"Come on. It must be through here."
Jason moved lightly through the corridors of the long abandoned palace, his companions at his heels.
"We're never going to find it in this maze," Hercules complained. "I always say it's never too late to give up and go back. A man should know when he's beaten."
Jason shot an exasperated look at him.
"Cassandra said that if we wanted to get past the Scylla we need the draught containing Aphrodite's tears," he said, for what felt like the hundredth time. "It should be just up ahead in the treasury… but remember what she said – don't touch anything else in there!"
At the back of the group, Pythagoras exchanged a look with Icarus, rolling his eyes at Jason's single minded determination and Hercules' complaining; both were expected. Icarus' lips twitched as he suppressed the urge to laugh out loud.
In a way Hercules was right, Pythagoras reflected: the palace they found themselves in was vast and labyrinthine. It would be more than easy to get lost in here. Jason was moving forwards confidently, however, as though he knew exactly where he was going; as though he was being drawn onwards. But then he always did. Perhaps it was another aspect of being touched by the Gods? Pythagoras made the mental note to try to discuss it with his friend at a more opportune moment. If Jason's unnaturally acute sense of direction was a Gods given gift it could come in very handy in the future.
He would have to pick his moment though. Talking about the gifts that Jason had inherited from his mother was always a touchy subject. In fact anything to do with Pasiphae was a touchy subject as far as Jason was concerned. Pythagoras privately suspected it was because, at least in part, Jason was afraid of what he might do; what he might become. He had been lured away into darkness once and the mathematician believed that his friend was afraid of it happening again – however unlikely that seemed to everyone else.
They rounded another corner. Ahead of them the corridor seemed to end in a blank wall.
"What did I tell you!" Hercules whinged. "We're lost."
Fortunately, perhaps, his friends chose to ignore him.
Jason moved into the dead end. He looked at the wall to his left for a long moment and then turned to the right where an apparently new torch still unexpectedly sat in the sconce; a strange sight since everything else in this abandoned palace was rapidly rotting away. Jason's eyes narrowed as he peered at it, before turning back to look at the opposite wall.
"What is it?" Pythagoras asked, coming to stand at his shoulder.
"Don't know," Jason answered thoughtfully. "Something Cassandra said… about shadows showing the way forwards." He looked at the sconce again. "Can I have the torch for a minute?" he asked.
Icarus handed it to him without a word. Jason carefully lit the torch on the wall and handed it back with a half-smile of thanks. He peered at the sconce again then fumbled in a small pouch at his belt, taking out a small metal object. He bit his lip.
"Cassandra gave me this before we left Argo," he said softly. "She said that when there seemed to be no way forwards this would guide us."
"That's the problem with mystic oracles," Hercules grumbled. "Unless you can manage to pin them down, they're so vague that you can't really understand what they're going on about."
Pythagoras glanced at him disapprovingly. Up until now Cassandra had always seemed far more helpful and specific in her advice than the old Oracle had been, although he did have to admit that what she had told Jason this time seemed more than a little random.
"What are you thinking?" he asked his heroic friend, who was still looking between the sconce and the opposite wall.
"That there's a tiny socket at the front of the sconce that this would fit in perfectly," Jason murmured.
He stepped up to the sconce and slotted the little metal object into the socket with an audible click.
Pythagoras peered at it closely. It was a tiny effigy of Aphrodite, the smallest that Pythagoras had ever seen, her arms outstretched by her sides showing off her naked glory.
Jason exchanged a quick look with Pythagoras and turned to face the opposite wall. The light from the torch behind the little effigy cast her shadow large on the wall. Jason moved stepped over to it without speaking and examined the shadow carefully. He placed the palms of his hands flat against the shadow of the Goddess' and gently pushed. There was a grinding noise and then the entire section of wall swung away to reveal a set of steps cut from the rock that the palace was built on and plunging down into darkness.
"I guess we go that way then," Icarus remarked softly. Somehow it seemed almost sacrilegious to raise their voices in such a silent place.
Holding the torch aloft, the inventor's son began the descent down the steps, his companions at his heels.
The stairs opened out into a surprisingly large chamber. Icarus held the torch aloft and stared around in wonder. From somewhere behind him he heard one of his friends' gasp. The contents of the room were incredible. Gold and precious objects littered every surface; everywhere they looked revealed a new wonder.
"We found the treasury then," Icarus remarked dryly.
"Remember… we mustn't touch anything," Jason murmured earnestly. "We need to get the draught and get out of here."
Pythagoras rolled his eyes once more. Jason was stating the obvious again; they all knew why they were here after all. He peered around the chamber.
