Lightning II:
Beloved Stranger

Part 3

Ares read the same paragraph three times in the misspelled, grubby petition he held before he lobbed it across the temple in disgust, narrowly missing Iolaus' head as he entered. "I got here as soon as I could," he protested mildly, mounting the steps to Ares' throne. "Come outside with me; I've been
cooped up in a sickroom for days, and it's too nice out to mope around this mausoleum."

Ares scowled at him. "Gods don't mope," he said irritably. "And what makes you think I have nothing better to do than scamper around a meadow with you?  Life goes on whether you're here or not, you know."

He was still complaining as Iolaus pushed him outside into the sunshine and across the field to the pavilion. Iolaus went inside, then came out again and squinted up at the roof.

"Take it off," Iolaus interrupted.

"Take what off?" Ares asked, diverted.

"The roof. Wait; come inside first." He pulled Ares into the structure, then gestured impatiently at the ceiling, giving Ares a delighted grin as it vanished. "Perfect! Sunshine and privacy."

"You have no feeling for the subtleties of classic architecture," Ares chided him, completely mollified by Iolaus' obvious pleasure at seeing him.  "I was beginning to think you'd decided to give up your career to become a nursemaid. What is it?" he added as he watched Iolaus' face grow suddenly serious.

Iolaus stared at his clasped hands for a long minute, then looked up. "When I was a boy in the streets, I did a lot of things I hated just to survive. I decided back then that when I grew up, I wasn't going to spend my life doing something I hated. When you picked me up out of the gutter and gave me a
chance to make something of myself, I knew the gods were telling me I was right."

He looked out the window, pushing his hair off his face in an automatic gesture. "I've been fighting in your service for close to twenty years, at the head of your army for ten. We've made a lot of progress in those years and I'm proud of what I've accomplished as your general. But lately each battle has taken a little more from me than I can afford to give. More than I'm willing to give, any more."

He drew in a deep breath and turned to face Ares again.

"Ares, I've made a decision. This battle was my last one. I'm stepping down as head of your army."

Ares stared at Iolaus, dumbfounded. He'd known for some time that Iolaus wasn't completely happy, but had remained silent, trusting that the mortal would come to him in his own time, as he always had. He could tell Iolaus was finally ready to talk when he returned two days ago. Of all the possibilities Ares had considered, this one had never entered his mind.

He raised a hand in a helpless gesture of bewilderment, then dropped it again. "I don't understand. How does this happen? Do you wake up one morning and decide you're not a warrior any more? Iolaus, being a warrior isn't what you do. It's who you are. You can't change that by walking away from your life."

"I'm not walking away from my life." Iolaus grasped Ares' arm, willing him to understand. "I'm tired, Ares. I'm just a mortal, not a god, and we get tired. Tired of good men dying in our arms, tired of killing other good men whose only crime is being on the other side, tired of never coming to the
end of it. Believing you've won a war is just a sad, sick joke. There's no such thing. There's only trying to outlive your enemies until the next time.  I don't want a next time. I've been grooming Paleus; he's more than capable of stepping in, or you can choose someone else. But I'm finished."

Ares' hand shot out and gripped the arm that rested on his. "How dare you," he hissed. He could feel the fragile bones move under his fingers; how easy it would be to crush them, to crush him. He released Iolaus' arm abruptly and turned away. "Leave me," he snapped.

"No," Iolaus said simply. He stood just behind Ares, waiting. "Try to be happy for me," he said at last, and Ares turned to look at him.

"You're moving out of my world. How do you expect me to be happy about that?" he asked. Aphrodite had been right. Ephemerals were fickle creatures with fleeting, deadly desires. A god could only be grateful that they were ignorant of the extent of their power. He flinched as Iolaus came closer,
cupping his face in small, commanding hands.

"I don't need pity from a mortal," he snarled, and stepped away from his touch while he still could.

"I don't dismiss that easily, and I don't feel the least bit sorry for you," Iolaus told him. "I'm not 16 any more, Ares. More of my life is behind me than in front of me. Time has become my enemy, and I'm not going to waste a second of it arguing with you on this magnificent day. I've been thinking about trying blacksmithing. Do you think you could talk Hephaestus into letting me hang around his forge a little?"

Ares was struck by a sudden image of the taciturn God of Fire being harassed by an incurably curious, incessantly talking Iolaus, and he smiled in spite of himself. Perhaps he'd been hasty. If Iolaus wasn't constantly risking his neck in some pestilential corner of the country, Ares might see him more often. "What exactly do you plan to do with your new-found freedom?" he asked, and was rewarded with a slow, hot smile.

