They all hopped onto Empath, piling on top of him faster than he could fight them off. The weight of their decaying bodies felt like heavy boulders, pinning him down hard and preventing him from struggling free. In fact, the corpses felt so heavy being on top of Empath that they pushed him down into the thick clouds.
Empath found himself sinking through the clouds and now plummeting down toward the ground again, weighed down by the corpses that surrounded and encased him. In fact, he was falling down so fast that he felt himself going straight through the earth and much further down until he hit solid rock. He had no idea where he was now, but he wasn't going to be stuck under a pile of Smurf corpses forever.
"Enough!" Empath roared, erupting with enough strength to knock every Smurf off him. "Whatever you are, you are not my fellow Smurfs! They would not ask this smurf to avenge them in any way, in this life or any other!"
As the Smurf corpses approached him again, Empath swung his arm into one of them and noticed that it suddenly turned into dust, leaving nothing behind. Though he couldn't sense anything with his mind's-eye, Empath had a feeling that these weren't really Smurfs at all…just animated constructs brought to life by somebody.
At that point, Empath held nothing back. He pummeled his way through all of the Smurf corpses that approached him, turning all of them into the dust that they came from. Even the constructs of Baby Smurf and the Smurflings were easily destroyed, for they hardly put up much of a fight.
When there was just him standing alone, Empath now saw where he was. This looked like Tartarus, the other world he heard about where the souls tainted by evil were condemned for all eternity. And yet, even here, Empath suspected that it was no more real than the Smurf Village version of Elysium that he experienced. He touched one of the flames that erupted from one of the fissures in the ground and realized that not only couldn't he feel its heat, but his hand also didn't erupt into flames. It was also an illusion.
"Whoever smurfed me here, you should know that I now know that this afterlife is not real," Empath shouted out loud. "Smurf yourself to me right now and end this charade!"
"Congratulations, Empath," a dark menacing voice boomed. "I always knew that your perceptiveness would come through in seeing through my creation, since I thought it would be the most appropriate venue for my reoffering you my wondrous gift of godhood."
Empath then saw everything around him change. The flames and rocky terrain of Tartarus vanished, replaced by an even grimmer and more realistic view of a castle interior, all dark and demonically lighted with torches and braziers. Sitting on a throne in front of Empath, wearing body armor from the period of ancient Greece, was the being that Empath recognized all too well.
"Ares!" Empath exclaimed. "This time you have smurfed too far in trying to make this smurf become your servant god of conquest!"
"Have I really?" Ares snorted, not really sounding impressed. "You should know by now that when it comes to being a god, there are no limits as to how far you can go to get what you want, even if that means getting your undivided attention. The only thing that matters is getting what you want, and since you're not the easiest warrior to accept anything from your biggest admirer, I might as well make you believe in something that would bring you to me."
"If you believe that your constructed afterlife creation is going to make this smurf change my mind about accepting your gift, you're even more mistaken than you'll ever realize," Empath scoffed. "So if you don't mind, this smurf must get back to Polaris and continue on with this smurf's quest to bring this smurf's fellow Smurfs home."
"That's another reason why I brought you here, Empath," Ares continued. "You're not the same little warrior Smurf that you were when we last met. Your powers are gone, aren't they? All those wonderful things you can do with your mind are now ancient history, as probably are your fellow Smurfs...only now they are actually making history, even as we speak. So you and Polaris set off into the world, thinking that your will and determination alone can help bring them back from their disastrous little time trip, eh? And with every day that passes, you begin to find out just how futile your quest really is, without either of you being able to do what you used to do, what you could easily have done. Every day that passes by is torture for you when there is no other Smurf in your life, not even that one special Smurf you actually care about…and you know who that Smurf is!"
Empath realized Ares was referring to Smurfette. He felt angry and exposed.
"Ah, you do know who I am talking about," Ares stated, sounding very pleased to have hit a nerve. "The most beautiful female Smurf in the world, the one every Smurf in your village wanted to have for their very own, the one Smurf who is probably having her way with them right now and who knows who else she might find interesting in those different time periods."
"Don't ever talk about Smurfette like that, Ares," Empath roared. "She would never give herself like that to satisfy the likes of you or anyone else."