"How do we find it though?" he asked. "Do we know what the vial actually looks like? In all this treasure we could easily miss it. Hercules, stop that!" he added, spotting his old friend about to touch a golden cup. Perhaps Jason's warning had been needed after all, he reflected.
"I do not think that that is going to be a problem," Icarus murmured, wonder colouring his tone.
Pythagoras looked sharply at him. Icarus was standing still, staring at something in front of him. The mathematician followed his lover's gaze. He drew in a sharp breath.
On a pedestal on its own on the far side of the chamber there was a small, bejewelled bottle, well-sealed with wax. A shaft of light from somewhere above bathed it in luminescence, making the jewels glitter brightly. The pedestal itself was carved with depictions of Aphrodite herself, in many forms. Icarus was right. It was obvious that this was what they had come for. It had clearly been the most highly prized treasure in the chamber for the former occupants of the palace.
"What do you think happened to them?" Icarus asked, echoing Pythagoras' thoughts.
"Who?" Hercules demanded testily, coming to stand beside Pythagoras.
He still hadn't fully forgiven Icarus for his betrayal and generally avoided speaking to the young man wherever possible, so Pythagoras took any attempt to engage in conversation as a good sign.
"The people who lived here," Icarus answered. "They left everything of value behind. I can't see anyone doing that willingly."
"Does it matter?" Hercules demanded. "Let's just do what we came here to do and get back to the boat."
"That may be more difficult than it seems," Pythagoras murmured, staring hard at the pedestal.
In front of it a chasm opened up in the floor. The four men approached carefully and peered down into it. The bottom was out of sight.
"Looks deep," Icarus mumbled.
Pythagoras resisted the urge to roll his eyes again. Sometimes he didn't know whether the award for stating the obvious should go to Jason or Icarus. He turned his attention to the beam that spanned the chasm, stretching from the floor of the main chamber where they stood to the small platform that the pedestal stood on. It looked none to stable; it appeared to have been charred at some point and looked more than a little rotten.
"That does not look safe to use," he stated, "so we must look for another way to cross."
"Maybe we could build a bridge," Icarus said.
"Build a bridge?" Hercules spluttered. "Build a bridge? And I suppose you have all the things we would need to build a bridge in your bag, do you?"
"Hercules!" Pythagoras admonished sharply. "Icarus was only trying to help."
"It was a ridiculous idea," Hercules replied loudly.
Icarus rolled his eyes. He was growing used to the fact that any idea he had would automatically be ridiculed by Hercules. Pythagoras had been quick to tell him that Hercules would forgive him eventually but he couldn't help but wish that the big man would get on with it.
"And do you have any better ideas?" Pythagoras demanded of his older friend. "It may not be such a ridiculous idea as you seem to think. If we were to search upstairs, we might perhaps find some wood that we could use to put a makeshift bridge together."
"I might have known you'd take his side," he growled.
As the two old friends descended into bickering (not an unusual occurrence by any means), Icarus was distracted by a movement that he caught out of the corner of his eye. He turned with a frown to see Jason pulling the strap of his sword up over his head.
"Would you mind holding this?" the young hero asked softly, handing the sword to Icarus.
Icarus blinked in surprise.
"Of course," he muttered, taking it off Jason.
Jason flashed him one of his soft, almost shy smiles and moved to unlace his breastplate, completely ignoring his arguing friends. He slipped the armour over his head and held it out to Icarus too.
"And this?" he asked, before bending and unlacing his sandals and stepping out of them.
"Why are you getting undressed?" Icarus asked in confusion.
"I need to be able to move as freely as possible," Jason responded.
Finally alerted to the fact that his impulsive friend was up to something, Pythagoras turned away from the still spluttering Hercules.
"Jason? What are you doing?" he asked suspiciously.
"Going over there to get Aphrodite's tears," Jason answered serenely, moving behind the rest of them and backing up to give himself a good run up. He started to rock from the heel of one foot to the ball of the other, hands swinging loosely at his sides and his eyes intent as he stared at the beam across the chasm.
"Are you mad?" Hercules demanded. "It'll never hold your weight."
"Trust me," Jason replied with a soft smile, never taking his eyes off his target.
"Jason," Pythagoras began, moving towards his friend.
Before he could get there though, Jason took off, racing towards the chasm at full speed. At the last possible moment he jumped and flicked in the air, bringing his hands down in the centre of the beam and pushing back off them into a spectacular somersault. He had landed on the other side before any of his friends had had chance to catch their breath.
"Show off!" Hercules called across the gap.
Jason shot him a bright, lop-sided grin over his shoulder. Then he turned back to the pedestal in front of him. He licked his lips, reached out and carefully lifted up the vial, half expecting to set off some sort of booby trap like in the Indiana Jones films he used to watch as a kid.
