Iolaus fought to orient himself, as he hurtled downward through the earth. His shoulders and arms ached from Hercules' desperate grasp; he could still hear the echo of his friend's horrified shouts. A noisome stench swam up from the frigid depths, clutching at him. He pushed at his fear, beat it back, only to have it strangle him again as he plunged out into open space, hanging there for a breathless moment before slamming against the earth two man's lengths below. Darkness struck him like a fist, and he fell before it.
When consciousness returned, it was not welcomed. His entire body screamed separate agonies, and his head swam with pain. The vile stench surrounded him, clung to him. He was folded over a massive, scratchy shoulder, his face bumping against a rancid mat of fur with each step his captor took.
"Oh, perfect. What next?"
He was thrown to the earth, in answer to his unspoken question, and he looked up at a vision from his darkest nightmares. The leering creature before him boasted an impossibly muscular body, shining with oily sweat, clad in filthy skins, and from it's massive shoulders sprouted the head of a hideous bull, green-smeared eyes blazing with malicious triumph. Long, hairy ears twitched beneath huge, sharp horns, and the corded legs ended in cloven hooves.
"Hi. Come here often?" Iolaus struggled to his feet, offering his captor a cocky grin. The frigid cavern's dim light glowed softly against Iolaus' dusty, blonde hair, and caught in his brave, blue eyes.
The monster watched as the bold hunter regained his breath, and balance. Hot, green eyes raked Iolaus, and grotesquely huge, clawed hands flexed at the Minotaur's sides.
"My brother's pet mortal. Charming. I'm so pleased to have you here; you are proving to be just as useful as I had hoped. Already he is on his way, racing to your rescue. Who will rescue him, I wonder?" The Minotaur's voice was thick with amused contempt, as he studied the defiant figure before him.
"Your brother? You must have me confused with someone else; I don't hang out with reeking, disgusting monsters. Well, OK; tonight is an exception," Iolaus kept his voice steady, and dry, though his stomach twisted at the repulsive smell surrounding him, at the damp, cold air which clawed at his flesh like a living thing, and at the promise of suffering which snarled at him from the Minotaur's eyes.
"Hercules is my brother, mortal." Anger steamed from the monster's nostrils, and knotted his hideous brow.
Iolaus flashed a bitter, blue glance of feigned astonishment into the Minotaur's eyes.
"Wow. Well, Hercules certainly got the looks in the family. And, since you seem to think that you can beat him, I guess he got the brains, as well. Don't worry, though; you definitely got the stench."
The Minotaur's fist slammed into Iolaus' temple, and the inhuman power of the blow sent the golden warrior sprawling. Iolaus retched helplessly as pain and the overwhelming odor took their toll. His stomach heaved, and he decorated the cavern floor with the sour remnants of his last meal. When the spasms faded, he weakly regained his feet.
"Thanks. I feel better already," Iolaus took a deep breath in an effort to still his lingering queasiness.
The Minotaur responded to Iolaus' words of gratitude by clubbing him to the floor once again, then straddling his supine form. Iolaus peered up at him appraisingly.
"Uh, I hate to be critical, but who are you trying to kid with that codpiece? A bit ostentatious, don't you think?"
He kicked upward as he spoke, his booted heel impacting smartly with the item of clothing under discussion. The Minotaur roared with pain, and staggered backward, bending over to protect his groin. Iolaus leapt to his feet, and landed a brutal kick against the side of the massive, furry head, spinning to follow with another kick to the same spot. The Minotaur shook his shaggy head, but didn't fall back. Instead, he lunged forward, pulling Iolaus against his reeking body and restraining him effortlessly.
Iolaus struggled frantically, his face pressed against the creature's greasy, fetid chest, his arms completely immobilized by the Minotaur's cruel grip.
"You are a spirited little mortal, aren't you? Strange; somehow I would have thought that my pampered brother would prefer a more submissive companion. Someone who would worship him, and follow him without question," The Minotaur pulled the compact, muscular body closer as he spoke, laughing coldly as the helpless warrior's struggles increased.
"You know nothing about Hercules," Iolaus spat the words into the Minotaur's flesh, then wrapped his arms around the thick waist for leverage, before bringing both knees up sharply between the monster's legs.
The Minotaur flinched and cursed, but his grip only tightened inexorably, until Iolaus was robbed of breath, and the world began to swim sickly around him. He barely felt the impact as the creature flung him back to the cavern floor; he opened bleared eyes to find his captor kneeling above him. Iolaus' hips were trapped between the massive thighs, and his arms screamed with agony; dimly, he realized that the Minotaur was kneeling on his forearms. The hunter tried to bring his legs up for a kick, but couldn't gain enough leverage, and the pain in his arms brought bile to the back of his throat. He subsided, glaring up at Hercules' monstrous brother.
"You know, you should consider a change of diet. You weigh a ton."
"Yes. I could crush the life out of you with one hand. Or," the Minotaur raked a twisted claw along Iolaus' throat, "empty your little body of blood with one scratch. A warrior's blood makes a fine drink, don't you agree?"