"Well," said Iolaus, unbuckling his belt and letting it drop to the floor, "I was hoping you'd be able to help with that." Freed of its restraint, his shirt hung open and Ares slid his hands beneath it, watching it drift from his shoulders. He reached for his own tunic but Iolaus' hands were there first, unfastening each buckle with maddening slowness. At last Iolaus moved into his arms, and he wove his hands into his mortal's bright curtain of hair and bent to his mouth, savouring it. Their tongues touched with exquisite delicacy as they relearned each other's taste, until Ares could no longer resist the siren song of Iolaus' soft moans and swept him up, carrying him to the bed. He pushed his trousers down over his hips, taking
pleasure in Iolaus' burning gaze on him, and caressed himself, sinking his teeth into his lush bottom lip. Iolaus' eyes fastened on it and he licked his own lips unconsciously, opening his trousers and pushing his hand inside them. Ares kicked his own trousers aside and peeled Iolaus' off; he loved the sight of that beautiful, heavy cock, and he loved to watch Iolaus pleasure himself. But right this moment Ares had plans for Iolaus' pleasure, and his own.

He stretched out on the bed beside Iolaus and lifted his hand, palm up; it cradled the bowl of a shallow golden goblet heaped with glittering crystalline stones. He chose a small one and slipped it between Iolaus' lips.

"Ice," Iolaus said with some surprise.

"Ice," Ares agreed, and chose a larger piece, licking it lazily before bringing it to Iolaus' mouth. His tongue touched it, then Ares slid it over his lower lip, bending forward to catch its droplets on his own tongue. He drew the jewel of ice down Iolaus' throat and the shallow channel of his breastbone, moving first to one side, then the other to ring each nipple to hardness.

As each crystal melted on Iolaus' body he replaced it with another, gliding in circles over his abdomen, dipping into his navel, idly scribing his name across Iolaus' tense, quivering stomach, then drawing back to admire the red tracks against his pale flesh. Finally he held the last piece of ice between his fingers, and Iolaus watched him suspend the melting shard above his cock. The first drop of icy water struck, and he cried out. Another, and another, splashing against his heat, trickling down to caress his scrotum.
And just as it was almost too much, Ares' mouth, like being thrust into a furnace.

Then Iolaus' hands came down to fasten themselves to Ares' shoulders, and he saw the livid handprint on Iolaus' wrist.

He sat up abruptly, sickened by this evidence of how easily he'd surrendered to his anger. "Ares?" Iolaus said, puzzled by the sudden shift in his mood.  Ares reached behind him without looking and pulled Iolaus' arm around him, closing his hand over the fingers that moved automatically to spread
themselves across the swell of his pectoral. Iolaus rose to his knees and pressed against Ares' back, reaching over his shoulder with his free hand to enclose Ares in the circle of his arms. Ares leaned into him for a long moment, then raised Iolaus' bruised wrist to his lips. "Is that what all the fuss is about?" Iolaus asked gently. "I know you wouldn't hurt me on purpose." His voice became teasing. "I could be persuaded to torture you for a while, if it'll make you feel better."

"Gods can't be tortured," Ares returned promptly, turning Iolaus' hand over to lick the ticklish spot in his palm. This mortal was a constant wonder.  And at the same time delightfully predictable; Iolaus could never resist a challenge.

He allowed Iolaus' hands to urge him back against the bed. Iolaus leaned over him, his hair tumbling over his shoulder to rest against the dark mat that covered Ares' chest, and kissed him with all his consummate skill.  Ares' deflated erection stirred and filled, and Iolaus smiled knowingly against his mouth. "Turn over," he commanded, and sat up, handing Ares a pillow. "You'll need it," he said, his voice a growl. "To stop the screams."

Ares lifted an eyebrow and shifted to his stomach, wrapping his arms around the pillow and watching Iolaus over his shoulder until a hand covered his eyes. He closed them obediently; a pulse of excitement shot through him and he pressed his hips into the silken coverings, waiting.

He felt the brief tickle of Iolaus' hair against his back, then pulled a shocked breath through his teeth as some multi-tendrilled thing laid across his shoulders with stinging force. It came down again, and again, and he realised he was being lightly, rhythmically whipped with Iolaus' waist-length hair.

