Highway to Hades

by Arianna

Story originally written for Hercules: the Legendary Journeys by: Robert Bielak

Thunder rumbled as cold rain slashed the night, the darkness absolute…when, suddenly a chariot plunged from the side of a mountain into the storm, rampaging through the wet night, splashing wildly along the soaked, muddy trail. Two magnificent stallions, racing at full speed, the chariot of priceless ebony and the fierce, helmeted driver, all as black as the night itself, made visible at all only by two flaring torches secured in wrought-iron brackets on either side of the back of the richly crafted conveyance.

But, as fast as they were running, it wasn’t fast enough given the urgency of their mission. “Hyah! Hyah! Hyah! Hyah!” the charioteer cried out with sharp command, over and over, urging greater speed still.

Past forests in a long valley, and over low hills, they laboured through the miserable rain-swept countryside, galloping at impossible speeds, for impossible distances, but still their driver called, “Hyah! Hyah!” again…

…and then again.

Until finally, he’d reached his goal: a small gathering of mounted men at arms, also garbed in unrelieved black leather, their heads covered by helmets, as was his own. Hauling back on the reins, he cried out, “Whoa!” and the unnatural team of tireless horses dug in their hoofs, stopping dead by the side of one of the soldiers who’d dismounted to meet their master, as soon as he’d come into sight.

The soldier stepped forward and bowed with utmost respect. “Sir, you grace us with your presence,” he intoned with reverent awe.

The charioteer pulled off his own helmet, baring black hair slicked back from a noble brow, a stern visage, and dark, flashing eyes. “Forget the formalities,” he ordered impatiently. “You found him?”

“Yes, sir,” his minion responded, with a wave back toward the hill beyond, a heavier darkness looming out of the night. “He’s in a small country inn, just over the rise.”

“Then what are you waiting for?” the charioteer demanded. His jaw tight, his expression grim, he snapped out, “Get him.”

The inn was doing a brisk business, a fire blazing in the hearth and from torches bracketed upon the wooden walls, as well as from lanterns and candles set decoratively about the spacious dining hall and upon the tables. The air was redolent of fine foods, meats cooked in rich sauces, sweet and pungent herbs, and the fragrance of wine; the ambiance relaxed and comfortable as the diners enjoyed their exquisite meals in easy warmth out of the cold, rainy night.

Standing by the bar, a tall muscular man was waxing euphorically about the wondrous flavours of the feast that had been spread before him. “Mmm…wonderful, Epicurus!” he sighed, still savouring the taste of his almost decadent meal. Smiling with appreciation as he waved at the still abundant dishes, though he’d eaten his fill and then some, he honoured the chef with his delight, “Excellent. The duck was superb and the sauce, well - I don’t know how you do it.”

Epicurus beamed happily. A stocky man with a round face, his passion was to create food of extraordinary succulence, and was tireless in his efforts to create new and ever more satisfactory dining experiences for his patrons. Eager to share the secret of the exceptional sauce, he was quick to answer the evident mystery of its creation. “Actually, it’s quite simple. It’s simmered in its own blood,” he explained with the air of sharing confidential secrets of great important.

The diner started and looked down at the remains of the glazed duck on the plate before him, and he paled a little. “The sauce is,” he stammered, “simmered blood?

Oblivious to the big man’s disquiet, hearing only the astonishment, Epicurus carried on enthusiastically, “Right! You boil it away until it becomes this thick gel? And then…”

But the tall, muscular man, with honey-brown hair falling to his shoulders, quickly held up a hand as he interjected with some urgency, “Epicurus…can I ask a favour?”

“Of course,” the chef replied magnanimously, always happy to grant what he could, especially to one of his most favoured patrons.

Swallowing as he again cast a baleful eye at the ruins of his meal, and then looked up with a slight grimace of pain and imploring shadows in his eyes, his patron asked a little weakly, “From now on, can you just - serve the food and not…tell me how you prepare it?”

Worried now by the diner’s demeanor and the unhappy tone of the unusual request, Epicurus stilled as he asked with some alarm, “Is there something wrong?”

Not wanting to offend, the powerful man shook his head quickly, stammering in chagrin as he hastened to say, “No, not at all. It-t was a…nother great dinner. I just…think a…chef should have his own little secrets.”

Reassured, Epicurus smiled again, once more eager to share with this special guest, “Sure. I just thought that you…”

“Ah…please,” the diner protested quickly, beginning to look slightly green, “spare me the details.”

Feeling insulted now, the great chef bristled. After all, he’d only been showing special favour by sharing the secrets of his success! Stiffening, he sniffed as he turned away, snapping coolly, “If that’s the way you want it.”

Immediately contrite, the diner hurried to apologize, “No! I didn’t mean…”

But suddenly the door slammed open, banging back against the wall and several soldiers strode heavily inside, attracting everyone’s attention. All conversation ceased and silence fell, but for the cracking of the wood in the hearth, and the moan of the wet wind from outside.

The lead soldier snapped coldly to his men, “Spread out!” And then his gaze fell upon the tall, leather-clad man at the bar. Lifting his chin, he ordered flatly, “Hercules. You’re coming with us.”

Turning to gaze at the intruders over his shoulder, Hercules gave the soldiers a cool appraising look and his eyes grew hard, he drawled flatly, “I don’t think so.” Then he turned his back on them as he leaned his elbows negligently on the bar, and added for good measure, “For openers, you didn’t ask politely.”

“You can come the easy way…or the hard way,” the soldier threatened. “It’s up to you.”

Diners scrambled up from their seats, pale with alarm as they backed away toward the far wall.

Rolling his eyes at the rude brusqueness and the idiotic threat, the demigod complained, “Am I losing my hearing? Because I still didn’t hear, ‘please’.”

Irritated by the Son of Zeus’ recalcitrance, the soldier waved one of his subordinates forward. Warned by grunt of obeisance and the heavy clump of hobnailed boots on the oaken floor, Hercules half-turned just as the warrior was raising his mace, catching the man with a hard forearm to the solar plexus and stopping him cold. The attacking soldier barely had time to grunt with surprise before the demigod grabbed his still up-raised arm and flung him, as if he were no more than a feather, over the bar to sail into a large trough of vegetables, left soaking in icy cold water to retain their freshness. Even as the water cascaded in a great fountain, the lead soldier rolled his eyes and sent another man to bring the demigod. Oblivious to the screams of terror by others in the hall, Hercules turned to meet the soldier racing toward him with an upraised mace, and backhanded him hard before shoving him away to crash into a table.

Disgusted, with an impatient jerk of his head, the leader sent yet another soldier forward.

Whirling back around, Hercules grabbed the man’s spear, and with a short jab, knocked the length of wood hard against the man’s skull and then, as they wrestled for possession of the lance, the demigod whipped the man around, hard against the bar, sparing but a moment to kick back against the thug who’d hauled himself off the table he’d landed upon, and was again charging gamely. Once again, the nameless combatant went crashing back against the wall, even as Hercules hauled the third, hapless, attacker up onto the bar and sent him skidding along it’s length, his head knocking dishes, goblets and candles into a wild disarray of splattering food and flying…smashing crockery. Hercules turned to again punch the second man, who kept coming back for more, and then turned to see that the soldier who’d scudded along the bar had recovered and was racing back along the wooden surface toward him, even as a fourth soldier was charging him with a heavy lance. Scooting a pewter platter along the bar, Hercules turned to deal with the latest combatant and heaved him mightily away to crash into the heavily laden shelves that lined one wall…just as the charging soldier on the bar stepped upon the slippery, speeding platter, losing his balance and flying through the air to be caught by Hercules’ upraised arms.

The lead soldier raised his crossbow, ready to threaten real bodily harm. He leapt upon a table, even as the demigod began spinning the hapless soldier in circles over his head, the man groaning with dizzy nausea, as he exclaimed, “I think I’m gonna be sick!”

“Put him down,” the leader shouted in sharp command as he raised his weapon threateningly.

“As you wish,” Hercules conceded, and then heaved the man onto the end of the table, creating an abrupt seesaw that shot the leader, screaming in surprise, high into the air, to crash through the wood and thatched ceiling.

In the sudden lull, Hercules leaned an elbow back on the bar, and dabbed gingerly at the corner of his mouth.

“Are you okay?” Epicurus asked with alarm.

The demigod examined his fingertips with a puzzled frown, and then tasted the sticky dark substance. Nodding, he reassured the chef, “Duck sauce.”

