Joxer took a quick look around the room and hid his smile at how close together Apollo and Iphicles were standing. Way to go, Apollo. Let's get this over with so we can get to the good parts of this story.
"Ah, yes. King Iphicles, it's a pleasure to finally meet you. I meant to come down and talk to you about that dispute over the harbor at Cenchreae. That was a very nice job of soothing tempers instead of fighting." Zeus genially greeted the king who looked a little stunned at suddenly being confronted with the king of the gods.
"T-thank you, Sir." His dark eyes darted to Apollo in an unconscious plea for backup.
"Father, did Hades say he'd help out tonight?" Apollo summoned a goblet of wine and handed it to Zeus.
"It took some convincing but actually Aphrodite did some fast talking and convinced him to help. I think he has a soft spot for Iolaus, myself."
Joxer rolled his eyes at how dense his father-in-law could be some times. Hades had more than a fondness for the bright mortal, he hadn't wanted to give him back the last time he'd 'died'. //Ares, are you going to tell him or should we just let well enough alone?//
//Not the job we came here for, love. I want to get this over with so we can get back to 'Dite. Did you notice how irritable she was at dinner?//
Joxer shivered slightly while he remembered the way she'd gotten up and down to get items that she suddenly couldn't do without. First it was olives, then more feta followed by golden apples and some hard crackers that could only be found in Delphi. He'd gone to Delphi for the crackers while Ares had popped over to the garden of Hesperides for some apples.
Then she'd only taken a bite from the apple and part of a cracker before getting up again. Harmonia had told them to split before she got back with the fish eggs she'd been muttering about. So, they'd popped back to the cottage for an uninterrupted meal of bread and cheese. He smiled and leaned a little harder into Ares' shoulder feeling his arm come up around him in a fond embrace. Bread and cheese and loving went well together.
Hercules and Iolaus came in before Zeus could get in any questions about why Apollo and Iphicles seemed to be glued together at the hip. Joxer sighed at the dark circles under both their eyes. They looked as if they'd been in a battle, careworn and faintly disheveled.
//This had better work or they're going to fade away completely.//
Ares sighed mentally and agreed. //It will work. I just wish we had a major water god in with us. I don't like leaving an element undone.//
Joxer gulped and decided to come clean. //I, uh, spoke to Tethys yesterday. I told her that we really needed a better water god than me and she said she'd come.//
The arm tightened around him. //Not better, Joxer, just more experienced. She's got about five thousand years of controlling water under her belt. And just what did you have to promise her?//
Joxer squirmed a little, his eyes meeting Ares' sheepishly. //I asked her for water lessons and promised to go to her in the Ionian Sea.//
//Oh well, it could have been worse. I can get in some work in the islands while you're learning. The pirates are starting to unify and I need them to be separate. Strife and I can sow a little dissension here and there while I'm waiting for you to come back to land.// Ares smiled down at him and Joxer leaned up into his kiss.
//I love you.// They spoke simultaneously to each other, only breaking apart when Zeus cleared his throat loudly.
"Now, we're all here and ready to get down to business." A wind whirled through the room and Tethys appeared beside Hestia. "Thank you for coming Teth'. Now, we have all the elements covered so we'll be grounded on all four points with myself in the fifth position." Another sparkling shape appeared. "Ah, Hades, are you sure you're up to this?"
The dark god contented himself with a nod, his eyes sweeping the room with one comprehensive glance. The shears in his hands reminded Joxer of the Fates. A flutter of wings heralded Cupid's arrival followed closely by Strife. Joxer speculated about who'd been where when they got their summons. He and Ares exchanged a grin and a lightning quick exchange of shared speculation.
"All right, I think we're finally all here. Cupid, you'll anchor your Aunt Hestia and Strife will be my anchor. Hades, I believe your water element is up to working with Tethys. Of course, Joxer will work with Ares and I believe Apollo will have Iphicles at his back." Zeus got all their nods before continuing. "Son, I think it's time you and Iolaus go to sleep. We'll follow you and break this link once and for all."
Hercules nodded, his arm around his lover's shoulders. "Thank you ... all of you. I just hope this works."
"It will, lad. One way or another we'll solve this puzzle tonight." Hades' voice was like soft velvet and everyone seemed to calm a little when he spoke.
"Off you go, boys. Teth' and I will tuck you in and watch over you until you fall asleep." Hestia rose and took Hercules' hand while the white haired goddess of the ocean took Iolaus' in a firm grip. They sparkled out of sight and the whole room of gods and mortals relaxed.
"Morpheus is there so until they fall asleep we have a few moments. Is our plan of action clear to everyone?" Zeus materialized a tray of goblets filled with wine from Joxer's favorite vineyard. Once everyone had one, he raised his in a toast. "To our successful trip in and more importantly out of the Void."
They all raised their goblets and drank. Joxer watched Iphicles' eyes widen at the taste of the golden wine. He was glad to see that someone else had his reaction. He enjoyed watching the king and the bright god who stood so closely beside him.
//They look good together. Right.// He told Ares with a tender glance.