He turned back to face his friends. Getting back across was going to be much trickier than getting over here, he decided. The platform was decidedly on the small side and the pedestal was in the way, meaning that he couldn't get a decent run up.
Oh well, nothing ventured and all that.
Jason carefully tucked the small vial inside the lacings of his wrist brace, relying in the tight strip of leather to keep it in place. He backed up as far as the pedestal would allow and ran towards the beam, knowing that the lack of run up would mean that he couldn't launch himself as far as he had when he had crossed the first time.
This time he only made it about a third of the way down the beam before his hands came down. He pushed himself off into a handspring, hoping his momentum would carry him far enough along the beam. As his feet came down though, he heard the wood crack and desperately launched himself forwards towards the floor of the chamber where his friends waited even as the beam gave way and fell into the chasm beneath him.
He nearly made it back to safety but the jump was just that bit too far and he found himself scrabbling frantically at the edge of the chasm with his fingers, before Hercules' strong hand caught hold of his wrist and hauled him back to safety.
"Idiot," the bulky wrestler grumbled testily once Jason was back on solid ground.
"That was an unnecessary risk." Pythagoras sounded irritated.
"It worked, didn't it?" he replied nonchalantly.
"Yes," Pythagoras retorted, "but it very easily could have resulted in the loss of the vial… or your death… or both. We could have come up with a far less risky solution if only you had given me the time to think. We are supposed to be working together. You simply cannot keep making unilateral decisions without consulting anyone else… and you really cannot keep taking that sort of risk. How do you think we could have explained it to Ariadne if anything had happened to you then? And how do you think she would have taken the news?"
Jason sighed. This was not an argument he wanted to have now (or at any time if the truth be told). He still felt that what he had done was right (because he had recovered the draught that they needed after all) but knew that Pythagoras would never agree – he recognised the signs of an imminent storm from his usually gentle friend.
"It's done now," he murmured, turning away from the mathematician and towards Icarus (who also looked a bit cross, Jason couldn't help but notice). "Let's get back to the Argo."
Pythagoras glared at his back for a moment, before stalking off, grumbling under his breath.
Jason sighed again and reached inside his wrist brace, pulling out the little bejewelled vial and handing it to Icarus to put into the bag that the inventor's son carried. Icarus took it without comment, one eyebrow raised.
Before Jason could take any of his belongings back from Icarus, Pythagoras' voice rang out through the chamber once more.
The genius sounded horrified. Both Jason and Icarus turned automatically to look towards him.
Hercules had clearly been examining the treasures on the far side of the chamber. On a gilded plate there were several gold apples, so lifelike that it almost seemed you could take a bite out of one of them. Apparently forgetting Cassandra's admonition not to touch anything, Hercules was reaching out unthinkingly to pick one of them up when Pythagoras called out.
The blonde was not far from Hercules and was moving to try to stop his old friend from making a possibly fatal error. Jason didn't stop to think. Forgetting Icarus for a moment, he darted across the room, intent on helping Pythagoras in stopping Hercules.
Quick as both young men were, they were still too late. Hercules picked up one of the golden apples to have a good look at it before either one of them could get there. The apple started to glow. Hercules dropped it in surprise just as Jason barrelled into him, knocking him flying.
The flare of bright, white light that bathed the room stabbed Icarus' eyes and he flung one arm up over his face to protect them. When the light finally faded enough to allow him to drop his arm, blinking painfully and eyes still watering, his gaze met Hercules' shocked face before turning slightly to look for his lover.
Where was Pythagoras?
He turned to look in horror at Hercules. It seemed as though the two of them were alone in the room; as though the other two had completely disappeared from the chamber.
The burly wrestler pushed himself to his feet and purposefully made his way across to where he had been standing before. He peered around a pile of treasure, clearly searching for his friends. Icarus started to move to his side.
"What in the name of the Gods?"
Hercules' horrified exclamation brought Icarus to his side in an instant. He peered around the pile of treasure himself, his heart in his throat at the thought of what he might see; of what might have befallen Pythagoras.
Whatever he had been expecting it was not this.
Standing in a puddle of clothing, with Pythagoras' tunic hanging down past his calves, was a small blonde boy with the bluest eyes Icarus had ever seen.
The child blinked.
"Who are you?" he said, his voice tremulous. "Where is my mother? And where is Arcas?"
Icarus gulped. This was not good. Alongside him, Hercules swore loudly. The child frowned deeply.
"My mother says that only uncouth men swear," he stated, "and that I should not speak to them."
Icarus gulped again.
"Pythagoras?" he asked. "Is that you?"