The hostile villagers advanced on them, trapping them in the cul-de-sac behind the inn.
"Like I told you before, you're all making a big mistake," Hercules said, holding Iolaus' sword loosely, but making it clear he had no intention of martyring himself. Iolaus nocked an arrow, still at sea as to the cause of the trouble, but prepared to defend Hercules to the death.
"It's you who made the mistake, Hercules," an angry villager spat.
"When you butchered those men," his weasel-like companion added, made bold by the numbers surrounding him.
Iolaus turned a bewildered look on Hercules.
"I'm warning you," Hercules repeated, "I haven't hurt anybody yet, but if you don't turn around and go home now, that's going to change."
"Yeah!" the weasel shouted. "We're gonna hurt you!"
The mob's rush forward came to an abrupt halt when the ground began to shake under them. One of the braver of the villagers had already started at Hercules, sword extended; suddenly the ground beneath him opened and swallowed him. It took only seconds for him to vanish, shrieking, as though he had never been.
Iolaus gave a startled cry as the earth began to sink under his feet.
"Hercules!" he shouted, reaching for the demigod's outstretched arm. Hercules pulled desperately as Iolaus, dropping his bow and flailing for a handhold, was drawn inexorably into the earth. Finally several of Hercules' erstwhile attackers ran to his side, urging him back when it became clear that he, too, would be pulled down. The bright hair vanished beneath the ground, and Hercules was left to stare numbly at the spot where Iolaus had stood. He plummeted through the roiling earth, holding on to the last breath he'd managed to take in before the world went black. He refused to believe that the Fates would take him from Hercules' side so soon. This is not your grave, Iolaus, he told himself firmly, concentrating on slowing down the heart that was banging against his chest. Then the crushing pressure released him as he broke through the vaulted ceiling of a dank cavern and slammed to the ground twenty feet below.
Stunned, he lay gulping in the fetid air, clutching at the narrow edge of consciousness. He coughed and spat a mouthful of dirt; the stuff was everywhere, in his streaming eyes, matted in his hair, scratching at his skin under his clothes. He raised himself to his hands and knees, fighting the blackness that threatened to overwhelm him.
Lifting his head painfully, he peered at his surroundings. It didn't look like any part of the Underworld he had ever heard of, although one could never be sure until one got there.
The cave was vast, lined with man-sized, domed mud structures. There was no sign of the villager who had preceded him into the ground.
He climbed to his feet, cursing the loss of his bow, and began looking for a way out. The spot where he had plummeted through the roof of the cavern had already disappeared. Like I had a chance of getting to it anyway, he thought, shaking his head vigorously to dislodge some of the earth clinging to his hair. A wave of dizziness washed over him and he staggered, flinging out a hand to keep himself upright. His hand punched through the side of one of the domes and the friable material crumbled, revealing a shadowy form within. Iolaus leaned forward for a closer look and then jumped back quickly as the shape crashed through the dome to measure its length at his feet.
Maybe this is Tartarus, Iolaus thought, staring at the thing in revulsion.
Its body was human in shape, heavily muscled, its upper torso covered with a mat of coarse, black hair. The thick, bowed legs ended in appendages more closely resembling hooves than feet, with their two sole toes capped by horny, curling nails. Its -- his, Iolaus corrected himself, as the naked body was obviously, even grotesquely male -- clublike hands also ended in heavy claws.
There the creature's human similarity ended.
The head that sat on those bulky shoulders was that of a bull. Iolaus had never seen a minotaur before, but every child in every village in Greece was familiar with the stories of the half-human monster and the seven youths and seven maidens sacrificed to it every nine years. Theseus had killed that Minotaur in his labyrinth; it was chillingly evident that he had not been the only one of his kind.
The monster twitched, and Iolaus looked quickly around for something he could use as a weapon. Nothing. Well, maybe it was a friendly minotaur, Iolaus thought. Yeah, right.
