Dead Bugs in Amber

By Euphonius (a.k.a. Kerry Lindemann-Schaefer)

Disclaimer: With the exception of original characters created by the author, all characters belong to Universal Studios, MCA, or Pacific Renaissance Productions. Yes, I'm using them without permission, but I'm writing this for love, not for money, so I trust no one will get uptight about it.

"I'll give you thirty dinars for the lot, but only if you throw this one in with it too."

Casually, I picked up the amber necklace and tossed it on the pile of cheap jewelry I had already accumulated in front of me on the display table. The value of that last item was easily three times what I was offering for the entire lot, but I was gambling on the ignorance of the other man. Most of the people who come to these festivals to sell odds and ends don't have a very good idea of what their merchandise is worth. They're casual sellers of junk, not real merchants such as myself.

"What do you say? Is it a deal?"

He took the necklace in his hand and held it up to the light. "Well, I dunno. Seems like this ought to be worth a bit more. It's a pretty color."

It was indeed: dark red amber is far more rare than the usual brown variety. I took back the necklace, pretending to inspect it closely. I pointed at the large flat piece that was the pendant on the string of small beads. It wasn't nearly so red as the beads, and I wanted to draw his attention away from the color. "Looks like there's a couple of insects embedded in this chunk," I said distastefully.

"Yeah," he concurred. "But I still think it's worth more --"

"Come on, there's a frigging bug stuck in it! Who's going to buy that?"

"Why do you want it, then?"

Oops! Perhaps I'd overdone it. He was getting suspicious.

"Maybe I like insects," I replied with a casual shrug. "I'm offering thirty dinars for the lot. Do you want the money, or the bugs?"

He was still making up his mind when a hand reached over and took the necklace out of my grasp. There was a familiar moonstone ring on the little finger of that hand, a ring I had given to its present owner not all that long ago.

When I turned to face Iolaus, I almost called out his name in greeting, but I was warned into silence by a slight shake of his head. He was still looking at the amber. "You're right. There are bugs in there." He held it up in front of his eyes, studying it closely. "This one looks like some kind of a mosquito, actually. Yuck!" Making a face, he dropped the necklace back onto my pile.

"It's a deal," the seller said quickly, doubtless convinced by that final demonstration of distaste. "Thirty dinars."

As I counted out the money, Iolaus sorted through the rest of my newly-acquired goodies, pretending to nothing but a casual curiosity. When I went to scoop them into my pouch, he plucked a small silver bracelet from the pile. "I'll give you one dinar for this," he offered, still not acknowledging that we knew each other.

"One dinar? It's worth three, at least," I replied, playing along.

"Come on. If my wife says she wants it, I'll go up to two dinars. She's around the corner at the butcher's stall."

I followed him away from the table, still haggling over the price. As soon as we were out of sight, we both burst out laughing as we hugged each other in cheerful greeting.

"Okay, Euphonius," he finally managed to say. "Just how much is that necklace really worth?"

"Oh, I know a rich lady who likes amber, especially if it has yucky bugs in it. I figure I can sell it to her for between 80 and 90 dinars," I replied casually. "Thanks for helping me clinch the sale."

"Hey, what are friends for?"

"Well, right now, they're for buying each other a drink." I pointed to the Twin Serpents Tavern, just across the street. "What do you say?"

"Sounds good to me. Wait a moment, though." He stood up on his toes, searching the marketplace for something or someone. Then he waved. I looked in the direction of that wave and saw Hercules in the midst of a bevy of admiring young women, looking decidedly uncomfortable. When Iolaus caught the demi-god's eye, he pointed to the tavern and mimicked drinking. The other man nodded his understanding and waved back.

"Okay, let's go."

"What's up with Hercules and the girls? Isn't he coming with us?"

"Nah. They're after him to go judge the baking contest. He hates judging things, but he's not real good at refusing either."

Fine with me. I preferred having Iolaus all to myself anyway. He'd changed a lot since I'd run into him a good number of months ago. (Well, this version of him, at any rate. I had known his original namesake briefly and still mourned his death.) Back then, this Iolaus had been a rather timid little fellow from some other strange version of the world. Now, he'd gained a considerable amount of self-confidence, for one thing. And he smiled a heck of a lot more, for another. Yeah, the smile was sometimes rather brittle, as if it were in danger of collapsing at a moment's notice, but it was there.

We sat down at a corner table and waved to the bartender for drinks. I emptied my pouch of newly-acquired baubles on the table and began sorting gleefully through the merchandise. I knew this tavern well, and knew it was a safe place, so I didn't have to worry about thieves or anything like that. I also knew the Twin Serpents was mostly frequented by men who shared my preferences. (If I tell you the serving wenches weren't really women, and the pretty young things you could pay to warm your bed were handsome boys, would that give you a hint as to what I mean? I thought so.) At any rate, I was quite at home here.

"Did you really want that silver bracelet?" I asked Iolaus. Gods forbid that "wife" he had referred to earlier should be for real! Bad enough he was enamoured of a mermaid, or had been, last I'd heard. At least he couldn't have his sea-bound lady love, and so might occasionally settle for - uh - something else?

"No. I made that up on the spur of the moment," he answered.

I took a swallow of the ale that had just been served in order to hide my relief at his words, then went back to sorting through my pile of jewelry. The amber necklace truly was the only item of any great value, although a few of the bracelets were fairly nice. I held it up to the light, smiling.

"There's an old legend," I began, staring at the honey-brown pendant in satisfaction, "that says amber is formed when the rays of a brilliantly setting sun congeal in an evening sea, and then are cast ashore. The occasional odd bugs and stuff are just things that happened to get in the way as the light and water came together. I don't believe it for an instant, but it sounds nice, doesn't it?

I glanced over at my companion as I hung the string of amber around my own neck, tucking it under the collar of my tunic and shirt for safe-keeping. We were sitting sideways-on to each other, rather than across the table. Iolaus seemed to be staring at me rather strangely, a frown creasing the space between his eyebrows. Not the response I had expected to my little tale about the formation of amber.

"What?" I asked, turning to face him more directly.

He shook his head, as if to drive some unwelcome thought away. "You don't want to know," he said at last, raising his mug to his lips and drinking more than was likely to be usual, for him.

Pushing aside my pile of baubles, I placed my hand over his other hand where it rested on the table. "I do want to know. What's wrong?"

"I -- uh -- I think I met your double in my world. I didn't recognize it until now, when I saw all this --" He gestured at the jewelry with the hand that held the mug -- "and saw you in profile. He had a nasty scar across one side of his face and wore his hair very short, so he didn't look quite like you from the front, and he went by a nickname that slips my mind just now, but he had this - thing -- for jewels."

"Oh, was he a jewelry dealer also?" I asked lightly. I still didn't like the look on his face.

My question was greeted by a short and unfunny laugh. "More like the leader of a band of thieves and cutthroats. He paid for his purchases with blood and death, not dinars."

Iolaus tried to pull his hand out of mine, but I held on tighter. I had a bad feeling about this doppelganger of mine.

"How'd you run into someone like that?" I asked, after my companion had had a chance to take another generous swallow of his ale.

He closed his eyes and shook his head.

"Come on," I encouraged. "I want to know what I was in your world. You can tell me."

He looked at me for a long moment, then pressed his lips together and nodded. "He had to sell his ill-gotten gains to someone, and that someone was the Sovereign. Since he was very careful to restrict his predations to the surrounding kingdoms, he was always welcome at the Sovereign's court."

