by Ishtar

Hercules was walking along the country road, as it wound itself through the fields and woods, the midday sun spreading brightness and warmth, and the smell of blossoming wild flowers wafting through the air.

He smiled to himself as he headed towards a small town east of Ithaca. He was really looking forward to these next two days, when he and Iolaus would go fishing at one of Iolaus' secret places with the best fishing in all of Greece. Hercules gave a short laugh. Even taking away a bit for his friend's tendency to embellish and exaggerate, it sounded like the perfect place to spend a few days in relaxation and quietude. The last few months had been busy, and filled with negotiations between warlords and farmers, and fights, when the talks broke down. People were becoming more desperate these days, and even regular citizens began to take to the roads, after losing all their possessions to over taxation by a tyrant, or to being robbed once too often by one of the many bands roaming the countryside.

Iolaus was right, he needed to take a break from it all, even if only for a couple of days, and fishing would be just the right thing to do. He looked forward to getting a chance to just talk to Iolaus, without the need to fight for his life at the same time, and without one woman or another snatching his friend's attention away from coherent thought. Hercules laughed to himself thinking how Iolaus always seemed to get himself entangled in love affairs with different women all over the place, and it was a small miracle that angry husbands and fathers were not after his amorous friend all the time.

With a start Hercules noticed that from either side of the road two fighters had stepped into his path. They had their weapons in hand, and did not look at all friendly. He sighed in exasperation; why did people always provoke a fight, when they met him - couldn't they just start a conversation, or at the very least leave him alone? He slowed down his pace, but kept advancing towards the two warriors, when out of the corner of his eye he saw four more approach from either side. He had the feeling that there probably were at least two more behind him by now, but did not bother to look around. Any hasty movement on his part might entice them to charge him, and he needed some time to formulate a plan of defense. Hercules wished that Iolaus was here with him - situations like these were so much easier to handle with his long time friend and comrade at arms beside him, but Iolaus was waiting for him at an inn several miles further on. Maybe Hercules could engage these fighters in a conversation, and stall for some time, so he could position himself without having to fear someone attacking him from behind.

He stopped his progress, and slowly looked all around him. "Hi there - how is it going?" There was no answer, and the circle of men kept advancing, and began to close in on Hercules.

Iolaus sat at the table, and morosely looked into his stew. The tavern had filled up considerably over the last two hours, but the busy comings and goings of the customers, and the laughing of the serving wenches had lost their appeal a long time ago. He briefly surveyed the surrounding bustle, and then went back to poking his food with a spoon. Hercules usually was very punctual when they met somewhere, but for the last few times, Iolaus had to wait for him, and he did not particularly like it. Especially this time, when they had planned to go fishing together, and only had a couple of days before heading out again to help a friend in Thebes. Iolaus had never been known for his patience, but when waiting cut into his recreational time of hunting or fishing, he really got upset. Then again, he also knew that there usually was a very good reason for Hercules to be late. The last time he had helped a farmer to get his cart out of a ditch, and back on the road, after fixing its broken wheel. And of course there was always the possibility that something had happened to him. Now Iolaus' annoyance at having to wait turned into genuine worry for his friend. With finality he pushed the bowl of food away from him, and got up to have another look outside. When he had almost reached the door, it was suddenly thrown open, and a man who looked rather like a farmer rushed in, out of breath and with a haunted look in his eyes. He quickly gazed around the room, and then fixed his sight on Iolaus, sizing him up from head to foot. "Are you Hercules' friend?"

The man looked beaten and bruised, and Iolaus was instantly on the alert, his negative thoughts from before suddenly more than just a bad feeling.

"Yes, I am Iolaus." The other man extended his hand in greeting, and tried to steady his breathing, "My name is Taddeos, and my home is a village three hours east of here. We were attacked by a large number of bandits, and if it hadn't been for Hercules joining our fight against them when he did, we would all be dead by now." Here he stopped to catch his breath, and Iolaus looked past him, searching for Hercules. When he still could not see him anywhere, he anxiously turned back to Taddeos, "So, where is he? Why did he send you? What happened? Why are you not answering? Talk to me!" Without conscious thought, Iolaus had begun to shake the other man by the shoulders, as if that might speed up his reply. With a tremendous effort Taddeos pulled himself away from Iolaus, and held up his hands protectively in front of his chest. "I was getting to this - Hercules helped our village defeat the bandits, but a stray arrow hit him in the back. It would have killed any lesser man, but I guess the stories are true that Hercules is the son of Zeus..." Here he trailed off, and thoughtfully nodded to himself.

Iolaus gasped, and froze, staring at the other man. An icy hand seemed to have grasped his heart; the fears that had crept into his thoughts while he had been waiting for Hercules, seemed too close to the truth all of a sudden, "What did you say? An arrow... in the back? How...who...we have to go right away! How is he doing? Show me the way! Come on!" In his mind he saw visions of Hercules dying, surrounded by strangers, killed by a cowardly attack, when he should have been there guarding his friend's back, and fighting by his side. Iolaus was halfway out the door, then remembered that he had left his pack in the room, came back in, running to get his stuff, and ran back out, past Taddeos, who tried to keep track of the figure whizzing by him, going back and forth. The farmer seemed rooted to his spot, until Iolaus came in once more, to grab his shirt, pulling him out the door, "Come on, hurry up. I need you to show me the way. Is there a healer in your village? Is somebody looking after Hercules? Why don't you talk to me?"

Taddeos tried to keep up with this strange little man, pointing in the opposite direction, "Trebea is that way - and yes, there is an old woman who knows herbs and potions; she is looking after him. Calm down, he is not going to die - at least I don't think so. He would be dead already. He asked me to get you, is all..."

Iolaus changed directions, pulling the other man along with him. "You go ahead then, and show me the way." Here he gave him a push in the indicated direction, his patience wearing thin with his worry about Hercules. "And tell me again, exactly, what happened."

The two of them walked quickly along the dusty road, the sun at their backs. Taddeos had explained what happened in more detail, but none of it had helped to ease Iolaus' mind. All he could think of was that he had to get to Trebea as soon as possible, and then everything would be all right. He was not at all sure about what exactly he could do for Hercules, not being a healer himself, but Iolaus' eternal optimism always had him convinced that if he was there, he would be able to do something. At least the bandits seemed to have been defeated; apparently Hercules had been hurt right at the end of the attack, as a last desperate attempt by the invaders to take over the village.

They hurried along, and Iolaus was haunted by darker visions. Guilty thoughts made themselves known, of how he had waited for Hercules, and scolded him for being late for their fishing weekend, while in the meantime his friend was hurt in a fight they both should have been involved in. Finally, a sadistic voice inside him began to ask over and over, 'what if he dies? What will you do?' He was so engulfed in his dreary thoughts that he never noticed Taddeos' tendency to anxiously look back at frequent intervals, a fearful expression on his face, then speed up their progress through the countryside.

The following day, close to noon, Hercules entered the tavern, and immediately began to look around for Iolaus. He felt bad about arriving late, especially since he knew that Iolaus did not appreciate having to wait for him, if he could be out fishing already. The episode on the road which had caused his delay, seemed like a valid reason, but it would also mean that Iolaus might be upset about having missed a good fight. Here, Hercules laughed softly; Iolaus was always after a good fight - it was something he enjoyed as a form of entertainment and relaxation, as he always said.

Actually, the whole attack on the road did not make any sense at all, and he would like to run it by his friend, and ask his opinion about it. The warriors who waylaid him, had not looked like robbers at all; they were well equipped, clean, looking in good health, and mostly, there were too many of them to bother with just one lone traveler. They also seemed not intent on killing him; they had come at him two at a time, and retreated right after striking, coordinating their efforts in a well-organized manner. It was almost like a cat-and-mouse game, and as if they tried to delay him, rather than hurt him. It had taken him a very long time to dispatch them, and, he had to admit, had tired him out enough so he ended up taking a break by the side of the road, only to awake early this morning. He could not believe that he had just fallen asleep, especially with a band of soldiers who had attacked him, still in the area. But it only went to show how much he really needed the rest. Now to just find a way to explain to Iolaus...

Though the tavern did not seem to be overly busy, he could not see Iolaus' blond head of hair anywhere in the room. This was strange, because Iolaus had been the one who had pushed for meeting in this place, being supposedly close to one of the best rivers for trout fishing in the southern province. Hercules hoped that his friend had not lost his patience altogether, and went fishing without him.

Hercules let his eyes sweep across the room once more, and then sauntered over to the bar. He signaled the innkeeper, and asked with a smile, as soon as the old man had walked over, "Excuse me, but I'm looking for a friend of mine, and was wondering whether he has been here already. His name is Iolaus?" The other man just looked at him doubtfully, "Are you Hercules, then? If you are, you are too late. Your friend was here earlier - yesterday, as a matter of fact - kept asking me every few minutes whether you had come in yet - but then he left with that other guy. I guess he was tired of waiting..."