With a groan of pain, the soldier crashed down from the ceiling, to land at the demigod’s feet

Hauling the shaken, barely conscious man upright, Hercules leaned forward to say with a low, hard voice, “Tell whoever sent you, to give you another lesson in manners before you come back.” And then he contemptuously shoved the man away.

I sent them,” a cold voice called from the entranceway as the charioteer strode in from the night, his body tight with angry frustration and barely controlled impatience, a blazing corona of light surrounding him - the magnificence of his presence and his air of thinly controlled violence threw the patrons of the inn into feverish terror.

Looking up, Hercules gaped with surprise, and no little concern, as he acknowledged, “Hades.”

Advancing implacably, the God of the Underworld raised his left hand, and a blinding bolt of energy shot forth, to blast Hercules and send him sprawling against the bar. Grimacing with pain, the demigod trued ti struggle upright, but still leaning heavily upon the bar, as he demanded, “What are you…”

But the god blasted him again - a woman screamed - Hercules was smashed backwards by the powerful bolt, stunned into immediate unconsciousness, to lay sprawled upon the wood…helpless to resist any further.

Glaring at his minions, Hades snapped, “Bring him.” And, with a sharp, “Yes, sir!” they hastened to do his bidding, grabbing onto the demigod and hauling him out into the darkness.

Soon, the magnificent horses were again racing through the night, back across the muddy trail and the wash of a sudden flood, bearing the charioteer and his captive through the raw and violent storm.

Hercules had barely regained consciousness by the time the horses pulled up in a glade close to the entrance to the mountain.

“Come on,” Hades ordered imperiously, as he descended and stomped along a forested path.

“All right,” the demigod muttered resignedly. Shaking his head, he followed, if reluctantly, in the god’s wake but was quick to demand, “You mind telling me what’s going on?”

“I need a favour,” Hades snapped over his shoulder, as he continued to lead the way, his pace brisk.

Startled, Hercules blinked, and then snorted with wry disgust, “You have a strange way of asking.”

Impatiently, Hades complained bitterly, “It’s been too long since I’ve seen Persephone. If you had lobbied harder on my behalf, I’d be inclined to treat you better.”

“You want her for the whole year?” the demigod protested in disbelief.

“Why not? We love each other,” the God of the Underworld shot back defensively.

“Persephone’s mother loves her, too,” Hercules pointed out, with little forbearance for his uncle’s haughty demeanor.

“Six months with her, six months without her - it’s tearing me apart!” Hades confessed then, with no little exasperation.

“You agreed to the terms, Hades,” Hercules replied with little sympathy. Irritated, he demanded, “What do you want from me?”

As they entered the tunnel, Hades replied, “Come, see this.”

With a resigned sigh, the demigod followed him inside, but then looked around at the empty cavern with confusion. “Well?” he demanded, as the god turned to face him.

Hades cast a sardonic look at his nephew as he advised, “Hold on tight.” With that, he shot a blinding blast of power into the mountain and Hercules felt himself falling…

“Oohmmphhh!” he grunted as he landed against the hard rock of another, darker, chamber. “Isn’t there an easier way to do this?” he complained, as he hauled himself to his feet.

The dark, rocky cavern was filled with milling men, all intent upon reaching the water where a boat was tied up against the simple, even austere, dock. An ugly, wizened creature looked up at the new arrivals and exclaimed in disgust, “Oh, great. It’s Hercules. Quick! Hide the lanterns!”

Grimacing, Hercules gave the barge pilot a bare nod of acknowledgement. “Yeah. It’s, uh…good to see you too, Charon.”

With a snort, the busy denizen of the Underworld turned away to deal with the deluge of new travelers to the Other Side.

Hades reclaimed the demigod’s attention as he pointed through the crowd to a bewildered young man with brown hair and a sorrowful expression. “See that guy?” the god said, “His name is Timeron, and this is what’s in store for him.” Hades sketched a quick circle in the air, and the space was immediately filled with the image of the hapless Timeron laboriously pushing a massive boulder up an extremely steep slope in Tartarus. Behind them, Charon’s voice called out in sepulchral tones, “To Tartarus…now boarding.”

The demigod winced sympathetically at the image of Timeron, and shook his head. “He must have done something pretty bad to deserve that kind of punishment,” he observed uncertainly. Throwing another glance at the spirit of the young man, taking in his air of innocence and decency, he murmured, “He doesn’t seem the type.”

“He’s not,” Hades replied dryly. “He’s here ‘cause a guy called Sisyphus tricked him into taking his place.”

“King Sisyphus?” Hercules clarified. “Of Patras?”

With a sharp nod, Hades confirmed, “That’s the one. And from what I understand, the king’s timing could have been better. The kid got taken away on his wedding night.”

Appalled, Hercules echoed, “He died on his wedding night?” Shaking his head when his uncle nodded, the demigod asked again, “So, what do you want me to do?”

“Bring Sisyphus back where he belongs, so the kid’s spirit can go to the Elysian Fields where it belongs,” his uncle replied briskly, as he ambled around the crowded waiting hall by the loading platform. The light was dim, the overall ambiance dismal.

Confused as to why his help was needed, Hercules demanded, “Why me? Why not handle this yourself?”

Gesturing to the crowd of waiting spirits, Hades replied almost wearily, “Ninety per cent soldiers. And this is just the beginning. The Thracian Wars are starting. Ever had to sort out a battlefield?”

Following him, Hercules looked around and understood the pressure Hades felt to move these spirits to where they belonged - most of them were destined to the Elysian Fields for very good reasons, and holding them in the crowded receiving area was uncomfortable, unfair and very confusing for them. “Maybe you should get some help,” he observed quietly.

“Right,” his uncle agreed, his voice thin with aggravation. “Last year, Ares had thirteen wars going. I had a staff of four. This year, twenty-two wars, and Zeus has cut my staff to two,” he explained, aggrieved as he held up two figures to underscore his point. Shaking his head, he shrugged as he turned away, “Go figure.”

“Huh,” Hercules grunted, not having given any previous thought to the resourcing and staffing challenges of the gods. Shaking off the distraction, still thinking it all seemed too easy, he turned back to Hades, “So - I bring Sisyphus back. That’s all I have to do?”

“Yeah,” Hades confirmed, and gestured toward Timeron as he added, “And you can take the kid’s spirit if you think it’ll help.” He paused a moment, and then cast a baleful look up at his taller nephew, “Oh, and you only have three days.”

Startled, the demigod demanded, “Why only three?”

“Two reasons,” the God of the Underworld explained crisply, “First off, if a final resting place for his spirit isn’t designated within three days, it’s doomed to wander forever.”

“That’s a good reason,” Hercules agreed sombrely with a quick glance toward Timeron, and then he cocked his brow as he turned back to his uncle. “What’s the second?”

“I got inventory coming up,” the god said darkly.

There was a sudden burst of blinding light…

…and Hercules found himself sprawled at the entrance to the mountain tunnel. Grimacing, the demigod pushed himself to his feet and brushed the dust from his body as he mumbled sardonically, “Thanks, Hades.”

He was just heading off on his mission when he heard Timeron call out from behind him, as the young man’s ghost chased after him, “Hercules! Wait for me!”

Hercules pulled up, his lips thinning as he turned to the unfortunate spirit. “I didn’t say you could come,” he told the kid, repressively.

“You didn’t say I couldn’t,” Timeron pointed out as he loped up to stand before the taller man.

Shaking his head, the demigod raised his hands in a gesture of negation. “It’s not a good idea, Timeron. People might get upset if they see you’re back from the dead,” he explained patiently.

But Timeron was not to be dissuaded. “Well, no one should see or hear me but you,” he argued, though deferentially. “Besides…I want to see for myself if my Daphne’s all right.”

Sighing, Hercules clarified, “Daphne’s your wife”

“Was - for about four hours,” Timeron confirmed despondently.

Hercules turned to walk on, waving to Timeron to come with him. “I was sorry to hear that,” he replied with quiet sincerity. He frowned, concerned both about the young spirit’s plight, and about having to cut his partner’s recuperation from the torture he’d suffered by Maceus’ hand short…but this wasn’t a mission he wanted to undertake without Iolaus’ backup.

Timeron looked bleak with sadness as he revealed, “We’ve loved each other since we were kids. We always knew we’d get married, but…we wanted to save ourselves for each other…you know - till it was official.”

Startled, Hercules gaped at the young man. “You mean, you two didn’t even get to share a wedding night?”