The very outrageousness of it jolted him with arousal that was almost liquid in its intensity, and he moaned involuntarily as his tormentor set his buttocks and the backs of his thighs aflame. He found himself struggling blindly to his knees, burying his face in the pillow, spreading himself before Iolaus in a wordless plea, and the plume of Iolaus' hair curled between his legs to paint its fire on his rigid cock and lick his aching balls. It went on forever, until he was sure his skin was crisping and peeling from his body, until his nerve ends were flayed, until he was screaming into the pillow. Then Iolaus' fingers were suddenly deep in his twitching, blazing ass, and then oh yes oh finally his cock, heavy and hot and perfectly punishing inside him, and Ares wanted to reach for his cock but couldn't make his arms release the pillow. Iolaus drove into him hard, hard, tight gold curls at his groin crackling against Ares' fiery skin, then his cool hand was cradling the flame that was Ares' cock, and he came in huge, suffocating waves, until Iolaus stiffened against him, his hips jerking with each spasm of Ares' ass around him.

Ares' legs refused to hold him any longer and he tightened against Iolaus' cock one last time then slumped to the sheets, his back and thighs still humming. Iolaus sank back on his haunches, sucking in gulping breaths, and finally held out his hand to Ares. "Ice," he said.

Ares groaned. "I can't take any more," he protested, but the ice appeared in Iolaus' hand. He held his breath, jumping at the first cold touch against his buttocks, then relaxing under the gentle, sweeping strokes. When the ice was gone and he lay boneless against the pillows Iolaus stretched beside him, grinning smugly. Ares reached out a languid hand and snagged a handful of blond waves. "I had no idea you possessed such depths," he said with respect. "I'm a humbled man."

"You'll get over it," Iolaus assured him. They dozed for a while in each other's arms, then Ares conjured up a meal and they talked and ate, and finally made love again. The shadows in the pavilion had lengthened considerably when Iolaus got up and fished his trousers out from under the bed. If Hercules was really well enough to get up by this afternoon, Iolaus felt it was only right that he at least look in on him. Ares argued, but grudgingly conceded when Iolaus pointed out that if Hercules had come to
join his army, as Ares had said, then Iolaus owed it to him to tell him he was retiring. "I could always bring him back here for dinner," Iolaus pointed out. "Who knows? You might like him if you got to know him."

"For some reason, I'm less than warmed by that prospect," Ares said dryly.  "Will you come back here tonight?"

"Are you still going to Gaul at first light?" At Ares' nod of assent, he shrugged. "Then I'll stay at my place. I'm not going anywhere, remember?  We'll have all the time we want when you get back. Give Nemecles my best, and don't forget to tell him-" He issued instructions, warnings and advice to pass on to the battalion's captain until he caught Ares' amused look and subsided. "All right, all right," he said with a reluctant grin. "Old habits die hard, I guess. Stay away from golden hinds, and don't be gone longer
than a week. I'm an impatient man."

"Yes, my lord Iolaus," Ares said with a deep bow, and caught Iolaus to him for a last hard kiss.

He brought down a brace of ducks on the way back to Cernaia. Retia met him at the door, hands planted firmly on her substantial hips, eyes narrowed in frustration. The man was impossible; he'd been roaming around the house dressed in nothing but a sheet for hours, asking her when she expected the general back. He'd finally threatened to leave the house wearing only what he was born in if she didn't find him some clothes; none of the general's fit him. Well, of course the general's clothes wouldn't fit, she'd told him; the general wasn't a great oaf of a man, unlike some. Iolaus deflected her in mid-sentence by thrusting the ducks into her hands and heading for the kitchen, asking her what was for dinner.

He inhaled the rich aroma of roasting meat appreciatively, burned himself trying to snag a slice from the spit, and was about to ask Hercules' whereabouts when Retia's son burst through the back door, begging his mother's help at his wife's childbirth bed. "Go," Iolaus said instantly.  "We'll be fine."

The sound of her voice had barely faded when Hercules appeared in the kitchen's doorway. "That woman is impossible," he snarled, hitching at the sheet wound around his waist. "She burned my clothes, can you believe it?"

"No, she didn't. She burned some bloody rags that used to be your clothes before I cut them off you," Iolaus told him, handing him a bundle. "I borrowed these from one of my warriors." Hercules reached for them with a glad cry, dropping the sheet. "Hold it," Iolaus snapped, snatching back the bundle. "First I want to have a look at you."

