Hercules' scream echoed around the crumbling chamber in the damp shadows of the cave. Helplessly, he watched while Iolaus and the two children they were attempting to save disappeared in the midst of the dust from the falling rocks.
He tried once more to call his friend's name, but the sound was choked on the dust and debris filling the air. Immobilised by the boulder he was leaning his back into, Hercules' muscles in his legs bulged from the exertion. The weight of the rock wall behind him threatened to propel him forward, but he maintained his position; droplets of sweat streaking down his face and neck from the effort.
From the top of the cavern, a sliver of light filtered through the dust storm and Hercules could see only rock where Iolaus and the children had been crawling through the crevice. Panic seized him and he searched for the means to stabilise the boulder he was holding. Reaching out one foot, he snared a short log that had been used as a crossbeam in the crude structure. Rolling it toward his body, he managed to get the toe of one boot under it, and with a flip of his foot, caught the piece of wood, carefully angling it against the huge stone. As he eased away, the log groaned from the weight, but held steadfast.
Hercules quickly moved to the rocks that had covered the exit through which Iolaus had been moving the children. He could see no sign of the three victims and reached for one of the rocks that had toppled down on them. Setting the rock aside, he reached for a second, but the precarious balance in the cavern had once more shifted. Stones, both small and large, began to tumble once more and Hercules didn't ever see the one that struck him in the left temple.
Hades waved his arm and the image before him disappeared.
"Persephone, I know what you're going to ask..."
"Hades, honey ... you don't have to take them," she gently reminded her husband. "They are just children who ran into the cave to get out of the rain. They don't deserve to die."
"Maybe not," her husband argued, "but I can't change everything that happens just because you don't like it. The gods would have my head."
"Oh, lighten up, Hades. None of the gods want your job and besides, they wouldn't even find out. And think of Iolaus and Hercules. They were just trying to save the children."
"And I suppose you want me to release Iolaus even ANOTHER time? Gods, that man has more lives than a cat."
"But he uses his life for good," Persephone reminded him, latching herself onto his arm. "You have to help him...and Hercules, too."
"Persephone, baby, I can't--"
"Hades, BABY," she shot back, her hands now on her hips. "This is your domain...our domain for the next six months. And I know you can make this right. Come on...for me...as a welcome home present."
Hades stared at his comely wife and visions of the next few months sprang before him. He loved her so much that when she was with him, his job came second. On the other hand, if she was unhappy, his job could truly be a living hell. The wise man decided he really didn't have a chance.
"Open up the portal for me," Persephone requested.
Hades complied with her wishes and they saw Hercules attempting to rise on one elbow, blood from his wound drying on his face and neck. His legs were pinned beneath the fallen rocks and he was too weak to even toss them off.
"He has lost hope," Persephone whispered.
"He may be dying," Hades reminded her.
"Nonsense," she retorted. "This is Hercules. If he knew Iolaus was alive, he would have the willpower to live. I understand him," she reminded her husband.
"Well, if he doesn't work fast, Iolaus and those kids won't be alive," he replied. "They are quickly using up their air supply under that fallen wall. They don't have much time left. And Hercules certainly isn't in any shape to save them."
"But we are," Persephone decided.
"Sephone, darling, we can't meddle. You're NOT going down there."
"Maybe not," she replied with a gleam in her eye. "But I've got a plan. Come on, I'll show you."
Orestes was standing before the God of the Underworld, asking for the third time if they thought this plan would "really" work.
"Of course it will work," Persephone told him one more time. "You can make it work."
The former king of Attica was dressed in the same clothing as Iolaus, his cousin. "I've never done anything like this before. I don't know-"
"You will do fine," she assured him once more.
"Might I remind you both that time is of importance here," Hades interrupted. "I suggest you get in, do your job, then wait for me to get you out."
"Right," Orestes shook his head. "Make a demi-god believe that I am his best friend and encourage the man, who from the looks of it is half-dead himself, to move a rock wall. Should be no problem at all."
Persephone grinned. "Piece of cake, Orestes. I know you can do it."
"Okay, I'm ready," Orestes stood before Hades.
With a wave of the god's hand, Orestes was standing in the cave's darkness and Persephone and Hades were watching the scene unfold through the window in the Underworld.
"Hercules," a vaguely familiar voice beckoned. "Come on, wake up. I need your help."