"So how well did you know this - uh - other me?"

"Not well at all, and better than I'd have liked," Iolaus admitted unhappily.

Uh-oh, I had a pretty good idea of what that could mean. I'd used that line myself, on occasion.

"Would you care to elaborate?"

"Not really, but I will. The Sovereign had a habit of offering me as a plaything to those of his guests who were inclined in that direction." His gaze drifted off into the distance, and his voice went very soft, as if he were remembering something all too clearly. "As I said, your other self had this thing for jewelry. Wore a lot of it himself, and he used to make me wear it whenever he --"

I put a finger on his lips, stopping the words. Then I turned him to face me again. "Don't. I get the picture."

Indeed, I got the picture all too well. One of my earliest experiences with men had involved a sea captain who liked gemstones and suchlike other pretty things. In fact, that was where I had gotten started in my current line of work, which had proven quite profitable to me, over the years. I could think of some rather good uses for jewelry in a sexual encounter myself. A lot of things would look really nice on Iolaus. And there were other ways to use them too, if we were --

No, don't even go there. I didn't need to be thinking like this. Not now. And I knew I'd never suggest such a thing to my gorgeous companion, even if the occasion arose, not after he'd told me about my double.

I gathered up the jewelry on the table rather hastily and dumped it back into its pouch.

"I'm - uh - sorry."

"Not your fault." He shrugged, drained his mug, and smiled at me. "As far as I'm concerned, your other self was just one in a long list of brutal, vicious creeps. That's all over now, thanks to Hercules' getting me out of there."

I signalled the bartender for refills, even though I'd barely touched mine. (No, I swear I wasn't trying to get Iolaus drunk so I could take advantage of him. Really. I just thought maybe he needed to chill out a little, that's all.)

"So tell me what's been going on with you? What brings you to Sparta? Are you just here for the festival, or on some mission with the big guy?" I asked, hoping to change the subject to something a bit more cheerful.

He took another long swallow from his brimming tankard, and giggled. By now, his eyes were looking a bit unfocussed. Not surprising. The ale here at the Twin Serpents has a pretty high alcohol content.

"Wanna hear about my latest adventure with Hercules?" he asked.

"Uh - yeah." As long as it doesn't involve you and him in bed together, I thought to myself. But that really wasn't fair. To the best of my knowledge, Hercules and this Iolaus had never gotten it on, although I had reason to suspect that the demi-god wouldn't have been averse to such a thing. "Tell me about it."

Thus encouraged, Iolaus regaled me with a long story about a cursed Cyclops' eye, and people gradually fading out of sight, and a goddess by the unflattering name of Discord. By the time he got to the part about Hercules and Ares having it out in a quarry, he had almost finished the rest of his ale and was becoming uncharacteristically enthusiastic and ungrammatical in telling his story. More to the point, he had one hand under the table and was gradually sliding it up the inside of my thigh.

Gods, I thought, he's either totally soused, or pretty damn horny! Either way, it was fine with me. I was enjoying the tale immensely, not to mention the rest of the action.

"So, in a moment of sudden inspiration, I tossed the Cyclops' eye to Ares," he concluded, fighting off another fit of laughter. "And the big dummy threw it at Hercules, even though Hercules warned him not to! It shattered, the energy bounced around the walls of the quarry, then headed straight for the God of War. Poof! He disappeared from sight!"

By now, he had surrendered to the giggles. "You should have seen the look on Ares' face just before he blinked out! It was hilarious!"

"I didn't think it was so funny," a dangerously deep voice interrupted.

Iolaus and I both glanced up at this, only to find a big dude in black leather standing next to us. Iolaus' mouth dropped open and he just stared. The big dude leaned over and placed both hands flat on the table.

"In fact," he went on, far too quietly, "it was a major hassle getting rid of that invisible business. If I weren't a god, it may well have proven fatal."

The big dude scowled blackly. I shivered, and not only from fear. The guy was absolutely drop-dead gorgeous, with this really neat moustache and beard. And he was just the tall, dark, and dangerous-looking type that appealed to me. He might have stepped right out of one of my more vicious fantasies.

However, he seemed to be focussed on my drinking companion, who looked rather more as if the vision in black leather had come from one of his nightmares, rather than his dreams.

As far as I'm concerned, no one messes with Iolaus. I stood up and demanded of the big stranger, "Who the fuck are you?"

He looked down at me scornfully. (Did I mention I'm not very big? Only about Iolaus' height, to be exact.)

"I'm Ares, pretty boy. Who the fuck are you?

Now, it's been many years since I've been a pretty boy, but there are those who consider me kind of cute, for an old dude. Not in Iolaus' class, of course, but not hard to look at either.

Then the rest of what he had said registered, not to mention the remark he'd made earlier.

"Ares?" I repeated skeptically. "As in Ares, God of War?"

"You got it."

I gave him a rather dubious glance. Yeah, he looked the part, but so would just about any nice-looking guy with bulging muscles wearing black leather. In point of fact, he was almost too nice-looking, despite the fierce expression on his face. Since I normally have very little to do with the inhabitants of Mount Olympus, it didn't at first occur to me that this was a really, truly god. I thought he might be somebody who enjoyed pretending to be the God of War, especially considering the usual clientele of the Twin Serpents.

The supposed god grabbed Iolaus by the neck and lifted him not only up from his seat but a good distance off the floor to boot. "You are coming with me."

Now, I didn't care if this fucker thought he was a god or just a truly irresistable stud. No one was going to do that to Iolaus, and especially not when he was here with me. If I get too angry, I tend to forget my less-than-average height, not to mention how generally useless I am in the personal combat department. I charged the big man, grabbing the arm that held my friend. At that same moment, I saw Ares gesture with his other hand and he and Iolaus both began to glow around the edges. But by then, I had collided with his other arm.

The world went bright and sparkly and then rapidly coalesced again - someplace else.

Ares glared down at me. "What are you doing here?"

I let go of his arm and shrugged. I didn't even know where "here" was, much less what I was doing there. And I had the awful feeling this guy just might be exactly who and what he had said he was.

He released his grip on Iolaus, who fell to the floor on his knees, trying to catch his breath.

"You okay?" I asked, as I helped him up.

He just nodded, still gasping for air and rubbing his bruised throat. I looked around, trying to make sense of our new surroundings. It looked rather like a small temple, deserted and a bit dusty just now, but obviously still in use, judging by the pile of gifts on the altar and the various fancy-looking weapons hung on every wall. Not a temple to Aphrodite, that was clear enough.

Sunlight streamed into the otherwise rather dark room from a row of large windows along the side wall, and I could see a wide stretch of glittering water in the distance, as if the temple were up on a hill overlooking the sea. That being the case, we were clearly no longer anywhere near where we had been. You can't see the ocean from Sparta.

"Like it?" Ares asked, noticing the way I was sizing up the accommodations. "It's one of my more remote temples. My meddling half-brother will have to go some to find us here."

Iolaus had managed to recover himself by now. "What do you want?" he demanded, rather bravely, I thought, considering who he was talking to. Or maybe he was still pretty drunk and didn't realize what was going on quite yet.

