Prometheus was free.
After sharing a moment of relief and joy, Hercules and Xena began their long trek back down Ganeh mountain, and away from Hera's temporary triumph over the father of humanity.
Soon the initial exhilaration over Prometheus' release gave way to thoughts of doom and premonitions. Not knowing what might await them where they had left their two friends, but in desperate need to distract himself from dark visions of a dying Iolaus, Hercules opted for small talk - something neither he nor Xena were particularly good at, "You said something about Gabrielle wanting to become a bard? How did the warrior princess ever end up with a bard as a friend? And such a young one at that?"
Xena marched on, and thought briefly, before answering, "Friend? I guess so... Well, she just sort of tagged along one day; I certainly did not invite her! She talked me into it."
"Yes, she seems to have that in common with Iolaus; he could talk a shepherd out of...," Suddenly realizing with horror that despite his efforts, his thoughts were back on Iolaus, Hercules gritted his teeth, and reverted back to silence, his eyes on the ground ahead of him.
Xena was annoyed at this attempt to avoid the obvious, and decided to bring it into the open, "Have you ever considered the possibility that Iolaus did not make it?" As soon as the words were spoken though, she felt an unexpected and sudden feeling of compassion towards what Hercules must be going through at that moment, and wished she had phrased her question more carefully. As she gave the son of Zeus a sideways glance, a sudden thought of losing Gabrielle, and what it would mean to her, flashed through her mind. Her friend. Xena still stumbled over the word and the concept behind it, but when she envisioned Gabrielle dead and taken from her, an almost unbearable pain manifested in her heart, and her throat constricted.
Hercules snapped his head towards her, "Of course I have considered the possibility." He raised his hands at once, and shook his head apologetically, "Sorry - I did not mean to come down on you like this. It's just that I am worried. Without Prometheus' gifts even a small scratch can kill a person, and Iolaus was hurt more than he let on. He is just too darn stubborn to admit to it. Sometimes I could just...." His voice trailed off.
Xena hesitated, but then put a hand on the tall man's shoulder; her voice was surprisingly soft, "He'll be all right, you'll see." With a bit of a surprise she knew that she would be devastated having to go back to travelling alone. The sudden realization of how much Xena had come to depend on Gabrielle's friendship, hit her with an almost physical force. And these two, Hercules and Iolaus, had been together for so much longer - how strong a bond they would have forged in their years of travelling together, and trusting each other with their lives. Hercules had not moved, and was staring into space, and she knew that his thoughts were on the scene just a few hours ago, when they had left their companions, wondering whether that was the last time he had seen his best friend alive.
"Come on, let's go - they will be waiting for us." Xena gripped the torch tighter, and began to move ahead. Driven from his dark thoughts by the sudden movement, Hercules sighed and followed.
Prometheus was free.
Gabrielle had known as soon as the light returned. The torch was hissing and smokey, but lit in rebirth, and seconds later Iolaus had opened his eyes. His smile was faint and filled with pain, but enough for her to be wanting to burst with joy. In her relief she had held him close, revelling in the warmth of his body that indicated the gift of renewed life, and returning strength. Iolaus had returned the embrace weakly, gently touching her tear streaked face, indulging in a moment of warmth and human comfort, but then struggled to raise himself enough to look around the cave, calling the names in a hoarse whisper, "Hercules? Xena?" His eyes pleaded with her, begging her for information, but of course she knew nothing herself, and the agony on his face reflected the fear that was again darkening her own heart, "Iolaus, I don't know... it's only been a few minutes though. They...," here she stumbled over the word; one of them would be dead by now. Again her eyes brimmed over with tears, a helpless frustration and despair overshadowing her momentary elation.
His barely revived energies spent, Iolaus sank back down into Gabrielle's lap, but his eyes never left hers. Gathering his strength he took her face in his hands, and held her gaze, "Everything will be all right. They found a way, you'll see." He hesitated briefly before saying the next word, "Together they found a way." Gabrielle so much wanted to believe, and looking down into those blue eyes, she felt conviction springing from them, that began to calm her heart too. How incredible this man was. Even this close to death, strength and power seemed to radiate from him, and his complete trust in Hercules was contagious. He had known Xena a lot longer than she, and though a dark shadow lay over their relationship, his confidence in Xena's abilities was true, and Gabrielle could feel that confidence as well.
Tears still sparkling on her face, she managed to smile, the fire of her fears and sorrow soothed by the soul that spoke through those blue eyes. Bending down again, she kissed Iolaus, and clung to him as to a lifeline. He returned the embrace and was about to ask her to help him up to a seated position, when light exploded all around them, and six armourclad green warriors descended on them from one of the tunnels, without making any noise. They had them surrounded, before the two companions had fully realized what was happening.
