'll be a signal that we're vulnerable! This could be the beginning of a strike against us."
Again Zeus chuckled. "Must everything be a game of tactics with you, Ares?" Before Ares could reply, Zeus said, "It doesn't matter. No Olympian shall have contact with outside gods. My word is final. If you do interfere, Ares, you will be punished."
"I said my word is final, Ares. And I dislike repeating myself."
Zeus's expression did not change, but outside the huge window to his left, the clouds grew dark, and the light in the throne room itself dimmed.
Muttering a curse underneath his breath, Ares said, "Very well, Father. Thank you for your time."
With that, he disappeared, returning to the temple closest to the Telaquir Amazons. It was a breach of protocol--Zeus preferred that petitioners leave by the door and not use their powers within his throne room--but Ares didn't care much for protocol just at the moment.
Two seconds after he materialized, a fist collided with his jaw, sending him sprawling to the floor.
That, he thought, was quite a punch. There were few who would dare to strike him, fewer still who could actually knock him down.
He looked up to see Hercules standing over him.
"Well," Ares said, "this day is looking up. I was just thinking to myself that I needed someone to punch."
He got up and landed a swift and satisfying blow to Hercules' stomach before his irksome little half brother could dodge it. It sent Hercules careening across the room and crashing into a wall. Several Spartan swords were dislodged by the impact.
"Why'd you do it, Ares?" Hercules asked as he got up, clutching his stomach.
Smiling, Ares said, "I could ask, 'Why'd I do what?' but that would imply that I actually care."
Then Ares launched himself across the room, intending to slam Hercules in the chest with his boots.
Hercules, however, rolled out of the way at the last minute, and it was Ares' turn to crash into the wall.
Got to admit, Ares thought as he got up off the floor, the kid is getting better. That centaur actually seems to be teaching him a thing or two.
This once, Ares didn't mind. In the mood he was in, he needed the workout.
"Stop it!" a voice cried, and another followed it with, "This isn't helping Cyane!"
Ares whirled to see Hercules' fellow cadets Lilith and Iolaus, as well as Simula, the one member of Cyane's tribe who hadn't been taken by Ogun.
Hercules repeated, "Why'd you do it, Ares? Cyane trusted you--the Fates only know why she did, but she did. And you betrayed her. You're even lower than I thought."
Ares laughed. "As usual, little brother, you've got it all wrong. I had nothing to do with Cyane's abduction."
"Yeah, right. You expect me to believe that?"
The smile fell from Ares' face. "What you believe is of extremely little interest to me. Let me show you what happened to Cyane and her people."
With a snap of his fingers, an image started to play out on one of the shields that hung from the temple wall. Ares had seen this all before, of course, so he watched the mortals' reactions. As the image of Ogun appearing in the village played out again, Ares saw Hercules' eyes go wide with shock. As the entire population of the village disappeared with a gesture from Ogun, Ares saw Simula's jaw harden with determination.
"Who was that?" Iolaus asked.
"He's called Ogun. He's a god from a land called Yoruba, to the south of here, and he's their god of war."
Iolaus shook his head. "Wait--you mean there are other gods?"
Hercules said, "So what's the problem? Why not just go in and rescue them?"
Shaking his head, Ares said, "That's the sort of thing you need permission from the old man for."
"So what?" Hercules held up his arms with his palms facing upward. "Zeus wouldn't stand for some other god just barging in and taking his people, right?"
"Your faith in our dear old Dad is touching, little brother," Ares said with a bitter chuckle, "but Zeus has already forbidden me, or any other Olympian, from interfering in the affairs of other pantheons."
Iolaus asked, "Can't you just ignore him?"
Grinning viciously, Ares said, "If I could do that, your pal here would've been ashes years ago."
Lilith said, "So Zeus is just writing Cyane and the others off?"
"It's hardly surprising," Simula said. "Zeus was the one who betrayed us to the Athenian slave traders. I can't imagine he'd lift a finger to help us now."
Ares silently agreed. Zeus had a fairly strong streak of vindictiveness, and the god of war was quite sure that the non-interference order stemmed as much from Zeus's dislike of this particular Amazon tribe as any desire not to get involved with foreign gods.
"Why do you care anyhow?" Hercules asked derisively.
"I'm a god," Ares said angrily. "That is a sacred trust, and one that entails responsibilities. When something happens to my worshippers, I take it seriously. That's my job."
"I thought his job was harassing Herc," Iolaus muttered to Lilith.
Ares broke into another grin. "No, that's my hobby." Turning back to Hercules, he said, "You may be Daddy's favorite, little brother, but you're not an Olympian, so I don't expect you to understand." Shaking his head, Ares walked to the other side of the temple. "Not that it matters. I can't interfere, so the question is moot. So, unless you want to go another three rounds--and I'm game if you are--this conversation is over."
"Wait a minute," Hercules said. "Ares, you said that Zeus forbade any Olympian from interfering with other gods?"
Not sure where the little twerp was going with this, Ares said, "Yeah."
"That was how he phrased it?"
Losing patience, Ares said, "Yes, what of it?"
Hercules then smiled that annoying little smile of his. "Well, like you just said, I'm not an Olympian. You can send me to Yoruba to get Cyane back."
"Not just Hercules," Lilith said. "I was part of the tribe, however briefly. I'm going, too."
"As am I," Simula said.
"Well, I'm not staying behind with ol' leather-and-studs here," Iolaus said. "I'm in, too."
Ares regarded the foursome, then zeroed in on his half brother. "You and I, working together?"
"Yeah, well, it makes me wanna puke, too, but it's the only way we're gonna get Cyane back. Assuming, of course, that you meant that stuff about sacred trusts and actually care about getting her back."
"Don't push me, little brother," Ares said with a growl.
Still, the more he thought about the idea, the more Ares liked it. True, the very notion of working with Hercules was about as appealing to him as wearing pastels and becoming Aphrodite's assistant, but he didn't seem to have a choice. The very qualities Hercules had that made him so irritating to Ares were precisely what was needed to rescue Cyane: someone heroic and stupid, willing to take insane risks in a foreign land just to help out a friend.
Besides, the idea of using Daddy's precious child as a way of getting around Zeus's own directive had a certain perverse appeal to Ares.
And, the war god thought with a private smile, if Hercules contrives to get himself killed in Yoruba, that's just an added benefit.
"Very well," Ares finally said. "I can send you to Yoruba. I can't pinpoint Cyane exactly--"
"Why not?" Simula asked, sounding surprised.
"Not my territory. If they were still in Greece, no problem, but that's Ogun's turf, and my powers are limited--at least in that regard. Now hold still."
Ares gestured, and light flashed on all four of them for a moment.
"What'd you just do?" Hercules asked suspiciously.
"You now can both speak and understand the Yoruban language. I've also given you a general knowledge of the local topography, so you won't get lost. I've been able to narrow Cyane's location to near one particular village. That's the best place for you to start searching."
"Good," Iolaus said, "let's go."
But Hercules was still eyeing Ares suspiciously. Feigning confusion, the god of war asked, "S'matter, li'l bro, don't trust me?"
"Any reason why I should?"
Ares pretended to consider the point, then broke into a grin. "Not really, no. But just keep in mind--this was your idea." He raised an arm. "So long, kids! Write if you get work!"
Then he snapped his fingers, and his half brother, the Amazon, and the irritating blonds were all gone.
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