The God of War - yes, I had admitted his identity by now, much as I didn't want to - swaggered over and stood looking down at us, his lush lips parted slightly and his face set in a thoughtful expression. "I haven't decided yet. But don't worry - it won't be anything nice," he assured Iolaus. Then his eyes focussed on me. "Just who are you, anyway?" he asked. "And no smart answers this time. Got it?"

"Yeah. Got it. Uh - my name's Euphonius. I'm a jewelry merchant," I said, trying to sound innocent and harmless.

Ares jerked his thumb at Iolaus, whose arm I was still holding. "So what were you doing with him?"

I almost replied, "Whatever he wanted to do with me," but thought better of it. This was clearly not the time to open my big mouth. "He's a friend," I said simply.

Leather Boy looked me up and down, then smirked. "Yeah, right."

Okay, so I'm not terribly macho in appearance, I usually wear too much jewelry, and I'm kind of prissy. That still didn't give him the right to sneer at me like that.

I frowned. He frowned even more menacingly. I quickly concluded that discretion was the better part of valor, especially since I'm not too well-endowed in the valor department anyway. I readjusted my face into an innocuous smile and let my eyes roam around the temple. "Nice place you've got here."

"I like it. I come here when I want to - you know, get away from it all. Quiet, secluded - and my followers know better than to interrupt me when the doors are closed." He grabbed Iolaus away from me and held him in front of him, one hand clutching either shoulder of the red-brown sleeveless top as he looked the smaller man up and down. "So, Jester, you're looking more presentable these days. Much better than the first time we met." He pursed his full lips than shook his head slightly. "Really didn't like the hat and the pointy shoes, if you know what I mean."

Iolaus just stood there staring down at the ground.

"You almost look as if you might eventually turn into a man, instead of a spineless coward," Ares went on. "I'd guess my do-gooder of a half-brother might have had something to do with that, eh? Well, maybe I liked you better the way you were. And maybe I can do something about turning you back into a wimp."

He gave Iolaus a rough shake. "What do you say to that, pal? I daresay my brother would be rather displeased at such an outcome, wouldn't he?"

Iolaus finally reacted. He reached up and took hold of the leather-covered forearms that held his shoulders as he said softly but firmly, "You can do whatever you want to my body. What you can't do is get at my soul. No one can get to me like that anymore. No one."

"Oh, you really think so, little man? I'm a god. I can do things that even your beloved Sovereign couldn't do."

"I don't care if you're Zeus himself, and I don't care what you do. It doesn't matter."

Ares laughed scornfully. "We'll just see about that."

Much to my surprise, the War God released Iolaus, but grabbed one hand and held it up before his eyes, examining the moonstone ring on my friend's little finger. "Since when have you started wearing jewelry?"

"I gave it to him," I said, before Iolaus could answer.

"Oh, you did, did you?" The dark gaze turned to me and I could see him weighing something behind those eyes. "Well, maybe you'd like to help me out here, Euphorius."

"Uh - that's Euphonius," I corrected him carefully.

He laughed again. "Euphonius, then. Yes, indeed. I think you'll do nicely for what I have in mind."

"And what exactly do you have in mind?" I tried to keep my tone light, as if it didn't matter, but the truth was I was having a hard time pretending to be calm. Not only was I just about scared shitless, I was also too damned aroused by the sight of this gorgeous hunk in his tight leather outfit. Torn between terror and lust, it was devilishly difficult to carry on a casual conversation.

He smiled. I'd have sworn he knew what was running through my mind. "Oh, I'll think of something good, don't worry."

He turned his attention back to Iolaus. With a negligent gesture toward the far wall, he said, "You. Over there. Lose the clothes."

In the blink of an eye, Iolaus was spread-eagled literally in the first window in that wall, stark naked, wrists and ankles bound by leather straps. Behind him, the sunlight played on the waves, forming a brilliant backdrop to his body. The expression on his face went, in quick succession, from surprised, to alarmed, to grimly angry.

If he'd been posing like that willingly, it would have been a gorgeous sight. As it was, the revulsion on his face rather marred the erotic image he presented. Beams of light touched his pale hair and danced gaily on the inside ceiling of the temple, reflected from the ever-moving waves of the sea.

"Nice," Ares remarked, inspecting his artistic creation casually. Then his dark eyes turned to me. "But we're going to make it nicer, aren't we?" He put one large hand on my shoulder and led me up the few steps to the altar.

In the center was a large gold platter filled with coins and a tangled heap of various kinds of jewelry.

"This is where my followers place their more delicate offerings," the god said. "Perhaps you have something you'd like to contribute?"

Eager to please, I snatched the pouch off my belt and dumped my cache of recently-acquired goodies into the plate.

"Excellent. Now --" He waved his hand negligently over the platter and its load of riches - "I figure you as a man who knows fine jewelry and how to use it to its best advantage. Is that true, merchant?"

I nodded quickly.

"Good. I want you to sort through all this junk, pick out the best pieces, and dress up our little friend in the window. You understand me?"

"Uh - yeah," I managed to reply.

This wasn't good at all. Could Ares possibly have overheard our conversation earlier, when Iolaus had talked about my alter ego in his world? Or was he just pulling all this out of his own perverted imagination? I didn't know, and I didn't ask.

I spilled the plate out onto the altar, desperately trying to think of something to do to stop this. I truly wasn't all that worried about what Ares would do to Iolaus' body, since I figured he couldn't do anything the Sovereign hadn't already done. It was his mind I was worried about.

Meanwhile, the dark god sauntered over to a very fancy chair, almost a throne, set a little back from the altar and sprawled across it, one leg hooked over the arm. "Get on with it, merchant," he ordered, waving impatiently towards Iolaus.

I picked up a delicate gold circlet set with glittering diamonds. It was sort of a small crown, and had probably been a lady's hair ornament. Ares had said use the good stuff, and this was clearly the richest piece in the platter.

I walked over to Iolaus, trying to keep my eyes on his face rather than the rest of his naked body, which was not an easy feat, believe me!

Watching me approach, he had this very awful look on his face, as if he'd just seen a ghost. As I placed the circlet on his head and arranged his hair artfully around it, he said very softly, "What Ares called you? That was your name, in my world. I just remembered."

"What?" I kept my voice low also, not wanting Ares to hear us.

"Merchant. You - I mean, he - called himself the Merchant."

Oh, shit! We did not need this. I could hear the horror in the shakiness of his voice.

"Iolaus, listen to me. I'm not him. And you're not the Jester anymore. Don't think about that. Stay here. Now. This is not going to be fun, but you can do it. You hear me?"

"Yeah." But he didn't sound convinced, not by any means.

"It'll be all right. Let Ares play all the games he wants. The more time it takes, the more time that gives Hercules to track you down. He will, you know. Just hang in there, okay?"

The smile that twisted his lips was pretty sick, but it was a smile. Glancing pointedly at the straps that held him suspended in the windowframe, he said, "I don't seem to have a lot of choice except to hang in here, do I?"

"That's the spirit. I'll be back with something else. I intend to drag this out for as long as I can, okay?"

He nodded.

Gods, but he looked pretty with those diamonds in his hair! I tried very hard not to think about that.

The next thing I came up with was a pair of gold armbands. They were made to look like loosely-coiled serpents, nicely detailed and with good-sized rubies for eyes. I thought they looked about the right size to fit Iolaus' upper arms, and they had hinges, so could be put on despite the straps that bound his wrists.

I was right. They fit perfectly, serving to draw attention to his nice but not excessively over-developed biceps.