Hercules looked surprised, and again gave the room a quick glance, as if he might have missed Iolaus after all. "Are you sure?" Looking back at the bartender, he saw a rather stern expression on the other man's face, and shrugged apologetically, "Of course you are, I'm sorry. Would you have any idea where they might have gone?" The old man softened his demeanor again, and came a bit closer, "Would you like a drink?" Then he seemed to consider something, "Wait a minute, if you are Hercules, why are you here anyway? Should you not be..."

He gave a quick glance around Hercules' shoulder, and seemed to study his back. "Mmmh, no arrow, no blood." he pulled back a bit, and doubtfully looked up into Hercules' face, "Are you sure you are Hercules?"

Hercules smiled patiently, now somewhat confused, and put a hand on the bartender's shoulder, "People ask me that all the time, but yes, I am very sure. Now, what was that about an arrow and blood. And where did my friend disappear to - and why?"

A shrewdness came back to the older man's eyes, and he pulled up a chair for Hercules, "It's a longer story, and I think you should have a drink - and actually, my throat is very dry, too..."

Hercules sighed, and ordered two mugs of ale, giving his full attention to what the bartender had to say.

The old man related in great detail and with considerable skill, how Iolaus had come in early in the day, then had waited for several hours. He had been very enthusiastic in the beginning, gathering a crowd of patrons around him who all listened attentively to his spinning of tales of adventure and mystery. He had flirted with every woman in sight, and arm wrestled with the best of them. But after a while he had become restless, and kept going outside more frequently, looking for Hercules. By the time the stranger had entered the tavern, Iolaus had been so on edge in his impatience, that he would have jumped at anybody who looked at him strangely.

"And then, when the stranger mentioned that you were injured in a fight, your friend just stormed out of here. Not that I was intentionally listening in, mind you, but if one has to walk by to serve customers - sometimes things are overheard - by accident, of course." The old man shrugged with an apologetic smile, and refilled their mugs.

Absentmindedly, Hercules put down a few more coins, and looked towards the door, "This stranger - any idea where he came from?"

The bartender considered the question, "Mmmh, I'm not sure, but he looked like he had been running for a while, and there are only two villages relatively close to here. Trebea is to the east, and Kinos is to the Northeast, so I guess he would have had to come from either of those two places."

With finality, Hercules got up, and headed for the door. Just before he went to open it, he turned around once more, and nodded to the barman with a friendly smile, "Thank you for all your help. Should Iolaus show up here again, please tell him that I am all right, and will come back here." He did not really think that this would happen, and was very worried about his friend; this whole situation smelled very much of a trap, and he only hoped that Iolaus was all right.

Hercules was eternally hopeful, but had a bad feeling about why someone would go through this elaborate set-up just to get to Iolaus. There was only one thing to do, follow and find out. Hercules had really hoped for a few days of relaxation, and being away from the bustle of life-and-death situations, but apparently that would have to stay wishful thinking again.

Iolaus instantly knew that something was wrong. The village was too quiet, the houses and shacks looked abandoned, and the busy activities of normal village life were absent. There was supposed to have been a violent battle here not too long ago, but Iolaus had been in battles before, and there was a typical smell and atmosphere that went along with the aftermath of any skirmish involving large numbers of people, and he could not get any sense of it here. His companion seemed wrapped up in his own thoughts, and a feeling of foreboding overcame Iolaus, that he could not shake, and that even increased as they neared the central building. Taddeos turned his head slightly, looking back at Iolaus, and then pointed towards the house in front of them, "We brought him in here - I hope he is all right."

He stepped to the side to let Iolaus pass. An alarm bell went off in Iolaus' subconscious mind, but by now he was too worried about Hercules, and chose to ignore it. He opened the door, and was greeted by a gloomy twilight, too dark to make out details in the room. Just as he was about to turn back to Taddeos, to ask him to go in first, and show the way, the other man softly whispered, "I am sorry," and shoved Iolaus from behind, catching him off balance, and forcing him to take a step inside the building. Where there should have been a floor, there was nothing.

While he was falling, Iolaus had time enough to curse the fact that he had not followed his instincts which had warned him of exactly this kind of situation. He was just about to formulate a plan how to deal with his landing, when he hit a packed dirt floor rather harder than he would have liked. His arms outstretched protectively to cushion the impact, his face nevertheless made contact with the ground. Only years of experience in falling and tumbling prevented serious injuries, but even so Iolaus was temporarily stunned. The one thought that managed to come through the haze of his mind though was that whoever had laid the trap for him, was probably down here, getting ready to finish him off. Whoever it was, had been down here for a while, and was a lot more accustomed to the darkness than Iolaus, whose eyes were still full of the brightness of the afternoon sun. He knew he had to act fast, if he was to have a chance at all to get out of this situation alive, so against the protests of his body, he gathered all the energy he could, and projected himself sideways, rolling along the floor.

He could sense movement around him, and heard the crash of something hitting the spot he just vacated, just before encountering someone's legs. His momentum carried him through, and he could hear the angry yelp of whomever he had just bowled over.

He carried on rolling for a few more feet, and then, ignoring the complaints of his bruised body, jumped to a crouched position. Iolaus could sense people all around him, and placing both hands on the ground, he kicked his feet up and around, connecting with various body parts of his attackers. Tracing the moans and grunts around him to their source, he hit and kicked whatever he could reach, creating as much pain and confusion as possible. Within minutes his eyes began to get accustomed to the darkness around him, and he managed to make out vague shapes of men writhing on the ground, and of others surrounding him again.

Iolaus was just thinking that this was going a lot better than expected, and he might actually make it out of here alive, when something hit him from behind. As the sound of splintering wood reached his ears, he knew the pain would be only moments behind, and when it hit, Iolaus sank to the floor out cold, with pieces of a broken chair all around him.

He came to when cold water hit his face. He found himself upright on his knees, being held by two sets of hands, who had him grabbed from behind, and were pulling his arms back and together, as if they wanted to tear them out of their sockets. He could hear the groaning of some of the injured men in the dark, and that made the pain in his own head and right shoulder more bearable. The sound of steel striking flint could be heard, and sparks started to fly somewhere ahead of him, and the smell of burning oil began to fill the air. Iolaus squinted in the increasing brightness of two oil lamps, and tried to judge how many men were still standing around him. Any thought of escape though was stifled by an increase of weight on his back, and someone jerking his arms back even more.

Iolaus groaned in pain, and from beyond the light a rough voice uttered a snarling laugh, and with an almost hissing lisp, barked a command, "Bring him closer, and make sure he can't kick you - we don't want to have to kill him - yet." Here the laughter took on almost hysterical overtones, and with a start Iolaus realized that he had heard that voice before. He stiffened, and it was as if an icy hand touched his spine.

"I see you recognize me - I feel honored," the disembodied voice snarled sarcastically, and moved into the shine of the lantern. The man's face was a mess, and almost beyond what would be considered human. Where his left eye should have been, only an empty socket stared back at Iolaus, and the whole left side of his face was divided by an angry red scar that ran from the hairline down to the neck area. Part of his upper lip was missing, and the left side of his mouth was pulled into a permanent sneer, exposing what was left of the upper teeth. His hair was long and shaggy, and had turned pure white around the edges of the scar. The one eye left to him, focused on Iolaus, burning with a mad intensity. The man had a long dagger in his right hand, and he moved it close to Iolaus' face, slowly waving it back and forth, letting the glint of the lamp light reflect off the blade.

"It's been five years - since you left me for dead at the battle of Maskal. It took me six months just to be able to speak in such a way that people could understand me, and even now mothers will hide their children when I show my face during the day. No woman comes close to me, and I can't tell you how difficult it is to see well, when one of your eyes is missing. But the one thing that kept me going all this time was that eventually I would have you right here in front of me. And it was so much easier than I thought it would be. Haha - all it took was to tell you some sob story, and you came running - like I knew you would. Now, we'll sit back and wait for Hercules to arrive here - I sent him a message already - and then you get to ask him this little favor - for me..."

"Never!" Iolaus spat the word, and his eyes narrowed with contempt, though his mind was racing. Kandros was the last person he would ever have expected to trap him like this; mainly because he had thought the warrior was dead. He had always been bloodthirsty, but now he seemed to be crazy as well, and Iolaus knew that he was in very big trouble.

The other man threw his head back, and laughed out loud and evilly, "We'll see about that! There's always a way..." He came closer, and with a quick movement snatched the medallion that hung from a string around Iolaus' neck, looking at it appreciatively once he held it in his hand. He then signaled one of his men with a movement of his head, and Iolaus never knew what hit him from behind, as he lost consciousness again.