Hercules' lips twitched and he spread his arms wide, turning in a slow circle. "Very fetching," Iolaus told him as he completed his turn. "Now let me see the part under the bandage. How do you feel?"

Hercules had almost removed the bandage around his chest that morning, knowing it was no longer necessary, but decided it would be much more entertaining to wait for Iolaus. Now he moved with alacrity to sit in the chair his host indicated. "Like a million dinars," he answered. "Like eating a horse."

He had spent the day trying not to look too closely at his reasons for looking out the nearest window every time he heard footsteps approach. He was bored and naked. What a lethal combination. A man should never have to be naked and bored at the same time. He made a mighty, but unsuccessful, effort to banish these absurd thoughts. What was happening to him? He was rapidly regressing from cheerful to giddy with Iolaus' return.

Iolaus shook his head over the faint pink line on Hercules' thigh, then carefully unwound the cloth. "You do good work," Hercules commented, peering down at his chest. "I won't have a scar."

"You barely have one now," Iolaus retorted. He had knelt by Hercules' side, and now leaned over his thigh, pulling his hair over his shoulder, to press his ear against Hercules' chest. "Take a few deep breaths," he ordered. His belt buckle dug gently into Hercules' hip, and Hercules felt the warmth of
his body through the fine linen of his tunic. "Amazing," Iolaus said as he listened to the clear, steady lung sounds.

"Thank you," Hercules answered, looking down at the blond head that leaned against his chest. "Breathing is one of the things I do best, if I do say so myself." Get hold of yourself, Hercules. The man's going to think you're a lunatic.

Iolaus stood up and handed him the clothes he'd brought; he dressed in them eagerly and made for the door, anxious to stretch his legs after three days of enforced idleness. A quickly stifled giggle brought him up short. "What?" he demanded.

"Well, the clothes aren't exactly a perfect fit," Iolaus explained, struggling not to laugh again. Hercules' shoulders threatened to burst out of the shirt, his wrists dangled below the sleeves, and the trousers were several inches too large in the waist. The boots fit him well enough, and hid the pants' other shortcomings. That waist wouldn't survive a fast walk, though. He drew Hercules into his bedroom and used his knife to remove the shirt's sleeves, then rummaged around in a trunk until he found a belt. "At
least our waists are roughly the same size," he said, handing it to Hercules, who cinched the shirt over his trousers with it. He felt Hercules' eyes on him. "What?" he said in his turn.

"You giggled," Hercules accused.

"I don't giggle," Iolaus said automatically.

"Yes, you did. General Iolaus, head of the armies of the God of War, gig-"

"Not any more," Iolaus said casually, and left the room.

Hercules followed him outside, barely noticing that they were heading out of the village. "Tell me you mean you're not giggling any more."

"I don't giggle. And I don't run Ares' army any more, either. I told him this morning."


The anger in Hercules' voice raised Iolaus' eyebrows. "What difference does it make? I'm sure whoever takes my place will be more than happy to offer Ares' brother a significant position. My leaving shouldn't affect your plans at all."

Because we only just met and I need more time. Hercules pressed his lips together, trying to decide how to answer that without sounding like a petulant child. "As a matter of fact, I think my plans have changed. Being almost killed by Ares' soldiers doesn't bode well for my life expectancy if I were to actually join his army, does it?" Maybe Iolaus wouldn't notice he hadn't actually answered it at all.

"Those cretins," Iolaus snorted. "If they were any good, they'd be on a battlefield somewhere, not guarding a temple no-one would dare to raise a hand against. They wouldn't last five minutes in one of my battalions."

"Nevertheless, I'm going to stick to what I know. What about you?" he asked, following Iolaus to the river. Iolaus drew off his boots and sat on the bank, dangling his feet in the water, and watching with some surprise as Hercules stripped.

"Are you sure that's a good idea?"

"Unless you plan to keep giving me sponge baths," Hercules suggested, easing into the water. Turning on to his back, he kicked just hard enough to stay in place against the current. Iolaus stood up and untied the thongs of his shirt, and Hercules was suddenly grateful for the water's chill as he watched Iolaus skin out of his clothes and dive into the river. He really had to go somewhere and have a serious talk with himself. "So what are you going to do now?"

"I haven't got a clue. Fish for a while. Travel. I'd really like to visit someplace that I'm not attacking. Damn, this water's cold." He climbed back up on the bank, leaning back on his elbows and tilting his face toward the last rays of the afternoon sun. He was remarkably beautiful, but Hercules knew he wasn't trying to be provocative; he was simply completely unselfconscious about nudity, displaying the same matter-of-fact manner he had when he was bathing Hercules.

