Maze of the Minotaur

by Melisande

Story originally written for Hercules: the Legendary Journeys by: Andrew Dettmann and Daniel Truly
Transcript of original episode to assist RLJ staff written by: Sponge


The ancient forest was tangled, dark, and forbidding. But that did not matter to the two young men who stepped carefully through the ferns and brush, counting footsteps as they came. The younger of the two held a map in his hands and he consulted it as he paced. “81, 82, 83, 84, 85, 86, 87, 88, 89, 90,” the speaker caught his breath. A shaft of sunlight through the thick trees illuminated his light brown hair.

His companion resembled the younger man, but was taller and darker. He looked amused, a bit bored, but willing to humor his younger brother. “Hey, do you think we’re going the right way?”

“Sh-h-h! I’m counting! 91, 92, 93,...” He counted his paces to 100, then added, “... and fifteen paces to the north.” They turned and counted out the paces to find themselves facing a wall of earth covered with vines.

“Nothing. Either we went the wrong way of you were had, Andius!” the dark-haired youth scoffed.

Andius hit at the vines first in frustration, but then in excitement when his blows knocked the vines and brush away enough to glimpse the entrance to a cave hidden behind the vegetation.

“Ha!” he crowed. “See, Danion? And did you say that I was stupid for trading three cows for this map? Come on!”

The two men stepped into the cave, their breath rapid and their eyes bright with both anticipation and trepidation. Danion found an old torch on one wall whose tinder was still intact, and Andius struck a spark with the flint and steel to ignite it. They walked on into the darkness of the cave, looking around wonderingly.

“Wow -- just think!” Anduis marveled. “ The great god Zeus was once here in this very place! His treasures are gonna be ours now. We’ll be the richest brothers in Alturia -- no -- in the world! We’ll be as rich as the gods!” Danion looked at his brother, still not certain of the treasure, but with growing belief. “Both of us, Andius?” he chuckled, teasing the younger man. “You and me, together?”

Andius grinned and shook his brother’s shoulder. “’Course, Danion! We’re brothers, right? We stick together!” When Danion grinned back condescendingly, Andius snatched the torch. “Now -- give me that!”

Suddenly, the torch’s light revealed a huge wooden door. “Look, Danion!” Andius cried triumphantly.

The door appeared to have been in place since the beginning of the world. It looked as though it had to have been fashioned by the Titans. The planks of wood were enormous slabs of some primeval wood that neither boy had ever seen before. It was covered with moss, sheaths of cobwebs, and rootlets growing from the earthen walls around it.

“This is it!” shouted Danion, pounding on the door. “It’s really true!”

And in the darkness behind the great, antediluvian barrier, a huge and horrible figure moved through earth to the passage behind the door and waited ...

Andius was beside himself with excitement, ripping at the hoary cobwebs and debris that obstructed access to the door. “It’s unbelievable! Come on, help me with this bar!”

Three massive bars of timber barricaded the door. Without thought as to what this meant, the young men climbed up and struggled to remove the top plank. They pushed it out of its slot and dropped it to the ground. They leapt down, and with a few moments of work loosened and removed the middle bar.

Andius continued to rave with anticipation as he moved to begin on the next plank. “This treasure is practically ours! Just think what --”

“Wait a minute!” Danion stopped pushing against the heavy board, as he considered their actions, albeit somewhat after the fact.

“Come on, Danion -- what’s your problem?” Andius kept pushing at the bar. “Come on!”

“No -- hold on!” Danion was staring at the giant plank, his excitement calming and the significance of the locks finally beginning to register.

“What? What is it?” Andius asked, caught in spite of himself by the dawning caution on his brother’s face. He stepped back from the door as he studied Danion’s puzzled face. Andius might have the quicker mind of the two, but he knew that Danion’s slow, careful nature was often more clear-sighted than his own.

Danion continued to study the door and the bolts that had held it. “If you were going to build a door to keep people out, where would you put the locks?”

Andius asked, “What do you mean?” But their attention snapped to the door suddenly as a powerful blow pounded against the door from the other side.

“I think this door was built to keep something in --”

Before the two youths could realize their horrible mistake, the door abruptly burst open in their faces. All they could do was to cover their heads and duck the splintered pieces of wood as they flew around them like missiles.

They looked up in shock to see, silhouetted in the doorway, the terrible shape of a huge creature that seemed half-man, half-beast. The monster’s menacing frame was still cloaked in darkness, but a sickly light from behind him limned huge, curving horns, and massive, clawed hands reaching toward them.

Andius fell into a dead faint. Danion, in the total mindlessness of terror, took to his heels. He was not even aware that Andius wasn’t with him, nor of the monstrous creature bellowing words behind him, until he reached the outskirts of the village. Danion fell, his breath coming in sobs of exhaustion and his mind reeling with the thought that Andius had not followed, and was back with that -- that terrible beast. As he considered frantically what to do for his brother, the words of the creature suddenly registered in his mind as his only choice...

“Go bring Hercules!”

Chapter One

The westering sun gilded the spring air with a honey-colored light. Hercules, striding behind his horse tilling the rich earth, stopped a moment to gaze over the hillside at the beauty of the landscape in this light. Almost unconsciously now, he pushed down the familiar urge to go racing off down that hill to whatever adventure awaited. The hills and valleys of Greece had once seemed full of them. Hercules sighed and turned the horse to make a new furrow, when he became aware of his two sons, Aeson and Klonus, rolling on the ground fighting. Hercules watched for only a moment before he could tell it was getting to be more serious than play. He stopped his horse and flung off the reins.

Striding over to the boys, he pulled them apart easily, his great strength firm but gentled. The boys, nine and ten years old, struggled for a moment longer, obviously disagreeing violently over a toy.

“Hey, hey, hey! What’s going on here?” he fixed them both with a severe look. “I’ve told you two before -- no fighting!”

Aeson protested, “But you fight, Dad!”

Klonus, not to be outdone, replied, “Yeah -- all the time.”

“No,” Hercules replied patiently. “That’s different. I only fight when I have to, and I do it to help keep people from being hurt. You boys are fighting over things -- and things are never as important as people. People are worth fighting for -- but you’ve got to be careful how you go about it. Do you understand?”

The boys stared at him blankly. Hercules sighed. Being a father was often more difficult than being a hero.

“Well, okay,” Hercules replied, thinking hard. “Then let me give you an example, but it was one where I fought the wrong way, and your Uncle Iolaus -- as well as King Jason and my friend Lilith -- had to fight for me.”

“Not you, Dad!” Aeson said.

“Never!” echoed Klonus, neither believing that his father, his hero, could have ever been in the wrong.

“Well, it’s true, although I wasn’t quite myself. You see, I had gone to help your Uncle Hephaestus one day when your Uncle Iolaus and King Jason -- he was Prince Jason then -- wanted to go to Corinth and have some fun. They called me a ‘wet blanket’ because I felt I had a duty to help Hephaestus out. That made me feel pretty bad. When I talked with Hephaestus about it, he said I was solid and dependable, like him -- not fiery and the life of the party -- like your Grandfather Zeus. At that time that made me sad, too -- because more than anything else, I wanted Zeus to notice me. I thought maybe one of the reasons he hadn’t paid me any attention was because I wasn’t like him.”

“But it was really because Grandfather was trying to protect you, wasn’t it, Dad?” Aeson asked, having heard something about this state of affairs in another one of his father’s stories.

“That’s right, Aeson,” Hercules replied. “But I didn’t know that then. And so, when Hephaestus went on to say that the fire in his forge could change someone to be like Zeus -- fiery, exciting, wild, the life of the party -- I knew that I had to do that, because then Zeus would have to notice me. So, when Hephaestus left the forge for a minute, I invited the fire to come within me.”

The boys’ eyes were as round as saucers. “What happened then, Dad?” Klonus breathed.

“I changed. I became the life of the party, all right, but I didn’t want the party to stop. I wanted to keep partying, doing whatever I wanted, and I got mad at Iolaus and Jason when they tried to stop me. I wanted to ‘set the world on fire’. What I didn’t realize, is that Hephaestus’ fire was burning me up inside, and could easily take everyone I cared for with it...”

(Twenty years earlier ...)

Hercules jerked the horse’s lead line roughly as the animal reared and screamed in terror.

“What’s he afraid of, Hercules?” came Jason’s voice from behind him. “There’s something wrong with you and the horse can sense it.”

Hercules whipped around and saw, through the golden-crimson heat haze coloring his vision, Jason, Iolaus, and Lilith standing in the doorway of the Academy’s barn. They stood watching him with puzzled and anxious looks that Hercules could not understand. Wasn’t this change in him for the better? Wasn’t it just what Jason and Iolaus wanted? He was sure enough no ‘wet blanket’ now! The very thought of it made Hercules shudder. And now listen to them!

Iolaus called out, “You’re not yourself, Hercules!” And there was a thread of panic in that voice that niggled at something deep inside him that his new heat tried to roar over.

“I’m the son of Zeus -- that’s who I am!” Hercules sang out, carelessly, arrogantly. “And I’m wasting my time in this Academy. So -- I’m gonna go set the world on fire!”

Hercules released the horse and the terrified animal bolted out of the paddock door. The son of Zeus didn’t notice, but paced intently toward the door in front of which his friends stood. He’d go by them or through them, he laughed to himself, he didn’t care. Jason, Iolaus, and Lilith watched Hercules approach, and felt their fear rise -- both for their friend and for themselves. Hercules’ golden skin glowed with an almost molten aura. His normally ice-blue eyes were the dark heart of a flame and glowed red. Smoke or steam rose from each footstep as he trod across the hay-covered earthen floor. The three friends pulled back watching him go past, then Jason made the first move. He clutched at Hercules’ shoulder as the demigod stepped past him, but the Prince snatched his hand away with a cry, burnt by the heat of Hercules’ skin.

Iolaus could stand it no further, and dashed at him, shouting, “Let’s discuss this like responsible adults!” He grabbed Hercules in a bear hug, but leaped back. “It’s like he’s on fire!”

Jason snapped, “We’ve got to stop him!”

Lilith tried to lasso Hercules with a rope, but it caught fire and nearly burned her. The same thing happened when Iolaus tried to strike him with a staff, and Jason tried to block him with a burlap-covered arm.

“Why are you doing this?” Lilith cried. Hercules just laughed and watched mockingly as Iolaus grabbed a long length of chain and started whirling it like a lasso.

“This chain won’t burn!” Fear for his best friend almost choked Iolaus.

The young hunter tossed the chain, but Hercules caught it and all the loops easily, and in some rapid and complicated maneuver, he whipped the chain around Iolaus’ legs and swung the older boy upside down, dangling helpless from a crossbeam.

“Isn’t this fun?” Hercules half-laughed, half-snarled, watching Jason and Lilith jumping to help Iolaus. The demigod felt his molten power coalesce in his hands. He raised them in fists, and Jason and Lilith leaped back as those fists burst into flame.

“Let’s have some real fun!” he cried, wildly, advancing toward Iolaus, menacingly, his blazing fists raised.

“No, Hercules!” Lilith cried, appalled. “He’s your friend!”

Whether it was those words that penetrated his fiery, fey recklessness, or Iolaus’ baffled, betrayed azure eyes, Hercules seemed to realize what he was about to do, and to whom. The flame in his fists died, and he shook with the energy it took to rein in that scalding power.

“Stay away from me! Get back!” he screamed, and ran out of the barn. How did they think they could stop him?

(Back to present ...)

...The grown Hercules returned to the present to see both his sons regarding him with open mouths and fearful eyes.

“Dad -- what did you do?” Klonus whispered.

“You didn’t hurt Uncle Iolaus, did you, Daddy?” Aeson asked.

Hercules smiled and shook his head. “Even at my worst, I couldn’t do that. No -- Jason and Lilith called for Hephaestus and asked him about what could have happened to me. Between them all, they figured out what I had done, and made a plan ...”

(Twenty years earlier ...)

...Hercules strode along the road to Corinth as it rounded the large pond. Hephaestus stood waiting for him, hammer in hand.

“I need your help, Hercules,” the Smith-God stated firmly. “There’s work to be done.”

“No work for me!” Hercules replied, chuckling, his eyes burning ever brighter. “Just play!”

A ball of fire ignited in his hand. “How about a game of catch?”

He tossed the flaming orb at Hephaestus who barely deflected it with his hammer.

“I’m like Zeus now!” Hercules crowed. “I’ve got the fire inside me!”

A wall of flame erupted from the earth between him and his half-brother. Hercules hooted with laughter. “OOPS! That’s cool!”

Meanwhile, Iolaus, Jason, and Lilith crept around the edge of the pool behind Hercules, sheltered by tall banks of reeds.

“We’ve got to drag him into the water!” Jason whispered, holding the chain, pondering how best to use it.

Hercules whirled about, his senses obviously even more acute than usual. “It won’t work, Jason.”

He raised another wall of flame between himself and his friends as well.

“The fire’s burning you up, Herc!” Iolaus cried, wretchedly. “You’ve got to fight it!”

“Oh, I don’t want to fight it, Iolaus! It feels right -- too good!” He flung more fire so that it burned all the way around him.

Jason and Iolaus looked at each other desperately. Jason gulped a hasty breath and grabbed Iolaus’ arms from behind, so that they were back-to-back with their arms locked at the elbows.

“Pretend you can’t swim!” Jason commanded.

“What?” Iolaus shot back in confusion, but it was too late for explanations. Jason flung his body forward powerfully and flipped Iolaus high into the air over the pond. With a great cry, Iolaus plunged down into the deepest part of the pond.

“Iolaus!” Hercules screamed. The young hunter burst from the depths coughing and sputtering, his limbs flailing wildly in the water .

“Jason -- what are you doing?” Lilith hissed, starting toward the pool.

Jason grabbed her. “No! No -- Hercules has to do it!”

Realization dawned in the girl’s eyes and both of them tuned and shouted, “Hercules, you’ve got to save him!”

Hercules stood in the midst of the flames, burning but irresolute, his suddenly frightened eyes on Iolaus’ struggles. Jason grabbed his ankle, screaming that it was hurt.

“Hercules, Iolaus is drowning -- you’ve got to save him!” Lilith added her shouts to Jason’s.

Hercules shuddered convulsively, all his deepest instincts flooding the flames raging in his bones. The demigod screamed, falling to his knees as the fire and flood warred within him.

“IOLAUS!” The cry ripped through Hercules’ throat, as the pain convulsed him. The fire began to die all around. And now Hercules could hear Iolaus’ cries.

“Help me, Herc!” There was a gargling sound as water filled Iolaus’ mouth and was spit out. HERCULES!”

“Iolaus!” Hercules whispered in anguish, as the terror of the situation dawned to his recovering awareness.

The demigod leapt up, ran to the pond, and with a mighty springing jump, vaulted into the air, somersaulted and plunged into the pond near his desperate friend. There was a mighty frothing of the water with the dousing of the powerful flame burning Hercules from within. Hercules caught Iolaus, turned his face up and out of the water, and towed him back to the bank.

As they clambered out of the shallows and up the bank, Hercules gasped, “Iolaus -- you all right?”

“Yeah -- yeah,” Iolaus choked out, spitting out pond water. Hercules grabbed his friend’s arm and looked down at him worriedly. Iolaus sucked in air gratefully, and tried to grin at his pal. “You okay, Herc?”

Hercules shrugged and nodded, not trusting himself to loose the flood of guilt that lay just below the surface. Iolaus’ eyes narrowed, but he remained silent, looking as thought he might follow up on that issue later.

Hephaestus looked from them to Jason. “You knew Hercules would save him.”

Jason smiled. “Even the fire couldn’t change Hercules that much,” he declared with the wisdom that would one day make him a wise king.

Hercules swung round on Jason accusingly. “Why did you flip Iolaus into the water?” he shouted. “He could’ve drowned!” Lilith nodded and bounced on her heels. “Now that sounds like the old Hercules!”

“He was only pretending that he couldn’t swim,” Jason explained kindly.

Iolaus and Hercules both shook their heads. “Pretending, nothin’!” Iolaus snapped, “I can’t swim!”

Iolaus glared at Jason, and Hercules and Hepahaestus echoed the sentiment. Lilith punched him on the shoulder.

“Oh,” Jason observed intelligently, the realization dawning. “Oops!”

And then it was time for Hephaestus to leave, with only a little moralizing. Jason and Lilith grinned at each other in relief, as Hercules and Iolaus looked one another over carefully, laughing with abandon. And if that laughter had just an edge of hysteria to it, none of them spoke of it...

(Back to present...)

... The grown-up Hercules looked at his sons measuringly. “So now you know what I mean, don't you?”

The boys nodded, but Hercules wanted to be sure of the lesson finding its mark. “You only fight when you have to, and for the right reasons. And never with your brother! Now -- shake hands.”

The boys clasped hands solemnly and only a bit reluctantly. “That’s better. Now off with you!”

Hercules watched grinning as the two boys pelted away toward the house, probably hoping for some samples of the supper they knew their mother would be preparing. Hercules watched them go with a grin, then got up to unhitch his horse from the plow.

About the same time, over a few hills in the distance, the still-beautiful Alcmene, mother of Hercules and Iphicles, foster mother to Iolaus, read the contents of a small scroll and shook her head with a frown.

All at once, two strong arms encircled her waist and a deep, warm voice cajoled, “Ah -- whatever it is, we must fix it. The beautiful Almene must never wear a frown in my presence.”

Alcmene, who had startled briefly at the unexpected voice behind her, now turned in a huff and rapped the speaker’s arm smartly with the rolled scroll. She could not keep the laughter out of her voice as she spoke, however.

“Zeus, you sneaky flatterer! As if you had not been on the receiving end of quite a few of my frowns!”

“Ancient history, ancient history, my dear!” he rumbled, snaking an arm around her shoulders again. “Behold in me a reformed character!”

“Hades will be ice-skating in his domain when that’s true!” she laughed, stepping out of his embrace nimbly. “Now Zeus, do be serious. I have just had this message from Deianeira. She’s a bit worried about our son. She feels he is fretting at the limits he has willing set upon himself to be there with her and the children. She’s concerned that he’s unhappy -- missing the freedom and excitement of his former adventures.”

Zeus nodded.. “She’s sent me the same message on the west wind.” He turned to the bowl of artfully arranged fruit, broke off a cluster of grapes, and proceeded to pop a couple into his mouth. Chewing thoughtfully, he finally continued. “And she’s right.” Alcmene was startled and upset. “She is?”

“Oh. it’s not so bad as all that, my sweet. At least not so far as I can tell. I believe Hercules is for the most part quite content. But we all know that his journeying life was so much of what Hercules was -- and is -- about. And it wasn’t just the adventure. So much of his self-worth came from his ability to help people. And, of course, he misses Iolaus.”

Alcmene met Zeus’ suddenly sharp dark eyes, in some surprise, “Why, Zeus, that was almost -- insightful.”

“There are moments when I’m not totally self-absorbed, Alcmene,” he replied dryly.

“Well, I’m certainly glad to be witness to this moment,” Alcmene replied, tartly. “I mustn’t have been around for the other one.”

