Deadly Encounters

by DreamCatcher

[NOTE: This was originally written in the time period shortly after the marriage of Alcmene and Jason, and the crowning of Iphicles as the new king of Corinth.]

The two men arrived in the secluded valley very late in the evening, guided the past few miles by the light from a full moon. Though already weary from travel, they had pushed themselves these last few miles, not even stopping for a meal, so they could arrive before another day's end. When they entered the valley, it was too late to set up camp, and because their eyes were already heavy, they lay down and fell asleep almost immediately.

However, as tired as they had been the night before, both were up bright and early the next morning, as was their habit. They had awakened to a beautiful summer day. A perfect start to what they hoped would be a perfect "vacation." They had just finished back-to-back adventures. The journeys had been long and the fighting hard and they were in need of rest and time to renew their strength. Years earlier they had come across this quiet, secluded haven and this place had loomed large in their minds since they had made the decision to seek it out once more. Their plans were to fish, hunt, and just relax for several days, and so, the two busily moved about the camp setting it to right for their stay.

The first of the two men had light-brown hair that hung loosely just below his shoulders. He was taller and more muscular than his companion and was said to have the strength of ten men. He had warm blue eyes and an easy smile that lit up his face. When they said he was handsome as a god, they were half right, for this son of Zeus, was half-man and half-god. But unlike most of the gods, Hercules had a gentle and caring heart, that went out to those in need. Especially to those put upon by corrupt kings, warlords, mercenaries, and even at times the gods themselves.

His comrade had shoulder length blond hair that curled and waved loosely about his head. He had piercing blue eyes, that loved to laugh, but yet could turn to ice blue at a moment's notice. Like his friend, he had a rare and beautiful smile that easily spread across his face. Though not a god, nor even "half" like Hercules, Iolaus was easily as handsome as any god. And although smaller in stature than his friend, he was nonetheless fearless on the battlefield. He was certainly a warrior to be reckoned with, and those who underestimated him, soon learned to regret it. Like Hercules, he had a loving and caring heart. Together these two warriors were known far and wide as an unbeatable team.

A little later that morning, the golden hunter, sitting with his back against a tree, stopped working on his fishing line and looked all around him, taking in all the sights and sounds. Seeing and hearing things many others would have easily overlooked. The sky was a beautiful azure blue, with big white puffy clouds floating lazily by. The surrounding area itself was lush and green, with beautiful old stately trees standing tall and proud like sentinels, surrounding and guarding the valley. He watched the birds as they flew back and forth through the trees feeding their young and calling out to one another in song. His ears were also attuned to the sound of bees and tiny hummingbirds busily moving in and out of the multi-colored carpet of flowers that laced the perimeter, their petals wafting their perfumed fragrance throughout the air. He finally turned his gaze before him to the clear, crystal lake that sparkled and shimmered like a million little jewels dancing in the sun. Across on the far shore, the hunter could almost feel the strength of the magnificent waterfall as it cascaded down the mountainside, with a majestic beauty all its own.

A gentle breeze blew across his face and played with a few locks of the sun kissed blond hair that crowned his handsome features. For just a few moments, he leaned back, closed his eyes, and took a deep breath, letting it all wash over him like a healing balm. A smile flickered across his face. The valley had remained much as he had remembered it and he was glad of that. It had been a good decision to come.

Finally, he opened his eyes and sought out the lake and waterfall once more. Just at that moment, Hercules turned toward Iolaus and followed his gaze. He too had felt the restfulness of this place. He sauntered over and dropped down easily beside his friend. "It hasn't changed has it?"

"No. It's still as beautiful and peaceful as it was back when we first found it."

"I'm glad you suggested coming here, Iolaus. It was well worth the extra effort."

"Yeah, it was," mused Iolaus.

"You remember the last time we were here? How cool and inviting the water was?"

"I remember," Iolaus said with a far away look coming into his eyes. They sat for a few minutes, neither speaking, both lost in memories of long ago.

"So! What do you think?" Hercules finally spoke, bringing them both back to the present.

With a laugh, Iolaus, already up and in motion, yelled back over his shoulder, "I think, 'what are we waiting for'! Last one in ..." He laughed as a pile of clothing, belts and boots dropped as he headed toward the sparkling water. Laughing, Hercules was only seconds behind him.

For more than an hour they let the water heal the weariness and tensions of the past few weeks. The years seemed to slip away and they were like two small boys let loose: swimming, diving, splashing and chasing each other, and dunking each other as they had done when they were kids. As they reluctantly emerged from the water, exhausted and laughing, they dropped to the ground and laid in the sun. Both had felt they had truly recaptured a small part of their childhood, back when there were no worries, cares, or battles; back when the world with all its problems still lay far off in the future.