He began easing cautiously away from the supine figure, his eyes never leaving it as he slid his hand along the wall hoping against hope to hit on some means of escape. It came to its feet, swinging its huge head from side to side, peering short-sightedly around for the instrument of his liberation. Its nostrils flared as it caught Iolaus' scent, and it snorted and turned ponderously toward him.
Here, Bossie, Iolaus thought absurdly, and crouched to meet its charge. It came at him, arms outstretched, and Iolaus leaped lightly to one side, allowing the minotaur to continue its headlong rush into the wall behind him. It recovered quickly, turning to lunge at him again; Iolaus barely got out of the way of a swipe that would have laid his chest open.
He darted behind a row of domes, pulling off his sword belt as he ran. He didn't have a chance against the thing using his conventional methods of combat; he'd just have to hope old hunters' tricks worked on minotaurs.
The monster's keen sense of smell had easily located Iolaus' hiding place. It ran at him again, roaring loudly as it came. Good thing it doesn't learn from its mistakes, Iolaus thought, gathering himself. He sidestepped its charge once again, this time leaping lightly to its shoulders as it passed him.
The minotaur bellowed in outrage, whirling wildly in its efforts to dislodge this puny interloper. Iolaus hooked his toes into the creature's armpits, wrapped his sword belt around its immense neck and began to twist it.
The creature dashed itself against the wall, jarring Iolaus' bruised body, but he hung on tenaciously, slowly tightening the belt around the minotaur's throat. It flung itself around the cavern, finally dropping to the ground and rolling on to its back, desperate to stop the hands that were squeezing the life from him. Iolaus' hands were aching with the effort of keeping the thick belt tight as he wriggled out from under the minotaur and rolled to one side, regaining his feet with an effort. The beast's yellow eyes bulged up at him as it clawed futilely at the leathern noose.
Iolaus added the pressure of a booted foot to the minotaur's throat, and at last it ceased its struggles and lay still. He continued to hold the belt tight for several minutes, then forced his cramped hands to relax their grip.
Suddenly the minotaur's eyes snapped open and stared into his. As he watched, the yellow faded into grey, and the monster whispered, "Thank you."
It spasmed once, then its head lolled to the side. After several seconds, the monstrous body began to shrink and re-form, becoming fully human in appearance. The bull's head was transformed into that of a young human male, his dead face serene.
Iolaus leaned forward and closed the grey eyes.
"I'm sorry," he told the still form helplessly.
"Is this your idea of how a guest should behave?" came a bass rumble from behind him.
Iolaus spun, and his heart sank.
Standing before him was a creature that made his last opponent look like the fledgling it had evidently been. This Minotaur was the stuff of legend, a brother to the one that Theseus had brought down in Crete. His saffron eyes regarded Iolaus disdainfully.
"So, you're the bosom companion of the great Hercules," he sneered, folding powerful arms across his massive chest. "Where I come from, we drown the runts in the litter."
"And what do they do with the freaks?" Iolaus inquired, bracing himself for the creature's attack. To his astonishment, the Minotaur roared with laughter.
"Feisty little thing, aren't you?" he gibed. "I would have thought that a satellite of Hercules would have developed a better instinct for survival. It's never wise to antagonize someone twice your size."
"Somehow, I doubt that anything I say is going to change your plans," Iolaus retorted. He'd spotted an opening in the cavern's opposite wall. Unfortunately, the Minotaur stood between him and his escape route. Hercules, I hope you're on your way, he said silently.
"By the way, what are your plans?" he asked casually, brushing caked dirt off his vest and bending to pick up his sword belt. "World domination? Kill Hercules? Been there, done that."
"I thought I'd combine the two," the Minotaur answered, eyes gleaming with amusement. He gestured to the rows of mud domes.
"Behold my army," he said with a sweep of his hand. "I believe you've had the pleasure of meeting one of my minions already. I've been collecting them for years -- the lonely, the disenfranchised, the lost. It won't be much longer now."