Determinedly, Hercules opened the door. Someone had given Iolaus false information, and had gone through considerable trouble to keep himself from arriving at the inn in time. Hercules had to find out why, before he got too deep into a situation that already looked very bad. When he had left the tavern, a man who had been leaning casually against the shadowy wall of the building, almost noiselessly detached himself from his position, and walked over to Hercules, softly whistling a merry tune. Hercules stopped in his tracks and braced himself for another attack, but the stranger just circled around him, his head cocked sideways, his left hand playing with something that was dangling from a leather thong.


The voice was soft and slightly mocking in nature, as it said the name more as a statement than a question. Hercules did not have time to think too much about it at the moment. His eyes were drawn to the item the other man was playing with. It was a piece of obsidian in the shape of a serpent; an amulet Iolaus had been wearing for as long as they had known each other.

Hercules managed not to stare at the medallion while inwardly trying to stay calm, and not attack the man in front of him, choking the life out of him for what he must have done to Iolaus to get the amulet. "Yes, I am Hercules, and you are?" His fists were clenched, but his voice was unwavering.

A sarcastic smile danced across the other man's face, and disappeared just as fast, "My name isn't important. I have a message for you - from an old friend. He would really like to see you again, and - he also has a proposal for you."

Hercules now faced the other man fully, and taking in every detail about him, waited for the message, and at the same time tried not to shake the information out of him. The envoy seemed completely calm and relaxed, as if he did not know how close he was coming to die at Hercules' hands. No, Hercules reminded himself, the other man knew full well that he was safe, because he was aware that Hercules had seen Iolaus' amulet, and would never compromise his friend's safety by hurting the one man who knew where Iolaus was.

"Well - you seem to have the advantage over me. So, tell me what you need to tell me," Hercules braced himself for what might be forthcoming, and tried to breathe evenly, avoiding visions of Iolaus dying at the hand of some "old friend."

"Kandros the Levantine sent me. - Ah, I see you remember the name. He would be so pleased... In any case, he would like you to drop by whenever you get the chance, so he can chat with you for a while. Actually, he would like you to drop by as soon as possible, since a mutual friend of yours - Iolaus, was it? - is visiting right now, and he might have an accident, if you take too long; Kandros' residence is old and not too safe anymore...." The man smiled again, though Hercules had no idea why - his own facial muscles were as tight as they would go, and beginning to hurt.

Hercules' thoughts were racing, but the one thing that kept repeating over and over in his head was that Iolaus was in the hands of a madman. His voice was no more than a whisper, "Where?"

The other man laughed again, and the sound was grating at Hercules' nerves. "Kandros has a lovely place at an abandoned keep a few hours north of here. Just follow the main path towards Kinos, until you come to a fork in the road. The right fork, the one that looks unused, is the one that will bring you to the ruin of a stronghold. It's pretty well destroyed above ground, but has an elaborate underground dungeon system, that is in very good shape. That is where Kandros and his men make their home. He is expecting you, so don't disappoint him." With a flip of his hand he tossed Iolaus' amulet towards Hercules, "Here, you may have this. For the rest of your friend, you will have to trade a little something to Kandros."

"Trade what?" Hercules felt a strange calmness come over him. He was about to find out what this was all about, why Kandros had gone through this elaborate set-up to get Iolaus into his hands, and to have Hercules right here, ready to do anything to save his friend's life.

The other man briefly closed his eyes, as he sucked in a breath through his teeth. "Ah, I think Kandros really wants to tell you himself. Needless to say it is not a trifle he is asking of you - but then again, he does have something important to offer in trade, doesn't he?" There was that awful laugh again, and Hercules only managed to restrain himself by sheer power of will. He grasped Iolaus' amulet tightly, and turned towards the road going north. As he started walking along it, not really seeing the path in front of him, or the fields and trees around him, he only had thoughts for Iolaus, and for the ominous trade that Kandros would propose to him. When he became aware again of his surroundings, he noticed that he had already put some distance between himself and the inn, without any idea how he had got here. When he turned around, there was no sign of Kandros' messenger, and for a moment Hercules stood, considering his limited options.

When Iolaus came to, he found himself in a low-ceilinged cell, his hands shackled to the wall, and with a splitting headache, that prevented for the moment any thoughts regarding where he was, and what had happened. He closed his eyes, and breathed deeply until the waves of pain began to subside. After a while he managed to focus on what was around him, rather than what went on inside, and he surveyed his place of confinement. This couldn't possibly be the same building anymore, he had entered - well fallen into - some indeterminate time ago. The cell was small, the floor covered with dirty straw, and Iolaus almost gagged from the stench that hung in the air. A deep gouge ran through the centre of the floor, as if something heavy had been dragged back and forth across it. A low wooden door, reinforced by strips of iron, was set in the middle of one wall, opposite to where Iolaus found himself tied to two iron rings, about four feet off the ground. In the door was a barred slot that allowed someone from the outside to look in, and check up on any prisoners. The walls were made of roughly hewn blocks of stone, and they showed various discoloration, as if a gigantic fire brand had scorched the insides of the cell. In one corner water was running down the wall in a steady drip, and the wetness reflected in an eerie sheen in the dim brightness around him.

There was sound coming in from the outside, but it seemed muted, except the occasional scream, that proved to Iolaus that he was not the only one kept in this dungeon. He then remembered his recent encounter with Kandros, and with this a flood of older memories came over him. The thought of the things this ruthless and vicious warlord had done in the past almost made him sick to his stomach, and the fact that he actually was still around to continue on with his miserable life, brought a sound of helpless rage to Iolaus' lips. In a futile attempt to free himself, he yanked at the shackles that held him to the walls, but only succeeded in chafing the skin along his wrists, and sending shockwaves of pain through the bones of his arms and hands.

He wished Hercules were here - his strong friend might have been capable of just pulling the shackles free of the wall, or breaking the chains outright. The thoughts of Hercules reminded him that he still did not know what had happened to him, now that the message of his friend's injury had turned out to be a trap, and again, angrily, yet in vain, Iolaus rattled on the chains that tied him to the wall, to maybe find a weakness in the stone itself. More screaming could be heard from somewhere outside, and Iolaus began to consider that there might be more at stake here than just his life.

With a sudden flash Taddeos' behavior replayed itself in Iolaus' mind. He had been a farmer, Iolaus was certain of that, and not a henchman to some sadistic warlord. So, why had he helped to lure Iolaus into the trap laid by Kandros? Obviously, because Kandros had something or somebody in his hands to pressure Taddeos into doing his bidding. Thinking back to their trip out to the village, Iolaus now also recalled the other man's constant checking back, and anxious uneasiness; they must have been followed the whole time, weapons in the bushes keeping Taddeos in line. Iolaus groaned to himself, and cursed his inattentive stumbling into the trap with wide open eyes. This should not have happened to him, and he felt like thumping his head against a wall for still letting it occur.

A noise by the door interrupted his indulgence in past events, and brought him quickly back to his present predicament. The door opened, and a gigantic muscle packed man entered. He had to bend down to get inside, and as he did, an eerie light from behind reflected off his back that glistened with sweat. He wore a black leather mask over his face, and a leather tunic, studded with silver. In his hands he held a whip, and a few dangerous looking tools. Behind him two guards groaned and labored to push a cast iron brazier of considerable size into the cell. It was the source of the light that had shone behind the giant, and seemed very heavy. They had a hard time moving it along , though its stand seemed to fit exactly into the groove that ran along the floor. The noise it made grating along the ground, tore at Iolaus' nerves, but he was sure that was one of his lesser problems at the moment.

With the door open, he got a glimpse of a hallway, barely lit by flickering torch light, and he had a more real sense of the presence of other prisoners close by. He could hear crying and pleading, and now was sure that there were similar cells to this one all around, presumably filled with the inhabitants of Trebea, and maybe other villages in the area as well.

The brazier was moved right up to where Iolaus was shackled to the wall, and he could feel an uncomfortable heat rising off the red glowing coals. Sweat began to pour down his face and chest, and he tried to push himself into the cool wall behind him. The two guards positioned themselves on either side of the door, and pushed it shut. The masked giant moved closer, slowly placing the tools he was carrying in the fire.

Iolaus had a pretty good idea what was about to happen, and made another desperate attempt to free his hands from the iron confines of the shackles, hoping against hope that the wall's mortar had somehow weakened over the last few minutes. He tried to avoid looking at the pliers and awls in the brazier that were taking on a glowing sheen as they heated up. The guards watched with sneers on their faces, while the giant stood unmoving, regarding Iolaus with detached professionalism. On his right hand he wore a gauntlet made from thick leather, allowing him to hold the hot tools, and at this moment, he picked one of them out of the fire, and moved closer to Iolaus.

Iolaus grabbed the chains that tied him with his hands, to give him something to brace against, and using the wall as a kick-off point, he jumped to ram both of his heels into the giant's stomach. Excruciating pain shot through his wrists, but he ignored that, and moved away from the wall as far as his chains allowed. The masked man staggered backwards, but did not go down, and did not even lose the red-glowing torture instrument he held in his hand. He made absolutely no sound. The two guards though seemed to have hoped for a situation like this, because they laughed evilly, and stepped further into the room.

