The boy was desperate.
"I'm desperate," he said, in that dead serious whine only sixteen year old boys could make and actually mean it. "Hercules, you have to come help us! If this doesn't stop, my entire village will be destroyed!"
The boy was on the verge of hyperventilating. Hercules put a steadying hand on his shoulder. "Hey, take it easy," he said. "What's this all about? I haven't heard about any excitement up near your mountains for years now." He aimed a questioning glance at Iolaus, who shrugged. Apparently he hadn't either.
"But that's just it," said the boy. "It's the Scrolls. You have to find out who's really behind them and stop the addiction. You just have to!"
Hercules and Iolaus exchanged a look. "The 'Scrolls'?" asked Iolaus.
The boys face scrunched into something that could only be described as enormously distraught. "The Face Scrolls," he whispered. "They've turned everybody mad." The he blinked at Iolaus and said, "Wait, who are you?"
Iolaus looked like he was about to respond, but instead let out air in an explosive sigh. "Forget it," he said flatly, starting to march up the road. "Let's go save your town."
Standing on a hill overlooking the village, the first thing Hercules noticed about the town of Karyes was the strange network of poles and ropes crisscrossing over the rooftops, seeming to form a connection between the different houses.
The second thing he noticed were the pigeons - carriers, he assumed, by the shape of their heads and the thrust of their wings - who were frantically flying in and out of open windows.
The third thing he noticed was the smell.
"By gods," said Iolaus, pinching his nose between two fingers, "it sbells like sobeode butchered a herd ob goats here add forgot to clead up."
The boy gave them an apologetic look. "The wind's carrying it up," he said. "You won't feel it once you're down there. Come on."
They started down the gravelly path to the village, trying not to breathe through their noses. "Where is everyone?" Hercules asked. Other than the birds, the town looked deserted.
"They're all inside their houses. You'll see when you get there."
Iolaus edged closer to Hercules. "Why do I get the feeling we're being lured into this town in order to be cut into itty bitty pieces and eaten for dessert?"
"Relax, Iolaus. That only happened once." He paused. "That sounded more reassuring in my head."
A short while later they crossed a wooden bridge, and the boy led them to a large square building in the center of town. A red sign over it stated, FACE SCROLL: CONNECTING PEOPLE, underneath that, FOR FREE!, and under that, in smaller letters, ALMOST.
"Right here," said the boy, coming to a stop.
"'Face Scroll'," Iolaus read. "This is what's been keeping people inside?"
"I smell something fishy," Hercules muttered.
"I'm pretty sure that's pigeon-crap," said Iolaus as they entered the shop.
"Nope, I'm pretty sure it's salmon--I should have guessed," he sighed, just as the short, bulky shopkeeper turned around to face them. "Salmoneus."
Salmoneus' bright and beady eyes became, if possible, even more bright and beady. "Hercules!" he cried, spreading his arms. "What a wonderful surprise!"
"I've noticed it's always a wonderful surprise with him," Iolaus muttered.
"Oh, but you two boys have arrived here with perfect timing!" Salmoneus pattered around the shop counter and came straight at them. "I was just working on a 'Which Dubiously Sired Son of a God are YOU?' quiz, but I couldn't get your likeness just right for the image." Salmoneus held up a small round parchment that had on it, scratched in ink, the kind of portrait Hercules could remember making when Cheiron used to have him practice dexterity by painting with his feet.
Iolaus gave Salmoneus a thumbs up.
"Look, that's great," Hercules said. "But we're not here to pose for you. We just want to figure out what's happened in this village and get things back to normal."
Salmoneus smiled widely. "Well, why didn't you say so? You want to open your own pages!"
Hercules looked at Iolaus. "I don't... think that's what I said. Is that what I said?"
"You always were have uncannily skilled in body language," Iolaus replied.
"Um, sirs," a voice piped up. They turned around. The boy was standing by the doorway. "You really should let him open you a page. It's... the best way to understand how it works..."
"A page of what?" Hercules asked, exasperated.
Salmoneus blinked. "A page of you. Well, not you you, of course - Hercules already has a page, all the celebrities do - but hypothetical you. Like him." He pointed at Iolaus.
