"Hi, guys! Look who I brought for a visit. Herc! You'll never guess how we met." Iolaus stepped forward and kept talking.
Iphicles groaned and closed his eyes. *I am not seeing the God of War in my throne room. I am not seeing Iolaus and Ares and a stranger appear out of nowhere into my throne room.* He opened his eyes in time to see his half brother hug Iolaus while glaring at the smirking God of War. *Hades! I *am* seeing them and I'll just bet they're not here because they were bored and decided to see how the other half lives.*
"Iolaus, slow down." Hercules was frowning but his voice was gentle and the look in his eyes was one Iphicles had never seen before.
"Right, gentlemen. Let's take this to my study. No need to start any *more* rumors." The King of Corinth gestured towards the hall and watched Ares and his companion wink out while his half brother herded Iolaus ahead of him.
Iphicles stopped for a moment to inform the guard that no one was to be allowed in the study while the wide-eyed captain just nodded. *Great. The rumors about Ares will be flying all over the castle in no time flat.*
He entered his study to find Hercules and Iolaus kissing in the window alcove. *What?* He shook his head and looked again at the tender scene. They looked ... right together. Maybe this was why Hercules had seemed so relaxed. Shaking his head, he looked to see if the god of war had reappeared. He felt something relax inside of him when the room showed empty.
"Okay, boys, an explanation would be nice." Iphicles settled behind the table piled with petition scrolls and hid a smile at the bemused look on his brother's face.
"Um, Iphicles." Hercules opened and closed his mouth.
"I get the picture, big brother. You finally caught a clue and realized that you loved Iolaus and he loved you. But why does that bring the god of war to my throne room?"
"My fault. I've been having some really bad dreams and since they had a lot of war in them, I went to one of Ares' temples to find out why." Iolaus plopped down on the window seat and tugged Hercules down with him. "They weren't from him and Morpheus doesn't know where they're coming from either. Ares thinks maybe there's been a break in the barriers that keep the world divided into separate domains."
"Nebula is there and a spear kills you."
Iphicles had never heard such pain in his brother's voice before. Iolaus just nodded and hugged his lover closer to him. "I die and come back possessed by one of the northern gods. Dahok."
"And I have to track you down and kill you. Again." Hercules sounded so defeated.
"It doesn't mean it will happen, Herc." Ares' voice came from the other side of the room where he appeared with his dark companion on the long couch. "Now that we know about it, we can hopefully track the dream back to its source and stop it."
"Morpheus said he'd help. And the Muses are searching the Archives for other instances of dreams like these." The dark haired man who leaned on Ares' shoulder spoke up and Iphicles found himself fascinated by the rich voice.
"I know, Joxer. But what if the events begin to happen and we can't stop them?" Hercules sighed and pulled Iolaus closer to his side.
"We will stop them." Ares' voice was almost feral in its intensity. "Dahok will not gain a toehold in our realm. Not now, now ever."
Iphicles watched in fascination while the two brothers exchanged a heated look. Iolaus and Joxer just looked at each other with small smiles. The dynamics between the four of them intrigued him and he looked forward to finding out just what had been going on the last few months while he'd fought to bring some order out of the chaos that had been Corinth after the war of the gods.
Just thinking about that brought his mind back to the petitions that littered his worktable. Too much destruction and too few resources to build anew or even repair the damage. The death toll, especially near the coasts had been astronomical. He'd lost a quarter of his people and with his soldiers aiding in the relief effort, he'd been afraid that a war with his neighbors could break out at any minute.
One of the many reasons seeing Ares in his throne room had been such a shock. It was almost a relief to know he was here for other reasons. And catching a glance from the dark god, that told him he'd just had his mind read, made him flush. But Ares seemed to be all right with his fear and even to approve his reaction.
He would never understand why the gods did what they did or even how they thought. And right now, he had too much on his plate to even speculate about them unless they decided to meddle. Hopefully, they would just leave Corinth alone to rebuild and go about their business. But that was probably too much to ask.
"But for now, we need to investigate these dreams from the inside and that means being here while you sleep." Ares continued his earlier statements with his familiar smirk. "Iphicles doesn't mind, do you?"
"Not if it will stop another godly dispute like the one we just barely survived." Iphicles kept most of the tiredness from his dry tones. But not all and Joxer sat up a little straighter, his dark eyes meeting the king's.