Iolaus felt the heat of the brazier uncomfortably close to his left side, and being at the end of the chains, effectively made it impossible for him to use his hands. With his legs though he managed to keep the guards away from him for the time being, but he also knew that they were at a standstill, and his overall situation really had not improved.

Seemingly out of nowhere, the masked giant produced two small brass balls connected by a tough, thin linked chain. Slowly, and deliberately he began to swing the balls around his head, holding the middle part of the chain. A soft whirring sound could be heard as the balls started to turn faster and faster, above the head of the big man. Iolaus had a very bad feeling about this, but by the time he was looking for a place to take cover from what a sudden insight told him, would be a dangerous projectile, the silent torturer had let go his weapon. With a metallic chink the chain wrapped itself around Iolaus' ankles, the force knocking him over backwards, and throwing him to the floor. In an instant the two guards were upon him, and began to tie down his feet and hands.

Iolaus was stunned momentarily, and never got a chance to get back into a position where he could successfully defend himself. The guards placed him back on his feet, and then shortened the chains that tied him to the wall of his prison. The masked man had taken hold of his tools once more, and was reheating them in the brazier, together with a vicious looking knife, that was already glowing red. This knife he now grabbed with his leather gauntlet, and inspected it briefly. Obviously satisfied, he moved up to Iolaus, bringing the flamesoaked knife slowly towards Iolaus' face. The hunter was only now becoming fully aware of his desperate situation. His eternal optimism had so far denied the seriousness of his predicament, but as his eyes focused on the knife in front of him, the heat radiating off it driving the perspiration onto his face, fear began to creep into his conscious thoughts.

The next several hours seemed neverending to Iolaus, and had him finally plead with Hades to take his soul. Where he was defiant in the beginning, the pain the masked giant professionally inflicted, soon became all-consuming, and Iolaus was not capable anymore to focus on anything else. The torturer was very skilled, and though he used his instruments on various parts of Iolaus' body, burning, squeezing, and drawing blood, none of the injuries were meant to maim his victim permanently, but only to provide a living, conscious nightmare.

As soon as the soothing blanket of unconsciousness was about to descend on Iolaus, the guards would revive him by throwing cold water in his face. He was not to miss any of what Kandros had in store for him.

Hercules knew the story of the battle of Maskal of course; he had been involved peripherally, but Iolaus had talked about it a lot at the time, and was still shaken up over it months later. War was always terrible, and warriors often were forced to do things they deeply regretted for the rest of their lives, or would never have done under any other circumstances. Given a choice most people would opt to avoid battles, but once in a while there were individuals who enjoyed the chaos created by bloodshed and killing, and thrived on the power they exerted over the lives of others. Kandros had been such a man. Obsessed with a hunger for control over other people, he had led his warriors in an all out attack on the city of Maskal. He wanted slaves for the markets in the east, and in an attempt to break the spirit of every living soul in the town, he had descended on the unsuspecting and ill prepared citizens like a swarm of locusts might descend on a field of millet. Iolaus had been there during the attack, visiting one of his numerous girl friends, taking a rest from traveling the country side. At the first signs of the attack he had helped organize a militia to hold off Kandros' soldiers. They were outnumbered and outskilled, but had fought with the ferocity borne out of the need to save their lives and their freedom. The attackers initially tried to refrain from killing potential candidates for the slave markets, but after a while the bloodlust rose, driven on by ransacked winecellars and taverns, plundered homes, and watching their companions die at the hand of the resistance they encountered. Any warlord out to make money from an attack on a town, would have realized at one point that Maskal was a lost cause, would have cut his losses and left. Not so Kandros. He was possessed by the idea of ravaging the souls of whoever was left alive in the city. Retreat was not a concept he understood.

Hercules had arrived at the end of the battle, overwhelmed by the carnage all around him, lending his skill and support to the defense of what was left of the city, and feeling the anger and sorrow of those left alive. The citizens had not given up, and most of them had died fighting for their freedom, and the lives of their families. Kandros' army had been all but destroyed by that time too, and fires were flaming up all over the ruins of the city, while small groups of people were still fighting here and there.

Kandros had taken several hostages, and barricaded himself in the old smithy. The surviving citizens had the building surrounded, but nothing could be done to get inside without endangering the hostages. Finally, Iolaus had volunteered to enter the smithy from the back, and through the vent leading to the forge. Hercules and the people outside created a diversion, while Iolaus snuck in. He had actually managed to enter the smithy without being detected, and had then engaged Kandros in a sword fight. After knocking him to the ground, it had seemed like he was out for the count, and Iolaus had begun to free the hostages. Kandros, though, only pretending to be unconscious, had jumped Iolaus from behind, throwing him into the wall. Then, for no reason, he had cut the throat of one of the young women still tied to a chair, laughing hysterically. Iolaus, stunned from hitting his head on the anvil, half blinded by the blood that was running in his eyes, had groped for a weapon, and finding the iron poker used to control the fire in the forge, had thrown himself on Kandros, hitting him with all his force.

Outside, they had only heard battle noises from inside, and screams from the hostages. In sudden panic, Hercules had run up to the door, and ripped it from its hinges with his bare hands. Inside, there were hysterical hostages, and blood everywhere. Iolaus was on the floor, breathing heavily, the poker still in his hand. In front of him lay Kandros, his head a bloody mess. Hercules ran over to where Iolaus was slouched on the floor, anxiously checking him out for serious injuries. Kandros had looked very dead, but in the confusion of freeing the remaining hostages, taking care of the fires all around, and looking after all the injured, nobody had the time to check every body. The multitude of dead had been carried to a hastily dug pit outside the city limits, and had all been buried together.

Hercules' thoughts slowly returned to the present. The images of Maskal had been vivid, as always, and he could feel the deep disgust in the pit of his stomach that he always felt when he saw what human beings were capable of doing to each other. It had been five years, but the feelings were as strong as they had always been. And now, apparently, the added impact of the fact that Kandros was not dead at all, but had somehow survived the massacre he had initiated.

Not only survived, but had somehow hatched a plan to revenge himself on Iolaus for almost killing him, and blackmailing Hercules into doing something. Hercules was sure that the men he had encountered on the road earlier had been Kandros' too. Since they had not tried to kill him, or take him captive, Kandros' plans for him must involve something else. That also meant that it would be quite safe for him to enter the warlord's stronghold, and find out more. Hercules sneered. Not, that that meant anything, or that he would not still go after Kandros, even if it was deadly dangerous. The man was a maniacal lunatic - and he had Iolaus.

Hercules looked ahead, and knew that he had no choice at all. He had to go, and find out what Kandros wanted in trade for Iolaus' life. Not, that he could possibly trust the warlord to keep his word about any bargain they might end up negotiating. The best he could hope to gain, was time to figure out how to rescue Iolaus. If he agreed to whatever conditions Kandros would suggest, there was a good chance that Iolaus would not be killed until Hercules returned. He breathed deeply; he just had to assume that his friend was still alive. Hopefully, he would get a chance to find out just how many men Kandros had working for him, and what the layout of his stronghold was.

Unbidden, the image of the killed hostage once more came back to Hercules' thoughts. He only hoped that whatever Kandros wanted of him, was more important to the madman, than taking revenge on Iolaus for having destroyed his miserable life in the past.

Purposefully, he marched towards where Kandros' stronghold was supposed to be. After several hours of steady travel, steadily rising towards the distant mountains, he came to the predicted fork in the road. Hercules hesitated for only a moment, and then chose the lesser traveled path. The road was not as overgrown as one might expect, considering the keep he was heading towards was long abandoned, but that only proved that Kandros and his men had come by here recently.

Finally, it was over. During the whole procedure nobody had asked Iolaus any questions, urged him to divulge any information, or betray secrets he might have. There was no purpose to the torture other than torture itself.

The door to the cell was pushed open, and Kandros himself strode in. Breathing hard, his voice hoarse from the screams that he could only hold back for so long, Iolaus was in agony. His body felt like it was on fire, and though his mind knew that that was not true, a more instinctive part of his being was convinced that he had been burnt alive, and was dying. Kandros slowly came closer, dismissing the masked torturer with a movement of his hand. He gazed at his prisoner with interest, and prodded some of the fresh wounds with his dagger. Iolaus pulled back out of reflex, not because he could separate one pain in his body from another. Kandros nodded to himself, "See? Now you know what it feels like. It's not all that pleasant, is it?"

Iolaus tried to open his eyes, but the heat had blistered the skin, and caused the lids to swell to immobile shutters. Not that he really wanted to see Kandros, but when he had gathered all his strength, and would spit in his face, he did not want to miss.