Iolaus raised his hands. "Whoa, keep me out of this."
"Oh, come now, a good lookin' fellow like you?" Salmoneus winked. "The girls'll be friending you in no time!"
"Wait, girls?" Iolaus asked. Hercules gave him a disapproving look. "What? Nobody told me there were girls."
Salmoneus embraced each of their shoulders with grubby arms. "Excellent, excellent. I have a spare room in my cabin that's just for you."
The chamber was almost bare, save for two cots, a wooden table, and the Scrolls. Ropes and pulleys were connected to the open windows.
Hercules stared at his Scroll. "But what is it good for?" he asked again. His Scroll was spread on the table, taking up most of its space. It had badges on it. And cartoons of dancing skeletons. And names of lots of people he didn't know.
"It's a social network," Salmoneus explained.
"Yes, you've mentioned that," said Iolaus dryly, crouching over his own Scroll. It was covered in little writing and empty squares. "But what does that mean?"
"You can contact people! You can communicate! Look." Salmoneus strode to the window, and pointed at the rope. "Say you want to send someone a free gift. A shoe. You take your gift--" Salmoneus held up a small note "--and tie it to the rope--" he made a show of tying the note to the rope using a thread "--and pull." Salmoneus pulled the rope, which started moving around the pulley until the note disappeared. "Each rope is connected to a different household. I have maintenance men stationed on the roofs, just to make sure each message is routed to its intended target, and when you're not directly wired to your recipient, that's where the pigeons come in!" Salmoneus held up an arm, and a gray pigeon swooped in from outside and fluttered to a stop on his sleeve. He cooed. It cooed back.
"But that wasn't a shoe," Hercules pointed out. "That was just a parchment note. With a picture of a shoe."
"Well, yes, but it's the thought that counts."
"Why would I want to send someone a picture of a shoe?"
"Because it's fun?"
There was silence as Salmoneus gave him a hopeful look. Hercules considered his Scroll. There was, he now noticed, a small picture of a shoe in one of the corners. Someone must have sent it to him. There were also pictures of a jug of ale, a brazier, and a duck.
"I still don't get it," he said.
"What's this do?" Iolaus asked, pointing to a line in one of the boxes on his Scroll.
Salmoneus clapped his hands, obviously relieved to get any sort of cooperation. "Ooh, I love that one. That one's for poking people."
Iolaus looked alarmed. "Uh, what?"
"Poking people! You send pokes, just like the gifts. It's oh so frivolous."
"But I can poke you here," Iolaus said. "Like this." He poked Salmoneus in the shoulder.
Salmoneus stared at him blankly, then turned his eyes to the heavens. "Oh ye of little imagination. You have so much to learn."
Hercules rolled up his Scroll. "I think I've learned enough."
"Don't do that," Salmoneus said, chagrined. "You'll wrinkle it. We haven't even gotten to the Fraternities yet."
Iolaus rolled up his own Scroll, albeit a little forlornly. "We'll pass. So, what do you think, Herc? Aergia?"
Hercules nodded grimly. "Aergia."
The trouble with contacting the goddess of idleness, laziness, indolence and sloth was that she was always too lazy to show up. After unsuccessfully trying to summon her, pray to her, and finally just shouting her name at the trees to see what happened, Hercules decided they needed to review the facts again. Iolaus decided to humor him.
"Okay," Hercules began, pacing in their small chamber. "So we have an entire village of people who are wasting their lives away because of Face Scroll."
"Farmland is being neglected," Iolaus continued.
"Milk and meats and produce are spoiling."
"Animals are starving in their barns."
"And all because people are busy being so 'connected' to one another..."
"...that they never leave the house." Iolaus considered it. "Kind of ironic, actually."
"That kid was right. If this thing isn't stopped somehow, Karyes will waste away into nothing." Hercules wanted to punch something, but none of the walls looked like they could stand it. These types of schemes always looked like they'd developed naturally at first, until they were revealed to be the grand design of some self-absorbed deity or other. And this one absolutely stank of someone who loved wallowing in laziness. "Damn it, it has to be Aergia! But how do we find her?"
For a moment they both froze. Their gazes simultaneously traveled to the window. "You don't think..." Iolaus started, eyes wide.