Zeus sputtered, but she interrupted. “All right, never mind! Let’s get back to Hercules and Iolaus.” She looked at him in puzzlement and some protest. “How can you say our son misses Iolaus? They’re certainly not strangers. Iolaus doesn’t live that far away, and they do see each other -- “

“Not nearly often enough. Think of their childhood and youth, my love. From before the time Hercules could remember, Iolaus was a major part of his life. They were practically inseparable. Iolaus lived here much of the time. And you know that I helped that process, because of what we knew even before Hercules was born.”

Alcmene nodded, remembering the strange adventure when she and Hercules, still in her womb, had been saved by the courageous and determined man that she much later realized was the grown Iolaus, sent back in time for that very purpose.

“You said they were brothers of the heart, and that you brought them together to complete each other. And as long as they were together, each would be healed and whole.”

Zeus nodded. “And nowadays they see each other how often?”

Alcmene sighed, considering the situation as Zeus painted it. “Not nearly often enough,” she said, echoing him. Zeus studied her with a thoughtful smile.

“So -- you and Deianeira have had your heads together, eh?” he asked, tossing the dry, plucked grape vine in to the air, where it vanished.

Alcmene smiled innocently. “We have to stick together, dear. It takes both of us, since Hercules inherited your hard head. A little help from you wouldn’t hurt, either”

“And so my part in your little conspiracy is to be ...?” Zeus chuckled.

“Just to be subtle, enticing. Talk about adventure, and encourage him to remember a few,” Alcmene replied sweetly. “Open him up to the possibility, so when the opportunity presents itself he’ll be ready. Of course, if you could arrange some nice, safe little jaunt --” Zeus shook his head, laughing, and put a finger to her lips to stop her words. “I will conspire with you to prepare the boy, lovely one, but he would not thank me if I made it easy for him.”

She gazed at him, warmth lighting her indigo eyes. “That is one of the great gifts that you gave him, Zeus, by staying away all those years. I did not understand it then, but I do now, and I honor your wisdom in it.”

Zeus was obviously touched, but lightened it with humor. “Why, thank you my dear Alcmene! It isn’t often that I hear you mention my name and ‘wisdom’ in the same sentence.”

They laughed together, and he continued. And speaking of wisdom, Hercules is much too quick not to realize if I do pave the way.” He looked away for a moment, his face clouding. “Of course, there are a few ... problem areas ... that I will do my best to make ... off-limits for him.” For a moment his eyes betrayed a haunting sadness and fear.

Alcmene reached out a hand to him and started to speak. Shaking himself, he forestalled it, grasping her hand with a quick, “Nothing, my dear, nothing.” A brilliant smile made the sadness seem a distant memory.

“Don’t worry, Alcmene. Between us, you and his good wife, and I shall find a way to give Hercules what he wants and needs.” He cocked his head, as if listening. “Now might be a good time to start!”

He kissed her fingers and vanished in a rainbow of iridescence.

Done with his work, Hercules had put away his plow, rubbed down and fed his horse, and cleaned the harness. He was in the act of hanging up the tack when he heard a faint familiar chuckle.

Hercules grinned and glanced around. “All right -- where are you?” he called out. “Father, where are you?”

Zeus’ rich, raspy laughter filled the barn. “Son, here I am.” Hercules followed his father’s voice and found the King of the gods sitting as comfortably on some sacks of grain as he probably did on his own throne.

Zeus grinned at his tall son and began to rhapsodize. “Hercules, my boy! I thought I’d drop in for a moment. I’ve just come back from the two most wonderful weeks of my life!”

Hercules grinned back, shaking his head in mock severity.

“Come now, Hercules, even a busy family man like you needs a day off. When was the last time you had some fun? Some real fun, now, the way you and Iolaus and the others used to?”

“Me?” Hercules asked, as nonchalantly as possible. “Oh, it’s been a long time now. No one has come for my help for some time.” He chuckled. “Guess all the monsters and giants are gone. Iolaus and I must’ve beaten all of them up.” Zeus smiled, but his eyes narrowed, as his godly senses easily detected the thread of wistfulness in his son’s jovial tome. He replied,

“Yeah ... yeah. Tell me -- do you miss it?”

Hercules perched on the edge of a barrel and regarded his father a bit more seriously. “Honestly?”

Zeus nodded. “Honestly.”

“Yeah, I do -- I miss it a lot,” Hercules sighed, and smiled ruefully. “But you know, I promised Deianeira that I’d be here, and raise the kids with her. And you know me -- I’m a man of my word.”

Zeus nodded, allowing some of the enormous pride he felt in this half-mortal son to show in his eyes. “Absolutely!”

Hercules read that emotion and ducked his head briefly, gratified, and a bit overwhelmed. With a deep breath, he looked back at Zeus earnestly.

“I love my kids,” the demigod stated with unshakable firmness. “I love Deianeira.” He paused, then continued with a slight hesitancy. “I mean ... everything is ... perfect. I’m -- I’m settled down now.”

Zeus laughed, and replied expansively. “I’m a thousand years old now, and I’m not settled down.”

Hercules laughed, and shook his head. Hercules was much too at peace with their relationship now to observe that he himself did not plan to pattern his behavior after his father.

That peace was dearly won. Hercules had spent his youth trying to get his father’s attention, and suffering quite a bit of disappointment and bitterness when he never got it. He could not understand then what he now knew well -- that Zeus had done his best, as he saw things. Knowing that Hera would have been after this son’s life even more relentlessly had he given Hercules obvious attention, Zeus had stayed away. All along, however, many invisible safeguards had always surrounded him. It was hard, though. It had kept them apart, and Zeus had suffered the loss as well. However, as Zeus had intended, Hercules had learned to rely on his own intellect and strength, and on the love and companionship of his friends.

And when Hercules had grown into his power and become a skilled warrior, Zeus had come into his life. That advent had been equally hard; Hercules remembered that his early confusion and anger at his father had hardened into bitterness and distrust. He had allowed the relationship, even begun to rely on it tenuously, but he had been wary of Zeus’ motives and trustworthiness. And then, Hercules and Iolaus had gone on their adventure to Gargarensia and the Amazons ... and in the course of that adventure, Zeus had forever earned the love, trust, and gratitude of his favorite son by reversing time so that Iolaus, the other half of Hercules’ soul, could live again. Hercules had realized then that most of what his father had done in his life had been out of protection and love, and his bitterness melted away. Despite their differences, and the parts of Zeus’ life of which Hercules could not approve, he accepted his father as he was, and cherished their relationship.

Listening to his father’s laughter, Hercules was simply glad that he now had that relationship, and his children had their Grandfather. “Hey, why don’t you come in and say hello to the children?” Hercules voiced the next natural thought.

Zeus shook his head. “I can’t today.” He really did love his grandchildren, but some things had higher priority at certain times. “No, no -- I have an appointment. Another time soon, I’ll drop by.”

“Your appointment -- is she blond?” Hercules asked innocently.

“Oh, come on!” Zeus punched his shoulder. “Oh, by the way --”

He fished in a pocket of his gold-shot robe and pulled something out of it. “I picked this up on the beach at Solornia.” He handed something small and delicate to Hercules.

The demigod turned the pearlescent square and turned it over. “ It’s a sea-serpent scale.”

Zeus nodded. “Just keep turning it over, and the beaches of Solornia won’t be so far off as you think.”

“It’s beautiful.” Hercules stared at the reflections from the pearly scale. “Why did you ...”

But as Hercules looked up, he knew Zeus was gone. His gaze fell again to the scale, and his memories rose...

He remembered he and Iolaus running on the beach as boys ...

He remembered a fighting a young sea serpent that nearly killed Iolaus as he acted as bait ...

He remembered a giant sperm whale that had nearly swamped the Argo when he, Iolaus, Jason , and the rest of the Argonauts struggled to get back to Jason’s ill father ...

And a kaleidoscope of more rich remembrances filled his mind ...

In fact, they filled his thoughts so fully that it was much later when his attention was actually recalled by Deianeira’s voice, repeating his name.

“Hercules. Hercules? Hercules!” And the demigod’s attention was drawn out of the past and to focus on his wife’s slightly exasperated, puzzled face, and the laughter of his children..

“Are you going to want to eat his food later?” she asked and pointed. Hercules looked down at the table and realized that the dog was eating his supper.

“Hey! Get out of here!” Hercules gently pushed the dog away, and laughed with his kids.

Deianeira shook her head, a slow grin dawning. “Sometimes I think you’ve been hit on the head too many times!” she said, dryly. Ilea thought this statement was hilarious. “Daddy’s been hit on the head too many times!” she crowed.

“You think so, huh?” Hercules winked at her.

Deinaeira’s motherly glance checked the children's plates. “Eat!” she urged. But as she ate her own food, she considered once again Hercules’ unaccustomed distractions, and knew the time for action was near.

Chapter Two

Earlier that very day, Alcmene had taken the road toward Thebes, carrying a well-laden basket in the crook of one arm. She walked for some time before turning off the track, well before it wound over the rugged hills to town, however. She walked down a long path that led to a clearing where a whitewashed stone cottage stood among laurel trees. There was a large open shed behind it, and from that outbuilding came a metallic hammering, and occasional bubbling and rushing sounds. She made her way to the wide door, glimpsed the man inside, and stood for a moment watching him at his work.

The metallic striking sounds were the sounds of the blacksmith’s hammer pounding the red-hot metal hook that he was shaping on the anvil. The smith was not a large man, but his bare shoulders and chest were broad for his size, brown and glowing with his sweat and the heat of the forge. His arm muscles were powerful and sharply defined as he held the work in great pincers in one hand and deftly, strongly, wielded the hammer with the other. His hair was brighter and more golden than the nearby flames. His strong, handsome features were totally concentrated on the work, but a joy was evident there -- exuberance, and love of life, and a deep satisfaction in his labor.

One older boy worked the bellows which made the rushing sound. The smith thrust the iron into the white-hot coals for some moments as the older boy fanned them. He then removed the glowing object, shaped it with his hammer for several more blows, and finally plunged it into a large, leather wrapped bucket. He nodded with a grin to a small boy with blonde curls very like his own who was watching him intently. At his nod, the boy poured cold water over the heated iron. Steam rose, creating the rushing sound that Alcmene had heard, but the boy was careful and well-taught, and he stood well back from its scalding path. As the steam subsided the blacksmith removed the newly forged iron hook, and all three regarded it carefully.

“Perfect, master Iolaus!” his older apprentice stated, grinning.

“It’s great, Dad!” the little boy echoed.

The craftsman smiled at their praise. “Yeah -- I think this time we’ve got it.” He deftly opened the pincers one-handed to drop the still warm implement on a table that had numerous similar newly made objects upon it. “And now we’re completely done with Captain Marius’ commission for these parts for his new trireme’s rigging.”

Over the boys’ cheering, Alcmene called, “That calls for a celebration!”

The smith looked up in surprise, and an even more joyous grin illumined his well-cut features. “Alcmene!” he called, in happy greeting.

The little boy whirled, even more excited. “Gra’mene! Gra’mene!” he shouted his own special name for the woman who was the only grandmother he had ever known. He was careful to set the copper ewer down gently, but then he dashed to the doorway and into Alcmene’s open arms.

“My goodness, Master Telaus! What a greeting from such a great master smith as yourself!” she teased, as they broke their hug. Listening to him tell her all in a rush about the work they were doing and how he was helping, Alcmene watched his expressive face. More than ever, she could see Iolaus’ features beginning to emerge from the coloring and the shape of his dead mother’s face. *Ania!* she thought, with a familiar tug of her heart. *If only you could be here with him!*

But she smiled at the boy, then looked up to share the smile with Iolaus and his apprentice, who had been clearing up the detritus of their work. “How about an early picnic lunch to celebrate your completed work?” she asked them.

“Alcmene, you have just made our day!” Iolaus replied, walking to her and removing his leather apron. “I’d hug you, but I’m a mess. So I’ll thank you as I can for now.” He leaned over and kissed her on the cheek.

“Well, you are most welcome gentlemen,” she said, dimpling. Alcmene looked over at the teenager had just completed his tasks.

“Perdix, would you like to join us? I have more than enough,” she invited, warmly.

“You know you’re welcome, Perdix,” Iolaus added, smiling at the boy’s blushing confusion.

“Lady Alcmene, Iolaus -- thanks a lot,” he stammered, “I love your cooking, ma’am but ... uh ...”

Iolaus laughed and punched the boy’s shoulder lightly.. “He has a previous lunch engagement with a lovely young lady in town, Alcmene, or I’m sure he would gladly accept the offer.”

Alcmene’s smile was kind. “Well, of course your previous invitation must be honored,” she told Perdix seriously. “Enjoy yourself!”

“Yes, ma’am, I will, I think,” he replied, smiling back. “Iolaus, I think everything’s done. I’ll come back tomorrow to help box up Captain Marius’ order.”

“That will be fine. Old Klangitus is going to be proud when you show him what you’ve done, Perdix,” Iolaus stated, referring to the village smith with whom they both worked. “Now, go and enjoy yourself, and remember I’ll be calling on you again when I’m done with the planting.”

“Right -- thanks, Iolaus! ‘Bye, Telaus! Alcmene!” He waved and hurried off down the path.

“Now, while you fellows get cleaned up, why don’t I set things out on the table under the big sycamore?” Alcmene suggested, catching up her basket again.

“We’ll hurry!” Telaus replied, grabbing his father by the hand. Iolaus winked at Alcmene as he was led quickly away to the cistern.

Some time later, the delicious lunch had been consumed, Telaus’ new set of toy warriors had been admired, and he was busily playing with them down by the stream, loudly re-staging the Battle of Marathon.

Iolaus and Alcmene sat savoring the light, crisp white wine she had brought, and “filling up the corners” with fruit and cheese.

They had chatted about many things, comfortably and happily, as two very old and dear friends but also as mother and son, for both considered the other in that light. And Alcmene was beginning to tell Iolaus of her concerns for Hercules.

“Both Deianeira and I have noticed it, Iolaus,” Alcmene was saying. “He’s been so preoccupied lately. Oh, he’s just as kind and polite, he does everything around the farm just as usual...”

Iolaus, watching her face in some concern, added, “But --”

“But it just seems his heart isn’t in it,” she continued. “He’s quieter. He sits at times lost in reverie, and we know he’s thinking of the past. He’s told the kids many more stories about his adventures lately. He’s hung on the words of passing travelers, Deianeira says.”

She sighed, gazing up as a “V” of wild geese flew over, calling loudly. “Both Deianeira and I know Hercules loves his family -- of that I have no doubt -- but, well -- you must feel it, Iolaus. From the time you were barely teenagers, so much of both your lives was devoted to helping others ... and of course along the way you’ve had some amazing adventures. Those experiences were so much of what your lives were about.”

Iolaus nodded, with a reminiscent smile, his gaze distant and unfocused. “That’s for sure.”

After several moments of watching him, Alcmene prodded his arm gently. “I think you’ve got the picture, dear. In fact ... you just illustrated the picture.”

Iolaus laughed sheepishly. “Yeah, I guess I did. Well, you know, Alcmene, I can’t say that I haven’t been feeling it myself, because -- as you see -- I have. I think Herc and I both still feel there’s a lot we can do. Of course, maybe a bit of the peace we’ve had around here lately has been partly our doing --”

“A lot your doing, I’d say,” Alcmene declared with feeling.

Iolaus smiled at her vehemence. “Of course you would. But you know, even though we may have championed ourselves out of a job, that’s still who we are. I mean -- all our training has been to be warriors -- it’s in our blood.”

At her worried look, he smiled. “Now don’t get me wrong, Alcmene. I don’t think Hercules wants any major changes in his life. I don’t either, really, except --”

He glanced over at Telaus, who slumbered on sweetly, and Alcmene could see a brief glint of tears in his expressive blue eyes.

“Oh, my dear,” she said, gently. “I know how much you miss them -- Ania and Aeacus.”

He looked back at her, and smiled, but it was a smile that substituted for the tears he would not let fall. “It still hurts so much, sometimes, Alcmene. But more often these days, it’s a sweet and gentle ache that comes when I see Ania in my son’s face, or see him move his hands when his speaks much as she did, or when I see a child of the age Aeacus would’ve been.”

He sighed and looked back at the child. “There’s so much healing in having Telaus here with me. I know I couldn’t leave him for long -- remember how long it took me to leave him with you just for a few hours after Ania and the baby died?”

She nodded, not trusting her voice, her motherly heart breaking for him.

“But as much as he is my anchor, I have to say I’ve felt the tug of desire for a new challenge. My smithing has helped -- given me something creative to do. But ... still there’s been times I’ve felt at odds, wanting to run, wanting to just *go*. I guess it’s just part of who we are.”

He glanced back at her quickly. “But you know -- Herc and I , we talked about this quite a bit just before he married Deianeira -- and at times since. You know better than anybody the kind of fathers we both had. Of course, at least Herc understands Zeus’ issues better now, and they have a better relationship. Still, he went through a lot of pain as a kid, and that doesn’t go away -- not completely.” He looked down at his fingers making circles in the condensation on his wine cup. “And me and Skouros -- well -- “ his laugh was hard, brittle -- “there wasn’t ever a relationship.” He was silent for some moments. Alcmene said nothing, but reached out and clasped her hand over one wrist. He turned his hand, and took hers gently, his gaze on their entwined fingers.

“I don’t know where I would be if it wasn’t for you and Herc,” he whispered. “I don’t know if I’ve ever told you in so many words, but even if I have, I could tell you a thousand times and it would never, ever be enough. You taught me what it meant to be in a family, to love unconditionally, to give without expectation, without fear, to be joyous together.”

He took a deep breath, that shook ever so slightly. “Herc and I both decided, that when we married and had kids, we would become the fathers * we * had never had. We wanted to make a difference in our children’s lives, to let them know what it meant to live in security, and trust, and happiness, and in the absolute certainty that we would always be there for them -- wherever they were, and whatever they wanted to become.”

He looked back to Almene, smiling lovingly through the tears that bejeweled her blue eyes. He squeezed her hand. “So don’t worry that Hercules is wanting some kind of major upheaval in his life, or that he’s totally bored with his lot. He loves it. It’s just ...”

He gazed off at the blue mountains that rose in the distance. “It’s spring, and there’s energy in the air, and the wind sings of far-off places and exotic adventures. It’s just a phase.”

She studied him for a moment, trusting completely in his deep connection with Hercules. She pondered for a moment then said unexpectedly. “I heard you tell Perdix not to expect to work with you again until after the planting,” she said slowly. “How long do you think that’ll be?”

He shrugged. “Depends on when I start, what I plant. To tell you the truth, Alcmene, most of what I plant goes to feed me and Telaus, and to give some to Perdix and his family. I take a few things in to market, but not a lot. Lately my smithing has brought more income -- and it’s more what I like to do.”

“And you don’t have any other commissions now, or coming soon?”

He shook his head, watching her face. “What are you thinking?”