"I guess you would like to have what I will get soon, heh? You see, your friend Hercules will come by here soon, and then I will ask him to get the healing cup of salvation that belongs to Apollo. It can cure anything, and Hercules being the brother of Apollo, will be able to get it too." Kandros' maniacal laugh took on an eerie property, as it echoed back from the walls.

Iolaus tried to get to his feet, but could not. Apollo's healing cup? Everybody knew that this cup did not exist, or if it did, it was far less powerful than some highly gullible people believed. How could Kandros have fallen for this? Iolaus was getting desperate in his attempt to get off the floor. He managed to push himself up along the wall for a few inches, but slumped back down exhausted, before he could fully get his feet under him. A deep depression settled over him: let Kandros believe what he wanted; he did not care; he did not care about anything, and only wanted to slip away into oblivion, away from the pain.

Hercules continued his travels more carefully, making his way through the overgrowth and encroaching vegetation. His senses heightened to the extreme, he felt as if he was being watched. Walking on to gain a better understanding where the person following him was hiding, he finally made a dash to the left, and grabbed a handful of roughly woven tunic in the bushes. The man struggled, but had no chance against Hercules, who dragged him onto the path, and mustered him from head to toe with an icy stare, "Who are you, and why were you following me? You don't look like one of Kandros' goons, so what is your interest here?"

The smaller man shook slightly, and avoided Hercules' gaze, "My - uh - my name is Taddeos. I live - used to live in Trebea," he pointed towards the east, before briefly looking up at Hercules, "until - Kandros and his men came, and took everybody away." He took a deep breath, and as if he had suddenly made up his mind, he straightened up, and met Hercules' gaze, "It was I who led your friend into a trap. I had no choice - my family is imprisoned in Kandros' dungeon - but I have since regretted it with all my heart." A weariness seemed to come over him as he continued, "I could not face the guilt any longer, and when they were busy elsewhere, I slipped away. I am not important enough for the soldiers to bother following me, so I managed to stay hidden in the woods. I knew you would be coming by here soon; Kandros had bragged the whole time how he would get the mighty Hercules to do his bidding...This man has to be stopped no matter what the cost. I am sorry about what I have done, but I can't change that now. All I can do is help you defeat him."

Hercules was quiet for a long while. This man had confessed to having led Iolaus into Kandros' hands. His initial reaction was rage, and the wish to pay him back for what he had done to Iolaus indirectly. But then common sense prevailed. Taddeos was just a normal man, who had been threatened himself by the forces that had entered his tranquil life. Though not a soldier himself, he was now willing to stand up for what needed to be done, and was even brave enough to face Hercules, and confess to his cowardly deed. Hercules could only admire such strength of character, even though it was shown a bit late. He took a deep breath, and then placed a hand on the other man's shoulder, "I understand. I cannot condone your actions, but I know that you had no choice - and I appreciate your willingness to help me now."

He led Taddeos over to a tree stump, and indicated for him to take a seat, "Tell me everything you know about where Kandros is holed up. How many men does he have with him, and do you know anything about his defenses?" He hesitated a moment, "You mentioned your family. How many people does Kandros have imprisoned in his keep?"

Taddeos did not know much, but told Hercules whatever he knew about the strength of their opponents. Two villages had been raided by Kandros and his army, but exactly how many people he held captive, Taddeos did not know.

Hercules thought for a long while, and then made up his mind, "We will need help with this, so this is what we'll do. Taddeos, I want you to go to Ithaca as fast as possible, and contact Kelfir the magistrate. Iolaus and I dealt with him in the past, and if you tell him that I sent you, he will help you." Taddeos looked up anxiously, and interrupted Hercules' train of thoughts, "The magistrate? He won't believe me when I just say that you sent me, and certainly won't send his troops out because a farmer says so. I need something to prove to him that I am telling the truth."

Hercules considered briefly, "Very well. Tell Kelfir that Alcmene still has not forgiven him for not making it to her wedding. She loves the scroll of poems he sent, but would have preferred to see him again in person." A wistful smile played around Hercules' lips as he remembered happier times. With an effort he pulled himself back to the present, "That should be enough proof to him that you are asking at my request. Tell him he will have to organise a group of soldiers to come out here and take care of Kandros. While you are doing this, I will try to stall for time - and I have to look for Iolaus. Kandros may be after making money by selling the people of these villages as slaves, but I'm afraid with Iolaus he is after revenge ..." He sighed, looking into the distance, then smiled briefly and patted Taddeos on the back, "Go! And hurry; I don't know how long I can play along, and make Kandros think that I am doing his bidding. Don't let them catch you! Good luck!" Taddeos nodded, and turned around, starting to run as soon as he stepped onto the path.

Hercules followed him with his eyes, until he had disappeared around the next bend, then resumed his own travel. A couple of hours later, he rounded a ridge, and stood face to face with the overgrown ruins of a formidable stronghold. One of the watchtowers had enough of it left standing, to give evidence of its former impressive presence. Hercules stopped, and slowly surveyed the remains of the keep. It was too quiet; no bird song could be heard, and Hercules had the feeling that he was being watched. He moved slowly and deliberately, showing himself, without appearing to be threatening. Soon enough armored men, weapons in their hands, came around the boulders and broken walls they had been hiding behind, and converged on the tall man, who had bravely walked into their midst.

They did not really point their weapons at him, but made it clear that they were ready to use them at any moment, as they led Hercules towards the remains of one of the larger buildings. Amongst the rubble, an opening could be seen. One of the soldiers nodded towards this opening, and when Hercules carefully stuck his head through, he could see a stairway made from hewn rock, going down. Sconces attached to the walls at regular intervals, held burning torches, shedding a somewhat dim and flickering light all around. Hercules moved down the stairs, a handful of the soldiers behind him, and encountered a wooden double door at the bottom. As soon as he touched the door, it was opened, and he carefully entered a rather large underground hall. Again, light was provided by torches all along the walls, as well as two lit braziers on either end of the hall. Standing beside the door, as well as beside another door at the opposite end of the room, were two guards each, holding crossbows in their hands. Behind him, the soldiers who had been following him, filed into the hall, spreading out along the walls, and the door was closed again. In the middle of the hall stood a man Hercules had never expected to see again. He took a deep breath, and slowly advanced towards the lone figure.

"Hercules, welcome! I have been waiting for you!" Kandros looked worse than Hercules had expected, but at the moment he could not care less. Striding straight up to the warlord, Hercules tried to contain his emotions, "Where is Iolaus? What have you done with him?" The fingers of his left hand were clenched tightly around his friend's amulet that was tucked in his belt, as if he could connect through it to Iolaus who was somewhere in this keep.

Kandros laughed. His words were spoken with a hiss, and barely understandable, coming from the destroyed face, "Soon, Hercules - I'll have him brought in here shortly. Before I do that though, I will tell you why you are here." He waved his right hand, indicating the scar in his face, and tilting his head to give Hercules an even better view of the destruction, "I am tired of the way I look, and how everybody else turns away in disgust. There is nothing any mortal healer can do for me - but Apollo, the God of Salvation has a cup that he lets his son Asclepius use sometimes, and that is capable of curing any wound, any disease, anything..." his voice trailed off, and his thoughts seemed far away. But then he refocused on Hercules, and continued, "I want you to go to Mount Olympus, and fetch that cup for me! In return, I will let Iolaus live, and you may both leave from here."

Hercules was stunned for a moment, as he could not believe what he had just heard. Then cold sweat began to roll down his back; this man was even crazier than he had assumed. Once he got over the first shock, his barely contained rage got the better of him, as he made a move towards Kandros, "You really are mad, if you believe that I would bring a cup of water to the likes of you. There is no way that I will get Apollo's cup of salvation for you - even if it were in my power to do so - which incidentally it isn't." His thoughts were racing, trying to find a way out of the trap that pulled tight all around him. At the first movement, Kandros' crossbow men pointed their arrows in Hercules' direction, and out of reflex, Kandros took a step back, sudden fear showing on his face. A moment later, his constant sneer was restored. Hercules' eyes were cold with contempt, as he tried to steel himself for what might happen next, and then his worries about Apollo's famous and equally useless cup of salvation were forgotten for the moment.

Kandros just stood there unmoving, waving his hand towards two of his men who were standing by the main door, "Let's see about that. I know that you really would like to see your friend before you will make your final decision, and maybe you will actually change your mind..."

The door was pushed open, and two guards walked in, holding up a limp body. The man's head lolled forward, his blond hair hanging in matted strands. His feet were dragging across the floor, and his hands were shackled, and tied together by an iron chain. As the soldiers got closer to Kandros, they just dropped the body, and let it crumple to the floor. A soft moan came from the man as he hit the ground, but there was no other reaction, nor even an indication that he was still alive.