Hercules frowned. "Only one way to find out."
They walked to the window and peered closely at the writing next to the ropes until they reached one that fit. "Well, what do you know," Iolaus said looking entirely unsurprised. "It's addressed to Olympus."
They composed a careful message (Aergia, get your ass down here, I need to talk to you --Hercules) and sent it up the rope. Hercules didn't bother speculating how far away the rope extended in order to reach Olympus; the gods always had their tricks.
A moment later, there was a pop.
A bright, pink, glowy pop.
"Hercules!" Aphrodite greeted snippily. "I am very -- disappointed -- in you." She punctuated her words by punching him in the shoulder. Very delicately, of course.
"Nice to see you too, 'Dite," Hercules replied.
"Me too," Iolaus waved. "Hi."
Aphrodite ignored him and turned to Hercules. "I can't believe you're friending that little bitch Aergia before friending me! Your own flesh and blood!"
"Actually," he put in, "our family tree's kind of twisted, so technically Aergia's also--"
"Your own sister, Herc." Aphrodite shook her head. "Shame on you." She pointed at his chest. "Shame."
"Okay, no need to point at me," he said, gently pushing her finger away. "I'm sorry I didn't follow the proper etiquette, but we don't have time to argue. Is that all you came here for?"
Aphrodite huffed. "Yes."
"Do you happen to know where Aergia is?"
"What do you need her for?"
"We want to find out if she was the one behind Face Scroll," said Iolaus, leaning against a wall, "and then make her stop it."
In an instant, her demeanor changed from sullen to protective. "But why? Face Scroll's the best!"
Hercules narrowed his eyes. "You can't possibly mean that."
"Of course I do! Herc, honey, you've gotta ditch that outdated world you live in and step into the new age." She snapped her fingers, and a pink Scroll unrolled in front of her, hovering in midair. "Just look at my page. Isn't it snazzy?"
Hercules squinted at the page, which was almost too bright to look at directly, coated with sparkles. He started reading from the boxes. "'Are YOU Interested'. 'PerfectMatch.' 'TrueMatch'. 'SuperMatch'. 'OneMatch'."
Iolaus folded his arms. "Either you really like playing with fire, or you're running a dating service."
"Nice catch, Blondie," Aphrodite replied. "Hey, why aren't you in my database? I'm sure I can find someone for you out there."
"Why don't we stick to the subject," Hercules said firmly. Iolaus' shoulders slumped a little. "Aergia. Do you know where she is?"
Aphrodite rolled her eyes. "Duh. She's home. Doing quizzes, probably, like everybody else. Last time I checked, she was in the middle of `Do You Recognize These Egyptian Gods Without Their Make-Up On?'."
Hercules closed his eyes. "Do you mean this thing has spread to all of Olympus?"
"That explains why it never seems like the gods give a damn about anything. Oh wait," Iolaus said with a fake smile, "that's just the way they are."
Aphrodite made a face at him. "I'm totally not friending you. Anyway, yeah, everyone at home's got a page, except ours, of course, are upgraded--" she waved a hand, and her Scroll twinkled "--so we don't need those little low-tech ropes or birds. And if you think Aergia has the brains to invent something as genius as this, bro, you're a lot less smart than I give you credit for."
Her answer honestly surprised him. "But if it's not the goddess of sloth... who can it be?"
Aphrodite shrugged. "I dunno. You can check my feed for ideas, if you want."
Aphrodite smirked, twirled her finger, and with another shower of sparks the words on her Scroll shifted. A rectangular box appeared in the center. It said:
ATHENA and HESTIA have added the WHAT IS THE SHAPE OF YOUR LEFT FOOT quiz.
APOLLO is what the tartarus, Hades, stop messing with my relationship status
APOLLO has changed his status to SINGLE
APOLLO has changed his status to IN A RELATIONSHIP with HIS MOMMA
APOLLO has changed his status to DATING
ARES sent an invitation using WHAT FLOWER ARE YOU? FIND OUT WHAT FLOWER YOU ARE. ANSWER NINE SHORT QUESTIONS AND FIND OUT INSTANTLY- IT'S THAT EASY!