Grimacing with regret, Timeron shrugged with helpless sorrow as he replied, “Guess things don’t always turn out the way you plan.”

The beautiful and beguiling Breanna was leaning close to Iolaus, one arm around his back as they sauntered through the village. She was listening closely to the warrior’s explanation of exactly how he had broken his arm, and he was willing to encourage her infatuation - to a point. When she told him she wasn’t sure about taking their relationship to deeper levels because her father wouldn’t approve, he shrugged and teased, suggesting that they just not bring him along when he showed her the sunrise on Mount Olympus.

Hesitating, she sighed, “Iolaus, I really like you…but I’m not ready to get serious yet…”

Clearly, they were on different wavelengths, as Iolaus drew her close and breathed, “Who said anything about serious? Fun was more where I was going.”

Laughing, Breanna poked him playfully in the chest as she rejoined flirtatiously, “Uh-huh. Trouble’s where we’re going. My father will break your other arm.”

Iolaus chuckled as he looked away - and spotted Hercules striding toward them with an expression of grim intensity. “Whoa…actually, from the look on my friend’s face, I don’t think your father’s gonna get a chance. Uh,” he paused regretfully, and then gave her a quick kiss before releasing her. “I gotta go.”

“Mmm…” sighed the pretty maid, as he hugged her a last time, and then turned to walk resolutely toward Hercules.

Amused, relieved to see Iolaus in such good form, the only evidence of his injuries the binding around his broken right arm, the demigod chuckled, “I, uh, thought we’d still find you here.”

Mildly confused, Iolaus looked around as he asked, “Who’s we?”

Hercules gave hism a bemused look as he waved toward nearby empty space. “This is Timeron, my…travelling companion.” Turning back to Iolaus, he explained, “You can’t see him.”

Squinting up at his best friend, Iolaus implored, “Hercules, tell me you’ve been drinking.” But then he shook his head as he continued, “Oh, no - you don’t drink. Um…mushrooms?”

Smiling a little helplessly, the demigod looked up and around as he shook his head. “Nope,” he replied, knowing that only Iolaus would believe he hadn’t absolutely taken leave of his senses.

Resigned, the blond warrior sighed, “Okay…it’s, uh, gonna be one of those trips, isn’t it?”

“I’m afraid so,” Hercules agreed with a look of commiseration, but he was surprised when Iolaus simply nodded and started walking - straight through Timeron! Aghast, Hercules exclaimed, “Iolaus!”

“What?” the blond demanded as he turned back, wondering what had upset his companion.

“Uh, nothing,” Hercules grimaced, but he turned quickly to the young spirit by his side to ask with concern, “Does that hurt?”

But Timeron just shook his head as they followed after Iolaus. “No.”

Hercules loped a few steps to catch up with his partner, to explain why they were headed to Patras. The hunter blinked when he heard they were on a mission to do Hades a favour, but kept listening, until Hercules got to the part about when Timeron was fooled into giving up his life.

“On his wedding night?” Iolaus echoed, honestly appalled.

“Yeah,” Hercules agreed glumly.

“Oh, boy, I can’t believe someone can be that unlucky,” his best friend groaned. Shaking his head, Iolaus protested, “You know, we gotta do something about that. I mean, that is not right! Saving yourselves for each other all your lives, then not being able to…” His lips thinned with sympathy, he again shook his head. “It just isn’t right.”

“No, it’s not,” Hercules agreed absolutely. It wasn’t right, and the more he thought about it, the more he agreed with Iolaus that something had to be done to correct what had gone wrong. “And we’ll do what we can to fix it - after we find Sisyphus.”

Satisfied that such a grievous wrong would be righted, Iolaus nodded and then asked, “Anything else I should know?”

“We have to do it in three days,” Hercules advised him with a tone of unhappy resignation.

“Three days?!” Iolaus exclaimed. “It’ll take us a day just to get to Patras! Day there, day back…that only leaves us one day to work with.”

“So, we’ll work fast,” Hercules shrugged. It wasn’t as if they had any option.

Worried that the demigod had only told his partner about the task of having to bring Sisyphus back to Hades, Timeron spoke up then, “Hercules…I’m more concerned about Daphne.”

Sympathizing, Hercules nodded, as he replied soberly, “I know you are.”

Iolaus looked at the empty space, to which his best friend had just spoken, and asked, “Now what?”

“Ah, Timeron’s worried about…his wife,” the demigod sighed. Iolaus nodded bleakly as they continued walking toward Patras.

“But I don’t understand. I have a home,” Daphne protested as she was hustled, albeit with due decorum, through the streets of Patras by the King’s Captain of the Guard and Principle Advisor. She looked up at the red-haired, bearded warrior with confusion in her eyes, “Why would the King want me to come back to the palace?”

“He’s thinking of your safety, Daphne,” Elusius explained with solemn sincerity as he studied the winsome young woman, appreciating her exotic dusky colouring, long, dark tresses and singular beauty. “A young widow like yourself… alone in that house? You’ll be safer here.”

Not well pleased to be officially escorted from her home, especially in these dark hours of wretched mourning when all she wanted was to be left alone, Daphne replied with stiff self-reliance, “I can take care of myself.”

“I’m sure you can,” the Captain soothed unctuously. “Still, the king would like to offer you some sort of employment. You’ll need something to tide you over…after your husband’s unfortunate demise.”

Her throat tight as she fought back her tears, she swallowed heavily before stating firmly, “Well, I won’t go back to being a maid.”

Smiling knowingly, Elusius assured her, “Of course not. I’m sure that’s not the position he has in mind.”

The elegant Queen Karis of Patras strolled through the palace halls with one of her serving women, asking with honest interest, “How are your children these days?”

“Same as ever, My Lady,” the plain but cheerful pregnant woman replied, “My eldest wants to join the army…says he doesn’t want to grow up to be anyone’s servant - not that there’s anything wrong with being a servant...” Her voice faded uncertainly, afraid she might have offended her Queen, as she cut a quick look at the tall, aristocrat woman beside her. Queen Karis was a strong woman, and unique, what with her short curls and singular calm kindness.

Smiling with understanding, the Queen hastened to reassure her, “It’s all right. I think we treat you well, but there are other lives to live.”

Relieved, the servant relaxed, “Yes, My Lady,” she murmured, with a soft smile for her generous and considerate monarch.

“And your daughter?” Karis continued her enquiry.

Shaking her head, the good woman replied sorrowfully, “Another tale of woe. Almost marrying age, and not a good man to be found.”

“What about your baby?” the Queen asked.

“Ah, not a babe anymore, My Lady. He’s turned into a strapping young lad - and eating us out of house and home!” her servant replied with a good-natured chuckle. The Queen laughed, but the woman continued, her eyes clouding a little with real worry. “I don’t know how we’ll make ends meet, and another on the way,” she admitted.

“Oh, I wish I had those problems,” the Queen sighed, but at the startled look on the other woman’s face, she hurriedly gestured toward the yet unborn child, as she explained, “Children, I mean.”

Her eyes softening with empathetic understanding, the kind servant nodded, as she murmured, “Yes, My Lady.”

Just then, the Queen turned, her attention taken by others who had just entered the corridor from an adjoining hall. “Good morning, Elusius,” she acknowledged, but turned to the young woman with some confusion. “Daphne, what are you doing here?” she asked, concerned, knowing the maiden was so recently and tragically bereft, and hoping she wasn’t feeling obliged to return to work in the palace - at least not so soon. The poor child needed time to mourn the loss of her childhood sweetheart.

“The King requested my presence,” Daphne explained softly, with a quick look at the Advisor.

Only more confused by the response, the Queen wondered, “What for?” And she, too, turned her astute gaze upon her husband’s advisor.

“Ah, King Sisyphus thought it would be a nice gesture…to offer Daphne another employment position… mm, to, ah, help cover the expenses of her new house…the funeral arrangements,” Elusius replied with odd hesitation, but then he glanced uncomfortably at Daphne, apparently sorry to have to discuss such sad matters in her presence.

Abashed and immediately sympathetic, the Queen replied, “Oh, of course; that’s a good idea.” Turning back to Daphne, she said most sincerely, “All of us were saddened by your husband’s untimely death.” Smiling gently, she gestured back the way she’d come, “Ah, well, carry on.”

“Yes, My Lady,” both Daphne and Elusius murmured deferentially, as they hurried past.