But my poor friend didn't seem too pleased with his latest ornaments. "I don't like this," he whispered. "It - reminds me too much --"

I stepped in closer, pretending to adjust the position of the crown, which had slipped slightly. "Shh. I know what it reminds you of. But if we don't play his game, Ares might get mad and really hurt us."

"You call this a game?"

"Yeah, I do. I've seen it before. In fact, I've played it myself," I replied, trying to sound calm and sure of myself. "I've also seen real torture and rape. This is something else. I don't think Ares means to actually maim or kill us, as long as we play along with him."

"I'm not so sure about that."

"You can never be entirely certain, unless you know your partner a whole lot better than I know Ares. But I don't think serious damage is what he has in mind. I do think he's going to play games with your head, so be aware of that, huh?"

"Oh, I'm already very aware of that, don't worry."

"Good. Now let me go see what else I can find in the way of jewelry."

After that, I came up with a few more items, taking my sweet time with each one. It was mostly rather innocuous stuff, like a gold choker set with chrysolite, and a couple of anklets and bracelets, that sort of thing. Iolaus made no further objection as I continued to decorate him.

Then I picked up a woven gold chain necklace, with a carved pendant made of jet. The pendant was large, but jet isn't very heavy. It's easily worked and polishes well. This was an exceptionally fine piece, made to look like the snarling head of a black panther, with a fire opal set in its mouth.

Opals, like many other gemstones, are said to bring good fortune, and I figured we could use some of that in our present predicament. Of course, it also occurred to me that opals, while beautiful, are easily cracked and discolored. They are delicate and fragile gems, perhaps just a little too similar to Iolaus' state of mind just now.

As I started over to the window with my latest acquisition, Ares interrupted my progress by growling at me, "Come on, merchant. Are you going to take all day? Couldn't you just pick out everything you want at once and get this done?"

"Hey, I've got to step back and consider the overall effect as I do it," I objected. "What's the rush? You're enjoying the show, aren't you?"

The God of War only scowled.

Now, as I've already said, I was pretty sure I could handle this scene. What I wasn't so sure of was whether Iolaus could, despite his brave words to Ares earlier. While it's not my usual style, I'd leaned this game a very long time ago, but with a difference: once I'd gotten used to it, I had been a willing participant. Iolaus had not, and he'd been systematically abused against his will for most of his life. Forcing him to relive that experience could just be enough to push him over the edge of his sanity, which had to be somewhat precarious to begin with, considering all the things he'd been through.

I'm just telling you this so you'll realize I wasn't being all that brave or anything when I did what I did next. I was only trying to get the God of War to focus on me because I was seriously afraid of the damage he could do to Iolaus, if he tried. I've seen how a person can go weird if a situation reaches the point where the mind can't handle it anymore.

Making a show of wiping the perspiration from my forehead, I untied the sash around my waist and went on to remove my knee-length outer tunic, which left me in just my light shirt and trousers. I tossed the tunic negligently over into a corner, resumed my interrupted progress towards Iolaus, and fastened the chain with its panther pendant around his neck. He looked at me strangely, frown lines appearing between his eyebrows, but said nothing.

I went back to the altar, again searching through the jewelry, even though I knew full well what I intended to use next. There was a belt made of shining links of gold, the ornate clasp set with numerous red stones. They might have been rubies, but I thought it likelier they were garnets, judging by the color. Red garnets are a warrior's talisman, supposed to protect you from harm.

Before taking up the belt, however, I turned to Ares and looked at him, as if for permission. "It's hot in here." I began unlacing my shirt. "Do you mind?"

"Be my guest."

I pulled the shirt over my head and tossed it on top of the tunic. It truly was rather warm inside the temple, but not so hot that I needed to undress, and Ares couldn't help but realize that.

Picking up the gold belt, I made my way over to Iolaus yet again, watching the War God out of the corner of my eyes in order to see if he were watching me.

No, I wasn't fooling myself into thinking I was anywhere near as lovely as Iolaus. While people don't exactly run away screaming in horror at the sight of my naked body, neither do they usually run screaming with joy and desire towards it. Still, I'm passable, for a man my age. Ares was obviously noticing. Good.

I fastened the belt around Iolaus' waist.

"Do you know what you're doing, coming on to him?" he hissed, clearly picking up on my intentions.

"Yes. Now keep quiet."

"But this isn't just some ordinary man. This is -"

"Ares, God of War," I finished for him. "Yes, I know. But he's not much different than a dozen or so other big guys in leather that I've known at various times in my life. Trust me."

Okay, I was pretending to a confidence I didn't entirely feel. But I'd do whatever I had to, if it meant I could spare my friend some of what was to come.

I went back to the altar, then turned to study my decorated creation in the window.

By now, there wasn't too much more of Iolaus on which I could possibly hang something. Except, of course, . . .

After much deliberation, I picked out a very long string of pearls and unfastened the clasp.

"Euphonius, enough already," Iolaus protested when he saw me coming towards him.

I tucked one end of the necklace securely into the belt around his waist before I answered. "The longer I can string this out - and you should pardon the pun - the more time that gives Hercules to come after us. I told you that before. Now be quiet."

Before he had a chance to protest further, I had wrapped the pearls around his cock and balls, bringing the loose end up the front of his body and tucking it into the gold belt.

When I turned to go back to the altar to see if I could come up with anything else, I found myself face to face with the God of War.

He studied Iolaus for a moment, then nodded. "I like it, merchant. You've made him look much more - interesting."

I looked back over my shoulder at the man framed in the window. Oh, yeah. I had to agree with Ares. Now, if only I had been free to enjoy it. Although the whole scene was a turn-on for me, I knew it wasn't for Iolaus. Or at least, if it was, he didn't truly want it to be.

When I turned back, Ares was looking down at me. Reaching out a hand, he fingered the smooth beads of the necklace I was wearing. "What's this stuff?"

"Amber." Okay, I'd gotten his attention on me instead of Iolaus. Now I needed to keep it there. "If you look close at the pendant, you can see a couple of bugs."

"You're kidding, right?"

"No, really. Amber is nothing but real old tree sap. Sometimes stuff gets stuck in it before it hardens."

He pulled the pendant, and me along with it, closer to his face and squinted at it. "You mean these little specks?"

"Yeah." I put my hand over his, angling the flat oval bead so that the light illuminated it to better advantage. "See?"

He saw. But he also saw our heads together, and my face almost touching his. I smiled invitingly.

"Are you coming on to me, merchant?" the dark god demanded.

"Maybe. Interested?"

He twisted his hand so the string of beads was wrapped tightly around it, then used the necklace like a leash to pull me forward onto my toes and close up against his body. I could feel his hard cock through the leather pants. Of course, that meant he could easily enough feel my own erection also.

"What do you think?" he said, smiling cruelly. He twisted the beads, so the necklace dug into my neck, threatening to cut off my breath, but not quite doing so. "I think you're enjoying this too, aren't you?"

I nodded, agreeing with the all too obvious truth.

Ares laughed and pulled harder on the necklace. The string broke, and the beads scattered across the stone floor with a sound like falling water.

"Aww, I broke your pretty little bauble," he taunted. Then he grabbed me with his free hand and pulled me over to the altar. Setting down the amber pendant which had been clenched in his palm, he looked through the various offerings, quickly settling on a gold and turquoise necklace. It had a round centerpiece, with dangling fringes of alternating delicate gold chain and small turquoise stones set in hinged strings.

