....Iolaus was sure he was in Corinth, but it was not the Corinth he remembered. There were rows of crosses filled with the dead and dying. Men and women, young and old, suffering the most pain-filled death imaginable. Every public space and road displayed the pain and torment of the victims - an obvious warning to the remaining population. The cost of defiance was a slow agonising death.
The only time he could remember so much violent death in the city was when Ares had ruled as regent for Jason's dying father, Aeson.
Soldiers were everywhere, shepherding people to whatever fate awaited them.
The sound of a beggar caught the hunter's attention. "Remember me to the conqueror. I fought with you when we took Sparta." What he didn't see was the quick startled look the man gave him just before accosting the soldier. Nor did he see the beggar watch him from the shadows as he picked up the coin that lay in the dirt, missed in the beggar's hurry to get out of the square.
"Xena the conqueror." The words sent a chill through Iolaus. All this death and destruction was Xena's doing. Another thing that Callisto was responsible for. Without Hercules, the warrior princess had not become a hero but continued her life of destruction.
What had happened to Jason? Where was Iphicles? Had they died here or were they still out fighting?
As the loss of not only Hercules, but also everything he had known, began to overwhelm him, Iolaus struggled for control. As he got a grip on his grief he realised that if he was here so too was the murdering Callisto. But how would he find her?
The ringing of a large gong grabbed his attention and Iolaus followed the crowd. Maybe he would find a way to the destructive goddess in whatever was happening.
As he stood by the edge of the crowd a leaden feeling overcame him. The victim they had all come to witness was Gabrielle and he was helpless. He couldn't save her. Even if he could reach her in time, they would never make it to safety. The soldiers were obviously scanning the crowd, on full alert for any sign of resistance. In fact, they were examining every face it the crowd for any hint of rebellion.
There was absolutely nothing he could do now for Gabrielle except exact his revenge for her death as well as Hercules. This too would not go unanswered.
Iolaus still had the hind's blood dagger but he would need help if he were to fulfil his vow to kill Callisto. If it was the last thing he ever did, he WOULD kill her.
He was so focused inwards on his thoughts and unaware of his surroundings, that he did not realise he was being followed. His steps eventually took him to the roughest, most dangerous section of the city. The conqueror had not bothered to send troops here. The people who inhabited here were not interested in rebellion. In fact they made a lot, one way or another, from Xena's soldiers who came to spend their pay in the many taverns found here.
Finally the fact he was opposite a tavern registered and the silver dinar that was still in his hand was enough for a meal and a drink. He wasn't really hungry but he hadn't eaten since all this mess began. However he couldn't let himself starve if he wanted to complete his task of killing the murdering goddess.
A few people looked surprised when the golden-haired warrior entered but the expression in his eyes convinced them he wanted to be left alone. There was an empty table in the darkest corner of the room and after he seated himself the tension in the air vanished. It was as if the patrons knew that it was his table and felt it was where he belonged.
The serving girl came over almost immediately. "I didn't expect to see you here tonight."
Although it wasn't the way he expected to be greeted as a new customer, Iolaus was too tired to pursue it. "I didn't expect to be here!" The bitterness in his voice was not lost on the young woman but she was apparently only interested in taking his order.
The table was an ideal place from which to observer the tavern and all its customers, however Iolaus' thoughts were still focused inwards. He was reliving how he had failed to save Alcmene, how he had failed to save his best friend - his brother - and he was so wrapped up in his own grief that didn't see the approach of the four men until it was too late. They sat themselves at the table and looked at him as if examining every line, scar and thought.
"Kibiades was right," said the youngest, who could not have been more than sixteen.
"Right about what?" Iolaus returned the stares. He wasn't really trying to provoke them but he was definitely in no mood to be civil.
"Easy friend," the eldest of the men began. "We are not here to cause you trouble."
"Not yet anyway." The boy was quelled by a glance from the others and he broke off a piece of bread from the loaf that was sitting on the table in front of him.
"Ignore Samos. A friend of ours would like to meet you is all."
"Why?" Iolaus was wary. He didn't want any distractions that might stop him from finding Callisto and resumed eating to show that the four did not intimidate him.
"He's curious about you and thinks you should meet him. He's also a person who doesn't like to take 'no' for an answer."
Iolaus understood the veiled threat and was about to say 'no' anyway, when it occurred to him that if he cooperated he might be able to get information that would help him in his task.
Iolaus shrugged and stood trying to disconcert the men opposite. "Well I've got nothing better to do right now. Let's go."