"While Ares gets with Herc and Iolaus, I could help you with those petitions." He coughed slightly and blushed. "I have some experience with paperwork."
"I'll take any help I can get." Iphicles watched Ares smile at the dark haired man and lean over to whisper something in his ear.
Joxer grinned and patted Ares' knee before getting up and coming over to the crowded desk. Iphicles began explaining his filing system to his attentive helper and just barely noticed when the other three left the room with a flick of Ares' fingers. But he did relax a little when the cheerful young man pulled up a stool and began helping him sort out the most urgent from the least.
Two hours later, Iphicles was grinning at the engaging young man and enjoying one of his stories about the rebuilding of Olympus. *If all of Ares' warriors were like this one, there'd be a lot fewer wars and we'd get a lot more done.* They'd cleared the table and sent most of the scrolls to the appropriate counselor with a detailed note on how it should be handled.
"I don't suppose I could entice you away from following Ares?" Iphicles stretched and flexed his arms in an attempt to loosen his tight shoulders. "You have a real knack for finding solutions to insoluble problems."
Joxer grinned at him. "Sorry, I'm with Ares because I really want to be. He's being very patient with me while I search for my calling in life."
*Search for his calling?* Iphicles puzzled over that one until with a start he saw Ares appear behind Joxer. The god of war swooped down on the unsuspecting young man and swept him up in his strong arms.
"Ares!" Joxer laughed and hugged the dark god.
"We'll be back later, Iphicles. I thought you said the last thing you needed was a god in your life? I'm afraid you'll have to find your own. Joxer's taken." Ares winked at him and flashed the two of them out of sight.
Iphicles could feel his mouth hanging open. *Joxer is a god? And Ares' lover?*
He shook his head and got up with a groan. Time for some dinner and a bath. This was turning out to be a very strange day.
Iphicles sank into the hot water with a sigh. The baths might be communal but at least he rated his own alcove in the huge underground pool. Ducking under completely, he got thoroughly wet before coming back to the surface and reaching for the soap. While he lathered, he thought over the strange story that Iolaus and Hercules had regaled him with at dinner.
Ares taking a male mortal for a lover then Hestia turning him immortal in time to save his life from Ate's dagger. The whole war and Hera's making him a god. Iphicles remembered seeing Ares and Joxer at the Olympic Field when the energy had been released but he hadn't realized their relationship. But the kicker was Iolaus' surprising news about Aphrodite.
He rinsed well and slicked his hair back from his forehead before slumping into the carved bench below the water line. Resting his head against the stone, he tried not to listen to the water play in the far corner where Hercules and Iolaus were bathing. But the acoustics were just right to hear every loving word.
"There's a spot I need you to wash, Herc."
"Right here? ... Or maybe here? ... How about here?"
Every spot seemed to be punctuated with a kiss that made Iolaus moan softly. And every moan and groan went straight to Iphicles' groin. He gritted his teeth and tried not to think about how long it had been since his wife's death. How long it had been since he'd touched or been touched with love. There'd been so much to do and he'd welcomed the work because it meant he was too tired to mourn her except in dreams.
But confronted with two such happy couples, he finally acknowledged his need for a companion. He hadn't thought about a man before but maybe he'd been blinding himself to a possible mate. Sighing, he gave up his bath when a mini-tidal wave from his half brother hit him in the face. It was time to quietly leave the two lovers to their passion.
He climbed out and toweled off before donning his robe and sandals. Leaving by the back staircase, he continued up to the top of the castle walls. Nodding to the guard on duty, he walked to the west wall and leaned on the stone parapet. *Just in time for sunset.*
The sun was a myriad of colors spreading out over the horizon in shades of peach and coral. He rested his folded arms on the stone rampart and feasted his eyes on the beautiful lights and colors. This was his favorite time of day and always had been. The great ball of fire slowly sank below the horizon and he said a silent prayer for all those who'd followed it to the Elysian Fields.
Sighing again, he turned to go in and finish off the evening paperwork. He'd put his brother and Iolaus in the room adjoining his. It had been his wife's but right now it was handy for keeping the lovers private. Especially if the god of war was going to show back up. He grinned secretly at his own curiosity about the god and his lover.
*I have been too long alone. I really need to get out more.* He reached his room and threw off the robe, only pausing to pull on a loose pair of linen pants. He turned away from the doorway to the other bedroom and headed instead for the door to his study. He was half way to his desk when he noticed the stranger sitting on the window seat.