When they reached the King’s opulent but dim chambers, Elusius entered and bowed his head to the King seated in the shadows by his desk. “My Lord, the young lady, Daphne…as you requested.”

“Send her in.”

They’d been making good progress, and were nearing Patras, when Iolaus glanced back and slowed his pace, swallowing heavily. “Uh, Herc…you might wanna take a look at this,” he suggested soberly.

“What is it?” Hercules asked, as he continued striding briskly, intent upon their mission.

“Well,” Iolaus replied, as he skipped along sideways, with a glance at the demigod who was a half-pace ahead and then back, “I can see that he’s going with us.”

“Yeah, I can see that, too,” Hercules agreed, thinking Iolaus was simply expressing his understanding of why Timeron insisted upon traveling with them.

“No, no,” Iolaus clarified, shaking his head with a disconcerted expression, “I can see that he’s going with us.”

Pausing, a slight frown on his brow, Hercules turned to look at Iolaus. “You can,” he said flatly, not sure he wanted to know.

“Uh-huh.” Iolaus nodded with a chagrined grimace, as he pointed behind his partner’s back.

Sighing, Hercules turned and walked around Timeron who was fluctuating from barely there to a clear, apparently substantial, presence. “Timeron, what’s going on?” he demanded, surprised.

Looking down at his body, clearly surprised himself, Timeron gasped, “I’m materializing - Hades warned me about this…”

“Materializing?” the demigod echoed, looking dismayed.

“Well, yeah. Now everyone can see me. Hades said it could happen if I got too emotional. I guess the thought of seeing Daphne again…” the young spirit explained, but his voice faded off.

Iolaus rolled his eyes as he turned to Hercules, and exclaimed, “You know, we can’t take him with us like this. There are people in town that know him. They’ll be scared out of their wits.

Alarmed, Timeron objected, “But, Daphne - I have to make sure…”

Holding up his hands for calm, Hercules interrupted, “We’ll have to find a place to put you until we bring Sisyphus back…”

“But…” Timeron tried to press his case, desperate to see his beloved and make sure she was all right.

But Hercules cut in again, hastening to reassure him. “You’ll get your chance to see Daphne,” he promised, and then again moved off along the trail. They really didn’t have any time to waste. Wondering how he got himself into these bizarre situations, he mumbled to himself with an air of pained forbearance, “Emotional…”

Having left Timeron in a safe, nearby location, the two heroes approached the main gates into the fortress city of Patras.

Squinting at the tall, imposing walls, Iolaus mused, “The palace is bound to be well-guarded. How do you plan to get past them?”

Smiling confidently, Hercules slapped his partner on the shoulder as he replied, “Easy! I’ll just let you do the talking.”

Iolaus rolled his eyes, but he chuckled and nodded. In moments, they had entered the gates, and shortly thereafter, they were ambling down a narrow, busy lane, one of many that gave onto the palace courtyard.

Just ahead, the Captain of the Guard, Elusius, growled at one of his men, who’d dawdled on his way back from the kitchen, and still had a large roll stuffed with meat in his hand, “Glutus, back to your post.”

Nodding agreeably and stepping up his pace, his mouth jammed with food, Glutus mumbled, “Yes, sir.”

Just then, Hercules and Iolaus approached the end of the lane where they could see the busy entrance of the palace was very well-guarded, indeed. At least a dozen guards were either standing watch at the steps or were patrolling diligently, their demeanor severe and aggressive.

“Oh, boy,” Iolaus sighed, as he paused with his hands on his hips, “Look at all these guards.”

Undaunted, the demigod shrugged as he replied, “No worries…they’ll let us walk right through.”

Iolaus snorted as he cast a baleful look up at his partner. “Yeah, sure, Hercules,” he chuckled wryly. Nevertheless, he staunchly followed the demigod into the lion’s den…

They were accosted, immediately, by Glutus - who was still busily trying to eat a lunch so long over-due that it might as well have been an early supper. His words garbled almost unrecognizably by a mouthful of food, he demanded, “What business do you have in Patras?

The two heroes exchanged baffled looks, and then simultaneously asked for clarification, “What?”

Resigned that he wasn’t going to be able to eat his lunch in peace, the guard spit out his food, and demanded again, “What business do you have in Patras?”

Iolaus straightened, as he cleared his throat, and then gave the soldier a winning smile, “Uh, hi. I’m Uranius, and this…” he indicated with a wave toward Hercules, “…and this is my friend, Plutonius. We’re in the, uh, mineral rights business.” And then he waited, with an air of expectation, for the guard to be suitably impressed.

Uncertain, Glutus looked from Iolaus to Hercules and back again. “That true?” he demanded, as if expecting, if it wasn’t, they’d immediately confess their misrepresentation. “This…mineral rights stuff?”

Shrugging, Hercules clarified, “I’m more into human rights, myself.”

Iolaus was surprised into laughter, but quickly cleared his throat and resumed his guileless look of expectation.

Seemingly convinced by the warrior’s clear air of friendly, peaceful intentions, Glutus finally nodded, as he waved them on, “Alright, you can go.”

But, just then, an old man rushing about his business across the courtyard spotted the imposing demigod, and broke into a smile as he called out, “Hercules, old friend!” He waved cheerfully and then hastened on his way.

The two heroes froze for a brief moment, casting quick chagrined looks at one another, but carried on hopefully, only to have their way blocked by the Captain of the Guard, who called out imperiously, “Hercules! You two have to come with us.” Turning to Glutus, Elusius ordered, “Alert the king and the other guards.”

Knowing he’d screwed up, and there’d likely be a dressing down in his near future, the hapless Glutus swallowed heavily as he nodded and hastened to do his superior’s bidding. “Yes, sir!” he called smartly as he swiftly climbed the palace steps.

Glaring at the muscular officer who blocked their path, Hercules demanded, a tad belligerently, “Why? We’ve done nothing wrong.”

“Orders from King Sisyphus,” Elusius replied brusquely. “We’re to detain all potential troublemakers.”

Blowing out a breath, appearing perfectly amenable to being barred from seeing the King, Iolaus mused, “Oh, well…we can’t go around disobeying the King’s orders.” But he cut an enquiring look up at Hercules, laughter in his eyes, as he asked innocently, “Can we?”

Shrugging indifferently, the demigod replied, “I don’t see why not.”

With a grin, Iolaus wheeled into action as Hercules hauled off and ploughed a strong right fist against Elusius’ jaw, sending the big man sprawling, stunned into insensibility, upon the palace steps. The other soldiers sprang into immediate action, charging the heroes with their spears, calling out encouragement to one another as they raced into battle. Hercules grabbed the heavy weapon of the nearest guard, and swung the soldier away, sending him flying, while Iolaus wrestled the spear away from the first guard who reached him, and then bashed the soldier on the back of the head with it, before turning to fight off another attack. Putting his spear to good use as a staff, Hercules send guard after guard flying into the stone walls of the courtyard.

Meanwhile Iolaus, having disposed of two guards, turned to face two others that were racing toward him. At the last moment, he dropped to one knee, holding the lance, horizontally, out to either side of his body, and the rushing guards tripped over it, crashing to the ground. He whirled up and around, quickly rendering them unconscious, while kicking back at another who approached from behind. At the same time, Hercules’ lance was grabbed by a guard, and the determined man refused to let go, so the demigod began to spin around quickly, lifting the lance and the guard with it, as a whirling battering ram that knocked several more guards flying. Iolaus tripped another, and then another, but the supply of sentries seemed inexhaustible.

Elusius was just coming back to his senses, scrambling to his feet to re-enter the battle, when a man with short grey hair and a well-trimmed beard appeared out of the palace and, pausing at the top of the steps, he called out sharply, “Cease! Stop this fighting! What’s this about?!”

Elusius turned and called back, “Sire - this is Hercules!”

Lifting his chin, the King called out to the demigod, his voice resigned, “I’m King Sisyphus. Hades has sent you to bring me back.”

As the soldiers dropped back at the King’s command, Hercules looked up and confirmed, “Yes, he has.”

Sighing, Sisyphus replied, “I have army enough to stop you, but I won’t. I did a grave injustice to young Timeron. I don’t want to incur any more of the god’s wrath.”

A tad surprised, Hercules clarified, just to be sure, “Then you’ll come peacefully?”

“On one condition,” the monarch bartered as he advanced down the steps, “Talk to Hades on my behalf. Tell him I come of my own free will.”

Nodding, thoughtful, the demigod agreed, “I’ll do what I can.”