They just laughed. "It is uncanny," the older man said as he indicated that the hunter should go out through the back of the tavern.
As he accompanied the men down the twisting alleyways, Iolaus became aware that this was really a Corinth he didn't know. These alleys didn't exist in his Corinth. Finally feeling almost lost in his own city he was led into a three-story building that was fairly nondescript and was taken up to the top floor. The place was like a rabbit warren and people lived on every floor and in every room. They were clearly what the wealthy and nobility would describe as the "rougher element".
At the top Iolaus was directed through one of the many identical doors into what appeared to be a suite of interconnected rooms. With all his instincts on full alert he noted that the window overlooked the building next-door. If worst came to the worst, he thought he could escape that way.
Something puzzled him though. They hadn't made any move to take his knife. It wasn't exactly hidden in his belt and, with the hind's blood on it, he was not prepared to part with it. Luckily they seemed content to let him keep it.
The older man disappeared through one of the other doors only to reappear quickly accompanied by two others. The first was a good-looking woman (if you liked them a little brassy), but it was the other who held Iolaus' attention. The man was a compact, blond-haired man who could only be one person. "Orestes?"
The blond stood silently looking at Iolaus as if studying his own reflection. "I have been told I resemble the long dead prince, but personally I think I'm more handsome. Anyway, you can't be Orestes if you thought I was. Who ARE you?"
Disconcerted that it wasn't his cousin who stood before him, Iolaus focused in on the fact that Orestes never became king. "How did he die?"
"Everyone round here knows he was killed by one of his father's generals. The whole family killed. Of course Xena overthrew the usurper. Ironic really when you think about it."
"Niobe?" Iolaus was afraid of the answer.
"The princess? She refused to marry the general and was killed when she tried to overthrow him. But you didn't answer my question!"
As he was working out what to say that was actually believable he noticed a tattoo on his double's neck. He recognised it as the same as the one on Nebulas' neck - the wearer had spent time in a Spartan prison. He suddenly had the sickening feeling he knew who was standing in front of him. "I don't think you'd believe me if I told you." The hunter was having difficulty believing it himself.
"Try me." The other was obviously becoming impatient and was not the only one.
"We should just kill him now." The boy was getting his own knife from his belt and looked as if he really wanted to use it.
"No, I have told you before you can get a lot more from a live mark than a dead one. You kill only when your life depends on it and you will survive longer that way."
"I know but…
"Why don't you go find the other boys and see what profit they were able to pick up today. Make sure you bring our share back." This was obviously an order and although the boy was not happy about it he quickly left the room. The blond man turned his attention back to Iolaus. "You were going to tell me who you were."
Two sets of identical blue eyes looked into each other's souls.
"My name is Iolaus. I'm you."
The hunter knew his own reflexes were quick but the speed with which his other self had his knife out and was resting it sharply against his jugular vein was incredible.
"People have tried to take over my operation before and failed. The only reason I haven't killed you is I want to know why you look like me." The callous hatred that blazed in the thief's eyes shocked the hunter.
It was almost ridiculous and would have been funny if it hadn't been so serious. He would have to choose his words carefully or his own reactions would kill him. "I'm not here to takeover! In fact I wish I didn't have to be here at all. Your mother is Erythia and your father was Skouros, am I right?"
Iolaus could feel the knife dig a little deeper in his neck.
"So are mine. I'm you. The 'you' you would have been if Hercules hadn't been killed before he was born."
"Sure thing, and I know Zeus personally. Who are you really? Some brat of Skouros'?"
"Look I don't understand it but somehow when Ares sent me back I, I mean you, must have still been around. I …you…must have grown up. Now I'm here, there are two of us. No wonder the gods don't like time-travelling." Iolaus was frowning as he tried to understand what he thought had happened.
The blond thief could see that his double actually believed all this nonsense he was spouting. "So you think you are me … the me, you say, I would have been if the harlot Alcmene hadn't killed herself in that fire like everyone in the village said she did." The disbelief was clear in the thief's voice.
"Alcmene didn't suicide! The goddess Callisto killed her so Hercules wouldn't be born."
Deciding to humour a lunatic the thief lowered his knife and was carefully assessing how useful this situation might be to him. "Who is this Hercules that a goddess would want to kill him?"
"The son of Zeus - the greatest hero in history."
"And why is what happened to him important to you?"
"He's, or was, my best friend. I would have gladly died to save Alcmene but I failed." The bitter disappointment and sadness was clearly threatening to overwhelm Iolaus.