"Ooh, a jealous warrior Smurf is what I like even better," Ares smirked. "Nothing gets somebody into a fighting rage quite like a woman does, isn't that true? But I see that I have made my point, so I won't waste anymore time embarrassing and exposing you."
"How is it that you know so much about what's been going on with this smurf's fellow Smurfs, Ares?" Empath asked, changing the subject.
"The gods have seen everything happening ever since they came to be, my young blue friend," Ares answered. "Even as I was watching every war waged between one tribe of humans and another, I have also seen your fellow Smurfs in various points of time, sometimes right in the middle of a battle that I only intended to see the slaughter of humans in. Sometimes they even helped put an end to those wars, which I despised as much as I despised my mortal half-brother Hercules doing the same. But as noble as they are, I can tell that they're not as happy as they used to be, trying to arrange those crystals of theirs so that they can open the door back home to this point in time...and yet always failing."
"What are you saying?" Empath asked, not sure what Ares was getting at. "That if this smurf had the power of a god, then this smurf could easily bring this smurf's fellow Smurfs back home?"
"Even better," Ares answered smugly. "You can go to whatever time period they happen to be in and just bring them back yourself, and you never have to tell them how or why."
"But that would still mean this smurf would have to be your god of conquest," Empath realized.
"For any god, nothing exists for him other than conquest," Ares stated. "To do what no mortal being could do, even with the strength of Hercules, all with a simple decree - bring two people in love together, break up a union that should never have been formed, cure diseases, cause a famine, make people bow and respect you at every whim. We helped bring this world of yours into existence, and we can also put an end to everything that exists in it." He looked at Empath and noticed there was still a hint of unwillingness that he needed to break through. "I myself was once like you…a favorite son of my own father Zeus, eager to please him by bringing order to such a chaotic world. And then he turns his attention to consorting with mortals, and one of his favorite sons among them, Hercules, gets more attention from him than I do. I fought with my half-brother time and again to try destroying him, but it did nothing to bring back the love my father took from me. And now with us being supplanted by this one greater being that calls himself God…an unknown and invisible one at that…the power I once wielded to control the mortals is in itself weakening. Even my own father Zeus is gone, and there are very few of us left to stop this…God…from taking over our realm."
Empath was surprised to hear that the god of war himself feared something that was far greater than his own father…this "unknown and invisible" God that sounded like the Almighty that Tapper had followed in his heart. Although he had heard that this Almighty had a son through a mortal human woman, this legendary son was nothing like Hercules, who was given great physical strength. But to hear that this Almighty is powerful enough to make even the great gods of Olympus be nonexistent…all because the Almighty claimed to be "the one true God" who has no equal in the heavens, let alone in all of creation?
"I can see you will need some time to think about whether it is worth it to obtain this gift that I'm giving you…all because your fellow Smurfs are counting on you to bring them back home," Ares said as he looked on Empath again. "I will allow you some time before you render your decision…but don't take too long, and don't try to leave this place in case you have second thoughts that you don't want to share with me."
Empath nodded but didn't say anything more. Ares left the room as Empath began to think about what Ares had told him, and whether it was worth it to become a god in order to bring his fellow Smurfs home. The one thing he knew for sure was that there was no guarantee that he would ever find that way somewhere in the world outside of any godly intervention. It was a quest that could take as long as Grandpa Smurf's travels around the world had taken him to complete. He certainly didn't want to wait that long in order to find the solution that would bring them home to a world that has changed around them. More importantly, he didn't want Smurfette to come home to a world-weary Empath that has aged to the point where he may not be able to give her a family of her own like she might have wanted. If there was ever a time that Empath wanted Smurfette to come home to for him alone, it was right now.
It was now actually morning, when Polaris woke up by the tree where Empath had slept, and found that Empath was gone. He had left his backpack and the Imaginarium crystal medallion at the same spot, so Polaris could only guess that Empath was abducted...but he had no idea who or what could have taken his friend.
He picked up the medallion and held it in his hand. "Culliford Smurf, appear before this one."
The HoloSmurf appeared, looking briefly around before turning to face Polaris. "Well, what the smurf happened to Empath?" he asked impatiently.