"Iolaus..." Hercules whispered the name, as he watched in shock, unable to move. Flashing a quick glance over at Kandros that showed all the hatred he felt at the moment, Hercules then somehow managed to control his rage, as he rushed over to his fallen friend. He gently turned him over, and carefully cradled him in his arms. Iolaus was only semi-conscious, and did not seem aware of where he was. He had obviously been tortured, and Hercules was sickened by the sight of the terrible wounds that had been inflicted upon his best friend.

Iolaus' eye lids were almost swollen shut, the lashes and eyebrows singed, and Hercules could only hazard a guess at what instrument might have caused such a reaction, and the agony that would have gone along with it. Burn marks were all over his friend's body, interspersed with deep gouges and cuts that were still sticky with barely coagulated blood. None of the wounds were deep enough to be life threatening. Their sole purpose seemed to have been to cause as much pain as possible. without actually maiming or killing the victim. A true professional had been at work here, and Hercules was nauseated by the thought. Each new wound and bruise he found, as he let his gaze move slowly across his friend's body, caused an almost physical reaction, as if it was being inflicted upon himself. He could almost hear the screams, that he knew would have had to have been there releasing some of the agony. His grip tightened around Iolaus' shoulders and back.

"Iolaus..." Hercules repeated the name more insistently, as if he could restore his friend to his former self, if he could only reach the mind that was hidden somewhere inside his broken body.

Another moan escaped the cracked lips, and one of the shackled hands moved feebly to find Hercules' arm. It seemed to take all of Iolaus' strength to grasp it and, clinging to it like a drowning man, gasp words that were barely audible, "Herc - I am sorry..."

"Just lie still. I'll get you out of here." Hercules tried desperately to keep his breaking voice under control, and fought the tears that began to burn in his eyes. Looking up, and getting ready to just grab Iolaus, and make a run for it out of the keep, he saw countless crossbows pointed at him, and Kandros watching him, his arms crossed in front of his chest, a smirk on his half-paralyzed face. "Don't even think it, son of Zeus. You'll never make it out of here alive. Your only chance to leave this place in one piece, and to save what's left of your friend there," a contemptuous hiss emanated from his lips, "is to go to Mount Olympus, and fetch what I asked of you. If you refuse, you will first watch your friend die, and then join him on the Other Side." Kandros encompassed his armored men with his hands as he slowly spread them, "By rights I should have killed Iolaus already - for what he did to me, but I am not a vengeful man," he laughed again, "what is a little cup for the life of a man? What do you say, Hercules?"

"Don't - Herc - don't do it...." Iolaus tried desperately to get to his feet, clawing at Hercules' shirt to pull himself upright. "Sssh, Iolaus, don't try to move." Hercules gently pushed his friend back down, and was terrified at how easy it was for him to do that. He faced Kandros once again, his lips pulled into a straight line, his eyes blazing with rage, "You win - for now. You will pay for what you have done here - eventually, but - at the moment you are holding all the cards, and I will get Apollo's cup for you. In exchange I want not only Iolaus, but all those people you have locked away in your dungeon."

For a moment, Kandros seemed genuinely astonished, "How did you..." then he laughed his hissing laugh, "by the Gods, it doesn't really matter how you found out about my little - stash of slave stock. I agree! You bring me the healing cup of Apollo, and the prisoners are yours to do with as you please."

Hercules painfully watched, as the two guards from before, came forward again, and picked up Iolaus once more, dragging him roughly to his feet. He was on the verge of intervening, not wanting to let go of his friend. He felt like throwing both of them through the nearest wall, but kept his control a final time. Kandros noticed his reaction, and giggled insanely, "Don't worry, we won't damage him more than necessary. Just make sure that you hurry up on your journey. I will give you three days to come back here with Apollo's cup. After that, I will kill one of the prisoners every hour - and I will let my torturer have free reins with Iolaus; so far there hasn't been any permanent damage yet, but if you don't come back at the appointed time, I can't guarantee that anymore. I won't have him killed outright, but every minute of the day he will wish that he was dead."

Hercules got up, and gently placed his hand on Iolaus' chest once more, "Just hang in there a little while longer; I'll be back as soon as possible." The last words were whispered, but Iolaus somehow heard, and faintly struggled against his captors, his raspy voice straining to speak, "Don't - Herc...not worth it..." Then his captors left the hall, dragging Iolaus along with them.

Hercules made a few steps in their direction, but then stopped, and faced Kandros once more. Forcing back the emotions that were welling up inside him again, he straightened up to his full height, his fists clenched, his eyes as cold as ice, "No, we are going to do this my way or not at all! You will let all those villagers and farmers you have locked away, go, and only then will I go and get the cup."

Kandros came closer, and then laughed in his face, "You must be crazy to believe that I would let go of my hostages just like that!"

Hercules was on the verge of smashing his fist in the other man's face, but other than his own satisfaction, that would serve no purpose. He had no intention of leaving Iolaus and who knew how many innocent people in the power of this man. He would pretend to go to Mount Olympus, but instead try to rescue the prisoners. Apollo's cup of salvation had the reputation of curing all and everything, and his brother did little to refute that rumor, but Hercules knew that it was not true at all. Therefore, there was no reason for him to try to get it, but he had to stall for time, and as long as Kandros believed he had a chance to be fully healed, the hostages would at least not be killed; or so Hercules hoped, "There could be a delay for any sorts of reasons, not the least of which the fact that I may have difficulties in actually obtaining Apollo's property. He is my brother, but he may not be too thrilled to give his healing cup to a murdering slavetrader. It will be difficult enough to negotiate with him, without having to worry about you killing the hostages while I am gone." Hercules took a deep breath before being able to say his next words, "And you will still have Iolaus."

Kandros narrowed his eyes, as he observed Hercules closely. "Mmmh, I don't have to do this of course, but just to show you that I am dealing with you in good faith - I will let," he seemed to consider for a moment, "half of the hostages go. Let's say, everybody over fifty, and the children. What do you say?"

Hercules knew that this offer was the best one he was going to get, "All right, but I won't leave here until these people are released."

Kandros shrugged, "Suit yourself." He walked over to two of his men, and gave them silent instructions. They nodded a curt reply, and vanished through the far door. Hercules tried to imagine how extensive the underground dungeon system might be, but found that he lacked too much information to hazard a guess.

Within about an hour about seventy-five ragged-looking children were huddled together on the outside, surrounded by the ruins of the keep. Together with them, and trying to keep them comforted and calm, were maybe twenty old people, mostly women. They all seemed subdued, and beyond the stage of being afraid. Several of Kandro's soldiers had herded them up the main stairway, and were still mingling around now, their weapons at hand.

Hercules had not expected so many very young children. Even assuming that Kandros had indeed released half of his captives, that left a large number of men and women trapped in the dungeons below, and most of them would now be frantic with concern for their children.

Hercules approached one of the women, "Don't be afraid. Everything will be all right. Your families are still alive, and we will free them too. But right now you must see to the safety of the children. Bring them to a safe place, and leave the rest to me. Trust me!" The adults were doubtful, unsure whether this was a trap, or whether they were really free to go. They were desperate, and they wanted to believe in this tall and strong looking man. Guiding the children, they led them towards the path, and started walking.

Kandros approached Hercules from behind, "That's my part of the bargain done. Now you better start moving. The countdown begins now, and you have exactly three days to get back here with Apollo's cup." Hercules faced the warlord fully, "I don't like to be blackmailed, but right now you have the upper hand. I will do what we agreed upon, and you better not harm Iolaus and the families of those kids."

Hercules turned without saying another word, and started jogging down the forest path.

He kept going for several hours, until he was sure that whoever might have followed him was left far behind; then he stopped and circled back, avoiding the open road, and sticking to wooded areas.

Iolaus was desperate. His breathing was labored, and his mind clouded with the pain in his body, and the terror he had felt at being at the mercy of a madman. Sensing Hercules' presence, more than actually seeing him - he could still only barely open his eyes, and what he did see was vague and shadowy - had given him enough hope and the will to fight, and gather all his strength and resist any further torture Kandros had planned for him. He could only remember vaguely what had happened at the meeting between Kandros and Hercules, but whatever deal they had struck, Iolaus was not going to rely on Kandros keeping his word. He also had the feeling that whatever the warlord had asked of Hercules, was too high a price to pay. Somehow he had to get out of this prison, and free the other hostages who he knew were down here with him. All these lives in Kandros' hands, gave the madman too much power over Hercules' actions. Iolaus grunted in frustration. Quite the list of objectives for him, considering he could not even remove his shackles, or get out of his cell. At the moment he was not even sure that his tortured body would do as he asked of it, should he get a chance to make a run for it. Iolaus breathed deeply; one problem at a time. For now all he could worry about was freeing himself from this chain that tied him to the wall, before his torturers came back.