"The man's mad. Just kill him and dump the body," the woman said as she came over and ran her hand over the handsome thief's cheek and then down his chest.
Although he knew Minia was right, something about the lunatic's story intrigued him. "Maybe later, right now I want to hear more - go fix us something to eat." As he removed the woman's hand from its explorations of his body and swatted her behind, he turned to the other three. "Go find out where the conqueror is going to be tomorrow. She always draws a crowd and it's good for business." Looking at Iolaus he continued indicating that the hunter should seat himself on one of the many couches, "So you're the friend of a hero in this other life?"
"Hercules is more than a friend. He's like the brother we always wished we'd had." Iolaus was guessing that his other self had similar longings as a young child to himself.
The thief's blue eyes looked stunned at this. He had NEVER told anyone that he had felt like that as a child. He had always had good friends but no one he thought of as a brother. Long ago he'd given up that childish fantasy. It was a weakness that he soon realised he couldn't afford in the real world. You could really only trust one person and that was yourself.
"So what did you do while this friend of yours, this son of Zeus, went around being a do-gooding hero?"
"I was usually there, fighting right by his side."
"You a warrior?" The thief laughed.
Iolaus bristled. He was used to strangers questioning his fighting ability, but when he did it to himself it was more hurtful somehow. "Chiron once said Herc and I were the best partnership that ever graduated from the academy."
"The Academy!" The bitterness in the thief's voice was palpable. "They tried to send me there once - they thought because I was Skouros' son that it would straighten me out, or some such rot. I left after the first day and never went back. I definitely got better training in Sparta than I would have there."
"In the prison there, you mean?" Iolaus knew himself a little too well. "The mark on your neck says you spent some time in gaol."
The thief's hand went to the tattoo just below his ear. "Yeah. I learned not only how to survive but how not to get caught. That's why I'm the king of thieves in Greece."
Iolaus looked surprised. "Isn't that Autolycus' title?"
"That popinjay? No way. Besides he's dead. Xena caught him a few years back trying to rob her treasury. I'm the only one who has stolen from the conqueror and got away with it."
A thought occurred to Iolaus. "What about Jason? What happened to him?" Maybe Jason could help him find Callisto.
"King Jason of Corinth. Or at least he should have been."
"We've never had a king named Jason. A prince Jason was killed off trying to save his father. Somewhere far away trying to get some mythical Golden Fleece.
"What about Iphicles - Alcmene's' son?"
"The poor kid was adopted by some distant relatives of his father's. Never came back to Corinth. Why was he important too?"
The golden haired thief was looking closely at Iolaus. He was searching for something to tell him the hunter was lying, but his double's distress was to real.
"Tell me more about you and this Hercules - this brother I never had."
Iolaus needed little encouragement. Talking about his best friend and partner made his death seem less real somehow. He talked well into the night trying to show how many lives Hercules had changed, including his own and how he would have gladly given up his own life if Hercules could have lived.
Something about the hunter's words touched the thief in a way he didn't understand and didn't think was possible. Although he had never experienced a friendship like the one being described, he knew that deep within him was a longing that this companion, this Hercules, might have eased. Apparently this murdering goddess Callisto had taken it from him before it had a chance.
Around 2 am the thief decided that he not only believed his double but would help him destroy Callisto. She would pay for depriving him of ever knowing such a deep friendship. "You said Ares sent you through time. He has a temple here. Wherever the conqueror is, she erects a huge temple to him. You might find him there and perhaps he can help. In the morning Xena has some warriors fighting to the death for her amusement and almost everyone will be there as well. She loves big crowd for her public appearances. You can slip into the temple unnoticed. Maybe Ares could send you back again to save Alcmene from the fire or tell you where this murdering goddess is."
Iolaus looked across at himself. "Why do you want to help me?"
"Honestly, I don't know. Maybe I'm getting soft in the head." The thief shrugged. He definitely didn't want to be like this lunatic 'hero' double but he did feel somehow deprived and it was this Callisto's fault. "Anyway you can sleep here and go see the God of War in the morning. If he says 'no' you can always come back here. I think we might make a good team."
Iolaus laughed. " We might at that." The thief also grinned and then showed his double where he could sleep.
In the morning just before Iolaus left the rooms, the thief looked at him. "I hope you get the bitch!"
The hunter nodded grimly and left for his destined meeting with Ares.
No matter what, both the hunter and the thief were determined Callisto would pay!
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