"Maybe you'd like to have this to replace it, merchant?"

"Do I have a choice?" I didn't want him to think I was being too cooperative.

"No," he replied, fastening the clasp behind my neck. Taking hold of the necklace by the round center, he let the metal fringes trail across my chest, running them over each nipple in turn and watching my reaction. "You want this too, don't you?"

I licked my lips and nodded.

A very nasty look came over his face. "Or are you just trying to keep me away from your friend? Hmm?" He inclined his head forward and looked at me from under lowered eyebrows as he demanded, "Which is it?"

I stared into the narrowed eyes not a handsbreadth from my own and answered truthfully, "Both." With a boldness I really didn't feel, I stepped forward so my leg was between his and rubbed my hard cock against his leather-clad groin. "Does it matter?"

His eyes widened a fraction as he reacted, but he still didn't look convinced. "Don't play games with me, merchant. Or I'll make you very, very sorry. You and your friend both." His face changed and his eyebrows drew even lower, as if he'd just thought of something distasteful. "Or maybe he's more than a friend? Have you two been getting it on?" he demanded. "Does my dear brother know you're screwing his little clown?"

"Yes - yes -- and I don't think so," I answered each question in turn. "What's the matter? Jealous?"

That was a mistake. At one small gesture of his hand, I found myself flying through the air. I barely had time to realize I'd miscalculated Ares' limits before I smashed into the far wall, then slid down to land hard on the floor. For a moment I just lay there, dazed and hurting.

With a satisfied nod in my direction, the God of War strode over to Iolaus. He ran the back of his hand down the side of the other man's face.

Iolaus jerked his head away from Ares' touch. "Fuck off," he said defiantly.

Ares laughed, grabbed a handful of the blond hair, and pulled his victim's head back. "Oh, we've added some nasty language to our vocabulary lately, have we?" he said mockingly. "You don't sound quite so willing as your buddy over across the room."

"I'm not."

"Good. I prefer it that way." He forced a brutal kiss on the bound man.

My bruised brain was beginning to think again. I managed to get to my knees, but only by leaning against the wall.

Iolaus must not have responded to the kiss, since Ares broke it off and backhanded him across the face. "Come on, Jester. You can do better than that. Word has it that you've had a lot of practice with the Sovereign, so you can't mind it all that much."

Twisting his head to wipe the blood from his split lip against his shoulder, Iolaus replied disdainfully, "That was before I knew anything about friendship and caring. Now I do, thanks to Hercules and a few other people." He spit the rest of the blood in his mouth at Ares' feet, then looked at the War God with black hatred in his eyes. "Go on, rape me. It doesn't matter. You can take anything you want by force, except for anything that's worth having, like respect and love."

Ares laughed. "Pretty speech, little man. But respect isn't what I'm after. And love? Oh, puh-leeze!"

He strode over to the altar, picked up my amber pendant, and held it in front of Iolaus' face. "Brave words from a pathetic fool. You know what you remind me of, Jester? You're like one of these little bugs, trapped by your past, and trapped for all time. You're a coward and a victim, and that's all you'll ever be."

By now I was thinking fairly clearly, although I still felt rather dizzy, not to mention sore all down my back, where I had gotten too well acquainted with the stone wall. But I couldn't just stand by and let Ares use my own jewelry against my friend.

"No," I objected, rather more weakly than I would have wanted. "Don't listen to him, Iolaus. The bugs are dead. You're alive, and you've still got possibilities. You don't have to be trapped, if you don't want to be."

Ares' black glare focussed in my direction. "I think you'd better keep out of this now, merchant. Unless you want to make me very angry. And you wouldn't like that."

Okay, let's see if I can scrape together enough dignity and courage to play my next card.

"Don't make me laugh, Ares. I've seen the face of Ultimate Darkness, and, next to Dahok, you're a pussycat."

He was clearly taken aback by my taunt. I'd swear his complexion went a shade paler as he strode over, grabbed my upper arms, and pulled me roughly to my feet. "Dahok? What do you know of Dahok?"

"I know you were way out of your league when you got mixed up with him," I said with a twisted smile. "What's the matter? Is the big, bad God of War actually afraid of something? That would be amusing."

"Shut up!"

"Make me."

Very slowly, a strange smile crossed his face. "I'm beginning to like you, merchant."

"Well, I don't like you," I replied.

"Maybe not, but you want me anyway, don't you? We've already established that. Okay. But just one little thing. No more about Dahok --" Letting go of my arms, he held out his palm, which filled with sparkling fire, then made a sort of a throwing gesture at Iolaus.

Iolaus screamed once, when the energy bolt first hit him, then convulsed in silence.

"-- or your friend over there suffers for it," Ares finished. "Got it?"

"Got it," I replied, licking suddenly dry lips.

He stalked across the room to Iolaus. He snapped his fingers and the leather straps disappeared so suddenly that the smaller man would have slumped to the floor in surprise, if Ares hadn't caught hold of one arm and held him on his feet. He dragged his captive over to the altar, then swept everything else off with his free hand.

Releasing his hold on Iolaus' arm, the War God stared down at him with a smile, as he casually bounced another fireball on his palm and ordered, "Climb up there and lie down on your back, or your friend gets fried."

I stopped breathing, wondering just how far Iolaus was willing to carry his defiance and whether or not I was going to suffer for it.

Apparently he wasn't prepared to carry it quite that far, much to my relief. After a moment's hesitation, he did as he was told.

Ares disappeared the fireball and walked around the altar slowly, gloating over his unwilling sacrifice.

Now, I know enough to realize that sex can mean everything - or it can mean nothing at all. To me, with Iolaus, it meant everything. But right now, for him, it would be far better if it meant nothing at all. But I didn't know any way to make that happen. All I could do was stand there and look helpless.

Then the God of War smiled in my direction and gestured. "Come over here, merchant."

I did, still fighting off a residue of dizziness.

"Pretty, huh?" Ares asked.

It was obvious that he didn't mean me. I nodded.

We were standing sideways-on to the altar. Iolaus just lay there, his arms by his sides, his legs together, and his eyes closed. His pearl-wrapped prick showed no trace of arousal, a fact which could surely not have escaped Ares' attention.

I'm afraid I couldn't say the same for myself. The pretty body that I had always desired, the jewelry, and even - may the gods forgive me! - the fact that Iolaus was clearly furious and did not want this to happen, all combined to make me want him more.

"What's the matter, merchant? Nothing to say?"

I shook my head, not really trusting my voice.

Ares pulled me backwards against the front of his body. One hand reached around to grab my genitals through the thin fabric of my pants, as he said into my ear, "You want first crack at him? I just might let you, if you ask nicely."

Oh, gods, he would offer me that! In my all too few sexual encounters with this Iolaus, I'd always treated him very gently, since he had told me of his history with the Sovereign and I didn't want to freak him out. But that doesn't mean I wasn't capable of doing otherwise. There's a very fine line separating erotic games from rape and abuse. The whole crux of the matter is consent. If you're a willing participant, it's not evil. If you don't, even a relatively innocent action can be wrong.

This would be very wrong indeed.

I shook my head again. No matter that my knees were shaking with desire and that I wanted nothing more than to beg for the privilege of screwing Iolaus, even now, even here, with Ares watching and probably laughing at us. But I knew if I did that, Iolaus would hate me for it later on. And his hatred was the one thing I most emphatically didn't want, far far more than I would ever want his body.