Iolaus ignored the pain in his wrists, as he strained against the rock, and the hold it had on the iron hooks he was shackled to. Blood was dripping down his arms, where the skin around the metal bands had chafed and torn, but Iolaus was too desperate to worry about that at the moment. He knew that at any time his torturers might come back to resume their treatment, and he also knew that he could not take much more of this. With a final howl of frustration and agony, he grabbed the chain and jerked with all his might. There was a little bit of give, and together with a cracking sound, powdery pieces of mortar fell on his head and face, sticking to the sweat that covered his body as a result of the tremendous effort. Panting, Iolaus rested, a crooked smile on his face, as he considered how everything was relative. His arms felt like they were on fire, but compared to the pain they had put him through the day before, it was almost bearable.

Iolaus froze, as suddenly the door to the cell was pushed open, and the masked torturer entered. Following him was one guard who closed the door behind him, and leaned against the wall beside it. This time the giant only carried a whip, its leather strands reinforced by several barbs sticking out in all directions. It was neatly coiled up at the moment, but the torturer got ready to carefully lay it out on the ground.

Their victim seemed unconscious, slumped on the ground in a half-seated position, his arms raised and suspended from the iron hooks.

The guard went over to the prisoner, and lifting up the head that was hanging forward on the bare chest, gave him a perfunctory examination. "Mmmh, this won't be that much fun - he is out cold. Let me get some water, and I'll see whether we can wake him up enough to enjoy the next lesson you will teach him." He carelessly dropped the head again, and went back to the door. Opening it, he half turned around, " I'll be right back - don't start without me; I want to be in on the fun too." With an evil laugh he slipped out of the door, and sauntered down the corridor.

Iolaus gathered all the strength he could muster in his weakened condition. He knew that this was the best chance he would get, and maybe his only one.

The masked man had his whip in position and began to swing it testingly, letting the barbed end click against the stone wall, close to where Iolaus still sat in a semi-crouched position. He was very skilled, like he was in everything else he did, and kept moving closer and closer to the prisoner. Iolaus knew he did not have very much time until the guard returned, but he had to wait for the perfect opportunity. He counted out the interval between consecutive lashings of the whip. When a bit of straw was flicked into his face, the whip being that close to his body, he waited the few seconds before the next swing was in progress, jerked his hands free from the wall with a mighty pull, and made a grab for the whip. Calling on all the Gods in Olympus, he managed to get a hold of the leather, and, wrapping it around his hands, pulled with all his strength.

The giant, caught totally off guard, was knocked off balance and fell forward. Iolaus jumped up, against the protests of his tortured limbs, and unceremoniously dove for the fallen torturer. He still could not see all that well, and went for the quick and dirty fight, geared totally to knock out his opponent as fast as possible. Once that was accomplished, Iolaus used the whip to tie the other man's hands and feet together, and used pieces of straw to gag him.

Iolaus winced as he got to his feet, and painfully straightened up to his full height. He limped up to the door, and carefully stuck out his head, checking in both directions. Deciding on going right, he moved along the dimly lit corridor as fast as he could. Initially, he had planned on simply getting out of his cell, and finding and killing Kandros - and probably getting killed himself in the process - but since that first vague part of his plan had actually worked, he had time now to reconsider in more detail what he was going to do next. There were a lot of people still imprisoned down here, and no matter how he felt about finishing off Kandros, he could not just turn his back on them. Slowing his progress, he more carefully explored dead ends and niches that jotted out from the hallway at irregular intervals. At the end of the main tunnel he could sense a sharp bend to the right, and then heard a man approach, whistling tonelessly. Iolaus ducked sideways into one of the nooks he had encountered, and waited for whoever was about to pass him, his back pressed against the wall.

He tried to make his breathing as quiet as possible, and wadded up the chain that was still between his hands, to avoid treacherous sounds from the links as they rubbed against each other. Footsteps and the whistling were coming closer, and a few seconds later the guard who had left Iolaus' cell to get water, walked by his hiding place. Iolaus gritted his teeth, and swung his hands, still holding the chain, over the guard's head, knocking him out without a sound. As he lay crumpled on the floor, Iolaus dragged him into his alcove, and searched the body for weapons and keys. There was a keyring on his belt, and Iolaus took it together with the sword the guard had sheathed by his side.

Now somewhat better equipped than before, Iolaus strode along the passage with more confidence, but still carefully and as quietly as possible. As he turned the corner another corridor stretched out before him, with cell doors going off to the left and right. Incredible though it seemed, no guards were in sight, and Iolaus snuck up to the first door. Looking in he saw three young men huddled together in a corner. Quickly, he tried the keys on his newly found keyring, and within seconds found the right one. He threw open the door, and halfway turning around again, to make for the next cell, left instructions with the prisoners, "Quickly, I'm letting you out. Grab whatever you can to use as a weapon, and stick together. Be prepared to defend yourselves; they won't just let us leave from here."

Over the next half hour Iolaus came across several cells, mostly inhabited by young men or women. All were frightened, but when others who had been freed before, caught up to them and encouraged them, they all were willing to fight their way back to freedom if necessary. They had been lucky so far; the hallways were empty of guards, and Iolaus, sword in hand, led the way towards where he thought they would find the way out. A couple of times the former prisoners encountered small groups of guards who were too surprised at finding their captives roaming the dungeon, to put up much resistance against the onslaught of bodies. All the guards they overwhelmed were stashed away in some of the now empty cells, and the doors locked behind them. Getting bolder with each successive victory over the stronghold's soldiers, the peasants pushed forward with increasing speed, eager to reach the way out. Iolaus tried to instill caution in them, but he still felt the consequences of his ordeal, and in his weakened condition could barely keep moving, let alone hold back the wave of prisoners behind him, whose sole purpose right now was to regain their freedom. Iolaus' strength was fading rapidly, but he held the position at the head of the villagers.

He had expected there to be more soldiers to stand in their path to freedom, but other than the few they encountered there were none. Iolaus dared to believe that the reason for this was that they were busy elsewhere, but when they finally reached the main chamber at the bottom of the stairway up, the truth became apparent. Approaching the double doors, Iolaus already had a bad feeling. He stopped and turned around, using his sword across the hallway as a barrier for those behind him, and also taking the opportunity to rest against the stone wall, "Ssssh, keep it down, people. You are too noisy, and we are not out of here yet." A whispered ripple of warning went back along the line of people, but the overall effect was a crescendo of hisses and voices, and Iolaus closed his eyes in frustration. Pushing himself off the supporting wall with a soft moan, he carefully opened one side of the large double doors ahead of them. It seemed quiet enough in the dimly lit entrance hall, and moving to the side, Iolaus waved his charges past him and onward. Single-file, the former prisoners tiptoed towards the doors at the far side. When everybody had entered the large chamber, Iolaus was in the process of carefully closing the door behind him, when he saw two guards, their crossbows ready to fire, slowly round the corner not twenty feet away. Iolaus slammed the door, and suddenly realizing where all the soldiers were, yelled, "Run! Run! They are in here - run!" and swinging around towards the shadows, made a conscious decision to die fighting; they would not imprison him again.

Chaos erupted all around. From where they had been hiding along the walls, soldiers stood up and started to slowly converge on them, while others began to shoot crossbows at the mass of people in the centre of the chamber. The villagers, panic stricken by Iolaus' sudden warning, rushed forward, madly trying to reach the other doors.

Fleetingly, Iolaus thought it odd that the guards would shoot, and endanger their own people, but then he saw that the archers did not shoot arrows, but harpoon-like projectiles that dragged fine-meshed nets behind them. Within minutes the former prisoners were helplessly entangled in a mass of these nets, and effectively imprisoned again. None of them had any sharp-edged weapons to cut free of the nets, and not being trained warriors, they were too confused and frightened to do much more than lie on the floor, in one helpless pile of bodies.

Iolaus stood towards the edge of the group, and managed to avoid the nets by throwing himself to one side, his body too numb to dexterously keep his balance, but fortunately also too numb to feel much of the impact with the floor. He got to his feet as fast as possible, and faced the two soldiers that were rapidly approaching, their own weapons drawn.

Iolaus grabbed his sword with both hands, and prepared for his final fight, his eyes blazing, and his mouth drawn into a taut, thin line.

Suddenly, the sound of a horn was heard coming from somewhere ahead. The sound was piercing and was repeated over and over. The reaction on Kandros' soldiers was incredible. Where they had seemed to be a well-organized unit of fighters only minutes before, they now turned into a confused group of human beings, who stood stunned and unbelieving, their weapons lowered, and their faces turned towards the sound of their emergency alarm system.

For a moment there was dead silence, then an authoritative voice barked a command, and the semblance of order returned to the soldiers.

A movement ran through the men, and they made a wild dash for the entrance doors, weapons drawn, leaving behind them a mass of entangled bodies, and a confused Iolaus, who sank against the wall, exhausted and breathing heavily. The sword fell from his shaking hand and cluttered to the stone floor, as he looked after the two men he had been fighting, and who were now following the rest of the soldiers as they made their way upstairs.