She glanced over at the sleeping boy. “Iolaus -- it’s been some time since Telaus has been to visit me. Why don’t you let him come and stay with me for a while?”

He blinked, surprised at her abrupt change of subject. “I don’t know, Alcmene. I don’t see why not -- you know he loves being there with you. But what has that got to do with --”

“Oh, Iolaus -- it’s perfect!” she said, as she turned back to him. “You’re between things at the moment ... you have some time before the planting has to start. Why don’t I invite Telaus for a nice long visit, and you go visit Hercules?”

Iolaus face brightened, though his gaze soon turned to his son as his thoughts raced. “That would be great, Alcmene, but don’t you think --”

“Oh, don’t be such a worry wart, dear. You know Telaus and I will have a lovely time -- he’ll be such good company for me. He’s been on shorter visits already, and --”

“Hey, I know he will be overjoyed and well taken care of,” Iolaus assured her, firmly. “But won’t it be an imposition? And Deianeira , won’t she --”

“You can take it from me that she will be thrilled!” Alcmene replied, definitely. “She’s as concerned about Hercules as I am -- haven’t you heard me say that? And she feels he needs a chance to get out and about, to do something that doesn’t involve a plow, or a rake, or giving piggyback rides. He needs a challenge”

“And you think I can provide that?” Iolaus laughed.

“I’ve always said you were challenging, my dear,” she said, chuckling. “Go for a visit and, oh I don’t know -- take him hunting, or fishing -- or just see what may come along. In fact, there may be a possibility that something does come along that would require two heroes just like yourselves.”

She looked so secretive and intriguing that Iolaus had to laugh. “Alcmene -- what are you up to?”

“Well, I don’t often consider it a positive, but I do have some rather influential connections, you know,” Alcmene answered airily.

“Who ... you mean, Zeus?” Iolaus sputtered, chortling. “You must really be concerned for Herc if * you * are conspiring with Zeus, milady!”

Alcmene pretended to be surprised, but her eyes twinkled merrily. “I haven’t -- ahem -- compromised my values in any way, Iolaus, but I will go to almost any lengths to make sure my boys are happy!”

Iolaus shook his head. “Then count me in!” Iolaus affirmed, shaking her hand.

“Wonderful!” Alcmene cried, happily.

“So, what do you think he’s going to say about this conspiracy, Alcmene?”

Alcmene replied with that same secretive smile, “Well, Iolaus, my son, what Hercules doesn’t know won’t hurt him, will it?”

Iolaus laughed heartily, and hugged her. “Absolutely! Mum’s the word, then. Won’t Herc be surprised when I drop in?”

Later that same night, Hercules rounded the corner into the children’s room with a boy under each arm and little Ilea clutching him around the neck, and all three of them giggling gleefully.

“Wow -- are you getting heavy!” he said, as he swung the boys into the bed. He caught Ilea’s arms and whirled her up and then down onto the soft feather mattress. “It’s time for you three to get to sleep now!”

“Please, Dad -- tell us a story!” Klonus begged, as children throughout the ages always have and shall..

Aeson and Ilea added their pleas. “Yeah! tell us a story!” “Please, Dad!”

Hercules pretended to ponder heavily. “A story? I don’t know any stories!”

“Yes you do,” they chorused.

“I want the one about the great Lion!”

“Oh, the Nemean Lion? That’s a good one,” Hercules considered.

Klonus disagreed. “What about the time you fought the two-headed giant?”

“That’s a scary one!” Hercules nodded.

Ilea announced adamantly, “I want the story about when you first met Mom!” And suddenly the boys were nodding vigorously.

Hercules chuckled, but the moment was grander than mirth. With wonder and joy he studied the three flower-like faces regarding him. At times like this, he thought that if he had one more drop of happiness, even his strong heart might burst. “All right! Then settle in to listen!” he instructed, tucking the covers around them securely.

“Now -- imagine what it would be like if one day we had no fire. Not at all. It was just gone. Because that was what was happening in your Mom’s town ...”

And Hercules launched into the often-told tale of how he and Deianeira had wrested fire back from Hera’s power, and at the same time, had fallen in love. He was so engrossed in the memories as he described them, he felt as though he was reliving that exciting adventure.

“...and that was only the beginning of it. So from there your mother and I traveled on together. We went to see Prometheus and --” Hercules suddenly became aware that his young listeners were curled together like newborn puppies and sleeping deeply, with their father only in their dreams. He felt a warm hand on his shoulder and turned to see his wife, smiling invitingly, robed for bed.

“Hi,” she whispered.

“Hi,” he smiled back. “I guess all the thrills were too much for them.”

“Well -- I enjoyed it.”


“Yeah. Come on -- let’s go to bed,” she said, and pulled him up to follow her out of the room.

In their room, Deianeira folded back the covers and watched Hercules surreptitiously in the brandy-colored firelight. He sat on the edge of the bed, removing his gauntlets, having pulled off his shirt and boots. She still sensed an air of distraction from him.

“You miss it, don’t you?” she asked, quietly.

“Miss what?” he asked, a bit too nonchalantly.

She kneeled on the bed beside him and circled one broad, brown shoulder with her arm. “The traveling around, fighting beasts, and giants.” She gazed deep into his blue eyes as he turned them to her, knowing she would see truth there. “I saw the way you told the kids that story.”

Hercules sighed and laid back on the bed, bringing her to rest with him, on his bare chest. “It doesn’t mean I’m not happy here.

And you know that,” he murmured.

She nodded. “I know that.”

“It’s just that ... for some reason lately I can’t help thinking about all the journeys I’ve been on and all the things I’ve fought for. All the adventures Iolaus and I have had together. I guess ... I get a little lost in it.”

Deianeira smoothed the thoughtful frown on his forehead with a gentle touch. “Well, you have a lot to get lost in,” she replied, warmly, proudly. Then she looked at him with a smoky, seductive sparkle in her dark eyes and a glimpse of her dimples as she smiled. “And if you’re lucky, you might just have another adventure tonight,” she added, in a voice as rich as honey.

His attention completely won, Hercules grinned at her and closed his arms around her. “Is that right?”

“That’s right!” she replied, and leaned over him to blow out the bedside candle. And by the dying gold of the fire, they journeyed together ...

Chapter Three

Two days later, on a bright sunny morning, Hercules was working in the barn, mending a worn patch in the horse’s harness, when he out of the corner of his eye he saw something flash by the barn door. Curious, he strode to the door and looked out.

The paddock area was still, as was the pathway to the house -- not that Hercules expected to see anyone. Deianeiria had taken the kids and gone berry-picking with a nearby neighbor’s wife and kids. Hercules glanced both ways, frowning, then shrugged and returned to his work.

* Must’ve been a bird * he decided, considering the glint of color that had whisked by.

Hercules walked back toward the workbench where he had left the harness strap. His mind busy with his list of things to do, he did not notice the flying form hurtling out of the barn loft -- until it struck him, that is. Hercules landed with a breath-snatching * thump * on the hard-packed earthen floor, the thick straw breaking his fall. Viscerally aware of the intruder behind him, he spun into a fighting stance, ready to attack --

--only to see his best friend and sword brother Iolaus. His grim surprise turned to a joyful grin.

“How are you, Hercules?” Iolaus asked, chuckling. He was in a defensive pose, dancing from side to side. His eyes were alight with mischief and the possibility of mayhem, ready and willing for Hercules to answer his “attack”.

Hercules feinted a lunge at his pal, but just laughed heartily instead -- at Iolaus’ evident readiness to mix it up in a sparring match, but also his own deep gladness to be with his friend again.

“Iolaus! What in all Hades are you doing here?” he cried, clasping the smaller man’s forearm as they exchanged a warrior’s greeting.

Iolaus was nonchalance itself as he said, easily, “Well, I was on my way to Podrea for seed and I couldn’t pass up the chance to -- um -- ‘drop in’ on you!” There was certainly no need to mention Alcmene’s involvement or that he always got his seed in Thebes, Iolaus thought, with an inward smirk.

Hercules rubbed his head, groaning at the pun. “Gee, thanks!” he chuckled. He clapped his friend on the shoulders, hard. “I really appreciate it.”

Iolaus grinned and looked around at the barn that he had helped Hercules build. ”So ...”

Hercules tried not to grin back too foolishly. “Right.”

“Well -- things look pretty good for you this season,” Iolaus observed. He led the way to the barn door. Hercules followed, and they both leaned against opposite door jams and gazed out at the spring fields.

“Yeah -- things are pretty good for me.” Hercules was proud of how optimistic his voice sounded. “Got some stuff coming up over there --” he indicated the area with a nod “-- and some good things planted over here. And it’s all turning up pretty ... green.” Hercules looked over at Iolaus. “What about you? How are your crops doing?”

Iolaus shook his head ruefully. “Oh, not too good. If it wasn’t for my smith work, Telaus and I might be a bit hungry at times.”

Hercules grinned, but shook his head. “Nah. Not with all of your old hunter’s tricks!”

Iolaus snorted. “Sure, but a kid needs more than just meat, Herc, you know that. Fruits, green vegies, yellow vegies ...” He sighed, becoming a bit more serious. “Farming -- it can be tricky, can’t it? I can’t get the hang of this manure thing, ya know? it’s either too much or not enough --”

Hercules leapt in, his own frustration evident. “Yeah, yeah! I know -- I can't get the hang of it either. Do you --” he gestured graphically, “do you mash it in?”

Iolaus shook his head. “No -- I kinda spread it all around, ya know? Maybe I should mash it in. Do you find it works?”

Hercules began intently, still gesturing, “Well, what I do is I just --”

The demigod caught sight of his best friend’s face as his own words hit him. The hunter’s prim look of supposed interest in this “monumental” agricultural conundrum warred with the impish laughter in his eyes.

Hercules burst out laughing, and Iolaus followed suit. ”What in Tartarus are we talking about?” the hunter gasped out. Hercules shook his head. “I have no idea. Let’s go in the house and talk about something we give a damn about!”

As they entered the house, Hercules fetched a pottery jug of home-brewed ale from the cellar, and poured two tall tankards full. As he and Iolaus sat down at the table, the blond warrior asked about Deianeira and the kids, and both discussed the milestones their children were reaching daily.

At the beginning of their second mug, Hercules gazed meditatively into its depths. “About the our original discussion ...”

Iolaus looked puzzled for a moment, then brightened. “Oh, yeah. You mean, shi--”

“Manure!” Hercules corrected, laughing. “Yeah, well, okay -- that’s it, isn’t it? Maybe I’m not cut out to be a farmer.”

Iolaus nodded. “Well, it’s not what we originally set out to do, was it?”

Hercules gazed at his friend. “Not exactly.” He sighed. “You know, Iolaus, I’m where I want to be, really. Here with Deianeira and the kids. I’m a lucky man, and I know it.”

Iolaus studied Hercules for a moment. “Yeah, you are. I am, too.”

Hercules tone was gentle. “I’m so glad you’ve got Telaus, Iolaus. The losses in our lives make us so much more grateful for all we do have.” Iolaus nodded, but didn’t meet his eyes.

Hercules looked away, out the open window, toward the mountains. “It’s just that -- “

“Yeah, it’s just that ... along with all the blessings of our families have come a lot of changes.” Iolaus stated the truth that both of them were feeling.

“Right.” Hercules looked back, relieved to find understanding. “And it’s not that I’d change anything -- not really.” A slow smile brightened his sky-blue eyes. “Except this manure thing.”

Iolaus smiled. “Farming’s important, but after some of the things we’ve done, it leaves you a little flat, doesn’t it?”

Hercules chuckled. “You got that right. I mean, how excited can you get about something coming up out of the ground?”

That image conjured a sudden memory for Iolaus. “You can’t -- unless of course it’s got a mouthful of fangs and it’s trying to bite your face off.” He grinned, gazing at Hercules. “Remember that first Hydra Hera threw at us?”

Hercules nodded, recollection dawning. “How could I forget? I can’t believe it’s been over ten years ago!”

“Closer to twelve,” Iolaus corrected, comparing the time to his son’s decade of life. “Just before Ania and I got married.” He considered the memory, smiling. “Remember how surprised we were, when you had cut its head off, and we were walking away and --”

“We heard something behind us, then turned to see it growing two new heads and coming after us!”

“Yeah -- and when you cut off one of those, two more grew.” Iolaus shook his head. “Talk about too much of a bad thing!” He glance at Hercules. “I never asked you -- what made you think of burning the wound with fire when you cut off the next head?”

Hercules shrugged. “I don’t know. Intuition, I guess. Kinda like cauterizing a wound, the fire kept the hydra from re-growing, and then burned it up. I don't really remember thinking much -- just acting. Especially when it bit into your shoulder.”

“Yeah,” Iolaus agreed. “Can’t believe that scar’s about faded.”

“Funny -- when it’s happening it’s not always great, but looking back on our adventures, and the things we’ve accomplished, I miss it.”

“I do, too,” Iolaus replied, his eyes on his friend.

“Iolaus, do you -- do you ever have times when you want to just go -- over the hill -- after the next adventure?” Hercules asked wistfully, guiltily.

“Never,” Iolaus intoned solemnly, sternly. Hercules looked at him in sudden surprise, but saw that his azure eyes were gleaming wickedly. “Well,” the hunter relented, ”maybe once or twice only, in the fall when the air is crisp and clean. And maybe only a time or two in the spring, like now, when the breezes blow free. And for sure only once in the winter, when the first snow starts to fall. And * maybe * in the summer when the moonlit nights are brilliant and warm.”

Hercules joined Iolaus’ laughter, relieved to know his restlessness wasn’t unique.

“’Course I feel it, Herc, just like you do. The difference between us and our fathers is, we hold to our commitments,” Iolaus stated, seriously. Then the twinkle reappeared. “But does that mean we can't do anything of what we did before?"

“What do you --” but Hercules’ words were interrupted by the unmistakable sounds of his young family returning from their adventure. Their delight was great when they found their favorite “uncle” there to visit, and the rest of the afternoon was taken up with noisy, merry togetherness. Deianeira gave Iolaus one or two grateful, speaking glances, but had no chance to talk to him privately. She cooked a celebratory dinner with rich berry pies for dessert. Iolaus enjoyed it all immensely, and Deianeira could tell that Hercules’ happiness was doubled by his friend’s presence.

After the meal, the family gathered by the fire, snug and content as the chilly late spring winds howled outside the cottage. The kids clamored for “Daddy-and-Uncle-Iolaus-at-the-Academy” stories, and Iolaus rose to the occasion. As was often the case, Hercules at times recognized only the bare bones of the truth, embroidered as it was by Iolaus’ creative brain. But he had to admit that Iolaus told an exciting tale.

Finally, Deianeira noted all three kids trying hard to fight their drooping eyelids and stifled yawns. She scooped up Ilea and herded the boys to bed amid valiant but sleepy protests. She looked back at the two men sitting by the fire.

“You two have a good visit,” she said warmly, her heart full with the Hercules’ pleasure in his friend’s company, and with Iolaus’ bright laughter raising her husband’s spirits. “I’m glad you’re here, Iolaus!”

He saluted her with his tankard grinning, an answering warmth in his eyes. “Wonderful supper, as usual, Dei.”

Left to themselves, the two friends chatted and ribbed each other good naturedly over another tankard of ale. Another dozen memories were brought out and dusted off like well-cherished treasures.

After a comfortable pause in the conversation, Hercules glanced at Iolaus warmly. “You know, I wouldn’t trade those times for anything.”

“Yeah ... well I guess when you’ve got a good friend you can get through a lot, huh?”

Hercules looked at him seriously. “Thanks, Iolaus. And you know I’ll always be that friend.”

Iolaus met Hercules eyes with warm gratitude, but felt the mood had been serious enough. ”Well, actually -- I was talking about me. I’m the friend that got you through a lot, okay?” he joked.

Hercules shook his head, chuckling. Iolaus grinned, then took a drink of ale and allowed his gaze to turn into one of speculative challenge.

Hercules glanced up and met his friend’s eyes, and read that look easily. “Iolaus -- don’t.”

“What?” Iolaus protested, innocently.

“You know what I mean. Any time we’re apart from each other for a while, you show up here thinking you can beat me!”

Iolaus swirled the ale in his cup, watching Hercules with a contemplative grin. “Well, this time, maybe I can.”

Hercules laughed in spite of himself. “See -- that’s just what I’m talking about!”

Iolaus put out an admonishing hand. “No, no, no! Seriously -- listen! I’ve been talking to this guy from the East. He’s taught me all these new fighting techniques -- how a smaller guy can beat a bigger guy.”

Hercules looked at Iolaus, his eyebrows lifting expressively.

“Well, these moves are really different. A lot of the things he talks about are really interesting, you know? Stuff about harnessing this life force stuff they call * chi *, and meditation, and healing, and all kinds of things.” His gaze suddenly looked past Hercules, abstractedly. “If I it wasn’t for my responsibilities here, I might even think of traveling there to learn more about it.”

Hercules felt a small surge of anxiety. Iolaus really sounded serious, and it worried the demigod. They hardly got to see each other more than every few months as it was. If Iolaus were to decide to travel that far, he might not see his friend for a year, or more. Nor could he just drop everything and go with him, as he once could. And Iolaus journeying that far -- why anything could happen to him.

Before Hercules could voice his fears -- if he could've found a way to express the tangled knot of emotions closing his throat -- Iolaus brought himself back to the present moment with a shake of his head. “But, of course, that’s not happening. Too many important ties here!” He looked back at Hercules, not really noticing the larger man’s gulp of relief in his renewed enthusiasm. “But these techniques, Herc -- you gotta see ‘em. They really work All you gotta do is be clever.”

“Oh, well,” Hercules responded, as though losing interest. “That counts you out.”

“Yeah.” Iolaus brought his cup to his lips, then realized what he had agreed to. “Wait a mi -- no!” He faced Hercules’ laughter with some impatience. “Okay ... you can joke all you want. You’re just scared!”

Hercules shook his head. “It’s not going to work,” he said, firmly. “I’m not fighting you.”

“So --” Iolaus gazed provokingly over the rim of his tankard. He taunted, “The great Hercules is a bit scared, huh?”

“Iolaus -- listen to me!” Hercules was even more emphatic. “I am not fighting you.”

With all his steely determination, Hercules could not be quite sure how it happened, but the next thing he knew, he and Iolaus were throwing their shirts in a pile of hay in the barn. They stood, squared-off, their bare, brown skin glowing in the burnished lamplight.

Hercules shifted with barely disguised impatience, waving Iolaus toward himself. “All right -- let’s see these new moves.”

Iolaus started his breathing techniques, brought his hands into position, and sank into his stance. When Hercules watched him, baffled, the hunter explained, “Okay -- actually, you have to attack me.”

“What are you talking about?”

Iolaus sighed. “These are defensive moves. You gotta come at me -- come on!”

Hercules rolled his eyes, but appeared to decide to humor his friend. He made a halfhearted feint with his right fist, then lunged forward with his left.

Iolaus suddenly became a blur of motion. He swerved, and with an upswept arm, he blocked Hercules’ arm and used the big man’s own momentum to pull him forward off balance and spin him around. Iolaus delivered a strong kick to Hercules’ backside and sent him stumbling toward the barn door -- almost falling on his face.

