Iolaus never knew that darkness could be so heavy. It pressed in on him with the weight of a mountain, growing heavier and heavier with each struggling breath that he drew.
"Shall I tell you another story?" Gabrielle had asked... it seemed long ago. But she was still speaking, in that soft sweet voice of hers. He tried to follow her words ... something about the gods throwing down thunderbolts ... the sound of her voice grew further and further away. He was sinking under the darkness.
Everything in his awareness was being crushed out, like grapes in a winepress, by the heavy pressure of the blackness that bore him down ... and down ... and down ...away from the softness of her lap beneath his head .... away from the comforting stream of words .... and, mercifully, away from the agony that had been gnawing its way through his body ...
For an eternity or no time at all he lay pinned beneath the dark, unmoving, unseeing ... until he became aware that there was light creeping beneath his eyelids.
After another eternity, or perhaps simply a single, unfelt breath, it occurred to him that it might be a good thing to open his eyes.
He did so - slowly and carefully, feeling the burden of the darkness lift from him.
There was indeed light. It was all around him. He seemed to be standing in the rough-walled cavern where he and Gabrielle had taken refuge when the pain from his wound had finally dragged him to the ground.
He was looking at himself, lying silent and motionless in Gabrielle's lap.
"What's happening? Gabrielle?!"
He heard his voice. She did not. She was bent over him ... his body? ... his other self?
Her voice, and the fear within it, were clearly audible to him. She gently shook his limp and unresponsive form.
There was no reply. Gabrielle cradled his head and burst into sobs, stroking his hair and instinctively rocking him in her arms.
Surrounding her was a brilliant halo of rose-colored light, bright, yet not blinding. It reflected off her red-gold hair and glittered on the tears that now coursed down her cheeks. Somehow he was sure, without knowing why he knew, that this was a reflection of that pure heart which he had told her that she possessed.
He had not lied. He could sense the sweetness in her, the gentleness and the steely heroism that lay underneath.
They barely knew each other - and yet she had stayed with him, and now she wept for what she thought was his death.
Was he indeed dead?
He studied his other self.
I don't look so good, was his unspoken remark to himself. He could see that his own face was grey-white, mouth slack and eyes rolled back in his head. The wound that had seemed so trivial when it happened, was oozing blood through the bandage that Gabrielle had ripped from her skirt. It stained his vest and pooled beneath him on the rocky floor.
Yet he could see that his body was still surrounded by its own aura, blue as a clear winter sky after a snowfall. It did not blaze forth with the brilliance of Gabrielle's, but it was there.
Not dead yet, I guess. So what's happening here? He took a tentative step toward Gabrielle and put a hand on her shoulder. His hand went right through her. Am I a ghost? went through his mind.
"It's all right," he whispered to her automatically, even though he knew by now she could not hear him. It cut him to the heart to see her weeping like this, staring blindly into what for her was total darkness, and he could not stop himself from trying to comfort her. "Gabrielle - it WILL be all right!" Once again, his hand went to touch her, and for just a second, he thought he could feel her shoulder. But the impression vanished, and he was left standing, miserable and powerless, listening to her weep. All he could do was talk to her.
"Gabrielle, really, it's going to be all right! Hercules will free Prometheus, and - " He stopped as the thought struck him.
Hercules .... what was happening with him?
The thought had scarcely formed itself in his mind when he was suddenly - there.
"There" was a rocky bowl, gouged from the very peak of the mountain. It was a waterless, comfortless place of sharp edges and hard surfaces - a fit spot to serve as a prison of the gods. The pitiless sun beat down, like a hammer upon an anvil. Scattered about the ground were pieces of what looked like green eggshell, as though the whole area were the nest of some huge foul creature.
It was not a silent place, however. The walls of the bowl rang with harsh cries and metallic clanging, as though a full-scale battle was raging within.
Just from sounds that echoed against the rocky walls, Iolaus knew to a dead certainty what was happening.
It was the confrontation of two against a mob - a confrontation that under normal circumstances would have led to a speedy victory for the larger group and death for the embattled pair. But the two facing the mob were Hercules and Xena, and Iolaus knew that superiority in numbers was no match for the strength of the son of Zeus or the fierceness of the Warrior Princess.
The sounds told him the whole story, as he listened.
What he saw, was another matter entirely.
The rocky bowl and the peaks above it were filled and crowned with lights that blinded the sun itself, as though a window had been opened into a king's long-hidden trove and the jewels within now danced for joy in the sunlight.
