Gabrielle's tortured scream still rang in Iolaus' ears.
The hopelessness and helplessness of his situation came crashing down on him as surely and painfully as the mallet that broke the bard's legs. He had run from that horrible scene in the square, unable to do anything to help his friend.
As he pushed his way through the throngs of people who had gathered to watch The Conqueror's grotesque exhibition, he realized sadly that there wasn't anything he could do now that Callisto had succeeded in killing Alcmene. Hercules had never been born, and the world around him had paid the price.
He'd reached the edge of town when Iolaus looked up to see that Artemis had unleashed her soft moonglow on the row of run-down buildings that lined the street.
Gazing at the moon, the hunter sighed and said, "It's a beautiful sight, Artemis. But I'm afraid the moon will never shine the same way again."
"Who ya talkin' to handsome?"
The feminine voice startled Iolaus out of his reverie and he searched for its owner. Standing seductively in one of the open doorways was a tall, gorgeous creature with long blonde hair and huge blue eyes. Despite his gloom, Iolaus felt his heart skip when the young woman sashayed out to meet him.
"If it's company you're needing, darlin', I can certainly help ya out," she purred, running a long fingernail enticingly down the hunter's bare chest. "My name's Urania…and I can make you see stars…"
Iolaus jumped when she playfully pinched his rear.
"Ow!..Uh, I mean, uhm…thank you, Urania…for the offer that is," the hunter stuttered, as he backed up a few steps. "But, I'm not interested."
'Did I actually say that?' a voice in Iolaus' head balked.
The hunter shook his head to clear it and saw that Urania was still smiling like the cat that ate the cream. As she advanced on him, he noticed that she was barely clothed. A shear purple scarf was wrapped around her in a halter-style, and the low slung velvet pants revealed shapely hips and a belly button with some sort of gem glittering from it.
"Not interested in me?" Urania asked, as she took the hunter's chin in her hand and raised his gaze from her belly button to her piercing blue eyes, "or not interested in women?"
Iolaus was taken aback at the comment and freeing his chin managed to say, "You! You of course!"
"Well that makes me feel loads better, handsome," Urania replied with a peal of lilting laughter.
"Oh well…but that's not what I meant!" Iolaus countered, growing more flustered by the moment. "I just meant that…look, I'm sure you're a very…nice…girl, but I've had the worst day of my entire life, and besides the fact that I probably wouldn't be very good company, I'm just…not in the mood right now."
'Did I just say that?' the voice in his head was back, and not very happy.
Urania ran a hand through Iolaus' blond curls. "I could put you in the mood, sweetie."
Iolaus opened his mouth to protest, but was interrupted as a fairly large man in extremely loud robes of orange and green, blustered his way out the door and into the street. The strange man raked his eyes up and down Urania's tempting form and said, "You…me…later."
"In your dreams, Sal," the woman drawled, folding her arms across her chest.
"Well, duh! Who were you expecting? The King of Thieves?" Salmoneous replied, taking Iolaus by the arm and leading him toward the entrance.
"What…Salmoneous! What are you doing?" the hunter demanded, pulling free of the toga-salesman that had always tried to have Herc endorse some crazy product.
"Cut the innocent act, Iolaus! You're late and we've got customers lined up to Tartarus and back!" the salesman said, not without some hint of glee in his eyes. "And you know what that means, my little blond friend…dinars, dinars, dinars!"
'Good gods!' Iolaus thought. 'Hercules or no Hercules, Salmoneous hasn't changed a bit!'
"He's Iolaus, Sal?" Urania was asking the merchant, hands on her shapely hips.
"Oh, for the luvva Zeus! That's right! Urania, my little star, you haven't actually met the boss yet, have you?" Salmoneous explained waving a hand in Iolaus' direction.
"Boss? Boss of what?" the hunter stammered. "And what customers are you talking about?"
"What customers? Ha! He makes me laugh!" Sal continued as he led Iolaus through the doorway into the dimly lit building. He called over his shoulder: "Urania! You go ahead of us and get everything ready!"
"Sure, Sal," the girl replied, then paused biting her bottom lip. "I hope I didn't offend you with my…uhm, overtures, Boss."
"Ya kidding?" Salmoneous snorted. "You're apologizing for offending Iolaus, here! Sheesh Urania! You ARE new around here aren't ya? No one, but no one offends Iolaus. He's already cornered that market, so to speak. No offense of course, Boss."
"Salmoneous, what in Tartarus are you talking about?" the hunter demanded as Urania passed them in the hallway, turning only to wink at him. "What is she getting ready, exactly?"
"What's the matter with you, Iolaus?" the salesman asked impatiently as they came to the end of a hallway that opened up into a brightly-lit and garishly decorated room. "Fall on your head or something? Your head…by the way, what in Hades' name did you do to your hair?"
"What's wrong with my hair?" Iolaus replied, suddenly and unexplainably self-conscious. "Wait Salmoneous! Just wait!"
The hunter managed to wriggle out of Salmoneous' grip and forcibly brought his emotions, not to mention his temper, under control. "Look, Salmoneous. I don't know what your talking about or why you've brought me here, but I'm not going any further until you explain exactly what is going on here."
Sal stared at him for a few sad seconds. Then he placed a hand on the blond's forehead. "Hmmm. Cool as a Grecian urn…."
"Salmoneous!" Iolaus said, exasperated as he pulled the salesman's hand away from him.
'Not on your life," he thought. 'Or on mine, for that matter!'
Just then Urania returned, this time with another woman just as gorgeous as she was.
"Ah, Urania, Karis!" the salesman exclaimed with relief. "Please, the two of you, take Iolaus to the pit."