This place seemed to be doing wonders for them. Even after just one day they had started feeling renewed. It seemed to be the perfect hideaway. Or, so they had thought.

However, as always happened every time these two had tried to take some time for themselves, the very next morning, the call had come: "Hercules, we need you!" A villager had somehow tracked them down and had asked for their help against mercenaries raiding his village. And, of course, they had never turned down any real summons for help.

After the villager had been assured of their help and was on his way back home with the news, Hercules and Iolaus started breaking up camp. While they were gathering their things to leave, Hercules heard faint mumblings coming from over in Iolaus' direction. He stopped and turned to silently watch. Iolaus suddenly felt Hercules' gaze on him and turned toward him with a strange look on his face. Finally, Hercules could stand it no longer and laughingly asked: "What?"

"Herc, this place is completely secluded and far off the beaten path, right?"

"Right."

"And, it's obvious no one's even been here in months, right?"

"Right."

Hercules tilted his head at his friend and waited and when nothing was immediately forthcoming, he finally prompted Iolaus: "And ...?"

Iolaus shook his head. "How do people keep finding us?"

Hercules couldn't help but laugh again. He shrugged. "I don't know, Iolaus! You're suppose to be the great hunter. You tell me."

"Very funny!" Iolaus replied, with a look of exasperation on his face.

As they headed down the path that would take them out of the valley, Iolaus stopped and turned back for just a moment and let out a sigh. Hearing him, Hercules also turned back to take a final look himself. Smilingly, he clapped Iolaus on the back. "Maybe next time, my friend."

As the two reluctantly turned and continued on, Iolaus murmured. "Yeah. ... Maybe."

It was only a little over two day's travel to the village that had summoned them. It was a seemingly peaceful little village with hard working farmers, merchants, and craftsmen and their families. But the village had been plagued by a gang of mercenaries that raided them and other nearby villages almost monthly to restock their supplies. The villagers had suffered under them for months and had finally come to the end of their rope and decided to seek out the help of Hercules and Iolaus.

The mercenaries were led by a man named Bellis. He was a clever and ruthless man. Unafraid of taking bold chances. And would do anything to accomplish his goals. Hercules and Iolaus had fought against him a couple of times in the past. Each time, he had come out on the losing end, and, in the last battle, Bellis' brother had been killed. He held Hercules responsible for the death, even though someone else had done the actual killing. Bellis had sworn vengeance on him if their paths ever crossed again.

Hercules and Iolaus attempted to prepare the villagers as best they could before Bellis' next visit. They tried to hone the skills of those that already had some experience with swords and staffs. Iolaus also worked with some of the villagers to put into place some "old hunter's tricks," to give them a small advantage over Bellis' well-trained men.

A few days later, word was received from lookouts that Bellis was on his way. The day of reckoning was at hand. Now would come the true test of all their efforts. They could only hope that the villagers would stand some chance. As the mercenaries rode in, Hercules and Iolaus were visible out in front. They looked toward each other one last time. Their eyes speaking volumes that only the two could read. Smiles crossed between them.

When Bellis spotted Hercules, he angrily spurred his mount straight at him, sword in hand. Hercules stood firm, with only a fighting staff in his hands. As Bellis passed by, Hercules easily blocked the initial sword thrust. Bellis turned to make a second pass, but this time Hercules used the staff to knock him from his horse. However, Bellis was immediately on his feet. Finally, the two came face-to-face and began to fight. "I've had enough of your interference, Hercules. You and your friend have gotten in the way once too often."

"Then maybe you better find a new line of work," retorted Hercules.

As they continued to fight, Bellis could see his men being defeated at every turn. This infuriated him even more. Suddenly he saw one of his men starting to come up behind Hercules with a club and attempted to keep Hercules occupied. "You two are going to pay once and for all for this, and for my brother's death."

"You know, I've heard that all before."

"Well, this is the last time you'll hear it. First you and your blond-headed friend, and then your family in Corinth."

For just a moment, Hercules was caught off-guard by the reference to his family in Corinth, but it was all the time needed for Bellis' man to get behind Hercules undetected. Iolaus, turning to block a blow with his sword, saw the man almost too late. Hercules heard Iolaus' hurried warning, but was not able to move out of the way completely of the club in time and was hit a glancing blow to the side of the head. He dropped to his knees stunned. However, Iolaus was at Hercules' side at once and took care of Bellis and the other man before either was able to do any further harm. Hercules seemed to be a little dazed.

As Iolaus continued to fight, he shouted, "Herc? How're you doing?"

Hercules looked up towards Iolaus. "Other than seeing two of you, I'm fine."

"Good! Good! Need any help?"

"No. Just give me a few minutes."