//The way we looked when we first came together. 'Dite told me that we were just as sweet as they appear now.// Ares returned his look.
//We were very, very lucky, love. I hope they are too.//
//The trip will be hard on Apollo. He's been afraid of the dark since he was a little boy. He's so bright and sunny that the other gods have always teased him about his fear.//
//I know exactly how he feels. I still get a little panicky when it's dark.// Joxer confessed ruefully.
//I know, love but you're getting better. The trip into the Void will be hard but I think we're going to witness something amazing.// There was a tone of suppressed excitement in his voice that surprised Joxer.
//What do you have up your sleeve, Ares? Something from the Archives?//
Ares just smiled down at him and kissed the end of his nose. //If I'm right, this may be just the beginning of something new. Something that's never existed before. Kind of like the twins that 'Dite is carrying. One from each of us.//
//Really?// Joxer tried to wrap his mind around the concept of a place being pregnant. //That's either very cool or very weird, I'm not sure which. But I thought the two universes were opposite each other. And they'd destroy each other if they touched.//
//We don't know. But one of the earliest entries in the Chaos Chronicles says that when opposites attract, a new way is born. That stuck in my mind for some reason and after meeting you, I knew that it was true. Out of the chaos that was my life, you came in with your love and freed me from the cold place where I'd dwelt far too long.//
Joxer felt tears well at the matter-of-fact declaration of love from the god who owned him. He didn't have the words to reply so instead, he threw his emotions into their link with all the passion he had. Only to be met with Ares' love redoubled. He felt warmed all through and leaned a little harder into the arm that held him.
"They're asleep. It's time for us to follow." Zeus spoke with a far away look in his eyes. Gesturing towards the table, he seated himself at the head and gestured the others into place. Ares sat at his left hand while Apollo sat at his right. Hestia and Tethys flashed back into the room and took their seats beside the others. Strife stood to one side of Zeus, with his hand on his shoulder. The others mirrored his pose with their own principals.
Joxer took a deep breath and prepared to follow Ares into the Void. There was a moment of disorientation then he knew they were there.
Darkness, cold and dank.
The heartbeat was faster now.
And the sense of impending movement was much clearer.
He could feel Ares touching him and through him he could also feel Hestia's warmth.
The more he tried to strain to see something other than the dark, the darker it felt to him. Finally giving up, he drifted into a trance that gradually became the dream. He saw Hercules and Iolaus in the cave but this time there was no spear and no death. Instead they began to glow with a golden light that grew brighter and brighter until Joxer had to close his eyes.
And suddenly there were two sets of images, one in bright gold and one glowing silver bright. He was guessing that the golden set was their Hercules and Iolaus while the silver pair came from the other universe. Both pair inhabited a dark place that stretched out into infinity yet were growing closer and closer to each other. If it was possible, he would have said they were mirrors of each other. They had still not touched when the distant heartbeat began to speed up.
Joxer could feel the ties between the gods straining at the seams while they maintained their hold on Hercules and Iolaus who were getting farther and farther ahead. A faint echo seemed to be coming from the silver universe and he wondered if the gods on that side were doing the same thing they were. His tether to Ares was still strong but he could feel some of the other ties were not.
Suddenly the light was gone and a hush filled the Void in place of the heartbeat. How would they know when to cut the cord if they couldn't see it? From just beyond Ares, he saw a small spark that grew into a flame of fire. Hestia burned brightly and Joxer could see the two images approaching each other with hastening speed
At the moment of collision, bright and dark mixed in stripes of gold and silver until they could hardly be told apart. The merger was almost silent and after a moment of unity, they split apart only to leave something behind.
The cave appeared dark and empty.
The heartbeat began again, slow and hesitant.
Ares was holding on to their Hercules with all his strength but the tug towards the empty cave was strong.
Hades had a strangle hold on Iolaus but Joxer saw the bright warrior slipping slowly into the new cave.
The darkness grew in volume and substance like a sticky web, trapping them all in strands of black.
Dragging them all towards the empty cave.
Apollo threw a lightning bolt of pure light into the cave.
It absorbed it.
A wave of refreshing water came from Tethys, filling the cave to overflowing.
It drained it.
Hestia's fire flamed into the cave with bright flames.
It quenched them.
Joxer felt Ares dig deep inside of himself and shake the cave in a silent earthquake.
It stilled the motion.
Zeus gathered his power and asked soundlessly for their strength.
A bolt of lightning illuminated the Void and Joxer saw the four elements twine together into an impossibly solid rope of energy that looped around the cave and began to squeeze. The tug towards the cave was almost impossible to resist but Joxer dug in his heals and held hard to his lover. Ares was going nowhere without him.
A slight movement caught his eye and he saw the shears of the
Fates loom overhead. Concentrating on them, the gods and mortals
willed them towards the knot that wavered where their energies entwined
with the parallel universe's. Joxer felt his body tremble with the
strain and he began to feel himself split in two.
But with a sudden burst of light from Apollo, the shears reached their goal and the sharp blades sliced through the glowing energy strands.