"The pit?!" The hunter exclaimed as the two beauties latched on to either arm and led him into the great room. Then he saw them. People. Crowds and crowds of people milling all about like they were waiting for some big production. He gulped. Was he the production?
Karis felt him tense up and whispered, "Relax Iolaus! It's not like you've never done this before! I kind of got the feeling you liked it!"
"I know I will," Urania replied with a hopeful grin.
'Great Ares' beard!' he thought frantically. 'What in Tartarus have I gotten myself into?!'
"Good evening ladies and germs!"
Salmoneous' unctuous voice suddenly boomed out over the crowd of onlookers. "And welcome to Sal's Tavern and Mud-Wrestling Emporium!"
Iolaus' jaw dropped. Mud-wrestling?
It was then that he noticed Urania and Karis had led him to a ledge, over which he could see a giant mud pit.
"Nuh-uh…no way! No how!" the hunter said, bumping into the two women as he tried to back away from the ledge.
"Don't worry Iolaus!" Karis comforted with a gleam in her eye. "We'll be gentle with you, right Urania?"
"You betcha, sweetie!" the other woman replied as she helped Karis remove Iolaus' vest.
"Hey! That's my favorite vest!"
"Chill, sugar, you'll get it back!" Urania smiled and said.
"And now, the event you've allllllll been waiting for!!!!" Sal's voice was back, loud and annoying as ever. "Three-way mud-wrestling with Iolaus and the beautiful Urania and the equally lovely Karis!!!!"
As thunderous applause went up from the patrons assembled, Iolaus looked weakly at the mud below him and the beauties on either side of him. He closed his eyes and muttered, "How do you manage to get yourself into these things?"
Then he let out a yelp of surprise as Urania and Karis dove into the mud, pulling him right along with them.
After an hour or so of romping in the mud with Urania and Karis which, Iolaus admitted, was not entirely unenjoyable, he was permitted to bathe and change. Upon exiting the bath he saw that someone had washed his vest and leathers and lain them by the hearth to dry.
He was still completely clueless as to what had just happened. Salmoneous was acting as crazy as ever, calling him the Boss, telling him he had "customers" and emceeing as he hung out in a pool of mud with two beautiful women, one who seemed to know him well, and the other claiming she'd just met him. Not one single part of this whole evening had made sense.
Iolaus was pretty certain; however, that it had something to do with Callisto killing Alcmene, and therefore altering the timeline as he knew it. That worried him. Because if these people claimed to know him, then….
Just as he'd finished lacing his leathers and slipping on his vest, the door to the chamber opened and Iolaus found himself face to face with…himself.
"By all the gods on Mt. Olympus!" his double exclaimed with a smile. "You weren't making it up, Sal! Oh…sorry about that 'you're crazier than a one-eyed hydra' remark…."
"Not a problem, Boss," Sal replied ingratiatingly.
Iolaus stood in shock to see the man before him. He was clad in a black leather vest, pants and boots. His blond hair was straight and pulled back from his face with a small cord.
"I hear Sal and the ladies made a little mistake," his double said as he came forward to shake hands with Iolaus. "Sorry about that, friend. Hope it wasn't too much trouble, but things here at Sal's Emporium can get a little crazy at times!"
"I'm sure they can," the hunter replied warily just as Karis and Urania entered the room.
The two lovely ladies looked at each other and replied in unison, "Praise the Fates!"
"There are TWO of them!" Urania squealed.
"That's one for you, and one for me…," Karis purred as they both started to approach the handsome blonds.
While the leather clad one only laughed, the hunter held up his hands and said, "Wait! This is…really strange. Salmoneous, I don't know how you ever convinced me to go into business with you, but I must've been incredibly desperate. Karis, Urania, although our time together has not been unpleasant, I have to get out of here."
The two women exchanged glances and pouted.
"Maybe if I weren't in such a hurry…" Iolaus began, seeing the disappointment in their pretty faces. "Ah, Hades, what am I talking about?!"
Giving himself a mental shake he pulled the other Iolaus aside.
"Look, there probably isn't anything that I could say to explain this situation," the hunter said to his other self. "But the point is, I have to find a way to go back in time and save Hercules from Callisto! Maybe if I go to Ares' temple, he would help me again!"
The other Iolaus stared at his curly-haired double a moment then leaned in Salmoneous' direction and whispered, "He didn't hit his head in the pit, did he?"
"See!" the hunter pointed out with a half triumphant, half exasperated sigh. "I can't expect you to believe me, but this is something I have to do. I thought I had failed…and maybe I did the first time, but I'm not going to give up that easily. I won't give up on Herc, I won't give up on Xena, or the good influences they both can have on this world. And with all due respect…I just don't think I can see myself roiling around in the mud for a career. For fun, definitely! For a career? I don't think so."
"Well, I guess all I can say is good luck to ya then," the leather-clad Iolaus replied. "I truly hope you succeed in this quest you believe you have."
"Thanks…I think," Iolaus stammered as he headed for the doorway.
Salmoneous stopped him.
"Hold everything!" the salesman cried with delight. "Boss! I've got an idea that will just have us rolling in the dinars! I can see it now…mud-wrestling with the beautiful Karis, the equally lovely Urania, aaaaaaand, TWO, count 'em TWO Iolauses! Er…Iolaii?? Nevermind…it'll be perfect!"
"Salmoneous!" both the hunter and the mud-wrestler said in unison.
"Sheesh! Alright already! I'm just a guy trying to make a few dinars!" Sal relented in a huff.
Iolaus turned at the doorway and looked at the motley group of mud-wrestlers and their manager.
With a wink at the women he replied, "Well, it's certainly been interesting. I did always have a tendency to end up in the mud."
And then Iolaus left the building in search of Ares.
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