As his hand was wrenched from Hercules' fierce, desperate grip, Iolaus gasped and then choked on the soil he inhaled. As he was pulled deeper into the darkness of earth, he fought the strong grasp that held him. He clawed and struggled against the press of earth that weighed him with the sensation of being buried alive.
Suddenly, the space around him widened, and the loose soil that had pressed so claustrophobically was gone. Iolaus pulled the welcome air into his lungs with a wheezing gasp and coughed out the dust and dirt he had inhaled. When the frenzy of air hunger had passed he could take stock of his situation. His vision was useless. The blackness around him was complete, a darkness more utter than the darkest night above ground. He also realized that he was being carried through the blackness by someone or something that held him motionless in arms of brutal strength.
*The monster's got me! Danion's monster is real and it's got me!*
The surge of undeniable fear poured adrenaline through his veins and with it came the determination, as always, that he would fight. The monster hadn't killed him outright, so there was hope. If he could hold out long enough, he knew with a bone-deep certainty that Hercules would move mountains to find him.
*And that may be exactly what he needs to do!* Iolaus thought, with the irrepressible humor which he faced all obstacles.
After a few moments, Iolaus' light starved eyes began to notice a slight lessening of the dark around him. From blackest black to black to a lighter grey, his surroundings slowly began to take shape. And in another moment, the narrow dimness of what must have been a tunnel ended in a brighter cavern, and Iolaus was thrown to the ground.
He rolled and came up in a fighter's crouch, then gasped as he saw his abductor. The images burst on Iolaus' sight in horrifying detail. A large, heavily muscled man's body with dark skin, huge arms that ended in monstrous hands with two-inch black claws, and all surmounted by the bestial, horned head of a bull.
It was a Minotaur.
But, unlike the creature that Thesus had faced in the Labyrinth of Crete, out of this beast's red eyes gleamed a crafty intelligence. An intelligence that had once been that of a man - or a god.
"What in Hades ... !" Iolaus gasped, and was further startled by the deep human voice that came from the minotaur's throat.
"I am worse than anything in Hades' realm, or even his worst nightmare," the beast declared viciously. "But I am as my father made me."
"Your father?" Iolaus replied, surprised, but still tensed and ready for attack.
The minotaur snorted. "Yes, little man, my father. Zeus."
"I don't believe it," Iolaus replied. "How could Zeus father anything like you?"
The minotaur roared, and Iolaus flinched but did not back down. Angrily the beast growled, "It is nothing and less than nothing to me what you 'believe', maggot. But know that I was not thus from my birth. My father changed me into the beast you see now," the Minotaur spat the words. "I was once more beautiful than the friend you left above ground."
"Hercules!" Iolaus gasped as another thought struck him. "If you're Zeus' son, then you're Hercules' --"
"Brother," the Minotaur growled louder. "Yes, I am Hercules' half brother, a demigod even as he is. But without the benefits and gifts which Zeus later lavished on Hercules. In a time before the memory of man, I was a prince of gods and men. My father became jealous of my beauty and power, so he changed me into this form and imprisoned me in the deepest mazes of the earth."
"Just out of jealousy, huh?" Iolaus replied, his eyes narrowing in angry skepticism. "Well, for one thing, the only thing Zeus did for Herc was to make him physically strong. Everything else Hercules has done he did himself. He earned the respect of gods and men because his heart and his spirit were as strong and as beautiful as his body."
Iolaus could hear the Minotaur growling, but his own anger overrode his caution. "And on top of that, there's a lot you could say against Zeus, but one thing I've noticed is that he loves his kids -- all of them. He * even* loves Ares." Iolaus shook his head. "So I find it hard to believe that he would do this to you for no reason except he was jealous. What did you do to deserve it?"
The Minotaur roared again, and with two quick steps forward, he backhanded Iolaus across the jaw with a blow that sent him flying backward to hit the ground with a breath-stealing force.
Iolaus caught his breath and shook his head to clear it. He could feel warmth trickling down his chin; he wiped the blood from his split lip.
*Note to myself,* he thought. *Never tell painful truths to Minotaurs.*
The bestial half-man came to stand over the prone Iolaus, red eyes blazing and steamy breath snorting angrily from his nostrils. "You're flirting with doom, maggot," the Minotaur growled. "You're only alive now by my sufferance."
"Yeah?" Iolaus answered, undaunted. "So why haven't you killed me?"
"Because I need you as bait. A worm to dangle in front of the favorite son of Zeus to get him down here in my maze. Do you fully appreciate your part in this drama, maggot? Once he comes to find you, I will be avenged upon Zeus by killing Hercules!"
Suddenly, Iolaus' vision swam red with fear and anger. "NO!" he shouted, and twisted his body, so that he could launch his strong legs outward, striking the Minotaur in the groin. The creature doubled over with a bellow of anguish and Iolaus' legs kicked upwards into his snout.
The Minotaur staggered backwards. Iolaus leaped up and followed with a flurry of blows to the beast's body. But the creature's power and strength were too great. With a roar of fury, he spun away from Iolaus' last blow, caught the smaller man's arm and slammed him into the cavern wall. Iolaus tried to dance away, but could only stumble dizzily. The Minotaur caught him and pinned him against the wall a foot off the ground with an arm to his throat.
