The soothing warmth of the crackling torch caressed his cheek. He opened bleary eyes, to find Gabrielle's innocent, concerned visage, bending over him. The sight brought a smile to his face, and he leaned into her caressing embrace thankfully.
Fire. The gift of fire had been returned. And, faintly, he felt his body stirring, trying to marshal its defenses against the blood loss which had sapped his strength and leeched the life from his limbs. So, the gift of healing must have also been restored to mankind.
It didn't matter, though. Nothing mattered. Not any longer. Hercules was dead.
How strange, the silence of it. All of creation should be screaming a frantic denial; the flame itself should cower dimly in the face of the loss which it illuminated. His own heart, certainly, was strangely dumb. He'd always been positive, at those dark moments when he'd allowed his thoughts to encompass the possibility, that his heart would surely break at the moment of Hercules' death, no matter what the distance between their physical shells when the event occurred. He would know. Know that he was alone.
As he was, now.
He snuggled closer to Gabrielle, drifting in the clean, sweet, glory of her presence. Soon, as soon as possible, he would join Hercules. Such horrible weakness saturated his body; surely he'd lost enough blood to free his spirit. And, Gabrielle would be safe, by Xena's side. The fight would continue, in the capable hands of the warrior princess and her soulful companion, the bard.
The reality permeated his shivering soul. The enormity of Hercules' absence from the world. He embraced the shattering grief, let it sweep him far away from the cruelty of consciousness.
'The sword handler will be reduced to ashes.' His own words rang in his memory as he swam into the blackness.
It was almost funny, looking back, Hercules thought, but, the catch in his breath wasn't from laughter.
He'd very nearly stepped on Iolaus' body. That was how he found him. Hercules had been intent on getting down the remainder of the cliff and through the tunnels as quickly as possible; intent on reaching Iolaus. He had done so all too soon.
He'd been smiling with anticipation, his heart light. Prometheus had been freed, and it hadn't been necessary to sacrifice the life of a warrior for the victory. Just a short journey, and he could tell the story to Iolaus; best to give the hunter plenty of embroidery time before they reached the closest tavern.
Hercules had quickened his descent, searching eagerly for the next toehold, when his questing foot had encountered something odd. He'd craned his head to see, and nearly lost his precarious balance.
He had hung in space for a moment, frozen with disbelief. This must be a phantom, this pale, bloodstained figure. Iolaus' legs were curled beneath him, nearly filling the shallow ledge; his upper body was stretched to its full length, his fingers still dug into the crack in the rock above him, as though he'd been dragging himself skyward. From the bloodied track stretching out beneath him, that was exactly what he had been doing.
Xena had said something, her voice echoing from above. Hercules had barely heard her, couldn't spare the energy to decipher her words. He had lowered himself carefully, to rest uneasily beside that still figure. A lone thought had drifted through the screaming numbness of his mind; you just didn't see Iolaus *not* moving. You didn't. Even when he slept, there was an aura of energy surrounding the vital hunter; he would awaken at the first strange sound.
Hercules reached forward, to break through that foreign barrier of stillness, to find the meager pulse whispering sporadically in the burning throat.
Unexpectedly, Iolaus had started, and he'd turned precariously onto his back, his wild, red-rimmed blue eyes locking onto the sight of the demigod.
"Herc? I'm trying!" His voice had been a raw, painful croak, "I'll find them. I promise. I was just ... I was so tired. I'll find them!"
Iolaus had struggled to continue his climb, and Hercules had swept him up, turning to meet Xena's pitying eyes as she found a perch beside them.
He barely remembered the remainder of the nightmarish trip down the cliff, with Iolaus bound to his back. He'd slipped a few times, on the dark blood which the hunter had surrendered during his ascent. Almost at the bottom, they had come across Gabrielle, perched precariously on an outcropping of rock. Xena had been furious.
"What in Hades do you think you're doing, Gabrielle?"
"Iolaus. I was following -" Her eyes sought the bloody bundle on Hercules' back.
Xena had divided an angry glance between her young companion and Hercules' unconscious burden. She'd guided Gabrielle to safety, and the little band completed their descent from the heights.
Two days ago. It seemed like a lifetime. It might well turn out to be a lifetime. For, Iolaus' spirit was hovering on the brink of the Other Side.