The demi-god became aware once more of his dark surroundings. "Iolaus?" he asked quietly, squinting in the dim light. "I thought ... the rock wall fell -- you were--"
"I got out," Orestes quickly replied. "But I need your help getting the children out. If I free you, will you be able to help me?" He began carefully pushing aside the rocks hampering Hercules' legs. "Can you tell if anything is broken?"
Hercules managed to roll over and sit up, cautiously shoving aside some rocks. "I'm okay," he decided, reaching up a hand to discover the wet stickiness on the side of his face. "Nothing broken. But be careful with those rocks, this whole cavern could come tumbling down on us."
"Right, Hercules. I know."
Hercules looked at his friend, a quizzical expression on his face. "Are you sure you're okay, Iolaus?"
"What? Who me?" he asked in a rush. "Of course I am, Hercules. But we need to help the kids. Can you stand?" He reached out his hand to the taller man, helping to steady him when he made it to his feet.
"I'm okay...really. Now let's see about the kids."
"How did you make it out?" Hercules asked. "Before I passed out, I couldn't find you at all."
"Umm, I'm not sure," Orestes hedged. "Here, get this rock. I heard a cry a couple minutes ago. I know they are still alive, but we need to get to them quickly."
Carefully, the two men worked side by side, moving rock, bit by bit, cautiously changing the precarious balance in the cave so that no further slides would occur. A sense of urgency carried them on when they both heard a soft cry from the other side of the wall.
"Hang on," Hercules called to the child. "Don't worry. We'll be with you in just a minute."
A sob caught in the child's throat. "But the man is bleeding," she replied. "I can't help him."
Hercules turned a puzzled look to "Iolaus". "The poor thing must be hallucinating. Probably from the lack of fresh air in the chamber."
"Definitely," Orestes agreed. "Come on."
With the removal of a large rock, there was finally an opening high in the wall. "Honey, can you hear me?" Hercules asked the little girl.
"Yes," she sobbed once more. "But my brother and the man are still asleep. My brother keeps crying out for Momma."
"You're doing fine," Hercules told her. "Just keep talking to your brother. Call his name."
"You're friend Iolaus isn't moving. I-I'm scared, Hercules."
Hercules shook his head and assured her, "Iolaus is just fine, honey. You take care of your brother. We'll have this rock out of the way in just a few minutes."
"Poor thing," Orestes murmured. "We have to get her out of there soon."
"We will," Hercules agreed, picking up one more rock. "Can you take this?"
Muffled shouts came from their right. "Hercules, can you hear me?" echoed through another mound of rock.
Hercules slapped "Iolaus" on the arm. "Keep digging -- I think help is on the way." He moved to the wall and yelled through it. "Be careful if you are coming through," he warned the men. "The whole thing is unstable, but the kids are alive. I don't want the rest of this cave to fall on us."
"We'll reach you, Hercules. Please take care of our kids," one of the men pleaded.
Hercules turned around to see that Iolaus was making headway with the smaller stones on the wall and decided to stay where he was for the time being. "I'll work from this side," he told them. "Just be careful before you move any stones."
Orestes continued to work on the other side of the cavern until finally the hole was large enough for a person. He began to climb through when Hades appeared next to him, whispering, "Okay, that's enough. Herc can take it from here. Let's go."
"I want to make sure my cousin is alive," Orestes replied, moving toward the opening once more.
"Let's get out of here," Hades whispered, disappearing as Orestes went through the hole. "Sheesh, doesn't anybody listen to a god any more?"
Hercules turned to find "Iolaus" climbing through the hole and told the men to keep digging. Moving to the opposite wall, he carefully pulled aside more rock so that he could manoeuvre into the opening Iolaus had created.
He slid through and caught a glimpse of movement. Turning to his right, what he thought was an image faded. But he didn't have time to question what he thought he saw. The little girl was sitting between her brother and....Iolaus.
"Iolaus?" Hercules asked. "What happened?"
"The rock fell on him, silly," the little girl replied. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine," he told her, checking out Iolaus who was awake and trying to move a stone away from his shoulder. "Iolaus, don't move. I'll do it." Cautiously, he lifted the rock off his friend. "Is anything broken?"
"Don't think so," Iolaus cautiously moved his arm while Hercules checked the little boy who was also waking up.
Movement on the other side of the wall caught their attention and Hercules lifted the small boy through the opening to his father's open arms. Other waiting arms were held open for the little girl.