Iolaus could barely make out Hercules' form, surrounded as it was with twisting sheets and ribbons of purplish iridescence that now and then flared into golden flames almost unbearably bright, as his friend vanquished another attacker. And just as he had known with Gabrielle, he was certain that he was seeing the radiant soul of the son of Zeus, bright with the noble colors of royalty and tinged here and there with bits of godhood.
"Yi-yi-yi-yi-yi!!!!" A scarlet fireball soared into the air, sending off streamers of silver and gleaming black, as Xena revolved and came down heavily on an opponent. Iolaus smiled to himself. That, too, seemed appropriate - that the warrior woman was wrapped in color of blood.
The combatants facing the two were clad in greenish armor that echoed the color of the scattered eggshells - truly a hellish brood, thought Iolaus, hatched forth by the malice of Hera. What struck him in an instant was the fact that none of them carried an aura. They were indeed soul-less, merely tools of the goddess's hate.
Instinctively he ran forward to join in the fight, shouting "Hercules!" But his friend did not turn at the sound of his name, and when Iolaus launched himself in a flying kick to a green- armored back, he passed right through his target. The fighter registered no reaction at all - until Hercules' fist connected with his stomach and sent him flying backwards, to crash into a nearby boulder.
Iolaus tried again, unwilling to believe what had happened - hurling himself at one of the green hatchlings who was aiming a sword-stroke at Xena - but again he proved powerless to touch the real world. Xena managed to deflect the stroke at the last second and dispatched her attacker with a kick of her own, and Iolaus was left to come to his own bitter conclusion.
This was one fight he could not take part in. That much was sickeningly clear.
Yet it was not in his nature to simply watch the events unfold - not when they could mean life or death for himself and his friends. There HAD to be something he could do. Frantically he glanced around.
It was then that he caught a glimpse of the sword. It was thrust into the scabbard on Xena's back - the same sword that he had seen Hercules snatch up back in the barn, claiming both the right to free Prometheus, and the death sentence which would follow.
How had Xena gotten hold of it?
'How' was actually not important, Iolaus thought to himself. And the 'why' was pretty clear too. She had done exactly what he himself would do under other circumstances, to keep Hercules from immolating himself. Unlooked for, he felt a certain warm surge of gratitude towards her - in this matter, they were indeed both on the same side.
In the few seconds that it took him to think, the last of the hatchlings had been dispatched and Hercules and Xena, both sweating and panting heavily from their efforts, faced each other,
Now it would begin, thought Iolaus in anguish, and there would be only one outcome. Xena might be a mighty warrior indeed, but she was still no match for Hercules in a serious fight - and Iolaus knew from long experience that in this situation, his half-divine friend would waste no time settling matters.
His heart sank. There was no way that Hercules could be prevented from getting the sword and breaking the chain - and suffering the same fate as the luckless soldier back in the barn.
A scream came from overhead. In the time that it took the combatants to turn their faces skyward, a massive flying reptile, clawed and beaked like a great obscene bird, swooped down out of the clouds and snatched up Xena - and with her, the sword of Hephaestus.
Her shriek of surprise and fear echoed off the walls, matched only by the raging cry of her captor as it beat a swift path upward towards the sun.
"Xena!!!" bellowed Hercules in horror, making a mighty leap into the air in a vain attempt to catch her. But the creature was too fast and too high, and the son of Zeus came crashing down to the earth, empty-handed.
The creature flapped off into the distance.
Iolaus sank to his knees, borne down by the weight of utter despair. They were completely defeated. It was no longer even a matter of losing his best friend. Without the sword of Hephaestus, Prometheus' chains could not be broken - and with Prometheus bound, all mankind would perish from the loss of his gifts.
In anger and frustration his glance went up to the brilliantly bedizened mountaintop where the Titan lay bound with the shackles of the god who was a blacksmith.
At the sight of those shackles, an idea - conceived in pure desperation - sprang full-grown, like Athena, into Iolaus' mind. He looked hard at the peak, and, just as had happened before, he was instantly there.
The Titan bore an aura like none Iolaus had seen so far. Ribbons and tatters of blue-white iridescence rose from him like steam from a lake on a chilly morning. Standing by the shackled wrist of the captive Prometheus, Iolaus could almost feel the intense power of the roiling luminescence that raged about him. Such must have been the color of the first light, born of the union of Chaos and Night.
At Iolaus' feet, twisted like a serpent, lay the chain. Each link was as big around as Iolaus' waist and as thick as his forearm, and the lusterless black of the metal did not reflect that light that danced about it. Gazing at it, he could not help wondering if even a sword forged by Hephaestus himself could cleave such mighty bonds.
