[WARNING: Some readers may find this story to be extremely dark and disturbing. Read at your own discretion.]
Iolaus savagely wiped the tears from his eyes as he blindly stumbled away from Xena’s kangaroo court and the spectacle of Gabrielle’s bleeding, broken body. Her screams followed him through the filthy streets of Corinth and stabbed into his very soul.
The air was fetid and foul, as if the once magnificent kingdom were just one, great festering sore of evil and despair. He needed air -- he needed room and time to think -- and made for the city’s Western gate.
He sobbed as he ran.
Everything Iolaus had known and loved was doomed because he had failed in the single most important task of his life. The beautiful Alcemene and the son sleeping within her womb were dead and ashes, and it was as much Iolaus’ fault as it was Callisto’s. His failure to save them had done more than destroy his dearest friend; he had condemned the entire world to darkness.
Without Hercules, Tartarus was now on earth.
Without Hercules to reform her, Xena was now evil beyond all redemption, and Ares’ pride and joy. Sweet, innocent Gabrielle would never become an Amazon Princess, and would curse with her dying breath the Warlord who had destroyed her people and now reveled at her agony. A woman who, had there been a Hercules, would have been a force for good, and her soul’s sister.
One man -- one *hero* -- had kept the world from the brink of total chaos and evil.
Just when Iolaus thought the nightmare couldn’t possibly get any worse, he stumbled through Corinth’s Western gate, onto the merchant’s road, and into the most damning horror of all.
Where once had been a rolling hill, a forest spread before him for as far as the eye could see. Barren, leafless trees bore horrific, bitter fruit like jagged fingers reaching to a sky darkened by wheeling black birds. Crucifixes marched from the gate of Corinth along either side of the road into the horizon. The gorge rose in Iolaus’ throat as he was enveloped in the stench of death, decay and dying. Covering his mouth and nose with the palms of both hands, Iolaus wheeled back toward the gate and escape.
He never knew what drew him to look up at the grisly remains that hung from the cross nearest to him, but the sight of it drove him to his knees with a cry of anguished horror.
The victim was quite probably one of the first of Xena’s contributions to her gruesome forest. The desiccated body was nearly skeletonized, shredded by the elements and scavengers. Tattered fragments of coarse brown homespun hung from what had once been a smallish man. Wisps of blonde hair still clung to the hollow-eyed skull. Iolaus could see the blood-rusted iron spikes that had been driven through bootless soles and shattered elbows. Where other victims had been transfixed by the wrists, this one had no wrists of which to speak -- both hands had been severed and sheared clean off. A thief; and worse than thief.
Iolaus clenched his fists to his temples and shut his eyes against the horror.
NO!, his mind cried ... pleaded. It could be anyone. ANYONE.
But it wasn’t anyone. If Iolaus had ever doubted before how important Hercules was within his own life, he now had more than grisly proof.
The corpse was virtually naked, faceless and nameless ... except.
Iolaus forced himself to open his eyes and look up once again at the ghastly accusation that hung before him. All but naked, yes -- except for the green medallion hanging on a tattered thong about the gruesome spectacles’ neck.
As if to mock him, a raven came to roost upon the bony shoulders, the dry tissue and tendons rustling like old leaves as it began to pick at the tarnished bauble with its beak.
Iolaus vomited until there was nothing left within him to give. Climbing weakly to his feet, he staggered from the hellish remains -- from what he was/would have been in a world without Hercules. Without the other half of his soul.
31 Jan 1999 / Carolyn “Cal” Lynn
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