Behind and around them, the injured soldiers were moaning as they pulled themselves to their feet and turned to assist still stunned comrades.

It seemed the battle was over.

As they approached the broken-down hovel beside the river where they’d left Timeron to wait, Iolaus sighed heavily, as he castigated Sisyphus, “You know? That was a pretty cruel trick you played on Timeron - changing places with him on his wedding night.”

“I know,” the older man acknowledged gravely, and with evident self-loathing, “I’ll regret it for the rest of my days.”

“Then maybe you should apologize to him directly,” Hercules suggested briskly, as they entered the flimsy wooden structure, its floor strewn with scattered straw, and one side collapsing under the growth of vegetation. Waving to the spirit standing in the corner, he added, “He’s right there.”

When the King looked around, confused, Iolaus explained, “Hercules is the only that who can see him… most of the time.”

Gazing into empty space, his voice heavy with regret, Sisyphus volunteered, “I apologize for what I did to you, Timeron.”

Quirking a brow, Hercules pointed across the room, to a spot more directly in front of the King. “He’s, uh, over here.”

As Hercules crossed his arms and leaned against a thin post that still supported the wood-slatted roof, the King, seeming a little exasperated by what he perceived to be a farce, nevertheless turned in the indicated direction and once again, offered soberly, “I’m truly sorry, Timeron.”

Puzzled that Timeron just stared at the King, with a vaguely astonished expression, the demigod consoled, “Look, I…I know it’s not much, and it could never make up for losing your life, or your wedding night, but it’s…”

But Timeron hastened to shake his head as he continued to stare at the older man. “It’s not that.”

Frowning in confusion, the demigod demanded, “Then, what is it?”

Timeron shook his head again, scowling as he turned to Hercules, and said definitively, “He isn’t Sisyphus.”

“What!” Hercules gasped, as he straightened away from the post to stare at the spurious King. Alarmed by Hercules’ apparent shock, Iolaus demanded to know what was wrong. Shaking his head, his eyes narrowing, his partner replied hollowly, “That’s not Sisyphus.”

“What do you mean he’s not the King!” Iolaus exclaimed as he gestured at the impostor, and then around the room, “Old Mr …Vanish over here told us to look for a white-haired guy with a beard!” Exasperated, he demanded, “I mean, how many can there be in the palace?! Timeron?!”

“Did I say anything about a scar?” the unhappy ghost shouted back as he waved toward the old man’s forehead. Emotionally overwrought, he was unaware he’d again materialized, until the fake Sisyphus gasped and stumbled back in fear.

“A-a ghost!” he cried out, lifting his hands defensively.

Waving a hand for calm, Hercules drawled, also exasperated, “He’s a spirit. He won’t hurt you.”

Iolaus threw up his own hands and shook his head. “You know?” he grated, “what I can’t figure out is why either of these guys would want to take the place of someone headed for the Other Side. I mean…”

“I’m a poor old man,” the impostor interrupted, in an effort to explain his motives, his tone one of weary despair. “Sisyphus promised to take care of my family if I did it.”

“Hmm,” Iolaus frowned, his lips twisting in understanding. “High price to pay.”

The old man shrugged, then explained, “He swore he’d kill me if I didn’t.”

Blowing out a breath, Hercules grunted, “Well, we’ll see about that.” Cutting a look toward Iolaus, he continued, “For now, we’ll let Sisyphus think his little ruse worked, and maybe he’ll let his guard down.”

Pointing at the impostor, Iolaus asked, “But what do we do about him?”

Hands on his hips, the demigod replied, “We’ll find a place to hide him for the next couple of days, until we’re finished.”

Amazed, the old man marvelled, “You’re not gonna kill me!”

Grimacing, Hercules shook his head. “No.”

“And Timeron?” Iolaus asked, as he jerked a thumb at the ghost.

Sighing, Hercules replied resignedly, “We’ll have to take him with us next time, to make sure we find the right man.”

“What if I materialize again?” the young spirit asked, uncertainly.

“You’ll just have to control your emotions,” the demigod countered. Turning to Iolaus, both of them knowing they were running out of time, he said, “We’ll leave tonight.”

The late afternoon light angled in from the decoratively-designed window, and torches blazed warmly on the walls, illuminating frescoes and opulant tapestries. Elusius knelt before the real King Sisyphus, a man amazingly like the impostor in appearance, but more richly dressed in a blue velvet gown. “Your trickery was brilliant, Sire,” Elusius observed, as he bowed his head in admiration.

“Yes, it was,” Sisyphus laughed, but then sobered as he shook his head. “But Hercules will eventually discover his error. He’s not one to give up easily.”

“I’ll double the palace security,” the loyal Captain assured his King, as they turned together to walk toward the suite’s double doors. “He’ll be arrested on sight.”

“Good,” the older man replied. Taking a breath, he straightened his shoulders as he continued, “Now, to other matters…how’s our aqueduct going?”

“It’s almost finished, Sire,” Elusius assured him, and then added with quiet satisfaction, “And the amphitheatre’s coming along nicely.”

“That pleases me,” the King smiled. “Soon, Patras will be the greatest, most prosperous, city in the civilized world.”

“And you - the world’s greatest King,” Elusius avowed loyally.

Sisyphus laughed, appreciating the sentiment, but recognizing toadying when he saw it. “Uh-huh,” he grunted, and then waved Elusius away, “Send in the widow, Daphne, as you leave.”

As Elusius departed, a cold, calculating look came into the King’s eyes as he waited for the pretty young widow of the earnest young man Sisyphus had tricked into sacrificing his life.

The demigod dropped an armload of firewood on the ground outside the hut as, in an effort to console the dejected young spirit, he soothed, “Timeron, I’ve seen the Elysian Fields. You’ll be happy there.”

Sighing as he looked around at the lush greenery of the overgrown garden, the ghost countered, “Maybe, in fifty years - when Daphne joins me there.”

Sadly, understanding the young spirit’s despair, the demigod crossed his arms and nodded bleakly. “Yeah,” he murmured.

“I sure miss her,” Timeron confessed hopelessly, as he plopped down on a rock, as Hercules chose a log across from him.

Just then, Iolaus joined them and, unable to see the ghost, plopped down on the rock close against Timeron, so that the spirit grimaced and flinched away a little, as he muttered, “Hey, watch it.”

“You find a spot for our impostor?” Hercules asked.

Nodding assuredly, Iolaus confirmed, “Yeah, he’ll be safe.”

“Are you hungry?” the demigod asked his partner. They’d traveled since early morning without a break, and some sustenance was long overdue.

“Yeah,” Iolaus agreed with a comradely grin, indicating he’d enjoy a short hunt with his friend - and the meal that would follow. “You wanna find some food?”

“Sure, I’ll get it,” the demigod offered as he stood, wanting to give Iolaus a bit of a break. They’d had a busy day for someone who was ostensibly still supposedly recovering from injuries received not long before.

But Iolaus hastened to volunteer in his turn, “No, wait, wait,” he urged, and then lowered his voice as he looked around uncomfortably, “Uh, you’re not going to leave me here with Timeron, are you?”

His brows lifting in surprised, Hercules asked, “Is that a problem?”

“Well, it’s…” Iolaus shifted nervously, unhappy with his discomfort around the young spirit. “He’s not exactly the world’s greatest conversationalist,” he finally muttered, “Not with me, anyway.”

Amused, Hercules teased, “Then why sit so close to him?”

Badly startled, completely unaware he’d been pressed up, cosily, against a ghost, Iolaus literally leapt from the rock where he’d been sitting as he scrambled to stand several feet away.

Timeron rolled his eyes, finding the experience of being a ghost very tedious, and annoyed with how everyone treated him with such blatant, if understandable and unconscious, discomfort. Being dead didn’t make him feel any different, and it was disconcerting, as well as hurtful, to be perpetually reminded that he really didn’t exist any more.

Chuckling, Hercules observed, “Ah, looks like he’s not too happy about being left with you, either.”

Trying to make the best of a very difficult situation, Iolaus sighed, “Well, can’t he wave a leaf or something, so I know where he is?”

Turning to the spirit, the demigod cocked a brow of enquiry. “Ah - Timeron?”

Sighing, the young spirit allowed, “Sometimes, if I try real hard, I can make things move.”

Smiling, Hercules cocked his head as he encouraged, “Now might be a good time to practice.” Resignedly, Timeron turned his attention to a fern growing beside the boulder he was perched on.