"No, huh? Tsk tsk tsk. You disappoint me, merchant."

So saying, the War God let me go and turned his attention to Iolaus, who still had his eyes tightly shut and hadn't moved a muscle. Pulling off the wide black leather belt around his waist so that his vest fell open and the impressive bulge in his pants was quite visible, he placed his hands on his hips and cocked his pelvis forward.

He clearly knew how to wield that gorgeous body like a weapon. All he did was stand there in silence, looking down at Iolaus, whose head was almost on the same level as his groin.

Unable to withstand the continued silence and his own curiosity, Iolaus finally opened his eyes to see what was going on.

Ares laughed. "Oh, good. At last I've gotten your attention."

Iolaus turned his head away. "Am I supposed to be impressed?" he said coldly.

From the look on Ares' face, I suddenly feared for my friend's life. Rape is, after all, preferable to death. At least, in my estimation, it is. Maybe it was time for Iolaus to shut up and just let it happen. But there was no way I could tell him that. Not now.

Ares turned his anger into another mocking laugh, then said viciously, "You can knock off the act now, you stupid little twit! You're not a hero. You're nothing but Hercules' little pussy. Tell me, does my dear brother screw you as hard as I'm going to?"

"Hercules doesn't screw me at all," Iolaus retorted, a rather puzzled expression coming over his face.

Ares realized he'd missed his target with that shot, but he took aim and tried again, this time with much more accuracy. "You mean Mr. Nice Guy never came on to you?" He shook his head pityingly. "The original Iolaus was his lover. Everybody knows that. Guess you weren't even good enough for him to be interested in you, huh?"

It hurt me more to see the look on Iolaus' face when Ares said that to him than it did when the god had thrown me across the room. I opened my big mouth, even against my own better judgement. "That's not true! Hercules wants him. He just doesn't think Iolaus is interested, that's all, and he's too decent a guy to push him."

If Iolaus had looked puzzled before, he was downright surprised this time, which fact was not lost on Ares. I saw the dark glare become speculation as he turned to me.

"Oh, is that so? Mind telling me how you come to know so much about my dear brother's motivations? Are you going to claim there's something between you two also?"

I almost laughed at that. "Me and Hercules? Nah, I'm afraid not. I'm just taking an - uh - educated guess here." And that's all it was, truth to be told. But I was pretty sure I was right, since I'd seen the way the demi-god treated Iolaus, not to mention how he looked at him when the other man wasn't watching. I shrugged. "Hey, what do I know? I'm just the gem merchant, right?"

"Right," the dark god agreed. He opened his pants, freeing himself from the confines of the leather. To say this guy was well-endowed would have been an understatement. He grinned at me. "You have a big mouth and a smart tongue, merchant. Can you use it for anything other than talking?"

"Uh - my mouth isn't that big," I had to admit.

Placing one heavy hand on my shoulder, he pushed me down on my knees in front of him. "Try," he said. "Get me ready."

"You already are," I pointed out from my new vantage point, staring head-on at the head of his impressive cock, which already protruded fully from the normal covering of its foreskin.

"Do it anyway. I like it," he commanded.

Needing no further encouragement, I licked, nibbled, stroked, sucked, and just generally played around with that lovely cock enthusiastically. The only thing I didn't do was try to get the entire thing into my mouth. Despite what Ares had said earlier on, my big mouth is a verbal attribute, not a physical one. If I tried real hard, I could indeed get my lips around the head of his dick, but no way could I get him completely into my mouth without dislocating my jaw.

At least that's what I thought, until he caught hold of my hair while I was making one of my better efforts and pulled my head tighter up against his groin. I choked, unable to breathe around the mass of flesh that was suddenly forced down my throat. Automatically, I tried to pull away, but that was useless. As I struggled to get some air into my lungs, the only thing that kept me from utter panic was the thought that he really wasn't out to kill me and would have to let me go soon.

He did, but only to ram himself back again a moment later. As he continued, I did my best to suppress the urge to gag. My fear eased off somewhat and I found I could breath in between thrusts. Sucking wasn't really a possibility, since it was all I could do just to keep my mouth open that wide. The hinges of my jaw ached from the effort, but I dared not relax. I didn't think he'd appreciate it much if I bit him, or scraped my teeth across the tender skin of his cock. Yeah, Ares enjoyed pain, but I had no reason to think he enjoyed feeling it, instead of causing it.

Beyond a certain point, a lot of something becomes too much. This stopped being erotic to me and became just plain exhausting. I began to wish he'd come, even though I knew I'd really be hard-pressed to breath if he did. Getting bolder, or perhaps just more desperate, I reached up with one hand and touched his balls. When this action didn't result in being blasted with a fireball, I concluded he liked it and became more inventive with my fondling.

By then I was deliberately trying to make him come. That would end my particular torment, gain us a little time, and perhaps keep his mind off Iolaus for a bit.

Of course, it didn't work. He seemed to have this sort of phenomenal control over his body. No mortal man would have lasted so long at that stage of arousal, and still been able to think about anything other than his own release, but Ares did.

All of a sudden, my mouth was empty and he'd pulled me back onto my feet with the hand that was still clenched in my hair. I just gasped and looked rather shocked at the change.

"Not bad, merchant," was all he said. If I could have made him stop calling me that without telling him why, I would have. I was beginning to really hate it, because I was also beginning to realize just how easily I could turn into something very like my alter ego.

Ares turned his attention back to Iolaus. "Turn over. And swing around sideways so your legs are on the floor."

Iolaus did as he was told.

"Now grab the other edge of the altar. Yeah, like that. Merchant, go around and hold his wrists."

"Are you kidding? I couldn't hold him down even if I wanted to. He's stronger than I am, in case you haven't noticed."

"Oh, I've noticed. But don't worry, he won't struggle. I'm betting the Sovereign trained him better than that. Besides, if he does, I'll hurt him. Or, better yet, I'll hurt you. Keep that in mind, Jester."

Swallowing the lump in my throat, I did as Ares had commanded, going to stand across the altar from him and resting my hands over Iolaus' wrists where he was gripping the narrow stone edge. I told myself I wasn't holding him down. I was only touching him in order to provide moral support.

By now, I was out of options. Except for one.

"Please, don't," I appealed to Ares, trying to sound totally pitiful. "Leave him alone."

Iolaus glared up at me and said harshly, "Don't beg, Euphonius. It won't do any good."

I shut up and bit my lip.

"Are you speaking from experience, Jester?" Ares asked mockingly.

"Yes, damn you!"

Ares ran one hand over the gold belt around his captive's waist, then slid it down to caress his ass. "You want this. Admit it."

"No, I don't," Iolaus insisted.

He was still totally furious. Good. In such a situation, hatred isn't the worst emotion you can feel. Self-hatred is.

"I'll make you want it, before I'm done," Ares said smoothly. "Oh, we are so angry, aren't we? What's the matter? You don't like this anymore because you found a sweet little mermaid who makes you feel like a real man?" The god positioned himself between Iolaus' legs, pushing them farther apart. Taking hold of his cock, he pressed it against the exposed opening. "Do you honestly imagine you're man enough to love any woman, much less a mermaid? What a joke! But we can't really expect anything but jokes from a professional fool, now can we?"