It was over before they had a chance to do anything. The silent warriors bound their hands, and prodded them to get to their feet. Gabrielle supported Iolaus as he staggered to a standing position, and was taken by surprise when he slammed into one of their captors, knocking him to the ground. The others were upon him in a second, and that one attack had cost Iolaus what strength he had gathered since Prometheus' release.
Gabrielle rushed to his side, and tried to protect him from the strange warriors who were organizing to leave the cave through one of the numerous exits. "Iolaus. I am so sorry... I should have helped you." She seemed more flustered over her inability to fight the six warriors, basically on her own, than their rather precarious position at the moment, and Iolaus almost laughed. Almost. One of their captors had punched him in his left side, and the wound that had almost cost him his life, was bleeding again, leaving him doubled over and wincing.
Leaning heavily on Gabrielle's shoulder, as they trudged along, he whispered close to her ear, "Don't worry about it. We'll get another chance. Try to slow them down as much as you can, and with a bit of luck, Herc and Xena will be here soon." A bit of luck? Gabrielle could hardly believe her ears. As far as she was concerned they had used up a lifetime of luck on this crazy day already.
They made their way through the labyrinth of caves and tunnels, and the closer they got to where they had left Iolaus and Gabrielle, the quieter Hercules became. He was haunted by images of the past few days. He had decided for himself that he would be the only victim of Hera's newest ploy and, by freeing Prometheus, would give humanity another chance at survival, and prevent his friends from having to take undue risks. Never having told anybody about Hephaestus' sword, and its deadly secret, not even Iolaus, he was distressed to find Xena not only in the know, but already in possession of the sword when he and Iolaus had met at Vulcan mountain. This had been a big surprise to him, and his heart had grown heavy with the knowledge that the fate of yet another friend's life had become dependent on his actions. Then Iolaus had been wounded, and though Hercules would have gladly given his life to free Prometheus, it began to look as if his best friend might become their first casualty of Hera's revenge against the Titan. It was almost as if the gods had conspired against them to make happen what he himself had tried to avoid at all cost.
He went over the last conversation he had had with Iolaus, and cringed at how callously he had behaved. But his fear of seeing his friend helpless, and dying from a scratch that normally would have gone unnoticed, had almost paralyzed him, and the only way for him to deal with the situation had been to be as casual as possible. Hercules knew that Iolaus had understood, but not for the first time he hoped that their efforts had not been in vain to save the hunter's life, and unconsciously he hastened his steps down the tunnels. Xena had a hard time to keep up, but she understood his feelings, and respected his need to know whether they had been in time or not.
Sliding on the rough cave floor they rounded the last corner, and were greeted by the dim light of a lone torch.
"Iolaus!" Hercules cast his gaze around the small cave, trying to pierce the shadows with his eyes. "Iolaus! Gabrielle!" Xena came to a screeching halt beside him, and now they were surrounded by a dead and oppressing silence. Breathing heavily the two friends briefly looked at each other, and then returned their attention to the opening in front of them.
This was definitely the place where they had left their companions, but there was no sign of them now. The torch Gabrielle had been carrying, was braced between two rocks, and was burning with a flickering flame, its soot sending wafts of acrid smell into the stale cave air. "Would they have tried to come after us?" Hercules almost whispered the words, because his mind conjured up the more probably truth that Iolaus had died, and Gabrielle had left the cave in distress. An eerie echo drifted back to them, indicating even stronger how empty the cave in front of them really was.
"They wouldn't have left without the torch," Xena broke the silence that was getting uncomfortable, and was threatening to overwhelm them, with a professional assessment of the situation. She spoke resolutely, meaning to focus her thoughts, but also to hide the fact that she too was worried about their missing friends. While she searched the rocky floor for any traces of them, Hercules regarded her with a quick astonished glance; how much she had changed since their last meeting. He was grateful for her using "they," indicating her conviction that Iolaus was alive.
Xena bent down, holding her torch closely to the cave floor, tracing out some markings with her hand. Hercules moved closer, grabbing the abandoned torch, "Did you find something?"
"I'm not completely sure, but it looks like there were several people coming from over that way," she pointed to one of the tunnels leading in a southwesterly direction, and then shrugged, "Well, there is no blood, so whatever happened, they did not get killed. I just wonder who it could have been. Some herdsmen maybe, who helped Gabrielle move Iolaus out of here?" She looked back up to Hercules, and her confidence faded. Even in the dim light around them Xena noticed that Hercules' face had turned pale, and as he swallowed convulsively, clenching his teeth, she could feel a sense of foreboding. His whispered, "No - not this; - not now." did not help relieve the tension that was building up in her stomach.
She quickly checked around them, "What is it? Did you see something?"
Hercules looked into her face, and the pain in his eyes drove an icy spike into her heart. "We are too late..."
