"Jason, what's going on?" Hercules demanded in exasperation. "We're supposed to be relaxing...on break from the Academy. You've been cooped up in this conference room all day. Now you think you've got to drag me in as well?"
"Be quiet and close the door!" Jason hissed.
Hercules stared at his friend for a split second then quickly obeyed. There were times he forgot Jason was Prince of Corinth. His friend never put on airs except when necessary. ‘I guess since we're in the Palace, he figures it's justified.'
"Where's Iolaus?" Jason demanded.
"I'm not sure," Hercules slowly answered. "Jason. Something's wrong, right?"
"Yeah," Jason sighed. His shoulders slumped as he ran his hand through his dark hair. "And I need you to help me figure out how to tell Iolaus."
"Tell Iolaus what?" Hercules demanded stepping closer.
Jason took a deep breath. "Skouros is dead."
Hercules blinked once...then again. He slowly shook his head. "Jason...Iolaus...well, it's not like it was with you and your father. I don't think he'll be all that upset."
"Maybe not." Jason's dark eyes held Hercules'. "It's how he died."
"In battle. Right?" Hercules frowned.
Jason abruptly began pacing. "His army was besieging Krius. A truce was negotiated. The warlord of Krius, a man named Xander, gave up some hostages in good faith. In return, he permitted some of his healers to go to Skouros' camp to help with a plague that was breaking out." The young prince paused by the window.
Hercules frowned as his friend's face was half hidden by the afternoon shadows. "And?" he prodded.
"The healers weren't healers at all," Jason quietly continued. "They were assassins...with poisoned medications."
"Gods," Hercules breathed in shock.
"When they were discovered, Skouros had them killed," Jason tonelessly continued. "Then he ordered the execution of the hostages."
Hercules painfully swallowed. "How many?"
"Over fifty," Jason evenly replied. "Some of them women and children."
"No, Jason!" Hercules hotly denied.
"Yes!" Jason angrily replied. He spun around facing his friend. "After that, all Tartarus broke loose! It was a massacre on both sides!"
"You're sure?" Hercules half-whispered. "Skouros gave those orders?"
"Oh, yeah," Jason grimly nodded. "I had reports reach me this morning about it. From more than one reliable source." He shook his head. "That's why I've been in conference all day. Then, just an hour ago, one of Skouros' field commanders arrived." He warily eyed Hercules. "Looking for Iolaus."
"Where is he?" Hercules quickly demanded.
"In his quarters," Jason assured him. "I wanted to talk this over with you first. Then we've got to find Iolaus."
Hercules frowned. He instinctively turned towards the door then stopped.
Jason watched him closely. "What?" he asked.
"Come on," Hercules anxiously urged. "I just got a bad feeling." He glanced over his shoulder at Jason as he pulled open the door. "That soldier wouldn't have gone looking for Iolaus on his own, would he?"
Hercules hadn't realized just how fluently Jason could curse.
Hercules' sense of forboding was born out when they found Iolaus in the gardens with a weather-worn older warrior.
"Tell me that's not..." Hercules muttered.
"It is," Jason coldly interrupted. "And despite my orders."
Hercules hurried forward almost breaking into a run when he saw Iolaus turn away with his shoulders slumped. He started to reach for his friend then caught himself seeing the derisive look in the soldier's eyes. Instead, he defiantly placed himself between the man and his friend.
"I believe you were given orders to remain in your quarters," Jason coldly said.
"With all due respect, Your Highness, I'm not sworn to you," the soldier half-mockingly bowed. "So I'm not required to follow your orders. I'm following the instructions of my General."
"Like you did at Krius?" Hercules seethed.
Jason saw Iolaus' head turn and the puzzled look on his friend's face. "I am Prince of Corinth," he quickly interrupted. "And in Corinth, my word is law." He snapped his fingers knowing his personal guards were nearby. "Escort our guest to his quarters. And keep him there."
"You don't dare!" the soldier bristled.
"Watch me," Jason hissed. He looked at his guards. "Now!" he angrily shouted.
The guards quickly took the soldier by the arm and led him away.
"That wasn't necessary, Jason," Hercules muttered.
"Oh, yes, it was," Jason hissed in return.
A subtle movement by Iolaus brought their attention back to him.
"Iolaus? You okay?" Hercules gently asked.
"You knew?" Iolaus whispered looking at Jason.
The Prince nodded. "He came to me first," he quickly explained. "We were looking for you. I didn't want...I thought it would be better if we told you."
Iolaus nodded and looked down at the object in his hands. "He wouldn't leave me his sword. Said I wasn't good enough for it."
"Then the man was a fool," Jason curtly interrupted.
Hercules pushed down his own anger at Skouros' actions. Even dead, the man was tormenting his son. "Come on, Iolaus. Let's go inside," he urged.