Those last words brought a terrible look to Iolaus' face, even as he tried to turn his head down against the surface of the altar. I don't know how to describe it, except that it seemed as if he wanted to cry or scream, but could do neither. It was easy to see that last remark had hit home.

Satisfied, Ares thrust his hips forward, pushing into the other man in one quick uncaring movement.

Iolaus didn't so much as flinch when Ares penetrated him. Well, why should he? He was used to the Sovereign, and I doubt if the Sovereign had been any less brutal, or any less well-endowed.

But tears seeped around his tightly-closed eyelids, and I saw despair in the set of his lips.

Squatting down to bring my face level with Iolaus', I leaned forward and kissed the side of his head, whispering brokenly in his ear. "Nothing, my love. It means nothing. It proves nothing - except that he has the power -- and we know that already. After all, he's a god. Don't believe anything he says. Don't give him the victory. This means nothing, nothing at all."

I couldn't tell if he even heard what I said, or if he was lost in his own inner torment of memory and sorrow.

It went on for what seemed an eternity. I was just beginning to wonder why Ares didn't come and get it over with, when I realized what he was trying to do.

The War God was playing this game on another level now. Easy enough it is to simply rape a man, if you have the physical advantage over him. Do that, and your victim is free to suffer the shame and pain, and then righteously hate you afterwards. But make him enjoy what you do, and give him the time to realize he's enjoying it, that's something else again. And make him enjoy it so much that he begs you to keep on fucking him, that's even worse.

My eyes were at a level low enough that I could see under the altar by squatting down just a little. As unobviously as possible, I looked to see if Iolaus showed any signs of being interested in what was going on.

Apparently, my poor friend knew that mind game as well as I did. All those years of being the unwilling plaything of the Sovereign may have taught him how it worked. Very possibly, he'd even learned how to resist it, and could at least try to deny his tormentor his desire, if not his body. Whether or not that was the reason, his cock seemed to be ignoring Ares' actions completely.

The dark god had seen the direction of my glance, unfortunately.

"So you've noticed, have you, merchant?" he remarked, almost casually. Then, to Iolaus: "You really think I can't turn you on?"

"You can't make me want it," was the grim response.

"Think again, Jester." Ares reached around with one hand. He ran one finger along Iolaus' limp cock and it sprang to life. Iolaus gasped and almost came up off the altar, except that he was still pinned down by the other man's cock up his ass.

"No, no, no, no," he moaned.

"You see? You can't deny me. No one denies a god."

I took a wild guess here. "Iolaus, it isn't you. It's a god-thing. He can make your body react, if he wants to."

Ares narrowed his eyes at me. "And how would you know?"

"Because you didn't do anything when you touched him that should have affected him like that, under ordinary circumstances."

The War God didn't deny it. He just looked at me scornfully. "I don't have to do anything to you, merchant. You want me anyway."

His accusation was all too true. My stiff cock strained against the fabric of my trousers. I couldn't even begin to suppress my own desire.

"And you want him too," Ares went on. "You'd like it to be your cock up his ass right now, wouldn't you? The offer's still good, merchant. You just have to wait for me to finish with him, that's all."

"No. I won't."

"You really think you have a choice in the matter? You were right before, about the god-thing. I don't even have to touch you." He focussed his dark eyes on me and smiled.

If it was possible for desire to increase geometrically, mine did, by a factor of at least ten. I sucked in my breath in surprise and frustration. Without fully realizing I was doing so, I released Iolaus' wrists and brought my hands down to my aching cock, wanting only to seek my own release.

"I wouldn't do that if I were you," Ares said, cold menace in his voice. "I can hurt him a whole lot more than I already have, if you make me angry."

I froze in mid-grope. "Ares, please!" I managed to say, my voice half-strangled in my throat.

"You want to do something with your hands?"

I nodded frantically.

"Fine. Then do your little friend here, while I finish this off."

That was definitely not what I had in mind, as it would only make things worse, as far as I was concerned. On the other hand, how much worse could it get? And I still retained enough sense to realize he had threatened Iolaus with real harm, if I displeased him.

Okay, so I let go of his wrists and crawled under the altar to see what I could do with various other parts of his body. The sooner this was over, the better.

The string of pearls was still looped around his genitals, and I was sure the two strands that ran up the front of his body to the belt had to be crushed painfully between the top of the altar and his pelvic bones, with all of Ares' weight pressed against him. Well, if nothing else, I could fix that. I had left sufficient slack that it was easy enough to unwrap the pearls and work them off of his cock. With a strength born of desperation, I snapped the string, then pulled both strings off to either side of his hips, timing my actions with the War God's thrusts.

That done, it didn't take very long for the combined ministrations of my fingers and tongue to bring him to climax. I did my best to be gentle, and to try to communicate my caring and love through my touch, but I don't know that it mattered much to him.

Ares reacted, or perhaps simply allowed himself to react at last, to the spasms of Iolaus' body as his seed spurted out and against my hands. The son of a bitch actually laughed when he came, pushing brutally hard into his victim for the last few strokes.

I cursed at him under my breath, even as I reached down to try to do something about my own desperate cock. But Ares wouldn't even allow me that. Growling "Get up here, merchant," he grabbed my hair and pulled me up next to him, where he still stood pressed tightly against Iolaus' ass.

"It's your turn," he said, as he withdrew his cock with tantalizing slowness.

I wanted nothing more than to take what was offered to me. By then, I'd have fucked a hydra, I was that desperate.

In the story of our lives, we are always the good guys, at least in our own minds. It might be better if we could admit that every now and then, we just might be able to be the bad guys. The Darkness never truly goes away. It's always there, waiting and biding its time.

And the thought of that Darkness, and the way Dahok had so cruelly and callously used me for his own ends not all that long ago, made me angry. But not as angry as the thought of what he'd done to that other Iolaus. I had rashly vowed vengeance on Dahok for that, and I had learned since then that the only vengeance I could ever take on that despicable entity was not to give in to darkness and evil, in whatever shape or form it presented itself to me.

Gathering the last shreds of my determination and dignity, I said, "No."

"Euphonius, I can handle it," Iolaus spoke up, much to my surprise. I had figured him to be a total wreck by now. "It doesn't matter if you fuck me too."

"It matters to me," was all the answer I could choke out.

"Aw, come on, merchant. Do it. Can't you see he wants you to?" Ares said, pulling me closer, so that I stood between Iolaus' spread legs.

I looked the War God straight in the face and said clearly, "When my cock falls off."

He laughed in that annoying way he has and said with a smile, "That can be arranged."

But it was a taunt, not a threat. I could tell that.

"But before your cock does fall off," he went on, "wouldn't you like it to spend a little more time up his ass?"

I shook my head, hands clenched tightly at my sides, if only to keep them from reaching out for Iolaus.

To this day, I don't know if I'd have been able to hold out much longer. I'd like to think I would, but I'll never be sure, because that's when Hercules chose to arrive on the scene.

The doors of the temple flew open and crashed back against the wall, and the demi-god appeared in the doorway, looking like the very vision of Vengeance Incensed.

"Ares, leave them alone!!" he bellowed.

Ares took a step backward, looking almost afraid when confronted by his brother's fierce anger.

Hercules strode over to the altar, taking in the situation at a glance. But that glance held on Iolaus' naked, jewelry-adorned body for just a little too long, and I saw the demi-god's eyes widen and his lips part slightly. Oh yeah, he wanted him, just as he had wanted the other Iolaus.