"What are you talking about? Too late for what?"
He almost seemed to be talking to himself, as he checked the faint tracks on the cave floor for himself, "How could I have been so stupid. When we left the plateau - Xena, Hera's minions - they had all disappeared. It never dawned on me before, but they must have come down here ahead of us, and taken Iolaus and Gabrielle." His mind was a jumble of conflicting images and ideas, but one thought kept repeating over and over; the Emerald Warriors would not have bothered taking both of their friends if one of them were dead. The only conclusion was that Iolaus was still alive.
"We have to hurry; maybe we can catch them before they get to the other side of the mountain." He looked into Xena's eyes, suddenly very calm, "Hera has an altar there. She will be screaming for a sacrifice right now - after we defied her plan to keep Prometheus bound."
Xena understood at once, and swallowed hard, "Let's go!" Gripping her sword tightly, she held the torch out in front of her, and began to run towards the southwesterly exit. Hercules, the second torch in hand, followed closely, and though not somebody who called on the gods for help, he still pleaded silently with whomever might be listening, that Gabrielle and hopefully Iolaus might have enough presence of mind to delay their abduction as much as possible.
It was almost dark and Gabrielle shivered as she stumbled forward. She tried to comprehend what was happening. One minute she had been dousing her fears in the sheer inexhaustible pool of Iolaus' strength, and the next they were bound and on the way to some unknown destination, herded by a group of Hera's fabled Emerald Warriors.
She anxiously regarded her companion. Iolaus was still very weak, but the encouraging look he gave her seemed to indicate that maybe he was not in as poor a shape as he tried to make these strangely green creatures believe. They were half carrying him, but he somehow managed to slow them down, resting against the wall, and sinking to the ground, so that they had to stop, and help him up. Gabrielle tried her best to follow his example, and pulling herself together, went for what she did best; she began a conversation with her captors, "The least you could do is tell us where we are going." She raised her voice, "This is not the way out of these tunnels, you know." She was completely ignored, and only pushed forward by one or the other of the warriors, but thusly encouraged, Gabrielle continued chatting. The tunnels twisted and turned, stretching out in sheer endless complexity.
"Hey, why are we turning *right* here?" She had almost yelled, and Iolaus shot her a warning glance; no point getting herself killed just to hopefully lay an audible trail for their friends.
At exactly that moment an all too familiar "Yiiiii-iiie-iiie" resounded all around them, and its echoes reverberated from all the walls. As if he was waiting for something just like it, Iolaus barreled into two of their captors, throwing them off balance, leaving all three of them in a jumbled mess on the floor. Nothing else was necessary though; Hercules grabbed two of the warriors, bringing their heads together with a solid clank, and Xena took care of the last two of Hera's minions. Before the two Iolaus had bowled over had a chance to get back up and join the fight, Gabrielle had picked up a rock with her hands, and smashed it over the head of one of them, and Hercules had picked up the last one, swinging him headfirst into a stone wall.
Wincing and groaning, Iolaus scrambled back to his feet, and found a fair-sized boulder to rest on for a while. Xena surveyed the situation, and sighed with relief.
"Xena!" Gabrielle, ignoring the fact that her hands were still bound, threw herself at the warrior princess, tears of joy streaming down her face. Somewhat overwhelmed by this outpouring of emotion, Xena's first reaction was to distance herself from the clinging Gabrielle, but then gave herself over to the joy of seeing her friend in one piece. Smiling, she cut the shorter woman's bonds, before sheathing her sword, "We could hear your shouts from halfway up this mountain. What were you thinking? They could have killed you!"
"Aw, no, Xena. Iolaus was right there; he wouldn't have let them." With an adoring look, and open affection which caused Xena to look at her with a questioning raised eyebrow, she glanced over to where the meeting between Iolaus and Hercules was much more subdued, but no less emotional. Hercules grinned from ear to ear, as he walked up to his friend. Iolaus sat crouched forward, favouring his left side, and trying to staunch the trickle of blood that was flowing from his reopened wound. Despite all of this a crooked smile widened on his face too, and his eyes twinkled, as he looked up at Hercules with a sideways tilt of his head, "About time you showed up; we couldn't stall them much longer."
Hercules sighed deeply, and squeezing the other man's shoulder tightly, gently shook his friend, "I am glad to see you too!" He reached down, and as Iolaus grabbed his arm, he pulled him into a standing embrace.
They spent a few precious minutes rejoicing in the fact that they had all survived, and then decided to leave the caves, before the surviving Emerald Warriors might regain consciousness, and force them to renewed fighting. Hercules led the little group, and where their entrance had been somberly quiet only hours before, they now all joined in the telling of tales. Iolaus had regained much of his strength, and was capable of walking on his own, and slowly but happy they made their way to the bright summer day outside the cave.
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