Feeling a little lost in a conversation when he could only hear half of it, Iolaus asked, “What?”

Waving toward Timeron, Hercules explained, “Well, he’s going to - see that leaf? That’s Timeron.”

“Oh,” Iolaus observed wryly as, gazing at the waving frond, he sat down on the log Hercules had vacated.

“I won’t be too long,” the demigod assured both unhappy companions, as he turned away to find supper for himself and his partner.

Signing, Iolaus leaned his forearms on his thighs, as he asked the boulder, “So…heard any good jokes, lately?”

The young widow stood demurely before her King, her eyes wide as she struggled to understand why he’d insisted upon seeing her.

Sisyphus greeted her warmly, his voice engaging, as he said, “Daphne, I’m sorry we were interrupted before, but there were some things I want to talk to you about. Look out there,” he encouraged, as he waved toward the window behind him, “an amphitheatre, Senate forum, aqueduct - all for my subjects and all built from nothing.” Moving toward her, his manner was one of grave concern, as he continued, “And I’m afraid that it will return to nothing, without someone to carry on, after I’m gone.”

“But you have assistants, underlings - the Queen,” Daphne murmured, still very confused.

“The Queen and I won’t be here forever, and my assistants…” Sisyphus responded, laughing at the ridiculous notion of trusting any of them - more, at bequeathing what he’d built to ‘underlings’. His expression hardened as he clarified his wishes, “I’m talking about blood…an heir.

Frowning, Daphne shook her head. “Sire, it’s common knowledge that the Queen is…barren,” she said warily, beginning to suspect what the King wanted of her, and hoping she was wrong.

“But you’re not,” Sisyphus murmured, as he moved to stand close in front of her. “I’m asking you to be my Queen.

Stammering, appalled, the young woman protested, “Y-you already have a Queen.”

“One who cannot give me an heir,” the King snapped, fury sparking in his eyes. Sternly, he urged her to consider his offer. “Think about it, Daphne. You could bear a prince, someone who, one day, will be the ruler of all of this.”

“But, Sire, with no disrespect,” she demurred desperately, wanting only to escape this hideous situation not of her making, “Timeron was the only man I ever loved.”

Striving for calm, feigning sympathy, the monarch murmured, “I know your grief is fresh, but…”

Daring to cut in, the wounds of her heart still fresh and raw, she snapped with barely concealed revulsion, “Three days is hardly an adequate mourning period. I mean, even if I did care for you.”

Sisyphus gazed at her expressionlessly for a long moment as he reigned in his emotion. Finally, swallowing his impatience, he replied moderately, “You don’t have to make a decision immediately. I know this must be a trying and emotional time for you. But you must think of yourself - your future. Mourn, weep…grieve. But consider my proposal…from maid - to Queen. Think.

Iolaus had built up a roaring fire as he waited for Hercules to come back with their meal. Every once in a while, he glanced at the gently waving leaf, his lips tight with frustration. It was hard to know the spirit of the young man was there, unheard and unseen; hard to know what the youth had suffered, and not have a way to reach out to him, to lend support. And it was terribly disconcerting to have an invisible companion.

Finally, Hercules returned in high spirits, bearing two good-sized hares, their heels tied with a vine. “Let’s eat,” he crowed modestly as he held out his catch for inspection.

Iolaus nodded with appreciation for the fine catch, as he stood to take the carcasses from his friend. Grinning, he replied, “Great. Where are yours?”

Both men laughed, easy in one another’s company, and then Hercules looked over toward the boulder, and then toward the ramshackle shack. “What’d you do with Timeron?” he asked, curiously.

Unconcerned, his attention on the rabbits, Iolaus replied lightly, “Ah, he’s over there, where you left him, uh, waving his little leaf.”

Scowling, Hercules informed him, “That’s the wind.”

“What?” Iolaus exclaimed as he dropped the hares and looked around. “Where’d he go?”

“I have a pretty good idea,” the demigod replied grimly. “Come on,” he growled as he took off, loping toward the city.

Iolaus grabbed up his sword and raced after his partner.

Dispiritedly, Daphne returned home, closing the door softly behind her. She paused to look around the small but lovingly-decorated apartment, her intended home with the man she had loved all her life, and moved slowly through to the sleeping area. For a moment she hesitated, and looked around, feeling suddenly as if she wasn’t alone - but she knew it was only a lingering, desperate wish that the news of Timeron’s death was some terrible mistake, and that he’d come home…but he’d never come home…

Sinking down on the bed, her throat tight, as she fought the despair of knowing it would forever be virginal, she reached toward the trunk and lifted its lid. Pulling out the tunic she’d made for Timeron as a wedding gift, she held it close and bowed her head, still able to catch his scent on the once-worn garment. A sob built in her throat and she could no longer contain her devastation. Clutching all she had left of her husband, she wept.

“Daphne…don’t cry,” Timeron implored, helplessly, as he materialized before her. It tore him apart to see her so hurt, so very sad, and not be able to comfort her.

She looked up, shocked, unable to understand. “Timeron,” she gasped, and then was filled with sudden horror. She’d always been taught that the spirits of the dead only walked when they came to claim a soul, and the atavistic terror overcame the sudden surge of love and hope she’d felt when she first beheld him. Overwhelmed and overwrought, she screamed and fled from him…in her terror, running straight through her husband’s insubstantial form, as she hurled into the street and ran from a vision she couldn’t bear.

Utterly distraught, she wept and cried for assistance, calling out, “A ghost! Someone, help me!”

A neighbour, startled, turned to another and demanded, “What did she say? Did she say, ‘A ghost’?”

But Daphne had stumbled on, hysterical in her grief and fear. “Help me!” she begged incoherently, as she ran toward the only other place she’d known well, where she might find refuge…the palace.

A man called out as he saw her race by, “She’s gone mad!” and another shouted, “Stop that woman!”

Hercules and Iolaus loped through the city lanes, arriving near the palace just as she raced by, weeping and begging for help. They pulled up and looked after her, Iolaus asking, “Who was that?”

His jaw tight, Hercules replied darkly, “Two guesses.”

And then Timeron raced around a corner, trying to catch her, to comfort her, calling out, “Daphne!”

Hercules lunged forward and blocked his path. “Wait!” he commanded, looking around to see if anyone else had yet noticed and recognized the spirit. “Get over here!” the demigod urged, shifting to give the materialized spirit cover as he hastened Timeron toward the shadows of a sheltered courtyard.

Suddenly realizing that he was visible, and could terrify people who knew him, Timeron swiftly complied, as both Hercules and Iolaus moved to give him cover. But, his expression was agonized as he looked back over his shoulder, wanting desperately to follow his beloved Daphne.

“Please, help me!” the distraught woman begged, as she stumbled into the palace courtyard, desperate to reach shelter.

But the diligent guards raced their spears horizontally, barring her from entry, Glutus shouting, “Stop!”

Please,” she pleaded, tears streaming down her face, “you must let me in. The dead have come for me.

Resolutely doing his duty despite his pity for her, Glutus replied firmly, “No one enters without the King’s permission.”

“But I’m telling you,” she cried, tears streaming down her cheeks, “I saw a ghost.

“What’s going on out there?” Sisyphus roared, as he appeared at the top of the steps.

“The maiden, Daphne,” Glutus called over his shoulder, “was trying to rush the palace, Sire.”

“Then let her pass!” the King snapped with furious disgust.

Glutus, deciding this was a day when he just couldn’t win for losing, heaved a sigh and stood aside.

She rushed past him, up the steps, and Sisyphus held out a hand to her, as he asked with gentle concern, “Daphne, my dear…what is it?”

“I saw the ghost of Timeron,” she wept, panting with fear and confusion.

With great solicitude, Sisyphus took her hand and drew her into the palace, as he encouraged consolingly, “Come, my dear. Tell me about it.”

A passerby noted the Sisyphus’ unusually kind behaviour and commented wryly, “Looks like the King’s taken a fancy to Daphne!” His companion nodded sombrely, as he murmured in reply, “Poor girl.”

Glutus, once again doing his duty as best he could, called out, “What are you lookin’ at?! Move along! Don’t you guys have a home to go to?”

Iolaus eased around the corner to check out the courtyard and found it momentarily, if strangely, empty. Relieved, he called back softly, “It’s all clear.”

Hercules moved to join him, and they were about to try to again enter the palace, when a guard called out urgently, “There’s one of them!”