"Fine. As long as you keep in mind there aren't two of us here," Iolaus yelled as he blocked a blow from one man's sword and then laid a side-kick to another man, sending him flying.

"I'll do my best."

Iolaus fought near Hercules until he had recovered enough to fight on his own again. Bellis, as he regained consciousness from Iolaus' blow, looked around and realized he had been out-fought once again. His ranks had dwindled greatly. He was wise enough to give the signal for his remaining men to retreat, to the excited cheers of the villagers. They had never come out on the winning side before. However, thanks to Hercules' and Iolaus' skills and the added "surprises," the villagers' injuries had been relatively minor. Remarkably, none of them had been killed.

However, Bellis, once more feeling the stinging defeat at the hands of these two, angrily yelled one last thing back to Hercules as he rode off. "Hercules! I promise you, they're all dead!"

That night the grateful villagers held a big feast, with Hercules and Iolaus as their guests of honor. They had never been able to celebrate after Bellis' past visits. Though the celebration went on late into the evening, first Hercules, and then even Iolaus shortly after, wearily turned in long before it all ended. As Iolaus crawled into his bed, there was still a faint hope in his mind that they might yet be able to return to that quiet, peaceful lake for some fishing and relaxing.

Early the next morning, Hercules and Iolaus started on their way, with the gratitude of the people still ringing in their ears. They had tried to keep the heroes longer, but the two were anxious to be back on the road. After walking just a few short miles, though, Iolaus became troubled by Hercules' continued silence. "Hercules, are you okay?"

"I'm fine. Why?"

"You've been pretty quiet since we left." Iolaus looked at Hercules closely. "I thought maybe that blow you took yesterday ...?"

Hercules shook his head. "No. No, I'm fine. I just have this uneasy feeling and I can't seem to shake it."

"Bellis?"

"Yeah."

"Well, why don't we head to Corinth, then?" suggested Iolaus.

Hercules looked up slightly surprised. At times, even after all these years, it still sometimes amazed him how Iolaus seem to know exactly what he was thinking. He smiled over at the hunter. "I don't know...," Hercules hesitated, "it's, ... it's probably nothing at all."

Iolaus put out his hand and stopped Hercules. "Herc, wait! If it's on your mind, let's do it. We don't have any definite plans," as a brief thought of the sparkling lake was pushed out of his mind. "Besides," Iolaus shrugged, "you know we haven't been back there since the wedding. It'd be great to see how the newlyweds and the new king are doing."

Hercules laughed. "Maybe you're right. It would be good to see them again. I'll bet we could even talk Jason and Iphicles into showing us a good fishing hole."

With a grin, Iolaus responded, "Now you're speaking my language. Let's go."

So they happily turned their path towards Corinth. Though they were cautious in their journey, knowing Bellis was capable of ambushing them anywhere along the way, the remainder of their trip was uneventful.

After four days they arrived at the outskirts of Corinth. As they neared the home of Alcmene and Jason, they saw smoke rising above the trees from the direction of the homestead. Hercules and Iolaus both spotted it at the same time. They looked at each other startled, and without a word, took off at a dead run towards the smoke. As they come in view and saw the sight before them, they slowed to a walk, finally stopping in front of the house. It had been almost totally destroyed by fire and embers were still smoking.

Suddenly off to the side of the house they spotted two people laying on the ground. For a moment neither Hercules nor Iolaus could move. They seemed to be frozen in place, just looking at the scene before them with unbelief. Then Iolaus looked to Hercules, as the most blood curdling cry Iolaus had ever heard was torn from Hercules' lips: "MOTHER, NO!" Hercules ran towards her, as Iolaus moved to Jason. But, Iolaus knew instinctively that both were dead, even before he turned Jason's body over. He looked over and saw Hercules holding his mother in his arms. Iolaus could see the shock and anger on his friend's face. Iolaus, too, felt a great sense of anger and sorrow building up within him. The tears came to his eyes and fell unresisting. He too had loved Alcmene, not only because she was his best friend's mother, but also because she had always loved and treated him like another son. And, of course, Jason had been just as much a friend and hero to him as he had to Hercules.

At first, Iolaus was helpless to do any more than just watch the scene before him. However, after a few minutes, he realized that the danger was not yet over. He knew they must move swiftly and that Hercules seemed to be in no condition to offer any help at present. Hercules didn't seem to even know anyone else was around. Iolaus found a shovel and something to wrap the bodies in from an out building left untouched. He took care of Jason's body first, but decided not to disturb Hercules until he had finished with the graves. Once done, he came back to Hercules. Gently he reached down and laid his hand on Hercules' shoulder. "It's time, Hercules." But Hercules never responded.