Hercules clutched the door jam, and caught himself. He whirled, obviously interested now, and an embarrassed fire lit his blue eyes. Iolaus saw it and grinned, dancing in readiness, his arms up. He taunted, “You never touched me!”

Hercules couldn’t help but grin. He strode forward, pulled his right arm back quickly, and threw a roundhouse punch. Iolaus’ arms snapped up and caught Hercules’ outstretched right arm. He turned his own body sideways and pulled Hercules forward and down, again using the power of the demigod’s own strength. As Hercules’ upper body was pulled down, Iolaus brought his own leg up and kneed him in the belly -- hard enough to smart, not to injure.

As Hercules fell forward, his breath whooshing out, Iolaus launched himself upward and brought a his right leg down in a powerful kick over Hercules’ bare back. Hercules fell heavily to the ground, his arms barely breaking his fall.

Iolaus whirled, watching the demigod push himself up off the floor fuming. “Whaddya think, Herc?” he laughed.

Hercules turned, still on his hands and knees, and looked at Iolaus through narrowed eyes, but his face was alight with laughter. He enjoyed seeing Iolaus have fun, even if it was at his own expense. Still, Hercules couldn’t deny his own bit of frustrated pride that pushed him to want to win.

“I think you’re a dead man!” he promised, rising slowly.

Iolaus, his body as taut as a bowstring, watched Hercules like a hawk. He cocked his head sideways, mockingly. “Ooooh!”

Before Iolaus’ exclamation ended, Hercules was moving, lunging forward with a powerful right again. Iolaus blocked the arm with his own left and punched Hercules with his right. He caught Hercules’ right arm, whirled beneath it, and used his friend’s unbalanced posture to flip him head over heels in to the hay.

Iolaus laughed delightedly, totally enjoying the unusual experience of besting the strongest man in the world. They had sparred all their lives, and he had accepted long ago that his successes in fighting Hercules would always be infrequent. This fighting style gave him at least a bit of an edge.

“I got a move for anything you do!” Iolaus jeered, perhaps a bit too confidently.

Hercules sat up, and turned quickly to look at Iolaus over his shoulder. “Oh, yeah?” he replied, grinning wickedly, his mind working fast.


Hercules, still on the floor began to turn as though to tackle his smaller friend. To distract Iolaus' attention he said, ”Well, what if I do -- this?!”

And, rather than moving forward, Hercules threw himself into a backwards shoulder roll and scissored his long legs around Iolaus. Not able to compensate in his stance quick enough, Iolaus lost his balance, laughing hard as he fell into the hay. His laughter also made him slow in getting up.

Hercules was swifter. He leaped up, caught up Iolaus bodily, and pulled him up into a sideways hold, one arm around his chest and the other under one leg. Iolaus howled with helpless laughter as Hercules realized he had grabbed his pal at the codpiece, and quickly changed his hand position to under the hips with a muttered apology.

Perhaps for that further embarrassment, Hercules easily carried his howling friend a few steps over to a water barrel not far from the barn door.

“I hope you learned some Eastern swimming techniques!” he told his buddy as he tried to dunk the smaller man into the water-filled barrel. Iolaus caught the sides with both hands. As ever, Iolaus’ strength compared to other totally mortal foes amazed Hercules, as the blond man kept his head out of the water with his well-muscled arms. Both of them were laughing like crazy men, full of the zest of the moment like the two kids they had once been.

Suddenly, Hercules caught a glimpse of movement out of the corner of his eye. He looked up --

-- to see Deianeira and Ilea, hand in hand, gazing at them silently. Ilea’s eyes were round and amazed. Deianeira’s were alight with her own sense of mischief.

Iolaus, still giggling, abruptly realized that Hercules had stopped his "attack”. He looked up through strands of yellow hair and understood why.

The frozen tableau was broken by little Ilea, who turned to look up at her mother and, with perfect and precise words, asked seriously, “Mommy -- what is Daddy doing to Uncle Eye--o--lus?”

“I don’t know sweetie,” Deianeira replied, in pretended bafflement. “I was really wondering that myself.”

Hercules lowered Iolaus to his feet, with a sheepish laugh. “Well, uh, we were just -- um --”

He looked down in to Iolaus’ face to see his good pal gazing up at him limpidly, as though he, too, waited patiently for the answer to this very puzzling question.

“ -- um ... we were just ... Hey!” Hercules sputtered. looking back at Ilea desperately. “What are you doing up so late? You should be in bed!”

Deianeira replied sweetly, “She * was * sleeping, until someone woke her up!”

Hercules made the mistake of looking down at Iolaus again for moral support in this dilemma. Iolaus’ eyes shone with glee, but he whistled imperturbably, as if he had just been minding his own business when Hercules decided to dunk him in the water barrel.

“Well, then...” Hercules glanced back down at his friend with a speaking look as Iolaus’ whistle became a grin. "Then ... back to bed ... we go!”

He stepped away from Iolaus’ side with a look that spoke of retribution, took Ilea’s hand, and brushed past Deianeira. She gave him a swift slap to the backside as he walked past. Hercules, his ears burning, did not acknowledge it.

Deianeira smiled, and walked forward, shaking her finger at Iolaus, who was standing picking straw out of his golden hair. “How many times have I told you not to pick on Hercules?”

“Who me?” Iolaus feigned innocence, grinning at her.

“Yes, you!”

They shared a warm laughter, and Iolaus reflected again how lucky they all were that Deianeira was a confident, loving woman who had no jealous misapprehensions that his and Hercules’ lifetime friendship could interfere his relationship with her. In fact, she had welcomed Iolaus with joy from the first time they had met, and often told him how glad she was that Hercules had always had such an understanding friend.

“Well, I had a couple of moves I wanted to try. He’s just lucky you arrived when you did, that’s all!” Iolaus replied grandly.

“Yeah, well ...” She gazed at him more seriously. “”We’re lucky that you showed up when you did.”

Iolaus smiled, with a conspiratorial smile. “Well, you see, luck didn’t have that much to do with it. Alcmene came to see me, ya know? She told me about your message, and apparently she talked to Zeus about it, too.”

“I guess that’s a good thing,” she pondered the involvement of Hercules’ sometimes erratic father, the glanced back at Iolaus with a grateful smile. “I’m just glad you’re here, whatever the source!”

At the earnestness of her tone, Iolaus asked, more seriously, “Why? What do you mean?’

“Well ... he’s been so distracted lately, you know. It’s like ... it’s like he’s going stir-crazy from just being around the house!”

Iolaus nodded. “Yeah, right. I know how he feels. Like I told Alcmene, Deianeira -- I don’t think it’s anything major -- it’s just that, well, Herc and I, we’ve just got a bit of spring fever, I guess you could call it. Doesn’t mean we’re not happy where we are. It’s just -- I guess it’s just all that energy and the training we have to help people. We haven't had the chance to use those skills much lately -- and I guess we're just feeling it.”

“You ... you don’t think he’s regretting anything, do you, Iolaus?” Deianeira voice her greatest fear. “That he’s wishing he hadn’t tied himself down to the kids and me?”

Iolaus shook his head. “Absolutely not! You guys are the center of his universe!” Iolaus stated unequivocally. “Both he and I are committed totally to our responsibilities. I think sometimes we just need a challenge, that’s all.” He sighed. “Sometimes those responsibilities come with some stress. Like in my case -- I never would have thought that it was so difficult being a father and a mother.”

Deianeira looked at Iolaus, misty-eyed. “Ania would be so proud of you!”

Iolaus’ eyes were wistful. “I just wish she could see me -- that’s all!”

Deianeira smiled gently, opening her arms. “Come here.”

Iolaus stepped into her embrace, and they hugged with the easy comfort of old friends. “You’ve got to come visit more often, you know, Iolaus. You’ve brightened Hercules up like the sunshine. I think it does you both good to be together. In fact, I wish there was something you could do together right now, some beast to go after ... somebody that needed your help. I really think you both could use it."

Iolaus pulled back a bit and looked at her measuringly. "You're talking about more than a fishing trip aren't you?"

She nodded. He pondered a moment, studying her. "Well, I can't say that doesn't sound great to me, Deianeira, but what about you and the kids? And what about Telaus? I mean ... Herc gave his adventuring up, just like I did, after getting married. We wanted our families to come first, you know. Is it fair to you for us to do that?"

Deianeira pulled her hands from around him to gesture passionately. "But is it fair to both of you to never go again? That doesn't seem right either. The world needs you."

Iolaus looked down and turned away from her slightly. "Well, the world needs Herc mostly."

Deianeira folded her arms, and said firmly, "The world needs both of you. And I know for a fact how much Hercules needs you, Iolaus."

Iolaus' gaze stayed on the ground for so long that Deianeira was about to ask why he couldn't agree with what to her seemed so obvious. After a moment, he looked back up with a smile. “I know you’re right. Maybe the two of us should just --” Iolaus stopped speaking. They both suddenly heard the pounding of running feet approaching the barn, then a voice shouting for Hercules. Deianeira and Iolaus stepped quickly toward the open door of the barn, when suddenly a dark-haired young man burst in. “Hercules! Hercules?” The young man’s wild glance took in Iolaus in some surprise.

Iolaus traded exasperated looks with Deianeira. “No, I’m not Hercules, but --”

“I am.” Hercules appeared out of the darkness, looming up behind the boy.

The young man whirled as Hercules came through the door, and his eyes widened at the demigod’s height, breadth of shoulder, and unconscious air of controlled power.

“What’s your name, son?” Hercules asked kindly.

“D-Danion, sir,” he gulped. “Please, please help me!”

“What’s wrong?”

“Thank the gods I’ve found you!” the boy babbled almost incoherently. “You’re the only one -- you gotta come with me, I --”

Hercules caught the boy’s shoulders in a firm grip. “Calm down -- calm down, now,” he soothed. “What’s happened?”

“You gotta come -- it got my brother!”

Hercules exchanged concerned glances with the Iolaus and Deianeira. “What did?”

“I don’t know -- I don’t know!” Danion gasped. “It was a -- a monster of some kind.”

Iolaus asked eagerly, “Did you see it?”

Danion looked at Iolaus. “Yeah, sorta, but it was dark.”

“What happened to your brother?” Hercules asked.

“I don’t know!” Danion cried, wretchedly. “I was so scared! It came after me, and I barely got away. I didn’t know Andius wasn’t with me till it was too late.”

He looked up at the son of Zeus pleadingly. “Please Hercules! You gotta come to Alturia and help me save my brother!”

Iolaus leaned toward Hercules with barely-leashed excitement. “What do you think, Herc?”

“I think ...” Hercules looked at Iolaus, then at Deianeira, enigmatically. “I think my place is here.” He turned back to Danion and said quietly,. “I’m afraid I can’t help you.”

“What?” Iolaus burst out.

Danion, bereft and bewildered, said, “But you’ve got to ... you’re the only one.”

“I’m sorry, I can’t,” Hercules answered, not meeting the boy’s eyes. Iolaus and Deianeira glanced at each other in astonishment, as Hercules with another mummured, “I’m sorry,” brushed past Danion and walked back toward the house.

“But -- you’re * Hercules * ...” he called after the retreating demigod.

Danion turned to leave the barn. Deianeira asked gently, “Do you want to stay here for the night?”

The boy glanced at her. “No ... no, I’ve got to get back. Maybe someone at home can help,” he said, and stumbled out the door. Iolaus and Deianeira followed to the barn entrance, and watched him trudge down the hill in the moonlight.

Iolaus turned to his best friend’s wife. “It’s hard to believe Herc did that.”

Deianeira sighed. “I know, Iolaus. And I know you could see as well as I could that it’s tearing him up inside.”

“Yeah, it is,” Iolaus replied, softly, looking back a to the house where Hercules had gone. “He’s got so much integrity, Dei -- and he’s stubborn. He made a promise to you and he’s bound and determined to keep it.”

Deianeira followed his gaze, her eyes softening. “And I honor him for it, with all my heart but --” her voice firmed and her eyes narrowed, “I can’t let him turn from the work that means so much to him. It’s not fair to him, or to you, or to all the people he could help. There’s got to be a middle way for him.”

Iolaus smiled. “I’m with you. How can I help?”

“Mother Alcmene has Telaus well taken care of, and has charged you to help Hercules out of these doldrums, hasn’t she?”

His rich chuckle sounded. “You read me like a scroll, Lady! I’d just started to broach that to Herc when you all returned today.”

“Wonderful!” Deianeira exclaimed. “So, here’s what we’ll do. You get bedded down in your favorite place by the fire, and let me talk to him tonight. If I’m not successful, you can have a go at him in the morning. We won’t rest until we get both of you out on this adventure. How does that sound?”

Iolaus laughed, but there was a hollow sound to his laughter that was puzzling to her -- almost a ring of pathos. "It sounds like a plan to me. I just hope --" Iolaus paused and met her eyes in the moonlight. It seemed to Deianeira that he deliberately banished the sadness for his typical optimism.

He tucked her hand in his crooked arm to escort her into the house. “Lady Deianeira, it is a pleasure conspiring with you!”

Not long afterward, Deianeira lay down beside her husband, who lay looking up at the ceiling lost in thought. Without preamble, she asked, “Why did you tell him no?”

Hercules gaze remained on the ceiling, answering absently, “What do you mean? I’m settled down now.”

She leaned over him, capturing his eyes. “I know. But you’re thinking that you should go.”

“Yeah, I am,” Hercules admitted. “But I just don't know. I’ve made a commitment to be here with you and the kids, and that is important to me. But -- but turning him down was really hard, you know? Everything inside me was saying, ‘Go!’”

Deianeira smiled, glad to have her stubborn husband admit at least that much. “Of course it was, because that’s who you are!”

“No,” Hercules corrected her. “That’s who I * was *. I’ve got you and the kids to think about now.”

Deianeira laid a gentle hand on Hercules’ forehead. “Honey, you’re never going to be happy that way. You’re Hercules -- don't try to change that! Not for me, not for the kids. You’d only be lying to yourself. We’ve been very lucky to have you to ourselves for so long. But there’s no reason you can’t help people, and then come home to us.”

Hercules looked at her measuringly. “So -- you really think I should go?”

She smiled ruefully. “The way you’ve been acting, I think you * need * to go!"

“Have I been that bad?” he asked, surprised.

Deianeira answered swiftly, “Oh, no, no --”

Hercules relaxed, relieved. “Good.”

“You’ve been worse!” she finished, with a mischievous grin.

Hercules looked back at her, startled, then both of them burst out laughing.

"And of course I think you need Iolaus with you." Deianeira added as their laughter died away.

Hercules glanced at her enigmatically. "Well, that would be great, but ... I don't know if he can, with Telaus and his smithing and all."

Deianeira shook her head. "Nope -- all taken care of. You know, I think Iolaus needs this adventure, too, Hercules. In some ways maybe more than you do."

Hercules regarded her questioningly. "You think so?"

She nodded. "I think he needs to get away, and also ... well, I'm not sure why, but I got the distinct impression he wasn't certain you would want him to go."

Hercules was silent a moment, and his clear aquamarine gaze, usually so pellucid to her, seemed shuttered. But before she could comment, he said, "Well, of course I want him to go. I was just thinking that perhaps he wouldn't want to leave his son."

"That's not an issue," she said firmly. "Telaus is with your mother, having a grand time. Now, are you satisfied? We're all fine with you going. Iolaus needs and wants to go with you. Am I going to have to push you out the door?"

“All right, all right!” he said, in laughing surrender. “Iolaus and I will leave in the morning.”

He kissed her and she gently pulled him closer. “But first ...” she began and trailed off suggestively as she bestowed a trail of kisses down his neck.

“First is good!” he breathed ...

Chapter Four

Rosy-fingered dawn found Hercules and Iolaus already on the road to Alturia. They had risen very early, and Deianeira had provisioned them well. Both had their warm capes for cold weather, since the spring winds continued brisk and cold, especially at night. Also, Alturia lay on the other side of the mountains, and crossing them would be a chilly proposition.

“You didn’t have to come, you know,” Hercules was telling Iolaus, as they began climbing one of the first foothills of the mountains. Despite Deianeira's assurances, despite Iolaus' exuberant shout of agreement when Hercules had asked him that morning, the demigod felt he still had to try once more to protect his friend. He never wanted another Gargarensia. He wasn't sure if he could live through it.

But now Iolaus looked affronted and Hercules thought there was just a bit of hurt in his eyes. But the blond hunter cloaked his hurt in humor. “And what was I gonna do? Stay at home and plant another row of cabbages? Come on! Besides, somebody’s gotta be there to bail you out!”

“Bail me out?” Hercules laughed, and felt some of his apprehension for his friend's safety begin to ease in the warmth and pleasure of his companionship.


“You?” Hercules persisted, in mock amazement.

“Okay, laugh it up, beanpole,” Iolaus answered. “But you know it’s true! Remember that time in Phenia?”

As they paced along, Hercules replied, drily, “Obviously not the way you remember it!”

“Okay -- what about the time Hera’s priests jumped you in Telladon, huh? huh? You were in a lot of trouble when I arrived.”

Hercules snorted. “I wasn’t in any trouble until you arrived. You started it all, remember/”

“Sure, but when you found out about what the priests were doing, you understood why, right?”

The demigod smiled reluctantly, “Well, yeah, but --”

“But nothin’ Herc, you know I’m right! And then there was the time ...”

And the two men continued journeying down the path of memory even as they pursued their quest to Alturia. They joked and jibed about who was the most heroic, and who helped whom the most, each man all the time totally aware that the other was his hero. Their stories made the miles disappear. In fact they were so busy talking about the past that Iolaus missed his footing while fording a stream, slipped and sat down hard in the cold water. Hercules hauled him up, laughing uproariously.

Iolaus had to acknowledge the humor in it, and was actually glad to see Hercules laughing so freely and enjoying himself so much, but wasn’t all that glad it was for this reason. He soon found reasons to grumble about the chafing effect of wet leather that also made Hercules laugh. It was uncomfortable enough that, because the region they were traveling through was so desolate and the day warmer, Iolaus decided to remove his pants, wrap himself snugly in his cape, and attach the wet clothing to his backpack where it could dry in the sun and wind without “damaging” important parts of him. It was a bit chilly, but better once his breechclout dried and his legs warmed with the exertion of walking, despite Hercules' continuous grinning.

And it was well before nightfall that Iolaus felt the pants had dried sufficiently so that he could put them back on. Hercules suggested reflectively that perhaps Iolaus should stay as he was to assure that the people of Alturia would notice them immediately. Iolaus firmly declined, rather graphically telling his good friend what he could do with his suggestion.

They were continuing their friendly bickering when the two men heard sounds that made them drop all the kidding and prepare for danger.

“Help me! Help!” a child’s voice was screaming, overlaid with the sounds of some horrible type of roaring.

The two friends glanced at each other quickly, then stated to race toward the thick brush in the direction of the sounds.