He spared a glance back down into the bowl, where his friend stood amid the wreckage of the defeated hatchlings. It looked like a firestorm of boiling purple and gold flames. Even at this distance he could sense Hercules' fury and frustration at being robbed of the sword by the wiles of Hera, and his grief at the imminent doom of all humankind
...Unless someone else freed Prometheus ...
Iolaus clung tenaciously to the idea of what had happened - or what he thought had happened - in the cave. He had been so focused on Gabrielle's grief, so consumed by the need to help her, that he had been able to touch her, just for a heartbeat. Perhaps if he concentrated hard enough ...
'And you know, Iolaus,' he said to himself, since no one else could hear him, 'there's been all this talk about BREAKING the chains!' He studied the immense shackle that held the Titan's arm out at what must have been a very painful angle. He gave a short grim laugh. 'Time for an old hunter's trick, I think! Concentration - that's the ticket!'
Iolaus scrambled up the rock, reached for the shackle, hesitated for a second, and then addressed himself once more. 'I'm dying anyway. In fact, I may already be dead! So ... what have you got to lose, Iolaus?'
The shackle was huge and black with intricate carvings. But what drew Iolaus' attention was a hole in the side of it - a hole big enough to slip his hand into. 'That thing's got to have a catch in there somewhere - there's always a catch, right?' He chuckled mirthlessly. 'Pay attention, Iolaus!'
He could see his hand disappear into the carven hole. Now was the time. In his mind he pictured the inside of the shackle and the mechanism of the lock. Most surely the catch would be somewhere directly under his fingers.... The world went away .... there was nothing but the task before him ... Distantly he began to feel the touch of something cold and hard beneath his hand.
It had to be the catch.
Iolaus could sense it growing more and more solid. There was no time to hesitate - he summoned all his concentration and began to push at the mechanism.
For an eon, a lifetime, he pushed and nothing happened. There was no room for any emotion in him, so the frustration that should have tormented him was a dim shadow that could be ignored.
There was nothing in the world, save what was beneath his fingers.
Keep pushing ....
There was the barest sensation of movement.
Iolaus stifled the triumph that began to spring up in his soul and kept only the thought of the catch in his fingers.
And that was when the sword came arrowing down from the sky.
Like glass against stone, his concentration shattered and the faint cold touch of the shackle vanished instantly.
Time seemed to slow. He saw the sword edge bite eagerly and deep, cleaving the night-colored metal of the Titan's chain as though it were the flesh of an enemy.
The link parted.
The brilliance of the blue-white aura that had surrounded Prometheus before was as nothing compared to now. It was like looking into the blazing heart of the sun itself. Iolaus felt himself buffeted by the roaring winds that now arose, and was finally driven to his knees by the manifestations of sheer power which wreathed the being who now stood, towering over the mountain peak as he tore the last of Hephaestus' fetters from his body.
The wind and the light felt like they would tear Iolaus apart, but it did not matter. He was consumed by one thought alone - the sword had not been in Hercules' hand when it struck the chain.
Iolaus had won. If he died now, it did not matter. His friend was safe.
Thunder - or a voice? - echoed inside Iolaus' head. Looking up, he saw the sky above him filled with the great dark eyes of the Titan - huge, solemn pools of calm and wisdom and sadness. They focused on Iolaus and the voice once again thundered.
"YOU TRIED TO FREE ME."
There was no way Iolaus could have made himself heard over the noise of the winds, and he knew it, but he nodded silently.
Something stirred in the eyes and he saw an expression, almost of amusement, in their lustrous depths.
"THANK YOU, CHILD. RETURN NOW, AND LIVE!"
At these words, the brilliant glow and the screaming winds around Prometheus both increased to an unbearable pitch - and then abruptly disappeared.
Iolaus was left once more in silence and darkness.
Slowly he became aware of several things. The first was the dull pain in his side, which told him that he was back in his body, lying beneath the mountain. The second was beating of light against his closed eyelids. He opened them a slit and saw, not the jewel- colored auras that had surrounded him before, but the simple and honest glow of ordinary torchlight.
And the third thing which Iolaus felt was the springing of hope within him when he saw the expression of joy on Gabrielle's face and felt the welcoming softness of her arms about him. Caught in her embrace, with the light and warmth of the fire dancing before his eyes, there was no room for doubt.
He had returned.
He would live.
Prometheus was once again free.
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