After a moment, Iolaus knelt down in front of Hercules and spoke to him softly. "I'm sorry, my friend, but we need to finish up here and leave."

But there was still no response. Hercules just continued staring blankly ahead.

With an anguished heart, Iolaus grabbed him by the shoulders and tried to force Hercules to focus on him. "Hercules, listen to me! I know this is hard on you, but Bellis' tracks lead towards Corinth. Iphicles and Rena may be in danger. Do you understand?"

Startled, Hercules suddenly looked up and focused on Iolaus for the first time. "Yes."

Unable to do it himself, Hercules let Iolaus take care of his Mother, then he helped Iolaus place the bodies into the graves. Both worked silently, lost in their own thoughts. And although reluctant to leave, both said a quick goodbye and hurriedly started their short journey into Corinth.

However, as soon as they entered the city, they realized something was wrong. Corinth seemed to be in a state of turmoil. There were people in the streets gathered in groups talking and arguing excitedly, women were sobbing, children seemed to be running wildly around unchecked by their parents, and there were troops out in mass trying to keep things peaceful.

As they moved through the city towards the palace, they both took it all in. It was obvious that something out of the ordinary had happened here. Iolaus looked over at Hercules, but saw no change from the set, blank look that he had worn as they left his Mother's and Jason's house. For Hercules' sake he hoped his intuition was wrong.

As they arrived at the palace, they were immediately taken to Tobias, who was Jason's former general and a friend and confidant. Tobias had remained on with Iphicles in the same capacity.

Tobias greeted them sadly. "Hercules! Iolaus! I can see by the look on your faces, you must already know what has happened." He turned toward Hercules. "Your brother and his wife are dead. I'm sorry."

Iolaus saw Hercules close his eyes as if trying to ward off this new assault. When Hercules did not respond, Iolaus finally answered General Tobias. "I ..., we were afraid of that once we got into the city. We were hoping we'd be in time."

General Tobias looked questioningly at Iolaus. "In time?"

Iolaus nodded. "We had a run-in a few days ago with a man named Bellis ..."

"Bellis? I've heard that name, he's a mercenary isn't he? Is he the one who did this?"

"Yes. His brother was killed about six months ago when we were helping a village he had attacked. He always blamed Hercules for the death even though he wasn't directly responsible. A few days ago we stopped him from looting another village and as he rode off he threatened Hercules' family. We thought he was just spouting off, but we came just in case." Angrily his voice trailed off. "Too late, for here, and for Alcmene and Jason!"

Tobias nodded. "Alcmene and Jason? I was afraid of that. Come, let me take you to the king and queen."

As they started down the long hallway, Tobias started to tell them what had occurred at the palace. "I was out in the city on business for King Iphicles. While I was gone, some men came asking for him. They said they had news about finding Alcmene and Jason dead at their home."

Iolaus saw Hercules' flinch at those words, as he added, "What they didn't say was that they were the ones responsible."

Tobias shook his head. "Anyhow, it caught everybody off-guard. When King Iphicles and Queen Rena came into the room, the men were able to overpower the guards that were with them and kill them all. It all happened so fast and they escaped before anyone knew what had happened. I've sent scouts out to find their tracks, but I have no men to spare at present to go after them."

They stopped in front of a set of large, heavy double doors. At Tobias' signal, two guards swung the doors open and the three entered. Over in the center of the room on a large marble pedestal were the caskets containing the bodies of Iphicles and Rena. Hercules looked down at his brother and sister-in-law, and not yet over the shock of losing his Mother and Jason, was hit by the reality of these two new deaths. Hercules felt like the ground had been knocked out from under him and he dropped onto a nearby bench. His whole body seemed to slump under the weight of these two major calamities. Iolaus hadn't been sure what to expect when Hercules would see these two new bodies, but he was even more surprised to see such a defeated look on his friend's face.

Tobias turned to Hercules. "I really am sorry, Hercules! Your brother was a good man and a fair and just king. He and the Queen will be greatly missed. As will Alcmene and Jason. They were guests here often."

But Hercules seemed to be unaware of all that was going on around him. Iolaus looked over at him and realized there was nothing that anyone could do or say right now that would help and that Hercules just needed some time alone. With a motion to General Tobias, and a touch to his friend's shoulder, they left the room.

Once again Iolaus stepped in to help however he could. He assisted Tobias in putting plans for the "state" funeral in motion. He also took some men and oversaw the exhumation of Alcmene and Jason's bodies, so they could be brought back to Corinth. Since Jason had been Corinth's former king, it was decided that he and Alcmene would be included in this final show of respect, thanks to a small suggestion offered by Iolaus. And because so many guests were to be invited in honor of the two kings, the funeral was set to take place in one week in order to get word out to everyone and give those attending time to arrive.