Abruptly, the bushes parted and the sound blasted in their faces, but they quickly realized it was none other that Hercules’ own father, the King of the Gods, Zeus himself.

The roaring became deep, rough velvet laughter as the silver-haired man pointed at the two younger men drew back in confusion. In some exasperation, Hercules grumbled, “That’s not funny.”

Zeus apparently thought it was, because he was still chuckling. "You should have seen the looks on your faces -- eager and all ready for action!”

Iolaus glanced at Hercules, but answered Zeus easily, having some time ago gotten accustomed to his friend’s father’s occasional superhuman appearances and his earthy personality. “Yeah, well, a little action would be nice. I mean, farming is all very well, but ...” Zeus looked back and forth between his son and his son’s best friend, a small secret smile playing around his lips. “I thought you two guys had settled down?”

Hercules, a bit defensively, replied, “Well, some guy came asking for our help. Were we supposed to say no? I mean --”

“No, no, of course not!” Zeus answered quickly. “You like to help people, both of you. And I must say it looks good on both of you. You look healthy, alert, and strong. It reminds me of the time you and I squared off on Mount Ethion, Hercules. Of course, I wasn’t too excited to see you on that occasion ...”

Zeus, with occasional interpolations by Hercules, launched into his version of his confrontation with Hercules at the Circle of Fire.

As they listened -- and as Hercules occasionally added or corrected the tale, the two younger men came to an unvoiced decision, and started making camp without any discussion required. As Zeus continued the story with Iolaus and Hercules laughing and kidding, a snug fire was built, a light supper was consumed, and the night’s dark tresses fell around them. But the threesome hardly noticed; they basked in the glow of firelight and companionship.

Zeus was finally wrapping up the tale. He was seated on a rounded stone, poking a stick into the fire as he spoke. “And so,” Zeus concluded, leaning toward Iolaus, who sat on a log near his feet, “I saved my son’s life for about the hundredth time.” He pointed at Hercules, who reclined comfortably by Iolaus’ side, long legs stretched out to the fire’s warmth.

Iolaus laughed. “You know, it’s funny because when Hercules tells that story, it’s always the other way around.”

Zeus chuckled. “I’m sure, I’m sure.”

Hercules looked up at Iolaus’ laughter as though with sudden remembrance. “Hey, Iolaus -- I think I owe you this.” He punched Iolaus’ left bicep with a quick, hard right.

Iolaus rubbed his arm, laughing harder. “Ow -- you got some change coming pal!”

“Oooh, I’m scared, I’m scared!” Hercules jeered merrily, and the two younger men exchanged playful punches.

Zeus laughed to watch them. “You two are like kids -- and you’ve got kids yourselves!”

Hercules exchanged a rueful grin with Iolaus, the two of them quieting as they considered the passage of time they had known together.

“Yeah,” Hercules shook his head, and glanced up at Iolaus again as he spoke. “Us with kids -- it’s funny isn’t it?”

Iolaus smiled reminiscently, “Well, not when you go to change them and they spray in your face!”

“There’s nothing greater in creation than kids,” Zeus mused thoughtfully. Iolaus considered with mental laughter that the king of gods should know, since he was responsible for the creation of so many -- but he didn’t say it out loud.

Zeus looked up at them, pointing his stick. “And then they grow up --and they become problems!”

Hercules and Iolaus looked at each other, then back at Zeus. “You must be talking about Ares or Apollo,” Hercules said innocently.

Iolaus laughed. “Yeah, you couldn’t be talking about us.”

But Zeus appeared distracted for a moment. A brief frown passed over his face, tightening it into sadness. Seconds later he looked up at them, as though just realizing what they had said, and a quick smile banished the frown.

“You two have been problems enough, but you’ve come out of it fairly well.”

Iolaus smiled and looked back at the fire. Beside him, Hercules was trying to settle in a more comfortable position for the night.

“You know,” he complained, “I don't remember the ground being so damned hard!”

“You’re getting old,” Zeus shot back.

Hercules looked at him and rolled his eyes. “Coming from someone who can number his years in millennia, that’s a bit ironic!”

Zeus smiled. Iolaus, too, seemed to be finding a few discomforts with camping out that he’d forgotten, as well. He flicked a many-legged creature away from his leg.

“Ugh -- so many bugs!” He cocked his head in a gesture of puzzlement and looked up at Zeus. “Why bugs, anyway?”

“Because birds love to eat them!” Zeus replied didactically. “I do everything for a reason.”

Iolaus grinned, but did not reply, again feeling the less said the better to that statement.

Zeus poked the fire briefly, but then sat up straighter and looked at the others, grinning. “Say -- I just remembered -- Hades is giving a party tonight. I think we’d have a wonderful time! Let’s go -- would you like that?”

Iolaus, wide-eyed, looked at Hercules expectantly. Zeus he had become used to over the last fifteen years or so, since the king of the gods had come back into Hercules’ life, and had deigned also to appear to his mortal best friend. The idea of going to a party with the Lord of the Underworld and doubtless many other Olympians was both exciting and a little daunting to consider, especially since he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to see them or not.

Hercules glanced at Iolaus and read those thoughts in a blink of an eye. He smiled slightly, but had no desire to expose his best friend to the attention and possible machinations of his father’s family.

“Nah, we’ve got to get some sleep,” Hercules told his father. Iolaus was both disappointed and relieved as the demigod continued.

“We’ve got to get up early to make it to Alturia tomorrow.”

Zeus looked at him sharply, his smile fading. “Alturia?”


Iolaus supplied, “There’s some kind of monster on the loose there and we’re gonna go kick its butt.”

Zeus’ last traces of laughter vanished. “I wouldn’t go to Alturia.”

Hercules and Iolaus exchanged baffled glances. “Why not?” Hercules asked.

“I was in Alturia a couple of months ago and the food was bad.” Zeus’ voice was nonchalant but his face was suddenly expressionless.

“The food was bad?!” Hercules repeated, totally bewildered. “But Alturia is the spice capital of the world!”

Zeus poked at the fire fiercely. “Yeah. Spice eats up your stomach.”

“Yeah?” Hercules responded, looking at Iolaus, who shrugged slightly. “Well, we’re still going. Besides,” a cajoling note entered his voice, “You were the one who said I needed an adventure. And this is it.”

Zeus sighed and didn’t respond to Hercules attempt at lightness. “Well, I’ve got to go to Hades’. He’ll be upset if I don't show up.”

He looked down at Iolaus with a faint smile, pointing the stick at him. “You -- have a nice time.” Then, looking over a his son, and pointing again. “And you -- have a nice adventure.”

The tall, silver-haired figure tossed the stick down as as walked away from the fire and disappeared into a scintillation of jewel colors and a breath of wind.

Iolaus and Hercules were left looking at each other in some confusion.

“That was a bit abrupt, wasn’t it?” Iolaus asked thoughtfully.

“Yeah,” Hercules answered, brusquely, with a trace of the old bitterness. “But isn’t it just like my father to leave you wondering?”

“Well, yeah.” Iolaus considered it as he arranged his thick cape to pillow against the log beside Hercules. He looked over at his friend who lay staring moodily into the flames, and continued in a pacifying tone, “But you’ve got to admit, though, Herc -- he’s a charming old rascal. It was a pretty good evening ... at least till he got kind of weird there at the end of it.”

Hercules smiled in spite of himself, as much at Iolaus’ turn of phrase as his father’s charm. “Yeah, I guess you’re right. He’s been fairly good about dropping in just to visit lately. I think he tries to make up for all those years he deliberately stayed away.”

Iolaus smiled. “That’s pretty cool, Herc.” He turned his gaze to the fire and pondered the evening’s visit. After a moment, he frowned a bit and asked, “Why do you think he acted so odd just before he disappeared?”

Hercules shrugged. “Who in all Hades knows, Iolaus?” He pondered for a minute longer, then said slowly, “It reminds me a bit of the time he was talking about tonight -- you know, when Hera stole Prometheus’ eternal flame, and I had to go into the Circle of Fire?”

“Yeah, I remember -- what about it?”

“On Mount Ethion, when he confronted me, he acted like he was mad at me ... like he was just going after me ... not wanting me to go after the fire, but not telling me why,” Hercules said quietly. “And then, finally, after all the obstacles he threw at me, he finally admitted that he didn’t want me to go after the fire because he was afraid Hera would kill me.”

Into the profound silence that followed, Iolaus said softly, “Yeah, I remember you telling us, Herc.” He didn’t add it, but he remembered also that Hercules had told him later over many ales that Zeus had said outright that he cared for people’s suffering, but he cared more about Hercules himself. Iolaus remembered the emotion in Hercules’ eyes and voice, and knew it had been another turning point in their relationship. “You said it was the roundabout way he showed you he was worried about the danger.”

Hercules nodded. “I wonder ... what’s he worried about this time? Guess it means that whatever we’re heading into, he knows something about it, and it’s dangerous.”

Hercules glanced over at his friend and saw his blue eyes glinting with excitement in the glow of the fire. “Cool!” Iolaus murmured, glancing back at Hercules with a slight grin.

“Yeah, well, in that case we better get some sleep. Can’t let you go after monsters tomorrow without your rest, old man!” Hercules jibed.

“I’ve only got a coupla years on you, Herc,” Iolaus replied, chuckling. “Besides which, there’s a whole lot more of you that needs rest and energy, so I’d say we’re about even!”

Hercules’ laughter joined that of Iolaus. “Okay, okay -- you win! Just go to sleep!”

Iolaus giggled irrepressibly. “Good night, Herc!”

“Good night, Iolaus.” Hercules glanced over at his friend, who had obediently shut his eyes, though a smile still curved his lips.

Watching the firelight play on that familiar, well-loved countenance, Hercules felt the last traces of his irritation drain away. Iolaus was right -- over the years Hercules had realized that a lot of the things that had most hurt, bewildered, and angered him about Zeus ended up coming from Zeus’ attempts to protect him. And right here, lying next to his sword brother by a warm fire in the middle of a new quest, it all felt pretty good, after all.

And musing on his blessings, the drowsy son of Zeus drifted off into pleasant dreams...

They slept so well that the next morning even Iolaus was up and ready to go before dawn. They made excellent time through the mountain pass and arrived in Alturia late in the afternoon. As the two heroes entered the town, they were accosted by many chaotic sights and sounds, but they quickly realized it was the enterprising chaos of a busy market day in a town built for trade.

The two men walked down the main thoroughfare and were entreated by merchants of all kinds to buy their wares. Crowds of shoppers thronged the streets, as well as food vendors, jugglers, soldiers, lovers, and streetwalkers. Hercules and Iolaus studied the people of Alturia but could find no evidence of panic, fear, or unusual activity.

“Y’know,” Hercules observed, rather puzzled, as they walked along, “This town doesn’t seem to be so upset.”

Iolaus nodded, gazing around critically. “You mean for a town that’s supposed to be plagued by a monster?”


“Yeah -- does not look too upset,” Iolaus echoed, in grim disappointment.

Hercules caught the glance of wealthy-looking woman merchant. “Excuse me -- this is Alturia, isn’t it?”

The trader looked Hercules up and down and sniffed. “Always has been,” she replied repressively. “Why?”

“Well, we were told that something terrible was happening here --” Hercules began.

“ -- like a monster!” Iolaus supplied.

The woman examined them both like they were foot fungus. “Where did you hear that?”

“A young man from here,” Hercules responded. “He came to my home saying that his brother had been taken by some sort of beast.”

“His brother, huh?” the woman said, one corner of her mouth turning up in a supercilious smile. “What did this young man look like?”

Iolaus and Hercules exchanged glances. “He’s about this tall,” Hercules held a hand out at the level of his chin, “Kind of wiry, dark hair, speaks a little indistinctly at times --”

The woman laughed heartily. “You came all this way for nothing. The one you met is Danion. His brother is Andius. They’re the town idiots! And if you believed anything they told you, then you’re idiots, too!”

Hercules glanced at Iolaus in chagrin. “Thank you, ma’am --” he began, ever polite. But the woman thought the joke too good to keep to herself.

“Hey, everybody! Guess what I just heard?” she called out to the marketplace in general, pointing out the two heroes as the source. “Danion told them there’s some kind of monster in town!”

The crowd erupted in laughter, discussing the joke as they continued their business.

Hercules and Iolaus moved away into the crowd, smarting from the woman’s ridicule and trying to ignore the pointing fingers. “You know, “ Hercules told his friend, “it didn’t seem like he was kidding.”

“Yeah ... but he did look kinda crazy, though,” Iolaus answered.

Hercules sighed. “Well, I guess that takes care of that.”

“Yeah,” Iolaus replied, dispiritedly. “What now?”

Hercules, from his vantage point above the heads of most of the throng, noted the sign of a tavern down the street. “How’s about I buy you a drink?”

Iolaus seemed to ponder seriously. “Well ... only if I can buy you one.”

Hercules paused only a beat, then quickly answered, “Okay!”

And they headed for the swinging sign with alacrity.

As the two friends headed toward the inn, deep in the earth below the village, a monstrous form heard the words echo down through the earth by the power of his magic. The beastly figure blew a deep breath through his nostrils, and spoke only to a skull that he held in his claw-nailed hand.

“Well, well, well,” he intoned in the profound silence. “Of all the people in the world -- so he is finally here. The big hero, the son of Zeus. You have no idea what it feels like to be reviled, do you? To be spit upon, like I have been. Oh, but you will! By my hand you’ll learn fear. You’ll learn humiliation. You’ll learn death!”

The man-beast threw the skull with considerable force at the cavern wall, and the bond shattered into a shower of fragments. As the monster watched the pieces fly, his gaze suddenly was drawn to a tall figure that stood silently behind him.

The figure was Zeus.

“Oh, so you came!” the beast stated, his tone gloating. I knew it was only a matter of time.”

Zeus regarded the long, curved horns, the huge clawed hands, and the yellow-green eyes in the face of a bull on the body of a man-- the creature he knew now as a Minotaur. The god's eyes were sorrowful and horrified. He shook his head.

The beast growled. “You haven’t seen me in over a hundred years and this is your greeting? Are you shocked? Have you forgotten what you turned me into? Did you forget what a vile beast you made me?”

“Fitting punishment I’d say,” Zeus replied, too sad to sound angry.

“You’d say? You’d say! And who are you to say?” .

“You know very well who, and why I can say it. You haven’t changed a bit, have you? Being locked away in this place hasn’t taught you anything!”

“Oh, but it has!” The Minotaur howled. “I’ve learned the power of hate. I’ve lived on it -- I’ve grown stronger on it in all the years since our battle.”

“I should have killed you then.” Zeus voice shook with heartbreak and desolation.

“So do it now!” The creature challenged.

Zeus summoned a fireball to his hand and lurched toward the grotesque figure. But the threatened blow never fell. Zeus gazed at the Minotaur with a conflicted expression that seemed to be some part anguish, sympathy, rage, and grief. The fireball died in his hand.

The Minotaur chuckled. “You can’t do it, can you? Not then, and not now.”

“I’ll leave you down here for another hundred years!”

“Go ahead!” The deep voice resonated with malice and power. “Every day in here I get bigger and I get stronger. My power over the forces of earth, rock, and soil have now exceeded yours, Storm-master! I have wrested it from Gaia’s body, and I will use it to rise from this dark prison of your making. Can’t you see this won’t end? Not until I have what I want!”

Zeus asked, wearily. “What do you want?”

“To see you suffer! To make you drink as much pain and misery as you poured down my throat!”

Zeus shook his head. “You can’t touch me, and you know it.”

“Oh, don't be so sure.” And the pure evil of the sneering tone and the bile-green eyes made Zeus’ eyes narrow in anxious speculation.

And as the Minotaur laughed with insane abandon, Zeus disappeared, sick at heart and fearing the worst ...

Chapter Five

Hercules and Iolaus strode in to the inn and up the counter. Both glanced around as guilelessly as possible, but as ever they attracted some attention.

Iolaus surveyed the rather surly-looking patrons of the inn’s common room. “You know, this isn’t a lot of compensation for losing out on a chance for adventure.”

Hercules glanced briefly at a couple of tables of what appeared to be local mercenaries, muttering to each other and shooting glances towards the two heroes. "Yeah, well, don't be too sure -- we're not home yet." As the barman came to take their order, he said, "Two ales, please."

"You two got money?" The heavyset barkeeper eyed them rather suspiciously.

Iolaus slammed a dinar on the rough wood of the bar. "Yeah, we got money."

The man shrugged. "Then you get ale."

The two friends had just taken their first drinks, when a sultry voice behind them said, "I haven't seen you two here before. I like that in a man. You have names?"

Iolaus and Hercules exchanged glances that communicated something very like, "Here we go again." The men turned to find the speaker was a dark-haired woman, who eyed them provocatively. Iolaus answered her. "Yeah -- I'm Iolaus and this is my friend Hercules."

The woman's eyebrows lifted. "Oh, another Hercules, huh?" she asked, disdainfully.

Iolaus frowned. "What do you mean by that -- 'another Hercules'?"

She shook her head. "Oh, come on. We get five of you guys a week, claiming to be Hercules. Every idiot with half a brain. That's what they did to the last one." The dark-haired woman pointed to a boarded-up, man-sized hole in the wall of the room. she turned back at the two men, looking them up and down measuringly. "You better keep it to yourself -- you're not very big. I'd hate to see what they'd do to you."

Hercules, looking down on the woman from his six-foot, three-inch height, found this statement pretty funny. He grinned. "Well, thanks for the advice." He started to turn back to the bar.

Iolaus was less amused. "Hey -- wait a minute! This really is Hercules!"

The woman surveyed Iolaus with a patronizing glance. "So, he's got you fooled, too. You must be a bright one!"

Iolaus looked up at Hercules. "What is it with this town?" he muttered, irritably. Turning back to the woman, he went on. "No, no! It really is him. I've been in all sorts of adventures with this guy! A bunch of them!"

"Oh, really?" the woman sneered. "Like what?"

Trying to convert his disbelieving audience, Iolaus launched into a detailed account of their intervention to stop the war between the Centaurs and the Amazons, when they were still cadets at the Academy. Thinking of that encounter reminded Hercules reminded Hercules too much of Gargarensia.

Those events flashing before his mind's eye, Hercules stood silently and gratefully watching the animated face of his partner and sword brother. Iolaus -- who was, Hercules had to admit, a very gifted storyteller -- was vividly capturing the danger and the turbulence of that long-ago threat of war. A time, Hercules thought, that could have ended in tragedy, but because of his and Iolaus' connection with both sides, ended well for everyone.

Not so that later adventure, which now Iolaus couldn't remember. Hercules, even today, with his best friend right before him, still felt the sick horror well up just from the memory of seeing Iolaus take the fatal dagger thrust to the gut. He felt his heart start to pound as he recalled the blood and cold sweat that slicked both their bodies as he held Iolaus close, begging him not to die, screaming at him to stay and fight. He felt the crushing anguish of watching and feeling the life flee his best friend's body, and glimpsing Celesta bearing away his soul. And he felt again the feverish intensity he had felt as he begged Zeus to make time flow backwards and negate the deaths of three good people, most importantly the one who was his brother, beloved over all.