The monster brandished a long claw in front of Iolaus' face, snarling with fury. "I could rip out your throat with one slash, maggot. You've nearly tempted me too far. But I still need you to get my sweet brother down here, and to distort his judgment. So, enough chatting for now -- time for you to hibernate till then."
The Minotaur dragged the nearly fainting Iolaus to the upper wall of the cavern, and thrust him into an open cocoon of hardened clay and slime. Iolaus began to fight again, kicking and striking out fiercely, but the monster pushed him back with one hand and slapped him with a faceful of a green, slimy goo. The substance filled Iolaus' eyes, nose and mouth, and he could taste and smell the herbs it contained. His dizziness increased, and his arms and legs began to feel heavy. As he slipped into darkness, with the Minotaur's coarse laughter ringing in his ears, his last conscious thought was of Hercules ...
... Iolaus woke to the sound of his name being called. As he opened his eyes, he was aware of a sense of disorientation. For some reason, he had not expected to awaken, and not in the beautiful place he found himself. As he sat up slowly and looked around, he saw he was in a high mountain meadow, with a plain spread out far below. The air was crisp and cool, the sun was warm and bright, and that very brightness confused him completely. He had expected to wake up someplace dark.
And then , as remembrance hit him, Iolaus heard his name called again. He glanced around, and saw Zeus sitting on a rock not far away. Iolaus leaped up, and ran to the king of the gods.
"What the hell is happening?" the blond hunter demanded of the stately, silver-haired god, whom he'd thought of as a kindly uncle since childhood. "Why did you bring me here?"
"Oh, we're not really here, Iolaus. I've just created this image of Mount Olympus to make you more comfortable," Zeus replied, quietly.
"Oh, you have? And so we're just supposed to sit here sipping on nectar and ambrosia while Hercules walks into the trap that your son the Minotaur has set for him?" Iolaus snapped in a heat of fury and fear for his friend.
"You know very well that Hercules understands what he's walking into," Zeus answered mildly, but Iolaus could see a hint of concern in the dark eyes.
"Maybe he can understand it, but that beast could trap him in that maze. And even if they fight more openly, Hercules' strength gives him no advantage over another son of yours, does it?"
"No, it doesn't," Zeus replied, heavily. "The Minotaur ... his name was Lucian, by the way ... Lucian 's gift was the same as Hercules'. Beauty and power. The only difference has been how they have used those gifts."
"So, no help there. And how's Herc going to feel when he finds out he's fighting his brother to the death? Won't the Min -- Lucian -- use Herc's compassion against him?"
Zeus nodded, sighing and looking away. "Very likely."
"Please, Zeus, you've got to help him!" Iolaus implored, fiercely.
Zeus shook his head this time. "Both you and Hercules have a lot to learn about cosmic law. I set this universe into motion, but even I am in some ways bound by certain rules. I've given Hercules all the help I can."
Iolaus paced a couple of steps away, then back, barely leashing the frustrated energy that begged for release in helping Hercules. "All right, then, if you can't do it, let me -- please!"
Zeus looked at him with a small smile. "You will help him, Iolaus, be assured. Just not in the way you're thinking."
"So ... you mean he ... then he'll be all right?" Iolaus asked eagerly.
With a small sigh, Zeus replied, "That's one possibility. It's out of my hands now, Iolaus, and with the Fates ... and Hercules. "
The king of the gods watched the blond hunter sag against the rock beside him, and his smile grew slightly. "You know, I made a good choice when I got you and Hercules together all those years ago."
Iolaus looked up at him, startled, "You mean you're responsible for our friendship?"
Zeus shook his head impatiently. "When are you boys going to understand free will? No, I didn't create your friendship. I just set into action the circumstances that would *allow* it to happen, if the two of you chose. Why do you think Alcmene decided to return to Thebes when she did? Why did your father settle his wife and family in Thebes just before going off to fight in the Persian campaigns?"
"You arranged all that?" Iolaus said, awed. "Why? I mean, why me?"
"Because in all the possible futures I could see for both of you, I saw that you would be so much stronger together than apart. A greater whole than the sum of both your parts. I wanted that for my son, and for you."
"Then why not help me go back now, and help him?" Iolaus beseeched. "This is Hercules we're talking about, Zeus!"
Zeus studied the aching entreaty on his son's best friend's face with pride and a deep sense of thanksgiving. "And Hercules must find within himself the strength to do what he must do," he replied with a smile. "But go back Iolaus, and help him find it."
Suddenly, Iolaus felt the dizziness and disorientation begin again. The beautiful day on Mount Olympus swirled around him in an ever-darkening confusion. Abruptly the world went black and Iolaus felt himself falling ...
...falling into strong arms that tightened convulsively around him. Blind and disoriented, Iolaus fought against that strength, fearing that the Minotaur had caught him again. But the arms tightened about him, not with cruelty, but with love.
"Iolaus! Iolaus, it's all right, he's dead! It's all right!" came the familiar, beloved voice of Hercules close by.
And as Iolaus looked up into the concerned blue gaze of Hercules, his friend, by the grace of Zeus, he knew that everything was indeed all right.
-- The End --
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