Tobias had rooms made ready for Hercules and Iolaus for the remainder of their stay. He also offered them an invitation to join him for dinner that night. Not unexpectedly though, Hercules did not attend. Iolaus, however, had felt a duty to go, but it had been a rather solemn time. A few of the council had joined them, but no one was in a festive mood. Dinner would normally have been a long, drawn out affair with much food, wine, conversation, and laughter. However, the conversations now were quiet and stilted, and even at times non-existent; everyone lost in their own thoughts and griefs over the senseless tragedies. Although Iolaus had tried to concentrate on what was going on around him, his mind and heart were in a room several corridors away. He talked and ate very little during the dinner, and only waited until he could be free. Tobias fortunately understood the mood of the gathering and thankfully ended the evening early. As soon as he was able, Iolaus went to check on his friend.

As he entered Hercules' room, he was not surprised to see an untouched tray still sitting on the table. He found Hercules standing out on the balcony just staring out into the vast darkness. As Iolaus joined him, Hercules turned briefly and in the light of the torch, Iolaus was alarmed by what he saw. Beyond the first outcry, when he had seen his Mother laying there on the ground, Hercules had shown almost no emotion. Only once before, when Deianeira and the children had been killed by Hera's fireball, had Iolaus seen this extraordinarily calm demeanor that he knew masked the depth of rage he now saw in his friend's eyes. Hercules was like a volcano under pressure, ready to erupt.

Iolaus knew that he, himself, had a fiery temper and blew up easily. Most of the time he acted first and worried about the consequence later, and it had gotten him into trouble more than once. But Hercules had a gentler, more patient nature. He was slower to anger. He reasoned things out more thoroughly and thought of the outcome. Iolaus knew Hercules did not like to take a life. Unfortunately at times he didn't have a choice, but he never sought out others with those intentions. Even when Hercules had taken 'the wrong path' after his family's death, and sought vengeance against Hera, he had soon realized that what he was doing was only destroying himself and was not what his family would have wanted. It was then that he went back to doing what he did best, helping those who needed him.

This time, however, there seemed to be an even deeper fury, a look that Iolaus had never seen before in Hercules. One that definitely frightened him. He knew it was not alone the present deaths, but added to it a rekindling of the senseless murders of his wife and children. But as understandable as this anger was, and despite what Hercules would do, when it was over, there would be guilt. Iolaus knew his friend well. He would liked to have seen Hercules yell, cry, put his fist through a wall, anything; anything that would release some of that pent up anger. But he also knew there was nothing he could say at this point that Hercules would even listen to. Hercules seemed to be blinded by his rage right now and he had a stubborn streak a mile long. How many times had Iolaus faced that stubbornness in the past. All he could really do right now was bide his time and make sure he was there when he was needed. So for the present, he simply informed Hercules of the plans for the funeral. Hercules only response that he'd heard anything at all was a slight nod. Without any further words, Iolaus reluctantly said goodnight and headed for his own room.

Very early the next morning, after a long, sleepless night and with a look of determination on his face, Hercules left the palace and headed out of the city. He had no intention of sitting around for several days waiting while Bellis was out there somewhere laughing. As he left the city and rounded a bend, he stopped abruptly. There, sitting on a rock alongside the road was Iolaus. At first he was startled by the sight. Then, with the guilty look of a child who had been caught doing something he knew he shouldn't, he angrily lashed out at him. "What're you doing here?"

Iolaus wryly retorted, "I might ask you the same question."

"I have some unfinished business."

"Yes, I know. And, were you planning on doing this 'business' all by yourself?"

"Iolaus, this is my ..."

"No!" Iolaus sprang up from the rock and angrily confronted Hercules. "No! It's our fight. I thought we had this thing settled back when Echidna had your Mother kidnaped."

For a few minutes the two faced off against one another, both standing firm. Then slowly the storm seemed to die out of Hercules' eyes, his face relaxed, and the anger that had almost seemed to consume him lately began to slowly slip away. A faint smile finally crossed his face for the first time since it had all begun. "I'm sorry, Iolaus, I forgot. You're right, you're family, too!"

Iolaus was relieved that the tension finally seemed to have been broken. He smilingly nodded and without any further comment they started on their way. However, after a short distance, a mischievous grin appeared on Iolaus' face. Without taking his eyes from the road ahead, he said nonchalantly. " So! What took you so long?"

Then came what Iolaus had hoped he would hear. Hercules looked over at him and started to laugh. Finally he answered, "You know, Iolaus, I think we've been together too long." He reached over and squeezed Iolaus' shoulder. The healing process had truly begun.