Iolaus had reached the end of his tale, and seeing the woman's continued skepticism, appealed to Hercules. "And that's how it was, wasn't it, Herc?"

Waiting for the demigod's affirmation, Iolaus was surprised at his silence. Looking up at Hercules, Iolaus saw the bigger man watching him strangely, his blue eyes suddenly dark in a pale face.

Forgetting the woman, forgetting everything, Iolaus touched his friend's arm. "Hey, Herc. You with me, buddy?"

Hercules seemed to shake himself and tore his eyes from Iolaus' face. "Who, me?" He laughed with forced gaiety, clapping Iolaus on the shoulder. "Sure, Iolaus. Where else would I be but here with you?"

He tightened his hand for a moment, catching his friend's gaze with a look of grateful warmth, adding, "And glad of it!"

Hercules looked back at the woman, who was watching them both as though they had crawled out from under a rock. "Not that you're likely to believe it, ma'am, but everything my friend says is true."

Iolaus regarded Hercules with a questioning look, ready to pursue the source of the demigod's puzzling reaction. But before he could, one of the mercenaries shouldered past the woman. Iolaus filed the memory away to ask about at a later time and turned to face the challenger.

The man wasn't a lot taller than Iolaus but was built like a troll. He growled, "I've heard enough of this crap. So -- we've got another one, huh? Another hero in our midst?"

The woman called over the man's shoulder, "Don't say I didn't warn you!"

"Hey, everyone! Guess what -- this is Hercules!" the man guffawed coarsely. "It's an honor to meet you, Hercules!"

Hercules eyebrows raised, as he coolly surveyed the bully. "And you are?"

"My name is Trikonis."

Hercules offered his hand. "Nice to meet you." Trikonis ignored the gesture and stared at him belligerently. "Yeah," Hercules dropped his hand, exchanging glances with Iolaus. They turned back to the bar, hoping the guy would leave them in peace, but it was not to be.

The bully jabbed his finger into Hercules' shoulder over and over as he spoke. "Do you know what I think? I think you two are dirty, stinking liars."

Iolaus grinned. "And he should know dirty and stinking if he sees it, Herc -- he's an expert!"

Hercules laughed. Trikonis blinked as the insult went right over his head. The demigod regarded him patiently. "Fine. Now if you don't mind, we'll finish our drinks in peace."

"I really doubt it," Trikonis jeered.

"Listen, pal," Iolaus said, his temper rising. "If you've got a problem with Hercules, you've got a problem with me!"

"Then I guess you've got a lot of problems!" Trikonis growled, dropping into a crouch, ready to attack.

Hercules shrugged at the inevitable and told Iolaus, conversationally, "Why don't you show him the way they fight in the East?" Iolaus shrugged. "Okay."

The blond hunter danced over into the open area in front of the bar, gesturing for Trikonis to follow. And follow he did, getting madder every moment at the smaller man's taunting smile.

Suddenly Trikonis threw three quick punches, powerful enough to smash Iolaus' face in, only Iolaus wasn't there. He dodged the first two punches, blocked the third, and flipped the bigger man over his back with the momentum of his own blow. Trikonis man was up and coming back towards Iolaus quickly.

Iolaus did not turn, but judging the man's progress by sound and feel, waited until Trikonis was almost on him. He then kicked his foot backward, landing a breath-stealing blow in the man's midsection. Trikonis staggered back, but was still on his feet.

Iolaus whirled as Trikonis, bellowing, lunged forward, his arm drawing back for a powerhouse blow. Iolaus leaped high into the air and landed a scissor kick to his opponent's chest. The man gasped, recovered and lunged again, bull-like. Iolaus blocked his blow, but allowed the force to swing him around so that he delivered a walloping right to the man's jaw.

Trikonis flew backward over a table and crashed to the floor behind it. Iolaus waited with his hands on his hips. When the man did not reappear, he turned around and returned to his place beside Hercules.

Hercules regarded him with a grin and raised eyebrows, knowing he had enjoyed himself. Iolaus read those signs and shrugged thoughtfully. "It was okay," he stated. Just as he downed another gulp of ale, two more guys rose from the table of mercenaries. The two heroes had only a moment to glance back when the two grabbed them.

Both Hercules and Iolaus easily dispatched the two with lightening blows. Iolaus saw two more coming for him. He dived into a handstand just as they reached him, and kicked backward with a cry very like "Hee-haw!"

Hercules was rushed by three more men. He used their own momentum, stepping out of the way just in time, and barreled them over the bar. The barman had run to the other end and watched the proceedings with amazement. Another man jumped the demigod from behind, and was knocked flying.

The two heroes suddenly found themselves back-to-back, and grinned at each other briefly, as two more attackers came after them. As one, the two friends knocked the attackers flying into a table, splintering it. Hercules was attacked from both sides by two men, both of whom he knocked all the way across the room and into shelves of crockery that all fell with a resounding crash. Those men did not rise.

Hercules whirled to see Iolaus bend his body almost parallel to the floor as his leg kicked high with stunning force into a man's face. The demigod grimaced as he heard the man's jaw crack. The demigod almost absently threw off two more attackers as he watched Iolaus dive into another handstand almost at the feet of another attacker. He caught his breath, wondering what Iolaus could do in that position.

Iolaus showed him in a split second. His legs flew up to catch around the man's waist and his body followed like lightening. The blond hunter proceeded to use the man's head as a punching bag. As the man fell, Iolaus jumped clear and he met Hercules' grinning gaze.

"You know, Iolaus, those moves look good on you -- especially when they're not aimed at me!" he called.

Iolaus laughed, his eyes fiery bright. "Just watch this one, Herc!"

He picked am opponent who was charging from the other side of the room. Iolaus ran toward the man with a chilling cry, then leaped into the air, feet first. His boots hit the attacker full in the chest. The mercenary's breath whooshed out as he fell like a stone. However, Iolaus fell over a chair and was a bit stunned. One of the mercenaries started after him.

"Oh, no you don't!" Hercules cried, and knocked the man with so powerful an upward blow to the chin that the man flew through the thatched roof.

"Iolaus, are you all right?" Hercules called, already busy with another opponent.

Iolaus rose quickly. "I'm great, Herc!" To insure this, he quickly ran through a few * chi gung * maneuvers, restoring his breath and centering his strength.

Two attackers came at him from behind, however, and grabbed him before he could escape. Two more jumped forward and started raining blows. Another hit him over the head with a chair, and Iolaus went down in a sea of bodies.

"Iolaus!" Hercules cried. He then truly began to demonstrate for the unbelievers that he was truly the real Hercules. Bodies flew everywhere as Hercules fought to get to Iolaus' side. One final attacker tried to trick the demigod with clever footwork and appalling cries. Hercules lost patience and kicked the man backwards over the bar.

The son of Zeus ran and knelt beside his friend. His fingers found the pulse point in the neck rapidly. The strong, regular throb of Iolaus' heart rewarded his anxious search. He caught a quick breath, and leaped up.

The last attacker standing was the first. Trikonis had finally awakened from the stunned sleep brought by Iolaus' strong blow earlier. The leader of the mercenaries was now armed with a spiked club.

"You and me," Trikonis spat. "We're not done."

"Oh, yes we are," Hercules promised, grim and serious now that Iolaus was out.

"No! I'm gonna smash your head till your brains come out!" Trikonis lunged forward, raising the club.

"What -- like what happened to you?" Hercules caught the man's hand with his longer reach, and pulled him into a walloping right, left, and right, while holding him up by the hand with the club. Hercules grabbed the club from Trikonis' slackening grip, then tossed him easily so far down the bar that he crashed into all the remaining shelves at the end of it.

No other opponents remained -- all lay groaning on the floor.

Hercules walked over to Iolaus and gently slung him to one shoulder, then retrieved the hunter's weapons where he had dropped them. He turned to the barman and the innkeeper. "Do you have any rooms to rent in this place?"

The men nodded, their eyes wide.

"I'll take your best available."

The innkeeper was still in shock, so the barman replied, "Yeah -- the room at the end of the upstairs hall."

Hercules tossed several dinars on the bar as he walked by, easily bearing his slighter friend up the stairs to the indicated room. He tossed Iolaus' weapons on a chair and carefully laid Iolaus down on the big bed. The room was quite dark as only the last glimmers of twilight illumined the sky outside the window.

Hercules lit a candle on a nearby table, and turned to examine Iolaus. The demigod pulled open one eyelid after the other, and was relieved to see the pupils react appropriately. Iolaus groaned and moved away from him slightly, also a good sign. Hercules ran his fingers carefully over the back of Iolaus' head. He felt a large bump, but noticed no crackling or movement of the bone that would indicate a fractured skull.

With a great sigh of relief, Hercules decided Iolaus would be okay. He lay down beside his friend so he would be awakened if Iolaus needed him. With another sigh, this time of fatigue, Hercules settled himself to sleep for a few hours, and then to wake and check Iolaus again.

As he drifted off, Hercules thought with a smile that he had forgotten a few of the more difficult parts of adventures ...

As night blanketed the town of Alturia with darkness and silence, it covered the furtive movements of those who meant only evil. Hidden in the bushes not far from the inn, the Minotaur regarded a furtive group of men huddled nearby. The monster, its eyes glowing a virulent green, listened with malicious interest as the three men conspired together.

The leader was none other than Trikonis. The beast heard him say, "This time Hercules dies!"

One of the other men replied, "I don't care if he is the real Hercules! I'm gonna show him that * we * run things in this town."

The third man brandished his sword and stated, "And I've got his first lesson right here!"

Trikonis growled at both men threateningly, "Hercules is mine -- remember that! You can get your fun out of his little runt friend. Now come on --"

The men had barely moved when the terrifying Minotaur came roaring from the undergrowth and, with slashing blows of its huge clawed hands, ripped the three screaming men apart in a few brief, bloody moments. With an exultant roar, the beast disappeared back through the underbrush.

The commotion woke Hercules abruptly. Disoriented for a moment, he looked around, remembering where he was. He glanced over at the still sleeping Iolaus, then rose to look out the open window.

The brilliant moon shone its monochrome light over a terrible scene in the open area in front of the tavern. Hercules could see the bodies of three men laid out there in the grotesque contortions of violent death. The demigod turned from the window and raced down the hall, descended the stairs, and exited the inn. He dashed over to where the bodies lay.

The corpses were slashed and bloody; the faces of the men -- those that were still intact -- were frozen in the still terror of their last terrible moments. Hercules bent to examine them, pushing down his own pity and horror, to try to learn what had brought such swift and awful death.

The bodies were still warm, so Hercules knew their deaths had only just occurred, for the chill cold of the spring night would have stolen their last vestiges of heat quickly. Hercules saw a sword with huge bloody handprints upon it. He grasped the sword and stood, looking in wondering repugnance at the malformed prints.

There was a rustle in the forest edge next to the clearing of the inn yard. Hercules heard low, rumbling, inhuman laughter. His eyes raked the shadows piercingly.

"Who's there?" Hercules challenged. He took a step toward the trees, when suddenly he was aware of the rising tide of voices and footsteps as the roused village began to converge on his position. And suddenly he became aware of his precarious and incriminating pose to the first horrified witnesses.

"It's Hercules! Look!"

"Oh, no -- look at what he's done!"

"Those men -- it's terrible!"

"By the gods -- he's massacred them!"

Hercules threw down the sword and turned to face the growing mob.

"No, look -- you don't understand! I didn't do this!" he cried to the muttering people.

A little boy's voice piped from the crowd, "Mama, why did Hercules kill them?"

"I didn't kill them!" Hercules shouted.

The rotund barman from the tavern and his tall, skinny friend exchanged angry, fearful glances. "We have to do something, Martan -- what should we do?" the barman asked, remembering Hercules' great strength against so many men in the inn earlier. His tall friend shouted, " We gotta hold him to account, Darthus! You gotta pay for this, Hercules! Pay with your life!"

Hercules reply was desperately earnest. "I told you -- I didn't do this!"

Martan shot back, "Well, who did, huh?"

"I have no idea!" Hercules cried. "But if you'll just wait and listen, maybe we can --"

"We know who did it!" someone shouted. Others joined in the cry -- "Hercules!"

The crowd began to surge forward. Hercules did not try to reason with them further. He turned and fled back into the common room of the inn, barring the door behind him. As he tore up the stairs, the sleepy innkeeper regarded him blearily, then startled as the crowd hit the door and began beating on it.

Hercules spared no explanation, but raced up the stairs, down the hall and into the room where Iolaus was just rousing.

"Iolaus -- wake up NOW!" Hercules cried, catching up the smaller man's pack and throwing it at him.

Iolaus sat up just in time to catch the pack. Familiarity with danger and quick escapes sent a shot of adrenaline through his system, and the hunter began to awaken fast.

"Can't we talk about this tomorrow?" he asked, a bit petulantly. He clutched the pack, and put a hand to his aching head.

"No -- we've got trouble!" Hercules ran to the window and saw the mob battering at the door with a log.

"Good trouble?" At the sounds of the mob below, Iolaus caught his friend's urgency. He slid to the edge of the bed and stood.

Hercules shook his head as he flew back by the bed. "Bad trouble!" He dashed to the table by the door and grabbed Iolaus' weapons and tossed them to him.

"Little trouble?" the hunter asked in a persistently hopeful voice as he caught his weapons and donned them in seconds.

"Big trouble!" Hercules pulled Iolaus toward the door as stones flew through the window and crashed into the bedstead and the shutters.

As they pelted down the stairs, Iolaus cried, "What in Hades is going on?"

"I have no idea, but I don't want to find out!" Hercules looked around as they reached the bottom of the steps. The door he had barricaded was still holding but would not hold long. The befuddled innkeeper looked between the two men and the pounding door in total confusion.

"Is there another door to this place?" Hercules demanded.

"No, there isn't."

Hercules strode to the back wall of the inn, Iolaus following. "There is now!" He pulled back and landed several smashing blows to the wall with all his mighty strength. Mortar and stones crumbled and a hole easily man sized appeared. Hercules leaped out with Iolaus right on his heels.

The innkeeper cried, "My wall!"

At that moment the front door burst open, splinters of the bar flying throughout the room. The mob poured in, shouting, "Kill Hercules!"

Running down the unfamiliar streets, Iolaus could hear the roar of the crowd screaming for Hercules' blood. "'Kill'? What's this all about, anyway?" he demanded as they wheeled around a corner. "All I can hear is 'Let's get Hercules!' I don't hear anyone shouting about killing Iolaus!"

"Stow it, Iolaus -- I'll tell you later!" Hercules snapped, hearing the mob gaining as they followed the men.

The two men rounded another corner and suddenly found themselves in a dead end alleyway with a wall too high to climb. The two warriors swung round and readied themselves for the oncoming attack.

"Oh, this is * so * not good!" Iolaus grumbled, but even as he did, the blond warrior whipped his bow from his back, strung it and nocked an arrow in the blink of an eye.

Darthus the barkeeper was at the front of the throng and spotted them. "They're right down here!" The people filled the opening of the alley and surged toward the two heroes, but they began to hesitate slightly, most having seen the fight in the inn. Hercules stepped forward. "You're making a big mistake!"

Darthus shouted, "It's you who made the mistake, Hercules!"

Hercules watched the crowd warily, but with a rising temper. "I'm warning you -- I haven't hurt anybody yet, but if you don't stop and listen now that's going to change!"

Martan shouted, "No -- we're gonna hurt you!"

Many in the crowd cried, "Yeah!" They began to move forward when suddenly, the ground below the alley began to shake, as though with an earthquake. Everyone stopped in place, just trying to balance themselves and looking around fearfully.

All at once, a man in the front of the mob began to scream. Those around him scrambled away as they realized the earth was opening up beneath him. Hercules and Iolaus watched in shocked surprise as the man sank rapidly into a descending tunnel of earth. He grabbed wildly for some handhold around him, but there was none. The earth continued to shake.

Abruptly the man was gone. The soil refilled the hole down which he had vanished. The people clamored with terror.

Suddenly, Iolaus felt the ground beneath his feet turn to gelatin, then liquefy. He had sunk into the softening mass to his ankles by the time Hercules turned to look.

"Hercules!" Iolaus cried. The demigod was shocked into a brief moment of paralysis by the bewildering events, the screams, the milling crowd, and now the sudden attack on Iolaus. By the time he lunged forward, Iolaus was caught up to his knees.

"Iolaus!" Hercules shouted, grabbing his friend's arm and pulling with all his might. Iolaus caught hold of him wildly, but the force of the suction tugging the smaller man down to his waist even jerked Hercules to his knees.

"Help me, Herc!" Iolaus shouted.

"NO!" Hercules screamed, fighting for a better hold. "IOLAUS!"

Hercules pulled till his great arm muscles bulged with tension, but being down on his knees had cost him leverage. The stress between the competing forces suddenly caused Iolaus to scream with pain.

The shock and realization of hurting Iolaus hit Hercules with the force of a blow. He instinctively loosened his hold slightly. At the same moment Martan and Darthus leaped forward to pull him away from the mysterious force.

In a split second, Iolaus was sucked beneath the ground. Soil boiled up into the hole, the ground firmed and the rumbling jolting of the earth ceased abruptly.

It was as if Iolaus had never been there.

Hercules hung in the grasp of the two men for several moments, staring blindly at the spot where Iolaus had disappeared. Breathless, bereft, he was stunned by the suddenness of it all, and by the ripping pain in his heart. It had been no more than ten minutes since he himself had been awakened into this waking nightmare, and now suddenly Iolaus was gone, pulled from his side by some powerful, malignant force.

Surely not -- dead?

Hercules mind reeled, and he jerked himself away from the arms that held him. "No, no! Iolaus!" he whispered raggedly, wretchedly. He pummeled the ground where Iolaus had disappeared, but it was inexplicably hard again.

"Hercules," Darthus said, quietly. "He's gone."

Hercules looked up wildly to see the crowd parting, as someone came into the alley, and walked towards him. Hercules stared at him for a moment, and suddenly realized it was the young man named Danion who had first come for his aid.

The young man paced down the aisle created by his fellow villagers and regarded them with righteous anger, and grim satisfaction. To them all he shouted, "Now do you believe me? Do you see what this monster can do?"

"You mean the thing that got Andius -- it did this?" someone in the throng called.

"'Course it did -- how many other beasts do we have in this town?" Danion scoffed. "And now, because you wouldn't believe me, more good people have been taken! And those dead men -- Hercules didn't do that, you fools! This monster killed them!"

Hercules leaped up and grabbed the boy's arm, remembering at the last moment not to do so with his whole strength. "Do you know where this thing lives?" he demanded intently, his voice rough with the strain of grief and fear.

Danion nodded, and saw a passionate fire kindle in Hercules' eyes that gave him some hope.

"Then take me there!" Hercules commanded, pushing the boy before him. And the subdued crowd parted before them ...

Chapter Six

As his hands were wrenched from Hercules' fierce, desperate grip, Iolaus gasped and choked on the soil he inhaled. As he was pulled deeper into the darkness of earth, he fought the strong grasp that held him. He clawed and struggled against the press of earth that weighed him with the sensation of being buried alive.