A scream filled the cave.
A white light began to pulse within.
The explosion of energy threw everyone back into the appropriate universe.
And the Void grew quiet once again.
Joxer woke up on the floor of Iphicles' study with Ares' head on his leg. Sitting up slowly, he looked for the others. Hestia wasn't there but the fire on the hearth was suspiciously red. Tethys' white head was cradled on her arms on the table. Zeus was slumped against the back of his chair. Strife and Cupid were in each other's arms on the other side of the room. Hades was missing completely.
Apollo looked like a pale shadow of himself, cradled in a groggy Iphicles' arms.
It felt like a hangover of gigantic proportions.
Hercules dashed into the room, glowing with energy. Iolaus was right behind him. Joxer sighed thankfully. Even though it hurt, it appeared their battle for their two friends had been successful.
Ares stirred and Joxer concentrated on his lover. Stroking the dark hair from his forehead, he gently nudged him through their bond. //Lover? We're back and safe. All of us, I think.//
//It seemed to suck the energy right out of us. I think we're going to need to head to the valley for a recharge.//
//Ow. It feels like somebody ran over me with a chariot.//
//Poor love. I'll kiss and make it better if you'll let me.// Joxer suited his statement with soothing caresses.
//That sounds good.//
"Well, that was interesting." Zeus' voice was a little hoarse and Joxer looked up in time to see him rub his temples.
"Does anyone know if it succeeded?" Apollo's accents were faint.
Tethys sighed and stretched. "I believe it did. All that energy went straight into the cave and when the shears cut us apart ... something was born."
The fire snapped and crackled, Hestia appearing from the flames only a little singed around the edges. "I caught a glimpse of the Other Side. I think the other universe was truly paralleling us and part of their energy was cut off as well. It seems that there may now be three universes."
"And if it happened once, who is to say it won't happen again. Hasn't happened before?" Hades' soft voice sighed from the corner of the room where he materialized with a slightly rusty pair of shears.
"Fascinating to contemplate." Zeus said, sitting up and straightening his robes.
"Later. We can contemplate it later." Tethys stood up and sent a piercing look at Joxer. "I will see you later as well, young man."
He gulped hard as she flashed from sight. //You'll stay with me, right?//
//Every step of the way, love.// Ares sat up and pulled him closer. "I vote we let it go for the moment and recharge. Meet you all back here in a week or so."
"Agreed, son." Zeus stood and hugged Hercules before giving Iolaus his own hug. "I'm glad you're both all right. Take care of each other."
"Thanks, Father. Thanks to everyone for all your help." Hercules' blue eyed gaze flashed around the room with a contented smile.
"Yeah, yeah, whatever." Strife was trying to stand up without letting go of Cupid and it wasn't working.
"You're welcome, Uncle Herc'. Iolaus, keep an eye on him, okay?" Cupid wouldn't let go either and the two of them winked out of sight still holding onto each other.
"Hades, I'll go back with you and help explain the state of their ... shears." Zeus nodded to the others and flashed from view with the god of the underworld.
"Apollo, will you be all right?" Ares got to his feet with a groan, pulling Joxer up with him.
"As long as I don't move more than an inch for the next year, I'll be fine." Apollo tried for a joke but his trembling hand gave away his lack of energy.
Joxer crossed to him and took one of his hands. Willing some of his air element into the god of the sun, he felt his boost reinforced by Ares. The pale skin grew a slight tinge of pink and Apollo blinked rapidly. Iphicles supported him when he struggled to sit up.
"How did you did that? Air is your weaker element, Joxer."
"I've been working with 'Dite and Mother Hera for the last six months. They're both pretty powerful." Joxer knew that Ares wanted to keep their link quiet for the time being.
"Well, they did a great job. I can take it from here. Thanks, Joxer." Apollo sat up but kept hold of Iphicles' arm. "I think I'll stay here for a while. Rest up, you know."
Iphicles' eyes gleamed in the firelight and Joxer felt the energy sing between them. "My castle is your castle, Apollo. Herc', why don't you and Iolaus go soak for a while? I'm sure you need to get rid of some ... stress."
Iolaus caught the hint and slung an arm around Hercules. "Good idea. Hey, Big Guy, why don't we go bathe? You can scrub my back for me."
Herc' was frowning slightly while he looked back and forth between the gods and his half-brother. "Um, okay. You guys will be all right?"
"We'll be just fine, big brother." Iphicles smiled up at them.
Joxer saw them leave from the shelter of Ares' arms. "Bye, Herc'. Iolaus. Take care of each other."
"You bet, we will." Iolaus grinned and tugged his lover from the room.
"The same goes for you two." Ares growled before winking them from the room and into the hot springs, sans clothes.
Joxer sighed and relaxed into the heated kiss from his lover. He spared one last thought for their trip to the Void. Hopefully, the energy was building a bright new universe. Just like he and Ares were building something new between the two of them.
In the new universe, a baby waved his arms and legs excitedly. Cooing brightly, he felt strong arms pick him up. "What have we here? Iolaus, come see what I found."
End part 15