Bellis had hidden his tracks well. The scouts sent out by Tobias had long since given up and headed back to the palace. However, Iolaus' skills were far more honed than the palace scouts, and he was able to easily pick up the trail. As they continued on, Hercules seemed to be a little more like his old self; however, there had not been the free and easy banter that was normally a part of their trips. Hercules had remained lost in his thoughts and Iolaus knew that although most of the deep anger had abated, the hurt was still too great within Hercules and he was not yet willing to open up.

Finally after three days, Hercules and Iolaus caught up with Bellis and his band of men at their camp. They had traveled almost without rest these past days, but had come to the end of their search sooner than they had hoped. Although the sentries had been well placed, Hercules and Iolaus were able to take them out easily and enter the camp. However, both knew this was not going to be an easy fight.

A short while later it was over. And, indeed, it had been a hard fought battle, but Hercules and Iolaus had finally succeeded in stopping these mercenaries once and for all. Bellis and a few of his more hardened men had chosen to die and without any leaders, the others simply ran. The battle finally over, a weary Iolaus, with his sword and sheath in his hands, headed back to where Hercules was standing. He was exhausted; weary in spirit, as well as body, and, he knew Hercules must be also. As he approached Hercules, Iolaus knew the hardest part for his friend was still yet to come: the trip home and the funeral.

Iolaus looked up at Hercules with concern. "How're you doing?"

With a sigh, Hercules replied. "Okay. I'm just glad it's finally over with."

"Yeah. Me, too!"

Hercules looked around at the "battlefield" and a look of genuine sadness crossed his face, as Iolaus had known it would. "It all seems kind of senseless doesn't it? Revenge on top of revenge. What is there to show for it except a body count."

"Herc," Iolaus responded, "they were mercenaries. That was their way of life. You certainly weren't responsible for that."

"I know, but ..."

Iolaus interrupted, "And you weren't about to change it either. Besides, I wouldn't call it revenge. Bellis and his men chose to fight. You gave them a chance to surrender and come back to face trial." Iolaus paused for a second. "You certainly gave them more of a chance than I ever would have." Then he thoughtfully added. "More of a chance than I think even you would have a few days ago."

Hercules shook his head. "It doesn't change anything though."

"Well, I know it won't bring back your family, but at least maybe they can rest a little easier now."

Hercules wearily closed his eyes for a second. "Maybe so."

Seeing that weary look, Iolaus added, "Maybe now you can finally get some rest, too."

Hercules turned to look at Iolaus and laughingly remarked. "You know, Iolaus, you're starting to become a real worry wart."

"Well, I just thought it was my turn for a change." Iolaus looked up and saw how late it was getting. "When did you want to start back?"

Hercules looked up also. "Might as well start as soon as we take care of things here." He turned his gaze towards the road back to Corinth. "You know, Iolaus, this is going to be one of the hardest journeys I'll ever take."

Iolaus nodded sympathetically, "But you won't be alone."

Hercules felt the love and comfort that Iolaus always had a way of bringing into his life, slip around him once again. "I know."

"Herc!"

Hercules looked at him questioningly.

"So much has happened these past few days, ... one thing after another ..." Iolaus seemed to stammer. "I ... I know it hasn't been easy for you ... I, ... Well, I just wanted you to know ..." But Iolaus started to choke up, a mist came to his eyes, and he seemed to suddenly be at a loss for words.

Hercules just smiled. "I do know, Iolaus! And, I also know what you've done for me."

Iolaus turned and brushed the tears away. "I didn't do much."

Hercules looked at his friend fondly. "Yes! You did. I know it may not have seemed like it, but I did notice all the things you took on yourself to spare me these past few days. I want you to know, my friend, I never could have gotten through any of this without you." He paused. "Tobias also told me about your suggestion of including Mother and Jason in the 'state' funeral. Thanks."

With a smile, Iolaus looked back towards Hercules. "You're welcome. It was only what they deserved."

Hercules reached out and placed his hand on Iolaus' shoulder. The look that was exchanged between these two best friends was enough to show the depth of respect and love they had for one another without any further words even being spoken.

Hercules turned and gazed off into the distance once again. "My family! I've lost them all now, Iolaus." Then after a minute or so, he thoughtfully turned back to Iolaus and with a faint smile declared. "Except for you, my friend."

Iolaus opened his mouth to speak when suddenly his body jerked forward slightly. His sword and sheath slipped slowly out of his hands. With a look of surprise, then disbelief, he looked up at Hercules and started to fall toward him. Hercules, not realizing at first what had happened, quickly reached out and caught Iolaus. It was then that he saw the knife imbedded deeply in Iolaus' back.

Stunned, Hercules quickly looked up to see Bellis, a short distance away, laughing maniacally. Iolaus had stood in Hercules' line of vision and he had not been able to see a badly wounded Bellis, struggle up to his knees, and with his last bit of strength throw the knife.