Even the frigidity of the water wasn't proof against that particular memory.  Hercules sank under the water and swam briskly for a few minutes before venturing out to drop to the ground by Iolaus. He was breathing deeply, and Iolaus sat up to put a concerned hand on his chest.

"I'm fine, really; just overdid it a little, I guess." In truth, he was more tired than he wanted to admit. The wound was healed, but his depleted resources had not yet had time to renew themselves. He shivered a little, and Iolaus rubbed him down briskly with his shirt, cursing himself under his breath for letting Hercules swim in the first place. "As though you could have stopped me," Hercules scoffed, drawing on his pants and boots and standing to fasten the belt around his waist. He leaned against a tree as Iolaus dressed quickly, using his now-damp shirt to towel his hair, then tucking it into his belt.

They started back to the village in the deepening dusk, Iolaus keeping a cautious eye on the man at his side. It was very odd; he wasn't accustomed to feeling so at ease with a total stranger. Iolaus' acquaintances were legion, but he wasn't in a line of work that left much opportunity for developing close friendships. Ares had been everything to him -- father, teacher, mentor, then finally companion and lover-almost since the day he changed the course of Iolaus' life.

He'd never felt the need for anyone else. Then again, he'd never had the time for anyone else, either. Maybe it was because he was already feeling a little at loose ends and taking care of Hercules gave him something to do.  Or maybe he felt some artificial connection to him because he was Ares'
brother. They were certainly nothing alike. Well, they were both decent men with commanding, charismatic personalities, but Iolaus had a hard time remembering Hercules was the son of Zeus. With Ares, one never forgot it.  Behind closed doors Ares had a wry humour about his godhood; Iolaus knew
without being told that it was a face that Ares had never shown a mortal before. Ares. Iolaus hoped he would finish his business and return quickly.  No wonder Ares was always so testy when Iolaus first got back from a campaign. And that was after months; Ares had been gone less than half a day, and Iolaus was already feeling... restless.

He had never taken a lover from the ranks of his own men, but there had been others besides Ares in his bed over the years, when he had been far away, and the nights had been long and cold. A woman, lush and willing, who caught his eye in a tavern. A man; never a soldier, a farmer, perhaps, who could
remind him that men could nurture life as well as end it. Not a large number when he did the sums, but large enough, frequently enough, to help dull the sharp edge of his loneliness. They came to him strangers, and they left him the same way, and that was how he'd preferred it.

He stole another glance at Hercules, but could no longer make out his features in the gloom. Hercules was making no secret of the fact that he found Iolaus desirable. In another place, another time Iolaus would have responded without thought. Now, however, he was troubled.

What did Hercules want from him, exactly? To ingratiate himself with Iolaus as a means to reaching Ares? You don't get yourself into someone's good books by trying to seduce their lover. Well, maybe it was the opposite, then: maybe Hercules was striking at Ares through Iolaus. No, that felt wrong. He knew nothing about Hercules, but he trusted his instincts and they told him this man was an honourable one. Hell, he'd had a narrow escape from death; maybe he just wanted to celebrate under the nearest bush with a conveniently warm body.

Well, be that as it may, they weren't off in the middle of a war somewhere.  No-one but Ares had ever shared his bed under other circumstances, and he wasn't about to change that with Ares' own brother. When Ares got back, Iolaus would make sure he got to know Hercules. Iolaus would be pleased for
Ares' sake if they became friends.

It didn't occur to Iolaus to wonder why he took it for granted that Hercules would stay.

When they reached his home Iolaus found himself a dry shirt and poked around the kitchen putting a meal together. Hercules flatly refused to return to bed and pulled up a chair in the kitchen, and the two chatted companionably over Retia's only slightly dried out spiced mutton and fresh bread, accompanied by an odd assortment of vegetables that Iolaus had picked in the dark garden and tossed into a frying pan with garlic, olive oil and some generous squeezes of lemon. They washed it down with several glasses of wine from Iolaus' own vineyard, finally pushing themselves away from the table and moving to the couch in the common room. Iolaus lit some candles, rekindled the fire and went back into the kitchen, reappearing with a bottle of what he declared to be the finest brandy in the province. Also from his grapes, of course.

The gravity with which Hercules proffered his glass to be filled told his host he was less than perfectly sober. He tossed the contents off in a single draught and held out his glass again. "Philistine," Iolaus sneered, refilling it.