Hercules' shadowed gaze turned to the makeshift sickbed; a thin blanket spread over a woven mat of leaves, under the shelter of a smooth-barked tree. Xena knelt behind Iolaus, supporting his bandaged torso, while Gabrielle coaxed the semi-conscious hunter to drink cool, herbal tea. After a few moments, his eyes flickered closed, and he failed to respond to Gabrielle's gentle urgings to try to "drink just a bit more". Xena shook her head with a wearily grateful smile at her companion, and eased Iolaus carefully back down, looking up to meet Hercules' eyes. She squared her shoulders and joined the demigod.
"I don't know what else I can try. The infection looks to be abating, yet, his fever won't drop. We haven't been able to force enough fluids down his throat to even begin to compensate for the lost blood." Xena's blue eyes were blood-shot and surrounded by dark, sunken skin. She had used every ounce of her healing skills to try to coax the hunter back to the land of the living, with very little success, "Why doesn't he fight?"
Frustration rang in her voice. She was exhausted, Hercules told himself, numbly. They all were. He rested a comforting hand on her shoulder, briefly.
"I don't know. Why did he follow us up the cliff? Gabrielle said that he didn't leave until after we'd freed Prometheus. And, why does he keep trying to run away?"
Twice now, the watching trio had found Iolaus, crawling away from the camp. They never left him alone, now, not even for a moment. His last escape had taken place when he had appeared to be completely unconscious. Hercules had left his side to refill the water bag; he'd barely been gone for three minutes. By the time he returned, Iolaus had crawled quite a distance, re-opening his wound yet again.
He'd fought furiously when Hercules carried him back to his leafy pallet.
"I've got to get them. Why are you trying to stop me, Herc?" His weakness had overcome him, and he'd subsided into a fevered swoon.
Hercules once again recalled himself to the present, and sank down beside Iolaus. Gabrielle coughed significantly, trying to catch Xena's eyes, then gave up and pulled Xena after her, leaving the demigod alone with his ailing friend.
He sat for the longest time, just watching the sweat-sheened, suffering face. Iolaus twitched unceasingly, fighting something, someone, in the dark land of his dreams. Hercules reached forward tentatively, and took Iolaus' burning hand in his own.
"You know, I really wanted to hurry back, to tell you the tale of the freeing of Prometheus. I wanted to give you plenty of time to enhance it before its first Iolausian re-telling. So, here it is. We had just reached the foot of the cliffs, when Xena cold-cocked me ..."
Gabrielle nearly forced Xena to sit down, then stood over her while she drank a cupful of sweet wine.
"Xena. Leave them alone, for a while. You've done what you can. You're not going to do Iolaus any good if you fall asleep on him." She shot a devilish glance at her fierce companion. "Well, maybe he's been there, huh?"
"Xena. Why does Iolaus irritate you so much? Why was it so important to him that you know ... Oh, I forgot!"
"I can't believe I forgot! Before, when Iolaus was ... soon after you and Hercules left ..." Gabrielle's voice trailed off, uncertainly.
"Gabrielle." Weary though she was, Xena could still glare with the best of them.
"He wanted me to tell you something if ... if he. If he died. He said "Tell her that there are no hard feelings. Tell her that I'm proud to have known her."
Gabrielle watched in amazement as Xena's features were transformed. The darkness fled from her eyes, and her mouth softened into a smile which, on anyone else's face, would have to be described as hesitant.
"He said that?" Her voice was almost as soft as her smile.
"Xena? Are you all right?"
Xena didn't answer.
"What exactly happened between you? Why did you say that "his love turned to hate"? What hard feelings should there have been; did he mean because you broke up with him?"
Xena met Gabrielle's innocent eyes. Then, she offered her friend the truth.
"I had to carry you down the cliff, you know. You weigh a ton." The weight of loss constricted his chest, and Hercules stopped speaking. He concentrated on breathing, carefully balancing his pain. When his voice returned, he resumed speaking to his unconscious companion.
"Iolaus. You weren't supposed to be dying. You weren't supposed to be crawling up that damned cliff, leaving your blood on each stone you conquered. You were supposed to be healing, laughing with Gabrielle, maybe pretending to be feeling a bit worse than you really were in the hope of coaxing a kiss or two out of her. Don't you understand? You had to be that way. Laughing. Singing. Strong. That's what I needed you to be. That's the only reason I was able to walk away from you. Because you would move a mountain to give me what I need. And, what I need is for you to be alive. You *must* know that."