The demigod snorted as he looked down at his companion and shook his head. “‘All clear’,” he echoed sarcastically, while Iolaus shrugged, and then they positioned themselves back to back, ready once again to fight the evil King’s forces. But both knew they were fast running out of time, if they were to get Sisyphus to Hades in time to ensure Timeron’s soul wasn’t forever condemned to wander….

The soldiers suddenly swarmed at them, from all directions.

Iolaus bashed one, knocking him out, as Hercules grabbed another and held him where Iolaus could deal with him, while the demigod fought off others. They punched and kicked, Iolaus spinning to take out another who was sneaking up behind him, while Hercules sent two flying into the walls. The demigod caught another, but again had to hold him while he fought off more, Iolaus effectively dealing decisively with the guard held by Hercules’ strong grip. Cutting a quick glance over his shoulder, the demigod snapped, “Behind you!”

As Iolaus ducked, the soldier charging from behind ran straight into another coming from the side, and both went down in a heap. Breathlessly, the blond warrior called a quick thanks to his partner, but there was time for little more, as they continued to fight back against terrible odds.

But, finally, they prevailed and found themselves surrounded by unconscious soldiers sprawled in heaps around the stone courtyard. They heaved a breath, and were just turning to once again attempt entrance to the palace, when six more guards raced out to kneel upon the steps, this time armed with crossbows - loaded and aimed straight at them.

Turning toward the entrance, Iolaus saw them first, and couldn’t help sagging in brief discouragement.

“What?” Hercules demanded as he turned, and then froze as he stared at the men and weaponry arrayed against them.

“I think you’ll have to do that arrow thing again,” Iolaus observed steadily with as much calm and confidence as he could muster, and then cut his best friend a quick glance, as he asked uncertainly, “Think you can catch all six?” Herc was good - but that good?

Hercules was about to respond when movement above caught his eye, as six more soldiers with primed crossbows took their positions on the balcony overhead. Blowing out a soundless, disconcerted whistle, he replied, “Maybe, yes. Maybe, no…but twelve - really worries me…”

Iolaus rubbed a hand over his mouth as he considered the odds. Licking his lips, he asked gamely, “Ah, Hercules, will you be catching the arrows from the street first or…the ones from the roof?”

Knowing the odds were hopeless, the demigod replied bleakly, “Does it matter?”

Shrugging, Iolaus turned to bravely face his fate, standing shoulder to shoulder with his best friend. “I was just curious.”

Unbeknownst to either hero, Timeron moved out of the shadows behind them - but the soldiers saw the spirit of the dead man and shrank back in terror. “It’s Timeron!” one cried out.

“But-- he’s dead!” another protested, scarcely believing his own eyes.

“It’s his ghost!” a third gasped, and then a fourth shouted in fear, “Let’s get outta here!”

The guards backed away and then bolted, some in awe, others in terror, all with stunned disbelief…and then they ran regardless, urging one another to greater speed as they all made their escape.

The heroes looked at one another, as they intoned together, “Materializing.” And then they turned to Timeron.

Embarrassed, the young spirit confessed, “I…couldn’t help it. I was scared.”

Neither hero was able to stop the grin of amused disbelief that erupted on their faces as they shook their heads. “What are you scared about?” Hercules asked with wry amusement. “You are already dead.”

“I know,” Timeron replied with a helpless shrug. “I guess I’m just…”

“…not used to it,” Hercules supplied with gentle understanding. “I know…”

“Ah, it’s okay,” Iolaus consoled, and then admitted as one comrade to another, “I was pretty worried there, myself.” Unconsciously, he reached to grip the young man’s shoulder reassuringly, but then hesitated, realizing belatedly, with sad regret, that he couldn’t actually touch someone who wasn’t really there.

“Come on,” Hercules suggested then, “Let’s go find Daphne.”

“Yeah,” Iolaus agreed, his voice hollow with sorrow, as he and Timeron followed the demigod.

Solicitously leading Daphne into his private chambers, Sisyphus asked the distraught young woman, “Have you given any thought to my proposal?”

Shrinking into herself, away from him, but lifting her head with unconscious courage and dignity, the new widow replied firmly, “I’m sorry, but I’ve no desire to be your queen…or bear your children.”

The King’s eyes grew cold, as his visage hardened with threat. Angrily, he icily informed her, with the blunt candour of those who believe they have virtually unlimited power, “I asked you nicely. But you forget - I am the King. I can command.”

Daphne quailed in fear and despair, knowing she was going to be forced into a loathsome existence, but before she could react further, Elusius rushed in.

“Sire!” he called out, clearly agitated, as he bent his knee and bowed his head.

“What is it?!” the King snapped, not well-pleased with being interrupted.

Looking up, the Captain of the Guard anxiously reported, “Hercules has been sighted within the city - along with…Timeron’s ghost.”

Startled, Daphne whirled toward the officer, and then looked toward Sisyphus, as she marvelled, “Someone else saw him, too…”

“Ah,” Sisyphus grated, not liking the spark of hope in her eyes at the thought that her husband had truly been seen in the city, and wasn’t simply some wretched illusion borne of grief, or some evil demon impersonating her beloved Timeron to lead her into peril.

Impatient with her pitiful hopes and her continued resistance, Sisyphus dismissed her with a wave toward the doorway, but he informed her firmly, “We will continue this discussion later.” Once she had fled his presence, he turned back to his principal advisor and confidente. “I knew he wouldn’t give up,” he snapped. Feeling as if things were coming apart, he muttered, “I need to buy more time.” Turning back to Elusius, he commanded, “Find Hercules - and whoever’s with him. Detain them until I tell you.”

Hesitating, Elusius took a breath and then admitted, “Sire…the men are afraid. The ghost.”

“Tell them to be more afraid of me,” Sisyphus raged. “Those who disobey will have their heads decorating my chamber!

Striving to remain calm despite his sovereign’s evident and increasing rage, the soldier cautioned, “Hercules won’t be easy to detain.”

Glaring at him, Sisyphus ordered with cold precision, “Do what is necessary.”

Blinking at the tone, and the implications, Elusius dared looked up at his lord’s face as he sought clarification. “Including killing him?” he gasped, unable to believe the King would go so far with the Son of Zeus.

“If that’s what it takes!” Sisyphus bellowed, beyond himself with rage…and fear. Hercules had come to fetch him to Hades…and that he could not allow.

Once again in the shadows of a sheltered corner nook off the main routes, Timeron asked anxiously, “What’re we gonna do? We’re running out of time?”

Iolaus narrowed his eyes as he regarded the young spirit, and then turned to Hercules, “Why is he still visible?” he asked quietly, knowing they couldn’t go anywhere in public so long as Timeron could be seen by mortals.

“Ah, he’s upset,” the demigod murmured with a sigh. “He’s worried we won’t get Sisyphus back in time…more, that we won’t have enough time left for him to talk to Daphne…”

Nodding in understanding, the blond warrior turned back to Timeron, and tried to reassure him. “Ah well, don’t worry,” he soothed. “Hercules always comes up with something.” Crossing his arms, wondering himself what the plan was, he looked back up at Hercules, as he asked meaningfully, “Don’t you?”

Shaking his head, Hercules replied with the tone of a man who feels hunted, “Working on it. I’m working on it.”

Iolaus’ jaw tightened as he looked at his best friend appraisingly, understanding Hercules’ frustration and sharing the sense of urgency - they were running out of both time and options. But, he turned back to Timeron, smiling as he said with nonchalant confidence, “Ah, see? He’s working on it.”

“Sisyphus?” the Queen called out, her voice and face shadowed by concern, as she approached her husband.

Startled, his thoughts having been on other matters, Sisyphus turned at the sound of her voice. “Karis, I didn’t hear you come in,” he replied mildly, as he moved from the entrance of his bedchamber, and down the three marble steps to join her.

Searching his eyes intently, she told him, “I saw Daphne outside. She was very upset.” Frowning with worry, she demanded, “What is going on?”

The King hesitated, and then replied, his manner both confidential and cajoling, “The oracle at Delphi told me that the girl, Daphne, could bear my child.”

Stunned - and aghast at the implications, Karis backed a step, as she challenged angrily, “You would do that? Marry her? Throw me over as the Queen?”

“No! Of course not!” Sisyphus protested as he moved quickly to gently grip his Queen’s arms and pull her into a brief embrace. Very sincerely, he assured her, “The child would be raised as our own. Daphne would be sent away.”