"That's what this one is trying to find out, Culliford," Polaris answered. "This one had just awakened and noticed that Empath is not present. It is not known whether Empath had wandered off on his own without telling anybody or was taken by somebody."
The HoloSmurf stroked his beard as he listened. "Hmmm, and now you just want me to smurf around and see if there's anything I could smurf that would smurf an answer to this mystery?" He sighed heavily, feeling put upon to do yet another task that Empath or Polaris could have done with their own mind's-eyes, except that he knew that their mind's-eyes weren't functioning as they used to. He just stared at the spot Empath was sleeping in and noticed something that Polaris couldn't see.
"Well, I think I just smurfed your answer right there, Polaris," the HoloSmurf reported. "There are resmurfual magical particles in the spot Empath was smurfing in, and judging by the type of magical particles, I smurf that a god had smurfed Empath away before you smurfed up."
"A god?" Polaris wondered. "Being that this region we are currently in is what that human wizard Homnibus called Greece, this one can postulate that one of the Olympian Gods had abducted Empath...and the only one this one can think of that would do that is the god of war, Ares."
"Ares?!?" the HoloSmurf exclaimed. "You mean that god who once smurfed those Hyperions loose that Empath had to outrace and had also smurfed him a bit of his godly powers is trying to smurf him again into making him a god of conquest?"
"This one fears it is the very same one, Culliford," Polaris answered grimly. "We must find a way to stop Ares before he succeeds in turning Empath into his servant, if he hasn't already done that yet."
"That would be impossible for us to smurf, Polaris," the HoloSmurf warned. "No mortal being can ever smurf their way to the temple of one of the Olympian gods, and besides we may not even know where Ares' own temple is. Since you don't smurf any of your mind's-eye abilities, you might also be unable to deal with Ares himself. Only another Olympian god can possibly stand against Ares."
Polaris tried to think about one they could call upon to help them rescue Empath. Then it came to him. "Hermes, the god of speed. He came to choose Empath as the champion who would outrace his Hyperions and send them back into the Pandora's box. He could help us in return for what Empath did for Hermes to prevent the destruction of the world."
"Then we need to smurf his temple," the HoloSmurf suggested. "I happen to know from Hominbus' maps just where the temple of Hermes is located, so all we need is a little transportation to smurf us there." He stuck two fingers in his mouth and made such a piercing whistle that attracted the attention of a nearby stork, who then landed in the clear space near the tree.
Polaris was impressed by the vast amount of knowledge the HoloSmurf had accumulated and displayed, both from Papa Smurf's own memory and from being used outside the village by Empath and Polaris. This "artificial being" proved to be more than just a mere assistant for Papa Smurf. He became an invaluable member of this team determined to stop at nothing to bring the time-lost Smurfs back home.
Soon Polaris and the HoloSmurf found themselves in the Temple of Hermes, located somewhere in Greece. For a god, it seemed rather strange that his temple was rather Spartan in appearance, totally lacking in any extravagance whatsoever. But then, they could only reason that such a god who was always on the run, so to speak, would have little time on his hands to concern himself with adorning his temple to his personal liking.
"So how do we get Hermes' attention, now that we are here?" Polaris wondered.
The HoloSmurf noticed a red cord that hung from the rafters of his temple near the god's throne. "I guess this must be the way to smurf Hermes to appear before us," he answered. He pulled the red cord, causing a chiming sound to emanate from the temple, and then stepped back to see what would happen.
Instantly, they saw Hermes, dressed in his usual winged hat and winged sandals, appear before them in front of his throne. "Hermes, the god of speed, at your service," he announced, sounding eager to help. "What may I do for either or the both of you, since I'm a very busy god at all hours of the day?"
Both Polaris and the HoloSmurf bowed their knees before Hermes. "We besmurf your favor, O Hermes, on behalf of our friend Empath Smurf, whom we are smurfing for," the HoloSmurf responded.
"Oh, yes, I remember Empath," Hermes said. "He's the one who helped me put those Hyperions back into the box that Ares' pet demon Dissonance had let them loose from. For a mortal being of his stature, he had such incredible power that would make even the gods of Olympus jealous. What's happened to your friend that you need my assistance?"