He stared at Iolaus' unresponsive face, remembering all too clearly the last time he'd looked into his beloved friend's eyes, and actually seen Iolaus there, looking back at him, aware. Alive. It had been as he and Xena prepared to continue the quest to free Prometheus, alone. Iolaus' crystalline eyes had spoken volumes, as he bade Hercules "Goodbye". He had truly expected this to be their final farewell.
Hercules had been unable to acknowledge the possibility, even though, in his heart, he expected the same. What words could possibly be spoken to such a friend, at such a time? Thanks? It's been fun? Burdened by silence, he had simply walked away. Now, that burden of silence crushed his heart, making a labor of each breath. Had that been his last chance? Shouldn't he have found the words, somehow?
He had been willing to accept his own death, in such a cause. Willing to leave Iolaus to carry on, alone. He hadn't expected that he would be the one who would have to keep living, in a world which had suddenly become quite dark, and small.
Gabrielle returned slowly to the suffering man's side. Her mind whirled with Xena's words, burned with the knowledge of what had passed between her friend and Iolaus. And, Hercules. It was one thing to know that Xena had once lived a different life. It was another to see the dying face of a noble man whom she'd once done her best to destroy, and to look into the despairing eyes of the friend who was losing him.
What must it be like for Xena? She'd fought so furiously over the past two days to bring Iolaus back, tried tirelessly to gift him with the life which formerly she had sought to steal. What did she see, when she met Iolaus' fevered eyes?
Hercules glanced up as Gabrielle joined him at Iolaus' side, and she had to break the glance at once. The grief suffusing the demigod's face was so palpable, that it seemed an invasion to look upon it.
Iolaus mumbled softly, and she found her hand reaching out, as though to resume her former occupation of stroking his face and hair. She smiled, wanly, at her own folly.
"I wish I knew what he's trying to say."
"Was he like this, the whole time?" Hercules' own hand had taken up the task of smoothing Iolaus' hair, in a soothing, repetitive rhythm; with his other he made a small gesture at Iolaus' twitching, restless form.
"Oh, no. He was really pretty quiet, most of the time. I told him a few stories. He was concentrating, I think, just trying to hold on. He finally slipped away; he came back, briefly, after the torch renewed itself. He spoke, then he fainted again. That was when I was sure that I had lost him. I fell asleep, soon after. When I woke up, he was gone. If only I hadn't fallen asleep."
"You were exhausted, Gabrielle. Don't blame yourself. Do you remember what he said?" Hercules tried to distract Gabrielle's thoughts; she seemed shadowed, distracted.
"Yes. It wasn't anything, really. It didn't make sense. He said: 'His ashes.'. That's all."
"'Ashes'?" Hercules gazed her blankly, for a moment, then he grabbed her arm, urgently.
"Gabrielle, brew some more of the tea. But, first, tell Xena that she has to get to the village, immediately. We need broth, as rich as she can get. Strong, red wine. Have her get some bread, as well, for sops. Hurry!"
Gabrielle stared at him blankly; had his suffering overtaken his reason?
"Hercules, Iolaus will never eat -"
"He will! Tell her, please! And, get the tea brewing." Hercules turned away from her, picking up the abandoned cup of tea and lifting Iolaus with one powerful arm.
"Iolaus! Iolaus! Wake up. You have a duty to fulfill, remember? You must wake up." His voice was loud, stern.
Gabrielle ran over to Xena, as Hercules continued his attempts to awaken Iolaus.
Hercules' mind spun furiously. So, this was what had kept the hunter drifting between the world of the living and that of the dead. One last task to perform. One which, in his grieving heart, he really didn't want to complete. He lacked the strength to continue fighting for life, yet, his conscience wouldn't allow him to reach for death, until Hercules' remains had been seen to. Hercules' heart leapt as Iolaus' delirious eyes flickered open.
"Iolaus. I'm waiting for you. You must complete your task."
"I know. But, I'm so tired."
"I think you're afraid, Iolaus." Hercules had to force the cruel words past his lips. 'It's for his life, Hercules. You have to.' He cleared his tight throat, "I think you're afraid to face the truth. Well, you must, my friend. If you want to free me."
"I'll try, Herc." Iolaus pushed against Hercules, struggling weakly to rise.
"No, Iolaus. Not like that. You'll need strength. You must drink the brew, and the water."
Iolaus' face showed quite clearly what was in his heart, before he even spoke.
"But, Herc, I don't want to be strong. How will I be able to reach you, if I'm well?"
Hercules' voice failed him again, and his tears began to escape. He fought to speak, and was rewarded by a ridiculously tremulous effort, which slowly gained in strength.