"Another man would take it as a compliment," Hercules protested, savouring the first sip of his fresh glass. He watched the play of light and shadow in Iolaus' hair, and longed to bury his hands, his face in it. He stood abruptly, staggering a little. "I'd better leave," he said gruffly. He was pleased to see that Iolaus was completely astonished.

"Leave?" he repeated. "What for? Where are you going?"

"Well, I can't keep taking advantage of you," Hercules pointed out. "I'm a stranger, after all, and I don't need any more nursing. You'll be wanting your bed back."

"You're not a stranger, you're Ares' brother," Iolaus answered. "And besides, you haven't got enough money for breakfast, never mind a room. And don't tell me you're going to sleep in the woods," he said before Hercules could interrupt him. "It's cold out there, and the ground is damp, and I won't have you undoing all my hard work with a bout of pneumonia. Besides, you owe me."

It was Hercules' turn to look taken aback, and Iolaus smiled. "I'm not really all that crazy about fishing by myself," he said. "And I can't have you walking off in Marcus' clothes; you'll have to be fitted for new ones, and that will take a while. I haven't ridden my property in six months; if you come with me, I won't have to drag Retia's son from his new family. And then there's..."

Hercules finally raised a weary hand. "If I'd known being rescued by you was going to mean permanent servitude, I'd have told you to leave me in the forest," he complained. "I'd better get some sleep if I'm going to be driven like a mule tomorrow. I'll take the couch."

"Don't be ridiculous. You're six inches too tall for it. Go to bed and stop arguing with me. Don't you ever just do what you're told?"

Hercules frowned, considering this. "No," he said at last, and stretched out on the couch, grinning. "It's not in my nature. Must be a half-god thing."

After several moments of fruitless argument during which Hercules stubbornly refused to relinquish the couch, Iolaus headed off to bed. He was right, of course; it was too short for Hercules, and he and his blankets were on the floor in front of the fire in very short order.

Although he had fully intended to leave-not even the wine could smother his sudden surge of guilt at the way he had been taking advantage of Iolaus' generosity and good nature-he had been relieved when Iolaus had stopped him.  For the first time in two years, he wasn't looking forward to being alone again.

He'd nearly gone mad with grief and anger when he'd gone home on that hideous day to find his family's charred bodies huddled in the burnt-out wreckage of their house. He'd buried them, then crawled into a bottle and stayed there until one morning the fog of his hangover was pierced by the
hot need for vengeance against those who had taken his life away.

He tracked them, solitary and relentless. Sometimes he'd waste weeks following a cold trail and having to retrace his steps. From time to time, if it didn't hold him up or take him out of his way, he could be prevailed upon to help someone in need as he had in the old days, but he did it out of habit now, shrugging off thanks with indifference. He'd finally come across his family's murderers by accident; he'd received word that they'd been seen near Plinth some weeks earlier and was headed there when he was begged to help out a village being terrorised by a band of outlaws. He almost hadn't gone; it was out of his way, and he hadn't wanted to take the extra time.

It was the kind of anticlimax that would be booed off a stage in Athens. The culmination of two years' single-minded effort was a five-minute showdown in a muddy village square, surrounded by gaping peasants and the odd sheep.  There were five of them left of the original band of eight; he snapped four
necks in methodical, unemotional succession, leaving the fifth alive long enough to find out that he didn't remember Hercules' family; didn't remember one house out of many, four deaths out of dozens. Hercules sent him to Tartarus, dropped his corpse into the dung-strewn road and walked out of the
village, not stopping, not thinking until the sun had come and gone twice and he was filthy, scratched and unable to walk any farther. He'd used most of his precious hoard of coins to purchase a bed and a bottle of wine in a cheap inn, but had fallen asleep before he could open the bottle. The next morning he'd traded the bottle for a bath and a shave and considered his options, still in that eerie state of calm. He had no interest in living; his only consideration was exactly how to die.

He'd already tried drowning in a sea of alcohol, and it was too damn slow. He could fall on his sword, but he didn't have one. So maybe he'd do the next best thing: charge into overwhelming odds and die a warrior's death.  He'd spent some time making inquiries into the whereabouts of Iolaus' army, and arrived in Ares' sacred forest just in time to be mistaken for wild game. His last, bitter thought as the arrow tore into his chest was that he was getting what he deserved for the arrogance of thinking his death should mean more than this.

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