Flanked by his friends, Iolaus slowly walked towards the palace. "He left me his amulet," he mused. "Now why did he do that?" Before either of his friends could answer, he looked up at Hercules. "What did you mean when you told that soldier he was following orders like at Krius?"
Guiltily, Hercules gave Jason a quick look over Iolaus' head. "Let's get back to our room, Iolaus. We can talk there."
"Iolaus! Breathe! C'mon, buddy, BREATHE!"
Hercules roughly shook his friend frightened by the hysterical laughter bubbling from the blonde's lips.
Iolaus suddenly fixed his blue eyes on Hercules and took a staggering breath.
"Hercules, let him go," Jason urged pulling on the demigod's arm.
Reluctantly, Hercules released Iolaus then caught him when the blonde's knees buckled. He backed Iolaus to the bed and gently lowered his friend. Jason quickly poured a mug of water and put it to Iolaus' lips. "Drink," he ordered in a no-nonsense tone.
Iolaus obediently drank the water. The color slowly came back into his face and his breathing evened out. Hercules knelt in front of his friend, his hand gently resting on Iolaus' knee. "You okay?" he finally asked.
Iolaus sniffed then blinked. "Yeah, sure," he muttered looking away. "Look, you guys don't need to stay around here...with me."
"We know that," Jason half-smiled as he sat on the bed next to Iolaus.
"We want to be here," Hercules assured him.
Iolaus looked from one friend to the other. "Jason, can you send word to my mother?" he asked in a small voice.
"Already done," Jason calmly assured him. "An escort left before we found you. They have orders to bring her here." He held up a hand at Iolaus' questioning look. "They won't say anything unless she already knows."
Iolaus miserably nodded. He stared at the amulet still held in his hands.
Jason glanced over the blonde curls at Hercules. "I also sent an escort for Alcmene," he carefully added. "I thought it might help if another woman was around."
'Thank you, Jason.' Hercules quickly smiled. He knew Iolaus would find it easier to open up to Alcmene than with his own mother.
Iolaus released a long low breath. Deliberately, he put the amulet over his head letting it rest against his chest. Looking up, he saw the confusion in Hercules' eyes. "I'm not like him," Iolaus quietly explained.
"Of course, you're not!" Hercules indignantly answered. "Iolaus, you can't for a second think..."
"Yeah, well, blood will out, you know," Iolaus sniffed. "But wearing this will always remind me of what not to be."
"You won't need a reminder," Jason casually assured him.
"Promise?" Iolaus tried to joke but his voice wavered.
Hours later, Iolaus lay asleep curled on the bed exhausted by his emotional outbursts. Hercules gently covered his friend with a blanket while Jason built up the fire. Quietly, the demigod walked to the fireplace and knelt close to the warmth.
Jason glanced over his shoulder at his sleeping friend then back at the demigod. "Hercules, maybe I'm wrong...but it seemed Iolaus was almost relieved that Skouros was dead."
Hercules curtly nodded. "I told you their relationship wasn't like the one you had with your father." He glanced over his shoulder and lowered his voice to an almost whisper. "It's Iolaus' story, Jason. He doesn't realize I know." He carefully flexed the hand Iolaus had gripped in desperation as he'd struggled not to scream his hurt and anger.
Jason studied his friend for a moment surprised at the flash of hostility in the demigod's eyes. "Did you ever meet Skouros?"
"No." Hercules' jaw was clenched in obvious anger.
"I did," Jason mused. "Some of my military advisers contemplated offering him a position with the Corinthian Army."
"Why didn't they?" Hercules asked glancing over his shoulder again at Iolaus. Just let it out, Iolaus. Scream...yell...hit us. We won't care. It'll eat you up inside if you don't let it out.
Jason flashed a sudden grin. "I exercised my royal authority?" He chuckled when Hercules snorted in derision. "My senior advisers were against bringing in outsiders." He shrugged. "I didn't like him either. And that was before I met Iolaus." He saw the worried look in Hercules' eyes. "C'mon," he urged. "You get the extra blankets out from the chests. I'll grab a couple of chairs from the other room. We might as well get comfortable."
Hercules smiled. "Thanks, Jason."
Jason nodded glancing at Iolaus as his left the room. ‘If it were up to me, I'd destroy that amulet.' He snorted to himself as he lifted a chair. 'Iolaus...like Skouros...huh!. It'll never happen. Hercules and I'd beat it out of him anyway.'
Hercules carefully unfolded a blanket and laid it across the foot of the bed. He wondered if Iolaus would still want to wear the amulet when he settled down. But he had the feeling he would be seeing that amulet hanging from his friend's neck for a long time.
Continue on with the Next Story in this challenge.
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