"Are you here with Hercules or Ares?" Iphicles held on to his temper while wondering how he'd gotten past his guards.
The deep laugh was infectious and the flick of the long fingers lit all the lamps in the room. The light haloed the stranger's strong features. His shapely head was covered in thick blond curls gleaming in the light. Deep blue eyes gazed at him from behind long black eyelashes above high cheekbones. The aquiline nose above his laughing lips fit the strong planes of his face. And he had a dimple in his chin.
*Great. Another god.* Iphicles thought of the chaos the gods almost always brought with them.
"Apollo. Not just another god." The tall figure rose before him but Iphicles realized with a start that they were the same height. His movements were graceful, crossing the room with three quick strides. He held out his hand and Iphicles grasped his forearm in acknowledgment of the introduction.
"Iphicles. Just a consultant in bad dreams?" He could have cursed his wayward tongue but the words spilled out anyway.
"Of a sort. Asclepius takes care of the body while I heal minds and spirits. We work together when there's need but right now he's still contending with the last round of sneezing sickness. And so far, there's been no physical injury to either Iolaus or Hercules." His voice was calming and Iphicles found himself relaxing into the chair behind his worktable without being sure just how he'd gotten there.
The god of light perched on one hip at the corner of the table and eyed him quizzically. Iphicles blushed. "Sorry. I'm a little unsure how to address you."
He threw back his head and laughed out loud. "Apollo will do nicely, Iphicles. I can stand on ceremony with the best of them but I really do prefer to just speak man to man. How did you enjoy the sunset?"
Iphicles blushed again. This was the god of the sun after all. "It was beautiful. They've been spectacular since the war of the gods."
Apollo nodded, a look of sadness crossing his expressive face. "All the debris kicked up by the volcano, whirlwinds and various other natural disasters filter the air and create really colorful sunsets. Over time, the brilliance will fade and we'll be back to normal."
He nodded slowly. It had never occurred to him that there was a physical explanation to the phenomena. He'd just appreciated the beauty. "Even without the debris, I always enjoy the sunsets."
"I know. There's a certain look about a sunset-person that's quite different from a sunrise-watcher." Apollo smiled gently at him and then cocked his head towards the other door. "They're getting ready for bed. Hopefully, they exhausted themselves in the bath so they'll go to sleep right away."
Iphicles nodded and watched his visitor out of the corner of his eye. Why wasn't he more nervous? This was a *god* for Tartarus' sake. But he seemed so easy going compared to Ares' brooding presence that Iphicles couldn't find any apprehension inside of himself. Apollo really did have a healing manner that made him feel as if everything would turn out all right.
The bright god looked down at him again with a gentle smile. "If we can make it right, we will. I think we're all agreed that Dahok and some of his savage brethren must not be allowed into our sphere of influence. They're so young and full of such passion. But it's the passion of a two year old who likes making things fall down and then doesn't know how to build them back up."
The king of Corinth nodded slowly while he pictured a kingdom of two year olds. Chaos. Disorder. He shivered and pictured one of the villages from which he just returned. Rebuilt homes, the blacksmith's forge working to full capacity, the smell of baking bread, children reciting their lessons, a fishing boat coming in to port with a full load. His people deserved this return to normality.
"Yes, they do, Iphicles. I watched you while you were shingling that barn. You do good work." Apollo grinned. "I have a little shrine outside the village. The Widow Rika keeps it up for me."
"I *thought* someone was watching." Iphicles grinned back, relieved that the odd feeling had finally been explained. "I didn't know of the shrine."
"No reason that you should. It's just a stone cairn with a candle within that passersby can light if they want to thank me for a sunset," he winked at the king, "or ask for some help." He turned his head again and Iphicles watched Ares and Joxer flash into the room.
"Herc just went to sleep. Iolaus seems to be nodding off as well." Ares said decisively.
Apollo listened for a moment then nodded. "Iolaus is asleep now, too. How do you want to handle this?"
"We need to eavesdrop on the dream. Touching would be best. Long distance viewing is never as precise." The god of war spoke with authority.
"Let's give them a few moments while they settle deeper into sleep." Apollo rose from the desk and walked towards the window, drawing Ares with him.
"More scrolls, huh?" Joxer distracted Iphicles from the picture of the dark god beside the bright one. "Why don't we go through them and let those two plot?"
"Um, sure. Thanks for the help, Joxer. Have you thought of being the god of scribes?" Iphicles ventured a small joke, watching the young god's eyes crinkle and lips turn up.