"His 'incredible powers', unfortunately, are diminished, Hermes," Polaris answered. "His fellow Smurfs are also missing from his village, reportedly traveling through time as we speak. He and this one had set out some time ago to try finding a way to bring them back home to this time period. We were just entering this region of the world when Empath was abducted this morning, probably by the hand of another fellow god of yours by the name of Ares."
"'Fellow god of mine'," Hermes snorted with disgust. "Ares has been trouble since the day he came into being, always starting one war after another, living to see humans and all sorts of beings shedding blood with one another, never satisfied. If it weren't for some of his 'fellow gods', the world you live in would be in a much worse state than it is right now. But I wonder what Ares wants with your fellow Smurf that he would go to such lengths as to abduct him."
"The last time Empath smurfed with Ares was some years ago," the HoloSmurf replied, "when the god of war smurfed Empath a bit of his power to make him want to become his god of conquest. Of course, Empath refused his invitation when Ares wanted him to kill Papa Smurf, but it smurfs that Ares isn't interested in smurfing no as Empath's final answer. Ares might be smurfing a totally different approach to smurf Empath's attention, and given the state Empath's currently in with wanting to smurf his own life and all, he may try to smurf upon his desire to be with his fellow Smurfs again in the next life - or at least to smurf them back home."
"I see," Hermes said, rubbing his chin as he pondered. "I may be willing to help you, but my help doesn't come cheap. I am a god, you know, and I deserve my due reward to be compensated for putting my life as a god on the line to help rescue your friend from my 'fellow god' Ares. I will settle for nothing less than a few gold coins at the bare minimum."
"Then you should know that neither this one nor the HoloSmurf carry any sort of money upon us, Hermes," Polaris pointed out. "However, would you consider what Empath did for you in regards to containing the Hyperions to be sufficient compensation for your services?"
"What Empath did was a favor, and not one to be taken lightly," Hermes answered. "But that in itself will not be enough for you to call upon my services as the god of speed. Either give me a few gold coins or you can go find another god who's more willing to help you for much less, if that's possible."
The HoloSmurf sighed. "Smurfs like we're not going to smurf any help from this ingrate, if you ask me, Polaris," he commented.
"This one agrees with you, Culliford," Polaris nodded. "We might as well take our chances finding another god who would be willing to help rescue our friend from Ares. But even if we could find another, he or she may not be able to stop Empath if he ever becomes Ares' god of conquest. Even Hermes would find Empath more than a match for him to take on alone."
"What?" Hermes exclaimed, stopping Polaris and the HoloSmurf in their tracks with a booming voice. "Empath, be able to take on me, the god of speed, by becoming the god of conquest? That's ridiculous and impossible!"
"Empath in his own mortal self may have been able to smurf a stop to your speed demons, Hermes," the HoloSmurf tried to reason. "But Empath as a god of conquest may be unstoppable. In fact, smurfing for Ares, he may even smurf the Hyperions loose once again, and then who will be able to smurf them back into the box?"
"Empath wouldn't be able to go near the Pandora's box now, even if he does become a god," Hermes protested. "I have that box under lock and key, so that not even Dissonance can get near."
"Are you so sure that you'll be able to stop Empath when he acquires such powers that would rival or even be greater than yours?" Polaris asked. "You've been so used to dealing with your fellow gods and whatever demons some of them possess, but a Smurf acquiring the state and power of godhood is something you probably never had to deal with before. Who knows how such a being would upset the balance of power between yourself and your fellow gods, including Ares?"
"I already know of one who's upsetting the balance of power at this very moment," Hermes answered, sounding somewhat fearful for a god. "But all the same, I refuse to let Ares do this to your fellow Smurf in order to wreak more havoc than I can ever hope to handle. If rescuing your friend means stopping him from becoming that powerful, then by all means, you will have my help. Just jump into my carrier pouch and I will take you to where Ares is."
"This one appreciates your assistance in this matter, Hermes," Polaris responded with a respectful bow.
Hermes opened up his pouch and kneeled down to let Polaris and the HoloSmurf jump into it. Then he closed up the pouch and zoomed away at incredible speed from his temple.