Iolaus continued to sit on the floor wondering what was going on, and trying to ignore the weariness that was spreading through him, when a muffled voice beside him drew his attention, "Uh, excuse me - do you think you could get us out of here?" Drawing on reserves he did not know he had, Iolaus picked up the sword he had dropped, and feverishly began to cut the newly imprisoned villagers free of the nets. Within a short while all of them had regained their mobility, and were mingling around and discussing excitedly why the soldiers had left. Iolaus was too tired to care about their apparent unwillingness to seize the opportunity to get out of this dungeon, and slowly made his way towards the other doors, a vision of trees and blue skies before his eyes.

Just as he reached the doors that separated them from the way to the outside, the men and women who had been following him this far, were behind him again. They passed through the door, and up the main stairway, and Iolaus managed to slow the group down to a more careful speed, as they made their way to the surface. When they reached the top the sounds of battle rang through the door. Iolaus looked at the other prisoners, and then carefully opened the door. Looking through they saw the final stages of a battle being fought amid the ruins of the keep. Kandros' men were fighting desperately against a large number of soldiers wearing the insignia of the city state of Ithaca.

Taddeos had come through. Not only had he brought soldiers from Ithaca, but they were on horseback too, and had thus covered the distance from town in a fraction of the time it had taken Taddeos initially to reach them.

A full fledged battle ensued between Kandros' men, and the army sent by Ithaca's magistrate, but already some of Kandros' soldiers were abandoning their assignment, and were fleeing into the woods. It would be just a matter of time, and the warlord would be defeated for good.

Hercules was involved in the fights initially, having made his way back to the keep, and collecting the released prisoners on the way, but mostly as a protector of the children, and the older adults, to avoid revenge acts of frustrated bandits. Soon, his active involvement was no longer necessary, and he got ready to enter the stronghold to free the other prisoners, and especially Iolaus, when he saw a blond haired half naked man coming out of the main entrance.

"I was just coming in to get you!" Hercules laughed with the relief he felt at seeing Iolaus running towards him. His friend still looked terrible, but he was alive, and had obviously managed to not only free himself, but the other prisoners as well. His face still showed the signs of the strain, and the torture, but his eyes had a glint of the old Iolaus, "Coming in to get me? What is that supposed to mean. Escaping from prisons is one of the first tricks a hunter learns." Iolaus was immensely relieved to see Hercules alive and well too. Never knowing what had actually happened to his friend, had added a degree of misery to his already bleak existence, and though he had vague memories of seeing Hercules in a large room somewhere, that memory was very hazy, and Iolaus had dismissed it as wishful thinking of his desperate mind. A grin spread over his face, and he looked into his friend's eyes, seeing there reflected the emotions of the past two days. For a moment they both just grinned at each other, then Hercules picked Iolaus up in a great bear hug, releasing all the anguish that had been inside him. Iolaus returned the hug, and then slapped his friend on the back, "Herc, let me down, we still have a lot of work to do." They both started to laugh.

"Aww, how touching!" Kandros stood less than ten feet away, his sword in hand, a bloody gash across his chest, and his leather armor slashed in several places. Hercules felt an almost overwhelming urge to run a sword through the other man. Within seconds the anxiety and strain of the last few days came back to him, images of a dark messenger with an obsidian amulet, of the tortured form of his best friend, of an insane bargain for the lives of children who were to be sold into slavery.... As if in a trance, Hercules stepped forward, but a hand on his shoulder stopped him. Iolaus stepped in front of him, a sword that wasn't his in his hand, "This is between the two of us, Kandros, and it is about time that we finished it off - one way or the other." Iolaus gripped the sword tightly, and began to move towards the warlord, who crouched slightly, and lifted his own weapon, slowly swinging it in front of his chest.

Hercules could only watch; no matter what this was Iolaus' fight, and he only hoped that his friend had enough strength left in him to see it through.

Iolaus and Kandros circled each other, each warily watching and waiting for an opening in his opponent's defense. All of a sudden, Kandros lifted his sword, and yelling a Levantine war cry threw himself at Iolaus. The hunter, not being able to rely on his agility and speed, parried the attack, and ducked under the swinging sword. The fight had begun, and both warriors, each of them handicapped in their own way, were evenly matched.

It continued on for a long time, neither of them getting the advantage, both breathing heavily and covered in scratches and minor wounds. Iolaus was fighting on sheer will power alone, almost incapable of feeling any sensation in his limbs, but determined to see this through. Kandros did not fare much better, and desperation began to settle on his mind. In a final attempt to overpower this man, who should have been dead already, he threw his remaining strength into a side swinging motion with his sword. He had to use both hands, and saw too late that Iolaus had turned away from the blow. Unable to stop his motion, he carried through with his swing, losing his balance and had to relinquish the protection of his left side to catch himself from falling down. Since he was blind on the left side, he never saw Iolaus' attack coming, until it was far too late. The shorter man parried Kandros' swing, and stabbed forward and upward, piercing the leather armor just beneath the ribcage. Kandros moaned once, and slowly crumbled to the ground, his sword sliding from his lifeless fingers.

Iolaus stood for a moment, slightly leaning on his sword, then his legs gave out from under him. Hercules, who had watched more and more anxiously over the last few minutes, rushed forward, and caught his friend before he could hit the ground. He gently helped him down to a sitting position, and squeezed his shoulders, "It's over my friend - it's finally over..."

All of the villagers spent the rest of the day looking after the wounded, and gathering together the dead. A pyre was built by the former prisoners, and as soon as the sun set, it was lit to guide the souls of the dead to Hades. Iolaus had made sure Kandros' body was the first one on the pyre, and he had sat in front of the wood pile, until the fire was lit. His eyes were full of memories, and most of them were painful. Hercules sat down beside his friend without interfering with Iolaus' reliving of the past, but offering himself as a lifeline to the present, should it be needed.

He himself was not unaffected by dark thoughts, and looking at the fire brought memories of his own family, and how they had perished at Hera's wrath. But she was a goddess, and it was to be expected that her actions were near impossible to counter. What made the recent events so horrific was the fact that a mere mortal had played with the lives of his fellow human beings, ready to enslave them, reveling in their pain, and using them to pursue his goal of revenge single-mindedly. Hercules closed his eyes to shut out the visions, and shifted his position on the hard ground. His hand brushed against the piece of serpent stone that was tucked in his belt. Looking down he realized that Iolaus' amulet was still in his possession. Carefully he pulled it free of the belt, and felt the cool material, and the smooth texture. Happier memories were attached to this amulet; it was not connected to torture and blackmail, vengeance and misery. Iolaus had worn it since he was a boy, and the stories he used to tell about it had been one of the reasons why Hercules had felt drawn to him from the beginning.

Hercules lifted the string, and watched the dangling serpent come alive with the shifting flames behind it. He sighed, and a faint smile played around his lips. Carefully, he gathered the amulet back into his hand, and reaching forward to place a hand on Iolaus' shoulder, he slowly dropped the medallion into his friend's lap. Iolaus seemed frozen for a moment, looking down at the still amulet, then he gingerly reached for it, and took it in his hand, finally clutching it tightly. He turned to face Hercules, his eyes shining brightly in the fire light, "I thought it was lost. Thank you Hercules." A silent message passed between them, and Hercules smiled and squeezed his friend's shoulder tightly.

They spent the rest of the evening and part of the night watching the pyre. They understood each other, and there was no need for words.

Early the next morning Hercules and Iolaus were walking westward towards Ithaca to thank their friend the magistrate for his help, and then on to Thebes to go back to their busy lives, and Iolaus was still quiet and absorbed in his own thoughts. He stared straight ahead, and had hardly said a word since they left Kandros' keep. They moved slowly, mostly because Iolaus was still in a lot of pain, and tired easily. Hercules could not take it any longer, and walking closely beside his friend, he placed a hand on the shorter man's shoulder. "Snap out of it, Iolaus. You did the only thing you could do; we all did what we had to..." He remembered Taddeos leading Iolaus into a trap to save his family, and Hercules himself giving his word to a bargain he had no intention of keeping, to save the lives of the prisoners and Iolaus. Iolaus sighed and looked up with the shadow of a smile, "It's not that Herc, I know it was the only way.... I was just thinking that it will be forever now before we get another chance to go fishing together, and you never had a chance to see the greatest trout river in the civilized world." His voice trailed off, and he looked into the distance, his eyes sad and full of memories of great fish.

Hercules, having expected any reply but the one he got, was stunned for a moment, and then started to laugh. Sputtering and gasping he walked on ahead, tears streaming down his face, and he seemed incapable to stop the giggles that were pouring out of him.

Iolaus, alerted by his friend's behavior, tried his best to catch up with him, "Herc - what is it? Hercules, wait up. What's so funny?"

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