With an effort that I may have been the only one to notice, he pulled himself together.

"Let him go, Ares." His voice was calm now with suppressed fury.

By this time, the God of War had regained his cool. Making a show of tucking his cock back into his pants, he said, "You're too late, little brother. I've had him already."

"Damn you!! I'll -"

Iolaus pushed himself up from the altar, much to everyone's surprise, and interrupted the demi-god. "No, Hercules. It's not worth it. He didn't hurt me. Not really."

He stood facing the God of War, who towered over him as usual, but somehow didn't look quite as tall anymore. Although he wore nothing but jewelry and his own dignity, Iolaus managed to convey the definite impression that he was the one in control of the situation, now.

He laughed in the big man's face. "Ares? I don't give a flying fuck what you did. It doesn't make any difference. As I said earlier, you can get anything you want that way -- except for anything that matters. You may have shoved your cock up my ass, but that only makes you the bigger asshole, not me."

Hercules just stared in disbelief, his mouth hanging open, but I couldn't stop myself; I laughed also.

The War God, however, was not amused. He turned on me. "You wanted it, didn't you, merchant? There could easily be a next time, you know. When your spoilsport friends aren't around?" He grinned knowingly. "Would you like that?"

"Maybe I would. You never know," I admitted.

A cunning smile crossed his face. His dark eyes flickered down to my crotch, and my cock went blessedly limp. Then he turned away with a snort and began to sparkle around the edges. "

Oh, and Ares?" I added, before he could disappear. "Watch out for those dead bugs. They may not be quite as dead as you think they are."

With a really nasty scowl in my direction, the God of War blinked out of view, as Iolaus and I shared a smile.

Hercules frowned in puzzlement. "Dead bugs?"

"You had to be there," I quipped.

"Oh. Okay," he said, still looking blank.

"I'm explain it to you later," Iolaus offered, now laughing himself at the expression on the big man's face. His laughter stopped as abruptly as it had begun. He looked down at his body, as if remembering his lack of clothing. Going to the window overlooking the sea, he started slowly divesting himself of the jewelry. Without saying a word, a piece at a time, he took it off then tossed it far out the window.

Hercules just stood there staring at his friend's strange behaviour. Then he started roaming around the temple, to all appearances as if he were searching for something.

I knew, as I was sure Iolaus also knew, the value of the gems he was discarding. It took all the self-control that I could muster not to go over and stop him, but I didn't. Fingering the turquoise and gold necklace still hanging around my neck, I wondered briefly if I should get rid of it also. Then common sense won out and I knew I wouldn't do that, despite the circumstances that had led to my acquiring it.

Walking over to the corner where I had earlier tossed my clothes, I pulled my shirt and tunic back on. After fastening my sash, I headed over to the window, where my naked friend had just tossed away the last of his adornments, save one. He was trying to pull the moonstone ring I had given him off his little finger. Maybe he felt even that was enough to remind him of what Ares had done, but I couldn't stand by and say nothing.

I put my hand over his, stopping him from working at the ring. He looked up at me in surprise, so I shook my head. "No. Keep it to remember that you won this battle, that you can't be turned back into what you were."

He still looked doubtful. I wasn't sure what else I could say that would convince him. Behind him, the sunlight glittered on the waves, drawing my gaze out over the sparkling sea. I stared for a moment, then closed my eyes briefly against the dazzling glare.

In the afterimage behind my eyelids, I saw Iolaus, and someone who could only have been his little mermaid. She was very beautiful, with blue eyes that almost matched his own, and long wavy hair just a bit lighter than his. Although there were nooses tied around both of their necks, their foreheads were touching, and they stared into each others' eyes, totally enraptured. Then they separated a little and I heard him say, "Nautica?"

"Yes, Iolaus?" she responded.

"Will you marry me?"

"Oh, yes, Iolaus!"

The smile on his face was genuine now, and I thought it would last. I had not the foggiest notion of how they were ever supposed to be together, much less get married, but they very clearly were.

Then the strange vision was gone, and I opened my eyes. Iolaus stood by himself, framed by the shining sea and still looking uncertainly at the ring on his finger.

"Please," I said, "if you don't want to wear it yourself, then at least keep it and save it for the one you truly love. I have a feeling you'll need something to use as a wedding gift sometime soon."

"Euphonius, what are you talking about?"

"Just keep it, huh? Trust me."

He nodded, but didn't say anything. Just then, Hercules appeared holding Iolaus' clothes.

"Found them over in the corner," he said softly. Then, with a smile: "Ares always was a neat housekeeper."

Iolaus dressed quickly. There were a few livid bruises on his body, probably where the jewelry he'd been wearing had been forced against the altar. Other than that, he didn't seem to be hurt. I wondered if his spirit was in as good a condition as his body.

I guess my concern showed in my face, since he remarked, "Hey, don't worry. I'm okay. I really meant what I said to Ares, you know. I'll be fine."

I nodded.

Then he placed one hand gently on my forearm and added, "How about you?"

"I'll survive. Takes more than watching a stupid god rape a friend of mine to seriously bother me." I patted his hand as I went on, "As long as you're okay."

He gave me a tight-lipped smile. "I'm fine, merchant."

"Don't call me --" I started to protest, then I saw the corners of his mouth turn up into that bright smile he has.

"Don't worry. I was only kidding," he said.

Hercules, meanwhile, had been watching us with varying degrees of non-comprehension and confusion on his handsome face.

"Iolaus?" he said at last. "How about we do some fishing? After all, we're already near the sea. There's a town just down the road. You could maybe tell me what went on here while we're doing it?"

"Yeah, sure. That sounds good." He turned to me. "What are you going to do now?"

"I guess I'll head home." I held my hands out and shrugged. "Of course, it would help if I knew where we were."

"Oh, that's easy," Hercules said. "We're just outside Karystos, on Euboea."

Well, that explained the ocean on the other side of the window. We were quite a ways from where I lived, though. It would be a long trip home, especially with very little money still left to me. I could always sell the necklace I was wearing, but somehow I didn't want to do that. Wait a moment, what was I thinking? Hadn't Ares dumped all kinds of valuable stuff off his altar and onto the floor? I glanced around the temple. Yeah, and it was still there.

"Want to come with us as far as the town?" Iolaus asked.

Yeah, I must admit I did want to go with him. But I also figured he needed some time alone to talk to Hercules about what had happened.

"You two go on," I said. "I'll catch up with you later. I'm going to sort out which of this jewelry is mine." I winked and leered at them in an attempt to look comically greedy. "And I just might pick out a few other baubles also, since I figure Ares owes us for the grief he put us through. Maybe you can afford to throw this kind of merchandise out the window, buddy, but I sure can't."

"Okay. See you later, then."

I watched them walk out of the temple. As they went through the door, Hercules draped his arm around the other man's shoulder companionably, and I knew I was right to stay behind. They needed the time together.

I turned to the task of retrieving the jewelry from the floor. While picking things up, I found the pendant from my broken necklace. Standing up to ease my aching knees, I rubbed the smooth surface of the amber between my fingers. Maybe my brave words to Ares hadn't been entirely true. Maybe I was still stuck, like the dead bugs in my pendant. Stuck on a sweet, brave man who would never be mine.

I decided I wouldn't be selling this particular piece of amber, as I had originally planned. I thought I might just keep it, to remind me of the little blond hero I knew I'd never have for my own.


The End

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