Suddenly, the space around him widened somewhat, and the loose soil that had pressed so claustrophobically was gone. Iolaus sucked the welcome air into his lungs with a wheezing gasp and coughed out the dust and dirt he had inhaled. When the frenzy of air hunger had passed he could take stock of his situation. His vision was useless -- the blackness around him was impenetrable. He also realized he was being carried through the blackness by someone or something that held him motionless in arms of brutal strength. * The monster's got me. Danion's monster's real and it's got me! *

The surge of undeniable fear poured adrenaline through his veins and with it came the determination, as always, that he would fight. The beast had not killed him outright, so there was hope. If he could hold out long enough, he knew with a bone-deep certainty that Hercules would move mountains to find him.

* And that may be exactly what he needs to do! * Iolaus thought.

After a few moments of being painfully jog-trotted, Iolaus light-starved eyes noted a slight lessening of the Stygian darkness around him. From blackest black to a lighter grey, his surroundings slowly began to take shape. And in another few moments, the narrow dimness of what must have been a tunnel ended in a large, torchlit chamber.

Abruptly, Iolaus was thrown to the ground. He rolled and came up in a fighter's crouch, then gasped as he saw his abductor. In the flickering torchlight, he observed a large, heavily-muscled man's body with dark skin, huge arms that ended in monstrous hands with two-inch black claws, and all surmounted by the bestial, horned head of a bull.

It was a Minotaur.

But unlike the creature that Theseus had faced in the Labyrinth of Crete, out of this beast's yellow-green eyes Iolaus could see a crafty intelligence gleaming. An intelligence that had once been that of a man -- or a god?

"What in Hades -- !" Iolaus gasped. He was then further startled by the deep, human voice that came from the Minotaur's throat.

"I am worse than anything in Hades realm, or even his worst nightmare!" the beast declared viciously. "But I am as my father made me!"

"Your father!" Iolaus echoed.

The Minotaur snorted. "Yes, little man. My father, Zeus."

"I don't believe it," Iolaus replied. "How could Zeus father anything like you?"

The Minotaur roared. Iolaus flinched, but did not back down. Angrily the Minotaur growled, "It is nothing and less than nothing to me what you 'believe', maggot. But know that I was not thus from my birth. My father changed me into the beast you see now," the Minotaur spat the words. "I was once more beautiful than you, or the friend you left above ground."

Iolaus caught his breath. "And if you're Zeus' son, then you're Hercules' --"

"Brother," the Minotaur supplied, sneering. "Yes, I am Hercules' half-brother -- a demigod even as he is. But without the benefits and gifts that Zeus later lavished on Hercules. In a time before the memory of man, I was a prince of gods and men. My father became jealous of my power and my following, so he changed me into this form and imprisoned me in this deep maze of the earth."

"Just out of jealousy, huh?" Iolaus replied, his eyes narrowing skeptically. "Well, you listen to me, pal. The only thing Zeus did for Herc was to make him physically strong. Everything else he did for himself. He's earned the respect of gods and mortals because his heart and his spirit are as strong and as beautiful as his body."

Iolaus could hear the Minotaur growling menacingly, but his own anger overrode his caution. "And besides, there's a lot you can say against Zeus, but one thing I've noticed is that he loves his kids -- all of them. I think he even loves Ares -- go figure". Iolaus shook his head. "So I find it hard to believe that he would do this to you without any other reason than jealousy. What did you do to deserve it?"

The Minotaur roared again and charged Iolaus. The hunter tried to scramble out of the way, but the beast's reach was too long. The Minotaur backhanded Iolaus across the jaw with a blow that sent him flying backward. The hero crashed to the ground and the force winded him completely.

Iolaus hung on to consciousness grimly. He fought to catch his breath in great wheezes. He felt warmth trickling down his chin, and wiped the blood from his split lip.

* Note to myself, * he thought, with the irrepressible humor that kept him sane. * Never tell painful truths to Minotaurs! *

The brutish half-man came to stand over the prone Iolaus, his virulent green eyes glittering dangerously, and its breath snorting angrily from its nostrils. "You're flirting with doom, maggot! You're only alive now by my sufferance."

"Yeah?" Iolaus shot back, undaunted. He pulled himself up to his elbows shakily. "Well, I think I'm doing my share of suffering, here, too. So why haven't you killed me?"

"Because I need you as bait!" the Minotaur replied. "A worm to dangle before the favorite son of Zeus to get him down here into my maze that much faster. I've heard the two of you together. I know what he feels for you, the weakling! Do you appreciate your part in this drama, maggot? Once he comes to find you, I will begin my revenge upon Zeus by killing Hercules!"

Immediately, Iolaus' vision swan red with anger and fear. "NO!" he shouted. He pushed himself backward, then launched his weight outward into his strong legs, and kicked the Minotaur in the groin. As the creature doubled over with a bellow of anguish, Iolaus kicked upwards powerfully, striking the bullish snout.

The Minotaur staggered backwards. Iolaus leaped up and followed with a flurry of blows to the beast's body. But the creature's superhuman might was too great. With a roar of fury, he spun away from Iolaus' last blow, caught the smaller man's arm, and slammed him into the wall. Iolaus, stunned, attempted to dance out of the way, but could only stumble dizzily. The Minotaur caught him and easily pinned him against the wall two feet off the ground with an arm to his throat..

The monster brandished a long claw in front of Iolaus' face and snarled with fury. "I could rip out your throat with one slash, maggot. You've nearly tempted me too far. But I still need you to use as a bargaining chip for my sweet brother, and to distort his judgment. So -- enough chatting for now -- time to put you on ice!"

The Minotaur dipped a massive hand into his belt pouch. Opening the hand in front of his face, he blew a handful of fine crystal dust into Iolaus' face. As Iolaus inhaled in surprise, the sorcerous powder filled his lungs, and immediately he felt his whole body freezing into rock-hard stillness.

The Minotaur stepped back and regarded with gloating satisfaction the results of his magic. All around Iolaus, a clear sapphire shell was coalescing, and the hunter was motionless, except for being able to move his eyes.

Iolaus, struggling internally with the imperative commands to his body to * move *, could do nothing. He couldn't feel himself breathing, but it didn't seem to be a problem -- his lungs did not seem to be crying for air. His entire physical being seemed frozen -- at first it felt cold, but then everything went numb. His mind was trapped -- aware but powerless -- inside his inert body. All around him he was aware of a deep, transparent blue, which had started as a fluid, but hardened into a glittering crystal shape.

* Like a fly trapped in amber! * Iolaus mind cried. He realized it was a prison from which he could not escape, and despaired -- not for himself but for Hercules. He knew without question that his friend would be coming for him, and now he truly was bait -- helpless and unable to help.

The Minotaur roared with laughter. "You're the prize of my collection!" he cried, and swept his arm toward the opposite wall of the cavern. There, within Iolaus' fixed sphere of vision were two more crystalline formations, with two shapes dimly visible inside each. Iolaus couldn't tell for sure, but he felt sure these victims were Danion's brother, Andius, and the villager who had been sucked into the Minotaur's lair just before him.

"And now when Hercules comes for all of you, I'll be waiting. And when I kill him, there will be no one left to stop me. I can escape this dark tomb at last! Nothing will stand against me!"

The Minotaur roared with the laughter of malice and fury. As he strode out of Iolaus' view, the hunter's mind screamed, * HERCULES! *

Hercules followed Danion through the forest at a run, his heart and mind kept thrumming with fear for Iolaus, caught somewhere underground with some unknown horror with incredible powers. All he could see was his friend's face as he was pulled beneath the surface; all he could hear was Iolaus' voice calling for his help. Help he was unable to give when it was needed.

Somehow he felt he could hear his friend's voice calling even now. He prayed that meant that Iolaus still lived.

He was brought up short by Danion stopping in front of him and pointing toward a wall of brush with a dark opening just visible. "It's this way," he instructed.

Hercules nodded and started to follow when suddenly he noticed movement out of the corner of his eye. When he turned to look, Hercules saw Zeus sitting on a nearby log, beckoning to him.

Danion had begun to run toward the cave. Unable to see Zeus, he looked back at Hercules impatiently.

Hercules waved him on. "It's all right. Go on to the mouth of the cave and keep watch. I'll be there in a minute. Really -- it's okay." Danion, who like most mortals, could not see the gods unless those beings decided to manifest themselves -- regarded Hercules in some puzzlement, but after a moment nodded and obeyed.

When the boy was out of earshot, Hercules walked over to Zeus. "Father -- what are you doing here?"

"Hercules! I ... I need to talk to you, son."

Hercules glanced back in the direction Danion had gone. "Father, I don't have time! Some ... thing, some creature ... has taken Iolaus. I've got to go find --"

Zeus broke in, his words pouring out. "He won't kill Iolaus -- he wants to kill you!"

Hercules did a double take. He regarded his father with narrowed eyes and a sudden still wariness. "How would you know that?" Zeus sighed, and his normally jovial features were etched with pathos. "Because I know what's down there. A monstrous beast." Hercules asked flatly, "Have you ever seen this thing before?"

Zeus did not meet his son's eyes, his own eyes dark with ancient memory. "He was a wonderful child, and as a man more handsome than Adonis." He sighed again and he looked back at Hercules. "That became his curse."

"What curse?"

"He had a lot of followers. He tried to turn them against the gods, then against each other. Anyone who resisted him, he murdered."

"So -- why is he after me?" Hercules wondered.

"He's not." Zeus shook his head. "He's after me for what I did to him. I made him as ugly as his heart. Now he wants revenge."

"Who is he? What exactly is going in here, Father?" Hercules was nearly frantic to find Iolaus, and was growing impatient with Zeus' hesitance. "You're not telling me everything."

Zeus' only answer was, "I once had a chance to kill him, but I couldn't."

Hercules stepped closer to his father, catching and holding his gaze piercingly. "Why can't you tell me the truth?"

"I don't want to hurt you, son." Zeus' voice was raw with more pain than Hercules had ever heard there. "I'm not sure what else to do. I've never asked you to do anything for me, but I'm asking you this now. Do what I can't ... Kill him."

And before Hercules could question him further, Zeus turned away and disappeared. Hercules shook his head, stunned, angry, and baffled for a moment. But he could not afford to spend any longer on his frustration.

"Iolaus!" he whispered, and ran after Danion. The youth was standing near the cave entrance, looking towards it anxiously.

"In there." Danion swept his arm toward the opening. "Down in the earth -- that's where it lives."

Hercules glanced into the cavern entrance. "All right. Wait here -- I'll be back as soon as I can ."

Danion began to protest, "Can't I go with you? I wanna help rescue my brother."

Hercules shook his head and had begun to speak when running footsteps and a loud crashing through the underbrush caught the attention of both men.

Two people came running through the woods towards them. Hercules recognized them as the inn's barkeeper, Darthus, and his friend, Martan.

"Hercules -- wait!" Darthus called, as he ran up to them, puffing. "We're going with you!"

"Excuse me?" Hercules, watching the short, rotund man gasp for breath.

"We're going with you!" Darthus repeated. "We owe it to you."

Martan, though tall and thin, also looked to be catching his breath. "Yeah -- after what happened in town, we thought we needed to help out. To make up for what we did."

Danion added his voice. "Please, Hercules. Let me go, too! All of us together might be a match for that thing."

Hercules took a deep breath, his desperate worry for Iolaus causing him to feel like screaming at this delay. But he knew it couldn't help to take these untrained men into those dark caverns to face something Zeus saw as so monstrous, powerful and evil. * Even seasoned, skilled warriors would be at risk, * Hercules thought. * These three would be dead meat * But he summoned the dregs of his patience, his innate kindness keeping him from conveying by expression or word what he felt about their offers. He held up his hands to stop the further arguments he could see coming.

"Listen, guys -- I appreciate your willingness to help -- I do. But I've got reason to believe this thing is really dangerous. Danion, it's very brave that you want to help your brother, but I've gotta go alone."

"But, Hercules -- " the three burst out. The demigod made a slashing motion with both hands, swiftly halting the protests.

"The answer is no." Hercules' voice took on a hint of steel. "You're not a warriors, and even if you had some experience, this monster is going to be especially tough. I can't concentrate on fighting it and taking care of you. I can't take the responsibility for more lives down there."

Their expressions were still mutinous. "The passageways will no doubt be cramped at times, and dark, even with a torch." He glanced gently at Darthus' portly figure, and met the terror he could see lurking in Martan's eyes with his understanding but unrelenting gaze.

He looked at Danion, and pressed a hand to his shoulder. "And I know you want to help Andius, Danion, but you know what this thing is like, better than anyone. I think you know it's better to let me do what I can to take it on. And I'll bet Iolaus is already giving him hell, so I've got some help.

"Besides," he added, to salve their self-respect. "Zeus has just told me that it's even going to be tough for me."

Danion gaped, but then realization dawned. "Is that who you were talking to over there a minute ago?"

Hercules nodded. Darthus and Martan exchanged suddenly wary glances.

"Okay, Hercules," Darthus answered for both of them. "Since Zeus himself thinks that, we'll stay back. But we had to try."

Danion sighed, but then nodded. He gazed at Hercules anxiously. "Please ... bring my brother back, Hercules."

Hercules met the boy's eyes with his own adamantine blue gaze. "I'll bring both our brothers back, Danion! " he vowed, fervently. The demigod nodded at the other men. "Good luck, Hercules!" Martan said quietly.

Hercules turned and entered the tunnel. He picked his way over the shattered remains of the great door that had held the creature captive. The son of Zeus found another torch in a bracket nearby. He lit it by striking the metal plates of his Hephaestean gauntlets together, then started into the blackness of the tunnel beyond the portal.

Hercules had not traveled long before he found an intersection with opening leading in four more directions. He did not waste time dithering, but chose the tunnel that "felt right". Iolaus would've called his choice "a demigod thing, y'know" -- one of those senses that was better than human, but not so godly that it was absolute. At the thought of Iolaus, Hercules increased his pace.

He had moved through the tunnels for several sunwidths when he began to get the itchy sensation of being watched. As he passed through the passageways, noting landmarks with his sharp eyes, that feeling continued to grow. Hercules took this sensation to mean that he was on the right path, and tried to minimize the number of times he glanced over his shoulder.

* This place is a maze, * he thought to himself, and was very glad he had forbidden the others to come. *Martan would've been terrified -- he was barely holding it together on the surface. *

About that time, he came to a section of tunnel that narrowed into a slender opening perhaps a foot across. As Hercules slipped through it sideways, he was very grateful that Darthus had not come. There was no doubt in his mind that the rotund barkeeper would have never made it through that constricted space. Once through, however, Hercules found himself in a dead end, with space to his arms' width and no openings, other than the one through which he had come.

Hercules blew a frustated breath at the delay. "Damn!" he muttered, his worry for Iolaus notching higher. He also noticed that the sense of being watched was magnified here.

He whirled, but saw nothing. He started towards the narrow slot, only to suddenly see it begin to close, with the sound of stones grinding together.

"No, damn it!" Hercules shouted and leaped for the opening. He caught the sides and pulled with all his might, but even his great strength was unavailing. He snatched his hands back as the passage slammed shut. Deep, resonating, mad laughter filled the small space that was left.

"Where are you?" Hercules shouted, his voice ringing off the high ceiling lost in the darkness above. "Come on -- face me! Where are you?"

"Come find out!" the deep voice boomed. All at once, a sudden wind blew down from above, dousing the torch. Hercules was startled by the cavern floor giving way beneath his feet. He dropped the torch and grabbed for handholds, but an inexorable force began pulling from below and he was sucked rapidly down into a long slide, deeper and deeper into the earth ...

Chapter Seven

Iolaus wasn't sure how much time had passed when the Minotaur came running back into his vision. The beast stalked up to the higher point of large cavern, where the cave floor slanted up to a raised ledge. He stood there, moving his weight from foot to foot, as though waiting.

Suddenly, through an dark opening on the side opposite from the Minotaur's position, Hercules came sliding and tumbled to the rough floor. Iolaus watched out of the corner of his eye, concerned, but the demigod leaped to his feet quickly, lithely. Iolaus cheered internally to see his friend unhurt, but his fear rose, as the voice of the Minotaur rang out. It was muffled in Iolaus' crystal prison, but he could make out the words.

"Well, well, well -- look who finally decided to drop in?" the Minotaur boomed. Hercules wheeled to locate the source, and glimpsed the creature dimly in the glimmering light. He said nothing, but paced slowly around a deeper central area where mist curled around a moist bed of stalagmites. The Minotaur went on speaking.

"Welcome to my home, Hercules! What do you think of it? Large, I know, but damp and dark -- rather like a big stone grave."

Hercules stepped to a position where he could see the monster better, and Iolaus knew when realization struck by the revulsion in his friend's face. Hercules ignored the beast's words and focused on what was closest to his heart.

"What have you done with my friend, and the villagers?"

"That remains to be seen. Perhaps I'll tell you -- later." The Minotaur watched Hercules approached warily. "What's the matter, godling? Do I frighten you?" the creature taunted, his tone searing. "Does the very sight of me offend you? Good -- because that's what I am -- an offense! And it was ... your father who made me this way!"

"From what I heard, you deserved it," Hercules stated evenly, unconsciously echoing his partner. Iolaus watched as the enemies circled each other, and he knew that Hercules was assessing, weighing his enemy, warily ready for any attack.

"And what do you know about deserving?!" the Minotaur roared, pointing a clawed hand toward Hercules. You've had everything in your life given to you -- fame and glory."

Hercules chuckled, but his eyes were fixed on the monster's every movement. "You must be thinking about some other son of Zeus. Anything that's come to me I've earned."

The Minotaur's voice sneered. "It was given to you by a god -- a pathetic old man who has showered his precious son with all the world, while * I *live in a nightmare."

Hercules shook his head, his voice full of pitying amusement. "Well you've been stuck in it way too long to know about me then. I used to think my father had neglected me as I grew up, but now I think he gave me the best gift of all by staying away and letting me learn and grow for myself."

"You're deluded, Hercules, just like your father. Now -- it's his turn for a nightmare that begins when I toss your head into his lap!" .

"And where does it end?" And Iolaus could see Hercules readying himself to attack.

"With my army storming Olympus! I will be the new king of the gods!" the beast howled.

"Sounds like a plan," Hercules said, stepping closer. "Except it's just got one flaw."

"Flaw? What flaw?"

"ME!" Hercules cried, and launched himself at the Minotaur. He rained a series of punishing blows on the creature's body and snout -- blows that rocked his enemy and would have easily killed a mortal.

The Minotaur was battered by the punishing blows, but finally blocked the last. He struck Hercules powerfully several times, and with the last punch knocked Hercules across the cavern.

If Iolaus could have caught his breath, he would have done so as Hercules tumbled across the rough floor and out of his sight. The Minotaur stalked down to the lower level. laughing and growling. He caught up thick wooden staff that leaned against one wall. "My strength is equal to yours, son of Zeus!" he cried. "You have no advantage over me!"