Menacingly Bellis shouted, "I promised you, Hercules -- ALL of them."

But before Hercules could react, Bellis lurched forward dead, cutting short one last evil laugh.

Hercules carefully removed the knife from Iolaus' back and angrily slung it away. Why hadn't he seen it coming? Why hadn't he heard it? How many times in the past had he caught arrows, spears, knives in mid-air? How could he have missed this one?

With Iolaus in his arms, he slowly slipped down to the ground. A terrifying fear started rising up in his throat that almost seemed to choke him as he cried out. "Iolaus!?"

There was a faint flickering and Iolaus' eyes slowly opened and looked up at Hercules. The blue eyes that had always been so expressive, so full of life, were now full of pain.

Despite the rising panic, Hercules looked around swiftly, his mind racing. His first thought was for Iolaus' wound. He needed to find Bellis' medical supplies. He had to stop the bleeding immediately. "Hold on, Iolaus. I'll be right back. I'll find something to take care of ..."

But Iolaus knew time was short. He weakly reached out his hand towards Hercules. "No, wait! ... Don't ... don't leave ..."

"Iolaus ..."

"Please!"

As he gently craddled Iolaus in his arm, Hercules reached out and caught a hold of Iolaus' hand. Iolaus struggled to speak, but a spasm of pain prevented him from getting the words out. As he agonizingly watched, Hercules squeezed Iolaus' hand tighter, as if by doing this he could transfer all his strength to Iolaus to keep him alive. "Easy! Don't try to talk. It'll be alright."

But Iolaus seemed to be weakening rapidly. He knew that he too would soon leave Hercules. He struggled once more to speak and in spite of his own pain, his eyes and voice were filled with concern for Hercules. "I'm sorry, Herc! ..."

Hercules angrily cried out. "Don't do this, Iolaus! ... Don't you die on me! ... Do you hear me?" Then pleadingly, "Please, ... I can't lose you, too!"

Iolaus closed his eyes for a moment, as if summoning up all his remaining strength. As he opened them again, an ethereal look seemed to come over him. With his last breath, his voice barely audible, he whispered, "I'll miss you ... Be safe, ... my friend."

With one final glorious golden smile, the blue eyes closed and Iolaus' body went limp in Hercules' arm, and his hand, still gripping Hercules' hand, released its hold.

"Iolaus?! Iolaus, no!"

After a few seconds, Hercules gently laid Iolaus' hand back across his chest and softly whispered, "I'll miss you, too, my friend."

Besides his Mother's death, this death of Iolaus was the hardest for him to accept. Iolaus had always been like a brother to him, more so than Iphicles. He had loved his brother, but until their recent healing of "old wounds," Iphicles' constant jealousy throughout their lives had prevented them from being close. But Hercules and Iolaus had been best friends since they were kids, and although Iolaus had also at times felt left in Hercules' "shadow," it had never been a permanent hindrance to their friendship. These two would have gladly, and without hesitation, given their lives for one another. It was a deep, loving bond that had been forged by working and fighting side-by-side, and sharing numerous adventures, dangers, joys, and sorrows over the years. And, as Iolaus had recently proven, he had always been there at any sign of trouble, always willing to put his life on the line. This time he had, and he had lost.

Hercules' mind drifted back to the time right after Hera had killed his family, when he had gone out seeking revenge. He had finally ended up in Ister and had defeated the She-Demon, but not before Iolaus had tried to help him by taking his place and had nearly died there. They had parted company on the road later: Iolaus to head back home, and Hercules to head down an unknown path. But it had been a very lonely path; more so than he had ever imagined.

Not too long after, Hercules had made a trip home and had seen Iolaus in the marketplace while trying to sell his Mother's grain. Later, after he had helped free Oi-Lan and Cyrus from the slave traders, he had been able to return and spend a few days with Iolaus before starting off again.

It wasn't long after that that that Iolaus, tired of his present life and missing Hercules, and, craving the excitement and adventures he had previously shared with him, began traveling with his best friend again. And Iolaus' presence had helped to fill the empty void left by the senseless deaths of Hercules' wife and children. But Iolaus had done much more. He had brought back the joy, the laughter and a sense of purpose into Hercules' life, that Hercules had never thought he would feel again.

Hercules looked down once again at the lifeless body of his friend and a feeling of total desolation and agony poured over him. The loss was overwhelming. Iolaus had always been there for him and had pulled him through so much of the pain in his life. Even the most recent deaths. But now who would help him bear this final loss?

People had said that together these two had seemed invincible and for all these years it had seemed true. But now here was that life gone, too. "All of them," Bellis had said. And, he had accomplished it.