"You will. Eventually. But, right now, I need your help. Only you can free me. And, you can't do it unless you're strong. So, drink." He held the cup to Iolaus' lips with a trembling hand, and the hunter obediently gulped the liquid down. All of it. He laid his head back against Hercules' chest when he was done, obviously exhausted by the effort.
Hercules started at a gentle touch on his shoulder, and met Gabrielle's questioning eyes as she sank down beside him, refilling the cup with fresh tea.
Hercules added some water to the tea, to cool it, then coaxed Iolaus' dazed eyes open again and began feeding it to him. Once he'd finished the cup, and taken a cup of water, Hercules let the hunter's head drop against his chest, once again. He settled himself carefully, letting the tree support both of them, keeping his arms around Iolaus' torso. He wanted to keep that contact at any cost; there was no way that he would allow Iolaus to drift further away.
"Hercules?" Gabrielle's soft voice was becoming a bit irritated.
He smiled at her, hope blooming in his eyes for the first time since he'd found Iolaus.
"My ashes, Gabrielle. He's trying to find my ashes."
"Your ashes? What do you -?" Gabrielle's puzzled expression gradually lightened, and a smile crept cautiously over her face, "Oh, why didn't I see it? Because, he was sure that you would be the one to strike the blow which freed Prometheus. Your ashes!" Gabrielle's bright face fell again, "But, Hercules, he *knows* that you're alive. He's seen you. He's spoken to you."
"Maybe he hasn't, not really." He smiled again, into her questioning eyes, "You don't know my stubborn friend, well enough. He decided that I was dead, as soon as he knew that Prometheus was free. Just seeing me wouldn't be enough to change Iolaus' mind, not a chance. Not in his delirium. He must think that I'm a vision, a sending. And, I'm going to take advantage of that. I'll *force* him to get well. Then, I'll kick his butt!"
Gabrielle joined him in a burst of relieved laughter.
The heat danced ceaselessly over his eyelids, coaxing him to consciousness, and to a driving sense of urgency. There was something he needed to -
He squinted against the filtered sunlight which pierced him as he opened his eyes. The first sight his grateful gaze lighted upon was that of Hercules, leaning against a tree, at Iolaus' side. There was a crease between the demigod's fine brows, even in his slumber, and he was unshaven and haggard. Iolaus had never beheld a more wondrous vision.
Hercules' eyes snapped open, and a smile lit his face. His friend's eyes were clear and sane.
"Iolaus! Iolaus, you recognize me?" He reached forward, impulsively pulling Iolaus into a hug. His heart soared as Iolaus returned it, weakly, then pulled away a bit, to send a half-mocking, half-puzzled look up at Hercules.
"Of course, I recognize you. But, Xena? She's not -"
"She's fine, Iolaus. Tired, but fine. We all are, now." He hugged Iolaus once again, then released him, "You, my friend, have had us all running around in circles for days. Do you know how many skinfuls of red wine we've poured down your throat? How much damned broth?"
"Yeah, you." Hercules stood, and called Xena's name. She and Gabrielle appeared, cresting the small hill with alacrity. Their worried faces brightened as they saw Iolaus propped up on his elbows, watching them with his patented 'Me? What did I do?' expression firmly in place. Xena actually laughed, as they reached the little pallet.
"Iolaus. How are you feeling?" Xena's voice was uncharacteristically soft.
"Uhmm. Hungry. Have we got any food? What? What's wrong with you people?"
Xena and Gabrielle were hanging on to one another, gasping for breath between guffaws. Hercules was leaning weakly against the tree, howling with laughter.
Iolaus shook his head. Obviously, they'd all lost their minds at some point since he'd last seen them.
"Is somebody going to tell me what's going on?"
Some images, characters and other things used in these works are the property of others, including but not limited to Renaissance Pictures and Universal Studios. Everything else remains the property of the artist or author. No money will be made on anything appearing on this webpage and no copyright infringement is intended. This site was created by fans for the enjoyment of other fans.
For information on reprinting text and/or artwork (including privately owned photos, photo manipulations, and other images) from this website, please contact Ceryndip , who will assist you in contacting the original creator of the piece. Do NOT reprint, republish, or in any way link to items on these pages without obtaining permission from either the original creator of the piece or the webpage owner. A written one-time use statement may be issued to you at the discretion of the artist or the author. Please respect the legal and artistic rights of our contributors.