There was silence for a moment, except for the sound of feet scrabbling on stone. Iolaus was screaming in his mind for Hercules to answer or to return to where he could see. But within seconds, Hercules' voice relieved the Iolaus' emotional torture.

"Sure I do, but none that would mean much to you," Hercules said. And suddenly there was a terrible crashing and clattering, and the two combatants wheeled back into Iolaus' view. The Minotaur was wielding the staff as a weapon, but Hercules had grabbed two of the heavy torches and was using them for both defense and offense against the beast.

They exchanged a flashing series of multiple strikes, their motions almost too fast for the eye. The advantage seesawed back and forth. Thrusting, dodging, feinting and whirling. There was a sudden flurry of blows where each went for the other's head and feet. Both were powerful, enraged, and skilled -- Iolaus could tell that the beast's rage was white-hot, but Hercules fought with a cold fierceness that kept his head clear. The fight was the most even that Iolaus had ever seen Hercules wage. The Minotaur gave several bellows of angry surprise which made Iolaus think that the creature was frustrated that the demigod's power so closely matched his own.

Suddenly -- it was so swift a blow that Iolaus could hardly see it -- the Minotaur struck Hercules and knocked him off balance. On the uneven cave floor, the son of Zeus lost his footing and went down hard. The Minotaur screamed in triumph even as Iolaus mentally screamed in fear for Hercules. The beast swept the heavy staff up high and hammered it down toward the prone demigod.

Hercules rolled just in time and the staff struck the stone with a resounding crack. It took the Minotaur a moment to recover. During that split second, Hercules leaped up and kicked the monster in the back, knocking it forward in a breathless rush.

If Iolaus could have breathed in relief he would have, but that relief was short-lived. The Minotaur recovered, and lunged for Hercules. The son of Zeus blocked three roundhouse punches, but the third got through and again knocked him across the cavern. Iolaus' anxiety rose as Hercules got up more slowly. The Minotaur appeared to notice this as well. The brutal, animal part of his nature appeared to take over. He lowered his head, snorted, and charged the apparently tiring demigod, attacking to gore and kill.

As the beast charged, Hercules suddenly moved more quickly, and Iolaus mentally cheered what appeared to be a ruse by his friend to lure the monster into unthinking attack.

Hercules bent and broke off an enormous stalagmite. As the raging Minotaur ran at him, the demigod swung the huge stone club like a bat and knocked the creature backward with a resounding blow. The Minotaur staggered back, obviously stunned, but managed somehow to stay on his feet.

Hercules was right after him, however, raining blows with the stone club right and left. The Minotaur was battered to his hands and knees, and Iolaus mentally screamed for Hercules to finish him off.

The mauled monster raised an arm in a pleading motion. Hercules pulled back the club, and looked down at the gasping creature. Both of them were covered with sweat and multiple contusions and abrasions. Hercules recovered his breath and spoke, the club still raised to strike.

"I guess things aren't going to work out like you planned. Can't say I'm sorry!" His arm muscles tensed, ready to bring the massive club down on the Minotaur's head.

The creature raised his arm higher. In a heaving, imploring breath, the Minotaur asked. "Hercules -- you wouldn't really kill your own brother, would you?"

Hercules startled and his arms relaxed. "Brother?"

"Zeus had the chance to kill me once, but why didn't he?" the beast asked, gulping air. "He didn't kill me because he couldn't bring himself to kill his own son!"

Hercules caught his breath, and he relaxed his arms, staring at the Minotaur's pleading posture distractedly. Iolaus could tell from his face that at that moment, everything clicked for Hercules. It all made sense -- Zeus' enigmatic behavior, his hesitance in telling Hercules any of the story, his inability to kill the Minotaur himself, and the Minotaur's deep antipathy for Hercules.

Stunned and shocked, Hercules dropped the club. Iolaus fought with every fiber of his being to scream a warning or strike out at his prison, but it was fruitless. The monster's power over earth was too strong. Iolaus watched helplessly as Hercules half turned from the beast, totally numbed with shock.

Like lightening, the Minotaur kicked out his massively muscled leg and struck Hercules in the mid-section. The demigod was knocked flying, and landed very near Iolaus' crystal prison. Iolaus could feel his own heart battering the inside of his chest as Hercules pulled himself to his knees with agonizing slowness.

"You should have done it!" the Minotaur cried, with malicious glee. He stepped quickly to Hercules, grabbed him, and hit him in the face twice with his massive fist. He shook Hercules, but the demigod just stared up at him with haggard eyes.

"Come on, fight me!" he bellowed.

Hercules shook his head slowly. "No," he gasped, wiping the blood from the edge of his mouth. "You're my brother!"

The Minotaur screamed with rage and slashed his claws across Hercules chest. The son of Zeus shouted with pain as the bright blood welled from the wounds. Iolaus mind cried out, feeling Hercules' injury as though it were his own.

"Fight me! I want to prove which son of Zeus is the most powerful!" the Minotaur roared.

Hercules was adamant. "I won't do it!"

The Minotaur appeared stunned for a moment. Then, he turned and walked towards Iolaus' crystal prison. Hercules watched puzzled, unaware of his friend's location.

Before Iolaus realized what the Minotaur was doing, the crystal of his prison was shattered by a blow of the monster's great fist. He was ready to lunge for the creature's throat, but the spell was still on him. He could only sag forward, upheld by the rest of the crystal block and the Minotaur's powerful arm.

At the sight of Iolaus, Hercules pulled himself more upright. Forgetting his wounds, forgetting the Minotaur's stunning revelation, Hercules' heart soared to see Iolaus alive. His sense of purpose narrowed into a precise focus now.

The Minotaur looked over at Hercules, and extended the claw on his forefinger toward Iolaus' throat. "If you won't fight, you can watch your friend die!"

Hercules felt his blood boil. No more cold rage, no more doubt over the creature's relationship to him, no more ethical debate. He launched himself toward the Minotaur, screaming furiously, "NO-O-O-O!"

Hercules tackled the Minotaur in a sudden blaze of speed. The force of his body blow spun the beast around. Hercules pulled away, then landed a trio of jaw-breaking blows -- right-left-and-right again. The Minotaur staggered back, stunned and wobbling. Hercules leaped up amazingly high for a big man, and scissor-kicked him in the belly.

As the Minotaur staggered backwards again, Hercules took a step back, and then, acting on a brief memory, he ran forward and leaped into the flying kick that he had seen Iolaus demonstrate in the tavern.

The Minotaur was catapulted backwards, soaring across the cavern towards the center and the bed of stalagmites. He landed on one of the razor-sharp points and screamed with agony as the blade-like stone pierced through his lower chest.

Hercules pulled himself to his feet, looking down at the pitiful struggles of the mortally wounded creature. He was suddenly aware of Zeus standing by his side.

Zeus' anguished gaze finally met Hercules' fully. "Son, I wanted to tell you --"

Hercules shook his head. He realized his rage had burned off -- not just in the horror of such useless destruction, but also in seeing Iolaus beginning to move slightly.

"No, Father, it's all right."

"I just couldn't -- I didn't want you involved, but I couldn't do it."

"I understand," Hercules said, gently. "I'm -- I'm just sorry you had to lose a son."

Zeus sighed, turned towards the feebly struggling Minotaur. "I lost him years ago."

Hercules nodded, moving away toward Iolaus.

Zeus stepped down to where the creature lay, moving fitfully, and moaning. The Minotaur saw him and reached out beseechingly.

"Father!" he whispered hoarsely.

Zeus looked down at him sadly. "We should never have allowed this to happen. The day you turned against me was the saddest day of my life." He sighed. "I loved you, son. If only you hadn't made this necessary ..."

"Please .. please don't let me die this way," the Minotaur gasped.

Zeus nodded, and a sudden zephyr blew mist over the beastly form. When it had passed, there lay a dying man with a tall, strong body and a classically beautiful face. His leaf green eyes on his father, he breathed, "Thank you."

The eyes shut and the body stilled. There was another whisper of wind blowing the mist, and when the mist was gone, so was the tragic, beautiful form. Zeus glanced up toward Hercules, smiled sadly and disappeared.

Hercules sighed, and turned to Iolaus. He gently pushed his friend away from the edge of the opening that the Minotaur had made, and with several careful blows shattered the crystal prison until the remainder of the front portion fell away completely. Iolaus fell forward, and Hercules caught him.

The demigod examined his friend closely, as he lolled in Hercules' close hold. Iolaus' skin was cold, but Hercules could feel a pulse at his neck. The muscles which first felt limp seemed to be gathering some tension.

But with every passing moment, the Minotaur's earth magic seemed to be fading. Slowly, Iolaus' head rose until he looked up at Hercules' face. The hunter's arms gradually lifted until they reached where Hercules' arms held him, and Iolaus was able to grip them weakly.

Slowly, like sunlight chasing a cloud across the landscape, expression seeped back onto Iolaus' face. His lips slowly curled into a smile, and then the lightness reached his eyes.

"Hey, Herc -- whacha doin'?" he enunciated carefully, as feeling and sensation returned to his mouth.

Hercules laughed, and felt his heart break with joy. Ignoring the sting of tears behind his eyes, he replied, "Oh, not much. What about you?"

Iolaus chuckled, a rusty sound, but definitely an improvement, he thought. He saw the glimmer of jeweling tears in his friend's eyes, and understood, but wanted to make it better. And, of course, being Iolaus, he knew that laughter is healing.

"Nothing much to tell. Just hangin' in there."

Hercules laughed, the true laughter of merriment, and pulled his friend further away from the crystal cocoon.

"Yeah, well, it looks good on ya, buddy. Maybe you need more vacations like that?" he replied.

Iolaus was pulling away gently, feeling his feet and legs better now. Hercules seemed loath to let him go, afraid he'd fall, and just not wanting to let go.

"Nah," he replied, laughing up at his friend, and stretching as Hercules finally released him. "I'll pass on the 'Iolaus-stuck-in-amber' deal. I'll stick to adventuring with you!"

Hercules nodded, but felt his heart wrench. On this adventure, Iolaus' death had narrowly been avoided. Would there come a journey that Iolaus might not return from?

But seeing his friend's rising animation, laughing with the very immediate gladness of having Iolaus with him * now *, Hercules thrust his fear away. They had cheated Hades before, and they had done it again today. Surely that's how it would always be?

"That's it, Iolaus! Together we can beat anything!" he declared, fiercely.

Iolaus grinned, also grateful to be alive and to be with Hercules through another successful adventure. He stretched and bounced on his heels, ready for anything again. His gaze was caught by the jeweled glitter across the cave.

"Speaking of beating, big guy," he said, pointing across the room. "I think you better be beating down the walls of those crystal things before those guys need to breathe!"

"Oh, yeah -- let's do it!" Hercules answered, and together they went to finish their mission.


Their trip back to Thebes was pleasantly uneventful.

There were no puzzling, nocturnal visits from Zeus, and the few travelers and villagers they encountered were cordial and not the least prone to start fights.

Their animated exchanges about the people and the events of their adventure filled the miles as they walked, and warmed them as much as the campfire the one night they spent on the road.

That had been last night, and late morning found them on the road out of the mountains not far from Thebes. The spring day was brilliant and warm, and both felt the air was fresher, the scenery more magnificent, and the colors were more vivid after the darkness and danger they had passed through.

They were not that far from home when Hercules, after walking in companionable silence with his partner for a few leagues, realized that Iolaus had sighed several times. He glanced over at the blond hunter, and saw him gazing abstractedly into the distance.

"A dinar for your thoughts." Hercules elbowed the shorter man..

Iolaus, startled out of his reverie, glanced up "Huh?"

"You actually haven't spoken for about the last three sunwidths. I think that's a record for you, Iolaus. Are you thinking of that nice redhead who bandaged your wrist?" Hercules teased.

Iolaus, glancing down at the wrist that had been sprained sometime in his battle with the Minotaur. He laughed. "Maybe. She at least inspired me to think that it may be time for me to move on like that." He glanced back up at Hercules mischievously. "At least she was prettier than the healer than bandaged your chest."

Hercules glanced down where the bandages covered the deep gashes made by the Minotaur. He grinned remembering the spry but ancient villager. "It's just as well -- you can't use it against me with Deianeira."

They laughed, and Hercules continued, " So quit changing the subject -- what were you thinking?"

Iolaus shrugged, his face becoming thoughtful. "Just thinking about the whole adventure, I guess. It sure ended better than it started."

Hercules smiled. "I definitely like that kind the best."

"Yeah." Iolaus nodded, chuckling. "Well, I mean -- there was a big difference between the way the Alturians acted to us when we first arrived and when we left."

"That's for sure. The whole town turning out like that. It was quite a nice send off."

"And a great feast the night before!" .

"Andius and Danion really seemed to enjoy it." Hercules grinned as he remembered the two young men.

"Yeah," Iolaus laughed. "I don't think they'll ever be the two sharpest daggers on the belt, but I don't think the Alturians will consider them the village idiots anymore."

"Well, as long as we don't tell the people that those two let the Minotaur out in the first place!" Hercules replied, laughing with his friend.

Iolaus waved his hand. "Just a minor little consideration." Another thought occurred to him. "I think Darthus and Martan were pretty glad they didn't come with you into the Maze."

Hercules nodded, sobering a bit. "Yeah, I believe they were. I'd hate to think what would have happened if they did."

"And how about that Baucis?" Iolaus asked, referring to the man who had been sucked into the Minotaur's lair just before Iolaus.

"He really gave you a great recommendation in front of the whole town, didn't he? He obviously had his mind changed about us from watching everything in his own crystal prison."

"Yeah -- he went from being one of the leaders of the mob that nearly lynched us, to being one of our loudest supporters," Hercules answered. He clapped Iolaus on the shoulder. "He had quite a few amazing remarks about your confrontation with the Minotaur, too, remember. Haven't I told you lately that you shouldn't go around pissing off monsters?"

Iolaus laughed and shrugged. "Hey, it worked out, didn't it? I knew I was just setting him up so you could finish him off."

"That's not quite how Baucis saw it. He said he'd never seen a mortal as brave as you, Iolaus."

"Yeah, well, Herc -- he lives in Alturia. I don't think he had much of a basis of comparison," Iolaus replied, with a laugh, but his gratified gaze met Hercules' clear one.

There was another silence, filled only by the fragrant breeze, the singing of larks, and the rhythm of their footsteps on the road. Iolaus glanced up at Hercules, and he noted, not for the first time, an expression of brief pathos pass over the demigod's face. Hercules, suddenly aware of his scrutiny, looked at his friend to see Iolaus' eyebrows raised questioningly. In the strong and shining connection between them, Iolaus didn't have to ask, nor Hercules answer.

Hercules smiled briefly at Iolaus' easy perception of his thoughts. The smile died, and his gaze off in the distance. "The Minotaur must've been an amazing man -- terrible, but amazing. It just seems such a waste of a life, you know? All that bitterness, that thirst for power. Where did it get him?"

"Power corrupts, I guess. Do you think maybe Zeus did give him too much, too soon?"

Hercules looked back at his friend. "I don't know -- maybe. It does make me wonder if that failed relationship didn't influence Zeus' decision not to interfere in my life till I could handle it better."

Iolaus nodded slowly. "So it wasn't just to protect you from Hera, but so you wouldn't end up like ... hey, I wonder what his name was originally -- the Minotaur, I mean?"

"I don't know," Hercules responded, quietly. "Zeus didn't ever tell me his name, and I've never heard anything about him in all the stories of the gods."

Iolaus watched his friend's face for a moment. "Well," he said gently, unconsciously paraphrasing Hercules' own words to Zeus,

"I'm really sorry you had to lose a brother, Herc."

Hercules smiled, warmed by Iolaus' compassion. They were approaching a crossroads in the small copse of trees. He stopped, turned to face Iolaus directly, and put his hands on his friend's shoulders. His blue topaz gaze locking with Iolaus' sapphire blue.

"Thanks, Iolaus, but you don't have to worry," he replied, his hands tightening on his friend's broad shoulders. Hercules voice cracked as he continued. "You see, what I killed was a monster -- I got my brother back!"

Iolaus felt the absurd sting of grateful tears. He caught his breath as joy, wonder, and gratitude tightened his chest. He grabbed Hercules' arms with both hands and held tightly for a moment.

"Thanks, Herc," he said simply, his voice a bit raw. "That means -- well, you know."

Hercules clapped Iolaus' shoulders, and then let go. Both men studiously regarded their surroundings for a moment.

"Hey, look, I didn't realize we'd gotten this far," Iolaus observed. "This is my turn off."

Hercules nodded. "Yeah, the way back seemed shorter, didn't it?"

"Yeah -- too short!" Iolaus replied, a bit wistfully.

Suddenly, Hercules realized he really didn't want Iolaus to go yet. It was too soon after an adventure from which his friend almost had not returned. He seemed to sense the reluctance in Iolaus as well.

"Hey -- why don't you come back to the house with me -- just for another day or two?" Hercules invited, eagerly. "We really didn't have a chance to spend much down time together."

Iolaus brightened, but looked down the other road a bit anxiously. "Well, I don't know. I hate to impose on your mother."

Hercules waved off this objection. "Iolaus, you know mother. Do you think having Telaus around to spoil and keep her company is an imposition for her? Besides, it hasn't been that long."

Iolaus grinned. "Okay, you've talked me into it!"

They joked, laughed, and indulged in a bit of horseplay on the short road back to Hercules' home. As they reached the bottom of the hill, they heard Aeson's clear voice ring out, "Mom, Mom! Daddy's home -- and Uncle Iolaus, too!"

Suddenly, there was furor throughout the homestead. They heard Ilea's piping voice echoing Aeson's cry, and saw her waving wildly.

The two friends saw Deianeira fling open the door and step out, the fresh spring wind combing through her rich auburn tresses. But then they saw her step back to the door and repeat the same call.

And as she ran out to meet them, right behind her came Alcmene, Klonus, and Telaus. Hercules and Iolaus exchanged bright glances. "They're all here, Herc!"

"We're both home, Iolaus!" Hercules said, his arm circling Iolaus' shoulders. Iolaus' arm came up around Hercules' back.

"Only one thing left to do, Herc!" Iolaus looked up at his friend seriously.

"What's that?" Hercules asked, puzzled at the change of tone.


And pulling away from his friend's hold, Iolaus slammed his fist into Hercules' bicep, and took off running.

"Gotcha! Owed ya one, Herc!" he called back over his shoulder, laughing.

Hercules broke out laughing, and raced after his brother to meet their family.

And somewhere on Mount Olympus, Zeus gazed down, and smiled ...

The End

Author's Note: If the reader feels that the "missing scene" where Iolaus is abducted by the Minotaur seems a bit familiar, it's becaue it was stolen -- er --lifted nearly whole from another story. Of course, since it was my own -- an ancient IWC missing scene challenge for Maze that can be found at Ceryndip's Sanctuary. I felt fairly sure I could use it with impunity. And -- especially since my deadline was looming -- why re-invent the wheel?
Thanks for reading!
September, 2003

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