Even with this last painful tragedy weighing heavily on his heart, the irony of the situation was not lost to Hercules. He knew that except for his own death, Bellis has done in a few short days what Hera had been trying for years to do: to break him. To take every bit of joy he had on earth from him, as his Mother had once told him Hera would try to do. Now it had ultimately happened and it hadn't even been Hera. Although if she was aware of what had taken place, she was probably overjoyed. For, indeed, Iolaus' death was the final straw; it had completely taken everything out of him. A future devoid of all that he dearly loved and all those that loved him spread out endlessly before him. He didn't feel he had the strength to make it through the pain this time. Did he even want to?

Finally, all his emotions, pent up for so long and held inside by shear will power, could be restrained no longer. He pulled Iolaus close to him and began rocking him back and forth, his whole body becoming convulsed with great heart-wrenching sobs and the tears at last started to fall without restraint. "Iolaus, how could you leave me," he cried out. "Back-to-back. We promised." With tears blinding his eyes and like a wounded animal, he raised up his head and loudly screamed out: "NOOOOOooooo!" The silence of the surrounding meadow was shattered by the echoes of his piercing cry, as it reverberated throughout the countryside.

All of a sudden, Hercules heard his name being called. He opened his eyes and blinked, trying to clear his blurred vision. As it cleared, he slowly focused in on an anxious face hovering over him. "Herc, are you alright?"

Hercules just stared, open-mouthed. He tried blinking again and passed a hand over his eyes, but the vision of Iolaus did not disappear as he was afraid it would.

Iolaus laughed. "You know you just about broke my eardrums, and you probably scared about half the village."

"Village?" Hercules reached up and grabbed a hold of Iolaus' arm, still not trusting his eyes. But the arm was solid. Iolaus was not a ghost. He said almost unbelievingly in a half-statement, half-question, "Iolaus, you're ... here ... you're really here!?"

Iolaus looked at him quizzically. "Of course, I'm here. Where else would I be?" He paused. "You know, you really had me worried. You've been out for several hours."

Hercules continued staring at Iolaus, afraid to take his eyes off him, as if he might yet disappear. "Out?"

"You took a blow to the head and went down pretty hard. I was really beginning to worry whether you were ever going to come out of it."

Hercules continued to hold Iolaus' arm securely. Then for the first time, Hercules looked around and realized he was back in the room where he and Iolaus had been staying in the village. He closed his eyes for a few seconds to try and clear his mind.

Iolaus looked at him anxiously again. "Herc, are you sure you're okay?"

Hercules opened his eyes again and focused on Iolaus' concerned expression. "Yeah! Except for being a little dizzy, I'm fine." Then, remembering the threats Bellis had made, Hercules jerked up. Iolaus caught him by the shoulders. "Whoa! Where are you going?"

Struggling against Iolaus and the dizziness, Hercules, was almost in a panic. "Bellis! We've got to stop him before he gets to Corinth and kills my family ..."

"Take it easy, Herc. It's alright. Bellis isn't going to be going after anyone anymore."

Hercules stopped resisting Iolaus and slowly laid back down. "He's ... he's dead?"

Iolaus nodded. "He didn't give me any choice. The remainder of his men just disbanded after he died. Sort of like rats deserting a sinking ship. We were lucky. No one in the village was hurt too badly. It turned out better then we could have hoped for."

Hercules breathed a sigh of relief. Then as a new thought dawned on him, Hercules grabbed a hold of Iolaus' arm once more. "Iolaus, you're sure ... you're really sure Bellis is dead?" Iolaus' death had been all too real to him. He had thought Bellis was dead then also. Dream or no dream, he didn't want to go through something like that ever again.

Realizing the intensity of the fear in his friend's voice and face, Iolaus smilingly tried to reassure Hercules. "It's alright, Herc, I promise. He's dead and buried." Iolaus watched as the fear finally faded from Hercules' eyes.

Curious, Iolaus asked, "Does this have anything to do with the dream you seemed to be having while you were out?"

"Dream? Nightmare was more like it."

"Well, just stay put and rest for awhile, my friend. You can tell me about it later."

Hercules finally relaxed and closed his eyes and with the imminent danger over, he gratefully fell into a peaceful sleep, still clinging to Iolaus' arm.

A few days later, Hercules seemed to be good as new, his godly blood having healed him rapidly. The two soon left the village, grateful to be back on the road together once more. By mutual consent they started their journey back to the secluded valley once again. They would make their way to Corinth in the near future, but for right now, the thoughts of the sparkling lake, the waterfall, and the fishing beckoned them. This time they would cover their tracks. Iolaus wanted no more surprise visitors.

Two sets of eyes lit up with a smile as they entered the winding path that led back to their former camp.

~~ finis ~~



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