ZEUS has joined the fraternity I ENJOY RULING MANKIND WITH SUFFERING (J/K) (OR AM I)
ATHENA left a comment on your Wall: Dite, please stop passing me chain letters. That child is not really ill, and nobody's monitoring your page to make sure his family gets three grains of barley for every time you forward it. In addition, I have no need for one million dinars. Really.
ARES has joined the group KEEP PARENTS OUT OF FACE SCROLL
"Okay, I think that's enough," Hercules said weakly.
"I feel a little bit sick," Iolaus added. "Of course, that might be due to the epidemic of insanity that seems to be going around."
Aphrodite rolled up her Scroll. "Not that I get what you guys have against Face Scroll, but if you really want to get to the bottom of it, I suggest you ask its number one fan."
Iolaus frowned. "Salmoneus? We already interviewed him."
"No, dummy," she said. "Ares." She lowered her voice. "Total friend whore. Craves the attention." She smiled wickedly, like they were sharing a secret joke. "Secretly, all he wants is to have more friends than Athena. He'll never get there, though. Everybody loves her."
"Man," said Iolaus, "I'm just never going to get the hang of divine politics."
Aphrodite patted him on the head. "Anyway, I gotta go. Quizzes to build, love to spread. Great chatting with you guys, and don't forget to friend me! Even you, Blondie!" She winked. "Tootles."
With another pink pop, she disappeared.
For a long moment, they both stared at the space she had filled. Then their eyes met. "Ares," they said together.
Hercules kind of wanted to die.
If there was anything worse than trying to talk to a smug Ares, it was trying to talk to a smug Ares who was also a Face Scroll addict.
Ares had conjured a chair, and was leaning back in it, legs crossed on the wooden table. Iolaus sat on one of the cots. Hercules stood, if only because height was one of the only things he had going for him with Ares.
"So, mon frere," Ares said, smirking. "I understand you wanted to see me?"
"Yes." Hercules felt his fists clench. Ares had that effect on him. "We want you to stop spreading Face Scroll around, and give these people back their lives."
Ares raised his eyebrows. "I'm afraid that's not up to me, but your good friend Anchovius."
Direct confrontation was the only way to go. "It's obvious that Salmoneus is just a tool here," Hercules said. "He doesn't have the brains to carry this out alone."
"You flatter me, brother," Ares said, looking pleased.
"Well, you know how it goes," Iolaus said. "Half a brain plus half a brain equals one brain just smart enough."
Ares growled. Hercules grinned. Iolaus always did know how to get on Ares' nerves.
"What I don't understand is why you did it," Hercules mused aloud. "What good to you are people with no zest for life? No passion? Why would you want them in front of their Scrolls?"
Ares' expression shifted back to smug. "Oh, you'd be surprised by how much havoc I can cause through Face Scroll. All it takes is forming Fraternities like `So You Want To Be A Mercenary - Well so Do I', and `I Bet I Can Find 1,000,000 People Who Hate King Rydon of Thespies', and suddenly you've got warriors lining up and the smell of blood in the air."
"But... these people are all sitting in their homes," Iolaus said skeptically.
Ares scowled. "It's a plan in the making, okay?" Iolaus snorted. "It'll work."
"So you're admitting you did this," Hercules said, grasping the opportunity.
Ares sighed. "I do wish I'd thought of it. But sadly, I am but a consumer. A damn popular one-- " he smirked again "--but a consumer, nonetheless."
For some reason, Hercules believed him. Which was frustrating, because that meant they were at a dead end.
"Do you have any idea who it was, then?" he asked. Maybe Ares would cooperate.
"I told you, it was your friend," Ares said, getting up and stretching his legs. "Trout. Mackerel. Whatchamacall him." He scratched his beard thoughtfully. "Brilliant, when you think about it."
"But... it can't be." It was a prospect too unsettling to consider. "You mean that Face Scroll was really invented by a just a man, for completely innocent purposes? And that all these other villagers are just... playing along? Not being brainwashed in any way?"
"Yeah." Ares grinned. "Human race. I tell ya, sometimes they surprise you."