"Nope, there's a lot of satisfaction to getting that job done and doing it right but I wouldn't want to do it all the time."
The twenty scrolls were taken care of before the gods joined them. Ares looked impatient and Iphicles wondered what they'd been talking about so seriously in the window alcove. Apollo asked him if he would mind anchoring him while he entered the dream and he didn't even hesitate to say yes, following the three gods through his bedroom and into the last room of the suite.
His half brother was curled protectively around the smaller hunter but already there were frowns on both their faces. Ares settled on the stool by Hercules with Joxer behind him, both hands on the dark god's shoulders. Apollo sat by Iolaus and Iphicles hesitantly laid his hands in the mirror position of Joxer's.
Instantly, his eyes closed and the dark space was filled with pictures that moved. It was as if he were there, looking out of Iolaus' eyes and watching the events unfold. But there was no sound so he couldn't tell exactly what was happening. However, the spear speeding through the air was unmistakable and he felt the impact as it pierced the hunter and sent him crashing to the stone floor.
Then there was pain and anguish flowing through him in never ending waves until Hercules looked down at him and said something he couldn't hear. The darkness that next descended was absolute and Iphicles found himself floating in a black space that flowed all around him. There were no boundaries and no points of reference. Just the velvet dark enfolding him in a warm embrace from head to toe.
He should have been frightened but instead ... it felt like floating in the ocean with his eyes closed. Safe. Warm. Secure. But then there was a touch. Just a slight pressure on his hand that turned him slowly, drawing him from the depths of the opaque sea that cradled his body.
And suddenly, there was light all around him, filling his senses with brightness and he was opening his eyes to lamplight and the worried gaze of the god of light. The firm lips smiled down at him and the strong arms held him, helping him sit up on the floor of the spare bedroom. Hercules was sitting up in bed with a worried expression on his face, holding Iolaus tightly. Ares was sitting in the window seat, cradling the limp body of his companion.
"What happened?" He managed to croak out.
"I don't know, Iphicles." Apollo still held him but absentmindedly with his eyes unfocused. "We were in the dream and then we crossed some kind of boundary. Not like the boundary Zeus and Odin created between our peoples but ... different. What did you see?"
Iphicles recounted the feeling of Stygian space and how he floated in it. Apollo just nodded. "Ares, has Joxer come to yet?"
"I'm back, Apollo." Joxer's voice gained strength as he spoke. "It sounds like Iphicles and I went to the same place. He described the space perfectly. Except for a sound."
Iphicles sat upright. "Yeah. A sound like a ... distant heart beat?"
"Exactly. Really slow and far away. All we were hearing was the echo." Joxer was sitting up too and their eyes met excitedly over the two men in the bed.
"But what does it mean?" Hercules' voice was impatient and fearful at the same time.
"It means we don't have to worry about an invasion from the north. I think what the two of you are experiencing, is what I might call a psychic possession." Apollo paused and seemed to choose his words carefully. "Somewhere, there is a Hercules and Iolaus who are living through your dream. For real."
"At times, the walls between the worlds grows thin and elements from one universe bleed through into another. It could be because of the release of Chaos energy. Or the war between the gods. You were part of both events and being mortal, it may be that you're more susceptible to the leakage." Ares sounded tired and he held Joxer tenderly while he watched the others.
"How do we make it stop?" Iolaus sighed, looking haggard.
"Haven't a clue." Apollo stood and offered Iphicles a hand up. "We're going to have to do some research first. But for now, I'll have Morpheus come and give you both a night's sleep. Ares, why don't you take Joxer home? He's still not quite over the sneezing sickness and that's why he reacted so strongly to his trip to the Void."
"The Void?" "What's that?" Iphicles and Iolaus spoke together.
"The space between the universes is called the Void." Ares said before he and Joxer winked out.
"Morpheus." Apollo spoke into the air.
All the lamps in the room went out and a myriad of dancing lights appeared. In their dim light, Iphicles saw Hercules and Iolaus lay down as if told to. The fireflies swirled around their heads and slowly their eyes closed. Their breathing evened out and Iphicles felt his own eyes begin to droop.
"Come, King Iphicles. To bed with you." Apollo drew him into the next bedroom and tucked him into the freshly made bed. The last thing he remembered was a gentle touch to his temple and a whisper.
"Sleep well, my king."
End of chapter 12