"Is that a rhetorical question?" Iolaus jerked his head away, as the creature's hand snarled in his hair. The cruel grip only tightened and he regretfully abandoned the effort.
"Hair the color of sunlight. Do you know how long it's been since I've seen the sun, mortal? Do you know how long I've languished in this tomb? Buried alive, while Hercules has been wandering the earth, with you at his side. Raising a family, with a beautiful wife in his bed. He's never known a moment of suffering, while suffering has been my bread and board."
The Minotaur returned his huge hand to Iolaus' throat.
"You will fight at my brother's back no longer. You will know only my presence, hear only my voice. I will let Hercules see this, know this, before I let him watch you die," Hercules' brother laughed harshly at the sight of the impotent anger in Iolaus' eyes.
The hunter barely suppressed a shiver of dread as the Minotaur drew a languid claw across his cheekbone.
"Don't worry, mortal; your ghost won't be lonely for long. I'll be sending Hercules to meet you beside Hades' throne soon after you arrive."
The Minotaur's other hand descended over Iolaus' face, smearing him with reeking, green fluid. The stench was overwhelming, and Iolaus struggled vainly, retching again as reality slowly twisted around him.
Occasional blades of awareness slashed through the frozen darkness that quickly entombed his soul. He smelled the Minotaur's charnel-house breath, felt it's heat on his face. He shuddered at the sensation of the massive hands moving over his shrinking skin, smearing that fetid, living fluid everywhere they touched. The odor burned through Iolaus' brain, and squeezed his heart until each beat caused bitter agony to knife through his being. It consumed him, controlled him. The stench became Iolaus, and Iolaus became the stench. He was in it, of it, surrounded by it; his existence narrowed to a brutal sliver of disgust. He could hear the Minotaur's voice, murmuring to him, telling him something - something - the claws. The cold. The pain ... the ripping, searing pain.
He opened green-filmed eyes, and realized that he was encased in a putrid cocoon. The Minotaur was still with him, speaking to him. He couldn't understand the words, no matter how hard he strained and grasped for meaning, for clarity. The voice wound around his fouled soul, nonetheless, and he writhed. The cruel hands finally left his body, and the last dim rays of light disappeared as the cocoon was sealed. The Minotaur's voice was still within him, though, part of the stench. Part of him.
"Herc." He whispered the name like a prayer, and the vile odor that was Iolaus permeated the blessed sound, defiling it.
He received no answer, and expected none. He was Iolaus no longer. He was foul darkness, and biting cold, and the sound of the Minotaur's voice.
Air against his skin. A different voice, deep and warm. Hands pulling him into the light.
He choked, and opened his eyes
He was being held tightly against a warm, strong body; concerned blue eyes were searching his face.
He clutched at Hercules' arms, looking around frantically.
"It's OK, Iolaus. He's dead." Hercules offered, reassuringly.
Iolaus gazed gratefully up into Hercules' face, memorizing the beloved features he had thought never to see again.
Slowly, those features swam before his eyes, melted, became grotesque. The soft amber scent of Hercules' skin thickened into the stench which still stained Iolaus' soul. Hercules laughed cruelly, and lifted a reeking claw, scraping it slowly along Iolaus' chest.
"NO!" Iolaus' scream shook the cavern walls.
"Iolaus. Iolaus, it's OK. Wake up."
Iolaus struggled in Hercules' arms, twisting furiously until the powerful grip eased and he was able to squirm loose. He lurched to his feet, stumbling blindly away.
"Iolaus!" The arms were around him again, restraining him, " Iolaus. Wake up. You almost walked into the fire!"
The fire. Iolaus looked down. Yes, a fire. He was only a few handspans from the flames; he could feel the heat licking at him. He stepped backward, and the arms that still surrounded him loosened just enough to allow him to retreat from the fire, then tightened again.
"Let me go," Iolaus' voice was low, but clear. The arms slackened, then released him, and he stepped away, turning to look up into Hercules' worried face, "I'm OK, now. I was dreaming."
"Iolaus. You've been having nightmares a couple of times a night, every night since we left Alturia. Please, sit with me, and tell me about them; it might help."
"It won't help, Herc. Just let it go. Please," the blue eyes which Iolaus raised to meet Hercules gaze were clouded, and smudged with dark circles, but they didn't waver. Hercules sighed, and relented.
"If that's what you want, Iolaus."
"Don't worry," Iolaus stretched, and summoned up a sweet smile for the demigod, to serve as a thank-you gift, "I've just got to learn not to eat so much right before I go to sleep. That second quail was a mistake."
"I'll do what I can to keep you from over-indulging, then. I need my sleep, too, you know." Hercules' eyes said that he would accept Iolaus' silence, and the hunter nodded gratefully before turning away.
Hercules watched sadly as Iolaus curled up on the blankets, then added a few logs to the fire before doing the same. The night had turned so cold. He felt winter in his bones.
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