Something dinged four times in a row. Ares haughtily held up a hand. "One moment, please." A black Scroll with which writing appeared with a flourish. It was long. He raised his eyebrows. "Listen, I have some pending friends requests that I have to take care of." He rolled up his Scroll with a professional snap. "I'd wish you luck, but honestly I don't really care what you both are up to. So, till next time, eh? Don't forget to friend me." And with a mocking half-salute, he was gone.
"Well," said Iolaus. "That was unexpected."
Salmoneus was crushed when they told him they were leaving. "You were great for business," Salmoneus sighed, patting Hercules on the shoulder. "You always are."
Hercules removed his hand and shook it instead. "Thanks, that's... very touching."
"Well, you'll keep your Scrolls, of course," Salmoneus said. "And remember the pigeons! Face Scroll works long distance."
"Oh, definitely," Iolaus promised. "We'll keep in touch." To Hercules, he whispered, "I am tossing this thing into the river as soon as we leave town."
"Naturally," Hercules whispered back.
The boy was disappointed, but in the end, there was nothing to be done. "You should get out of this place," Hercules told him as he escorted them out of the village. "You're better than this. Face Scroll may have taken over Karyes, but it hasn't taken over the world. Move to a city. Watch a play."
"You can even write stories about it afterwards," Iolaus pitched in. Hercules gave him a look. "What? There are people who do that."
They reached the top of the hill. The smell of neglect wafted up to them from the valley below.
"I really am sorry we couldn't help you," said Hercules. "But it's your people's choice, how to live their lives."
"So lodg," Iolaus said, nose elegantly pinched closed.
They walked in silence until they reached the fresher air of the forest. "All in all, that was one of the stranger things I've seen," Hercules summed up.
"Hmm," Iolaus said.
Hercules took out his folded Scroll from a pocket. "Guess I can throw this out now, huh," he said.
"Guess so," Iolaus replied neutrally.
Hercules stopped walking. "Okay, what?"
Iolaus stopped too, and out his hands on his hips. "How many friends did you have?"
Hercules blinked. "On my Scroll?"
"Yes, on your Scroll. How many?"
"I don't know." He unfolded the Scroll and checked. "One thousand twenty three. Why?"
"I had two."
Hercules tried to understand how he was supposed to respond, but really, the whole etiquette thing eluded him completely. "Okay, in case you didn't notice, Salmoneus opened my page and impersonated me a long time before we arrived in Karyes. And you only had two days to make friends. Who, by the way, are the two?"
"Salmoneus," Iolaus flushed, "and Ares. Anyway, that's not the point."
He stood expectantly again, like he was waiting for Hercules to... what exactly?
"Look, I don't know what you want me to say!" Hercules exclaimed.
"Why didn't you confirm my request?" Iolaus blurted.
This was too weird. "Okay, what?"
Iolaus folded his arms. "Why. Didn't you. Confirm. My request?"
"Your friend request?"
"No, my Maid of Honor request," he rolled his eyes. "Yes, my friend request."
Hercules was at a complete loss. "Why would I confirm your request? We're already friends."
"Well, everybody doesn't know that."
"Actually, I think they do."
Iolaus huffed and started to walk again. "Look, forget it."
Hercules hurried to catch up. The Face Scroll thing. Connecting People, his strong and muscled ass. "Hey. We're okay, right?"
Iolaus sighed. "Don't be a woman." Hercules was not about to put a mirror in front of that statement right now. "Look, all I'm saying is, next time I ask you to friend me, humor me and confirm the request."
"Done," Hercules promised.
Iolaus looked slightly appeased, so Hercules supposed he'd handled the matter correctly.
The road crunched satisfyingly beneath his boots. The sky was a deep, clear blue; the forest smelled green and fresh. Corinth was only a few days away. At his side, Iolaus started to whistle. Hercules breathed in, and smiled.
He still didn't get it.
A few months later, they heard the rumor. Karyes had been destroyed in a fire. It was the boy who confirmed the news, in an accidental meeting in a Corinthian tavern.
"It was a flame war," he said sadly.
"So no more Face Scroll?" Hercules asked. The boy shook his head. "Great, ahem, loss."
"Don't worry, Herc," Iolaus said with a bright grin. "I'll poke you any time."