"You made a mistake when you got greedy," Iolaus said. "You should have stuck to taking people no-one would miss. Now everyone knows about you, and they're on their guard. And Hercules is on his way."
"Oh, I'm counting on it," the Minotaur hissed, moving closer to Iolaus. His eyes flared as he studied the blond warrior.
"I begin to understand why my brother tolerates you," he said softly. His thick red tongue flicked out and moistened his lips.
"Perhaps when Hercules is dead and you're transformed, I'll make you my lieutenant."
"You're Hercules' brother?" Iolaus asked incredulously. "I thought Zeus had better taste in women."
He inched sideways, hoping to maneuver around the Minotaur, hoping against hope that he could make a break for freedom. The monster reached out and hooked a hand through Iolaus' vest, nails gliding across his skin in a gesture that was almost a caress. He pulled Iolaus toward him, lifting him almost off the ground. Iolaus' nostrils flared at the rankness of the creature's hot breath on his face. He stared defiantly into the malevolent yellow eyes; the Minotaur's eyebrows drew together as he searched for some hint of fear in Iolaus, and found none.
Suddenly he released Iolaus and turned away. Iolaus breathed a silent sigh of relief, his stomach churning. Herc's brother! He wondered if Hercules knew of their shared parentage. Somehow he doubted it.
"Zeus is doubly my father," the Minotaur said, turning back to Iolaus abruptly.
"He got me on a mortal woman, and I was born as human as you. Then it suited his whim to rebirth me as you see me now, and bury me alive in this catacomb. I've waited for a long time to see him regret that. The death of Hercules will give him great pain -- the kind of pain he's given me."
"And your problems are Hercules fault because," Iolaus prompted, edging ever closer to the entrance. If only he had his bow. Or his knife. Or even a slingshot.
"Do you imagine I don't know what you're doing, little man?" the Minotaur asked him. "You don't get out of here until I release you at the head of my army."
"I'm not much of a joiner," Iolaus said apologetically, and launched himself at the creature. A kick to the jaw barely moved the massive head; another to the rock-hard stomach had more impact on his own foot. Any time, Herc, he thought as he swung a fist at the Minotaur's nose. To his astonishment, it connected, bringing a roar of rage and pain from the beast.
Iolaus was airborne before registering he'd been hit. He slammed into the wall and slid to the ground, fighting the blackness that threatened to overwhelm him. The Minotaur jerked him upright, thrusting his face into Iolaus' once again.
"No more games, little one," he snarled.
"I really wish you'd stop calling me that," Iolaus sighed, and drove his knee into the creature's groin with all the strength he could muster. The Minotaur shrieked in agony, and dropped him.
Iolaus scrambled to his feet and bolted for the entrance.
The Minotaur came after him, roaring with fury. Iolaus was less than halfway across the cavern when the monster caught up with him. He hoisted Iolaus aloft with one clawed hand fastened to his throat, feral eyes glittering with pleasure as he watched Iolaus pull futilely at the fingers tightening around his neck.
The world was starting to turn black when the Minotaur suddenly released Iolaus. He sank to his knees, chest heaving as he gasped for breath.
"No, I won't kill you," the Minotaur told him. "You're far too valuable as a bargaining tool against Hercules. And perhaps, afterwards, to me."
He clenched his fist, and when he opened it again his palm was full of a noisome verdant slime. Capturing Iolaus' chin with a stiletto-like claw, he forced his head up, and with a practiced move smeared his face with the rank muck.
Instantly Iolaus was blinded, his nostrils sealed. He choked and spat, struggling as the Minotaur deposited him in the mud womb that had held the beast he had killed. His struggles slowed as a strange lassitude crept over him that was more terrifying to him than almost any physical attack the Minotaur might have made.
"Hercules, hurry," he whispered, still brushing feebly at the green mask that covered his features.
"Sleep well, my little golden one," the Minotaur told him as he sealed him into the darkness.
"When you awaken, you'll be mine."
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