"Okay, your turn," Hercules told Iolaus, holding out his arm to help him up. "Are you sure you're okay?"
"Let's just get out of here," Iolaus replied, wiping his sweat-drenched curls out of his eyes. "It's hotter than Tartarus in here."
"You go first," Hercules prodded his friend through the opening.
Orestes watched through the portal with Hades and Persephone.
"See, I knew you could do it," Persephone beamed at the men. "Now don't you feel good about helping?"
Hades shook his head at his wife's cheerful demeanour, but Orestes had to agree with her. "I owed my cousin a great debt," he admitted. "And I'm glad I had the chance to help. Thank you for thinking of me .... and for believing in me even when I didn't think it could be done."
"Well, you helped your cousin and I helped mine," Persephone told him. "This was a good day's work for my first day back, isn't it Hades?"
The god simply shook his head. "I think the next six months will be very busy," he muttered. "But never dull."
Hercules and Iolaus were sitting before the fire in the small inn. The children were both well and safe in their own beds, the grateful parents watching over them. The townsfolk had pressured the two heroes to remain in town for the evening to rest. A celebration was being planned for the afternoon meal the following day, although Hercules doubted he could think about eating after the feast that had been presented to them that evening. It was time to go to their rooms at the top of the stairs, but neither had the energy to move.
"Can you tell me what happened back there?" Hercules finally asked his friend.
"What part?" Iolaus asked with a yawn.
"The part when I saw you slide through the crevice in the stone wall, then mere seconds later, I found you flat on your back on the other side of the wall."
"Then you saw him, too?" Iolaus asked, slowly turning his head to look at his friend.
"Saw who?" Hercules quizzed. "I remember the first rockslide and you and the children disappeared. A second slide took me out. When I woke up, you were prodding me to get up to help the children. T hen you were unconscious on the other side of the wall. This isn't making any sense."
Iolaus smiled, turning to stare once more at the fire. "When I opened my eyes, I found 'me' leaning over, asking if I was all right. Then Hades grabbed his arm and they disappeared."
"Hades? I could have sworn I got a glimpse of him."
"Then I was right," Iolaus smiled once more.
"Right about what? Would you please tell me what happened?"
"That was my cousin, Orestes," Iolaus attempted to explain.
"But I thought he was dead," Hercules replied, shaking his head.
"He is," Iolaus nodded. "That's where Hades came in. He sent Orestes to help us."
"Well, THAT doesn't sound like Hades," Hercules replied. "He doesn't bother saving lives."
"You wound me, nephew," a third voice joined the conversation and Hercules and Iolaus turned to the god, neither surprised to see him. "I don't go out of my way to fill the Underworld. The world does that on its own."
"Yes, but you can't tell me that you normally 'help' people to live, either," Hercules retorted.
"Ah, but think of what today is. The first day of autumn, and my lovely bride has returned to me."
Hercules grinned, understanding the puzzle. "This was Persephone's idea. I think I do understand."
"Yes, well, I'm sure you get the picture. By keeping my wife happy, I'm happy. Speaking of which .... it is time for me to leave. Now, could you two stay out of trouble for at least the next six months? And you -- he pointed to Iolaus -- I don't want to see you anytime in the near future."
"I'll try to remember that," Iolaus chuckled. "No offence, but I'd prefer not meeting up with you, either."
"Then I'll be saying goodbye," Hades replied.
"Hey ... would you mind thanking Orestes for me," Iolaus asked. "And tell him that I still think he is a great king. He does his kingdom proud."
"I'll be sure to let him know," Hades promised as he faded out and the two friends were once again left alone.
"Well," Hercules yawned. "This has certainly been an interesting day, but I think I'm ready to call it quits."
"Yeah, me too," Iolaus agreed, "catching" the yawn from Hercules.
"You know," Hercules began, interrupted once more by a yawn. "You told me about your cousin Orestes, but you never mentioned how much like you he looked. That was pretty spooky."
"Well, we do sort of favour," Iolaus conceded.
"Sort of? He was a dead ringer for you. You know, he had me fooled ... since he was convincing at being you, it makes me wonder if you could have passed for him. Just think -- Iolaus, King of Attica."
Iolaus drew in a deep breath. "Herc, old buddy, when you're old enough, I'll tell you an amazing story about Attica. But not tonight." With that, he rose from his chair and began the ascent to his room, leaving a bewildered Hercules behind him.
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