“What if she refuses?” Karis questioned, and then looked at him with horror lurking in her eyes. “You wouldn’t,” she gasped.

“Of course not,” he hastened to dissuade her of such uncharitable thoughts. “I would never harm the girl.”

But Karis was no longer so sure of that. He’d grown increasingly distant in the last months, and she felt as if she no longer knew him, as she’d once believed she did. With suspicion echoing in her voice, she charged, “Somehow, I get the feeling that you’re not telling me the whole story about Timeron.”

The very picture of hurt innocence, Sisyphus tried to allay her doubts as he said with all sincerity, “I have. What else is there to tell? The oracle warned me about my enemies. Timeron took my place to confuse them.” Shaking his head sorrowfully, he sighed, “I didn’t know the boy was going to get killed. No one feels worse about his death than I.”

Karis watched him, a measuring look in her eyes…uncertain…wondering, for the first time, if she could believe his protestations of innocence…

Having begun to harbour wild hope, knowing it was impossible but, nevertheless, needing to know, Daphne left the palace to hurry back home. When she entered, she hoped to see Timeron, and was badly startled by the presence of a stranger - a big man she’d never seen before. Perhaps someone Sisyphus had sent to take her hostage! Trembling, she started to twist away, intending to run…

Hercules stood quickly, his hands held wide and open, as he hastened to reassure her. “Easy, I’m a friend of Timeron’s,” he explained in a rush, “and I’ve come to help.”

Turning back to face him, she replied, her voice tight, “But I just saw Timeron. He’s a…”

“Spirit,” the demigod supplied quietly, kindly. “But he’s not here to harm you.”

Her face fell, and her eyes blurred with tears, her wild hope crushed. “Then he really is dead,” she whispered brokenly, as she stumbled blindly into the room. She’d hoped - she’d hoped so much that there might have been a mistake…that if others had seen him, too, then perhaps…maybe…he still lived…

“Yes,” Hercules replied softly, as he bowed his head before her grief, once again struck by how very wrong all of what happened was. These two young people loved each other so very much. Surely, the Fates had meant them to be together.

“It’s so unfair,” Daphne murmured brokenly, as she sank down upon what was to have been their bed. “The plans we made…all those years we waited…”

“I know,” Hercules replied, feeling helpless to console her, wishing he more than empty words, and perhaps an even emptier revenge, to offer. “But you can help us find justice.”

Sniffing, she looked up at him. “How?” she asked, wondering how there could ever be any justice in her husband’s death.

“By helping us take Sisyphus back to the Other Side,” the demigod explained, his words underscored by his sense of urgency. “You worked in the palace. You must know of a secret entrance…some gate less guarded than the others?”

Night had fallen, the small courtyard at the back of the palace dimly illuminated by a single torch flickering on one wall. Glutus patrolled glumly, unhappy with having been assigned this extra shift for all his apparent misjudgements during the previous day. Bad enough to be given the extra hours, but to have also been consigned to the shadows and lonely vigil over this little-used entrance, was penance indeed.

But, suddenly two figures emerged from the darkness, hurrying toward the palace. “Halt!” he called out imperiously, as he moved to intercept them. As he got closer, he recognized the woman - the second person was completely shrouded in a black robe, the hood obscuring the face within its shadow. Shaking his head, he sighed miserably, “Maiden Daphne…great. Where do you think you’re going?”

“This man’s a seer,” the young woman hastened to tell him, her tone urgent and harried. “He has knowledge of Hercules’ whereabouts.”

Grimacing, Glutus looked torn, terribly uncertain of what he should do…already that day, he’d let someone pass who should have been detained, and detained Daphne when he should have let her pass. In an agony of indecision, he muttered to himself, “Let him in? Don’t let him in? Let him in?” Then he realized he couldn’t decide anything without first actually seeing the seer hidden by the robe…why it could be anyone!

However, as he reached out, Daphne warned him fearfully, “Don’t touch him! He’s a leper.”

The fearsome creature pushed a claw-like hand out of the robe, reaching for Glutus - and in the flickering light of the torch, the limb was terrifyingly skeletal, skin hanging in bloody clumps. Even as he jerked back and away from the loathsome touch, he heard Daphne urging, “The king is waiting.”

Swallowing, watching the leprous seer narrowly and, remembering that the lovely maiden was a favourite of the King’s, Glutus made his decision. “Proceed!”

But the unfortunate Glutus had no way of knowing that, while the leper distracted him…Hercules slipped through the shadows behind his back - and into the palace.

As soon as they were clear of the entry, Iolaus shrugged off the heavy, unwieldy cloak and, with no little disgust, grimaced as he gazed at the gruesome prosthesis.

“Wasn’t that easier than fighting our way in…huh?” Hercules demanded, well pleased by their subterfuge. “Nobody got hurt.”

His lip curling with distaste as he waved the fake leprous hand, Iolaus huffed, “Well, it’s okay for you. You didn’t have to wear a stupid costume.”

They’d only just begun to make their way along the bleak, stone corridor, when a soldier’s voice alerted them. Hercules and Iolaus quickly positioned themselves on either side of the entry of a small, side chamber, and then swiftly knocked out the two guards who appeared. Quickly, the heroes dragged the unconscious men back into the chamber. As they stumbled out into the hall, Hercules rolled his eyes - their entry having turned out to be less peaceful than he’d hoped - but Iolaus snickered helplessly at his friend’s chagrin, as he teased, “Now, that, I enjoyed.”

Hastening onward, they again had to scramble for cover when yet more soldiers marched past. Once the way was once more clear, they continued on their way, Hercules muttering, “I thought you said this was a secret entrance.”

Ignoring him, the former palace maid pointed down an intersecting corridor. “This way,” Daphne told them, as she hurried toward Sisphysus’ chambers.

Behind them, one of the semi-conscious guards crawled painfully out of the side-chamber, and collapsed on the floor. Elusius, with a half dozen guards happened around the far corner, and paused in shock for a moment at the sight of fallen guard…and then hastened toward him.

Pulling the man to his feet, Elusius demanded, “What happened?”

The stunned soldier managed to gasp, “Herc…Herc…” before crumpling, once again, to the floor.

“Hercules,” Elusius snarled, and then waved at his subordinates to follow him, as he raced down the corridor to render support to his King.

Sisyphus was gazing out the window - revelling at the greatness he was creating, the magnificent amphitheatre, aqueduct, and other public projects, and scarcely heard a soldier’s distant voice call urgently, “Find him! Check every room in the palace!”

Unnoticed, Hercules entered the King’s personal chambers, and called out, “I think they’re looking for me.”

Stiffening, the King turned and eyed his unwanted visitor. “So,” he observed dryly, “you must be Hercules.”

Walking forward, the demigod returned sardonically, “And you must be the real Sisyphus.”

Shrugging negligently, the ruler of Patras admitted, “Suppose I am.” Walking down the steps to join the Son of Zeus, he continued, “This is totally unfair, you know.”

Unimpressed, the demigod rejoined, his voice hard, “If you wanna talk about unfair, talk to Timeron and Daphne.”

Signing, Sisyphus waved away the regret about their ruined lives. “That was unfortunate, but I had no choice. Do you know why I was called early?”

“It doesn’t matter to me,” Hercules replied indifferently.

“It should!” Sisyphus insisted with some heat. “It involves your father. Zeus was trying to seduce the daughter of one of my noblemen. I told the man - it seemed the decent thing to do.” Giving Hercules a direct look, he concluded bitterly, “Your father did not appreciate the gesture.”

Hercules crossed his arms, and shook his head distastefully, as he grated, “It never stops with him.”

“Hercules,” Sisyphus implored, “this could be the greatest city in the known world. But it needs me to keep it running. My work isn’t finished.”

“That may be,” Hercules allowed, but he remained unimpressed, as he added, “but it doesn’t justify ruining two lives with that trick you played on Timeron.”

Irritated, the King demanded, “How could you compare their lives with mine? I’m a king. I built this city out of a swamp.”

“You built it on the spoils of war,” the demigod corrected bluntly, “and the plunder of other cities - sacked and pillaged by your army.”

“Great leaders have to make tough decisions,” Sisyphus intoned disparagingly, not impressed with Hercules’ petty distinctions. “I am a great leader. I’m a great king. Timeron was a commoner, a guard.”

“But no less human, or deserving of happiness,” Hercules countered sternly.

“You argue that, as if you were a common mortal,” Sisyphus observed with contempt.

“And you argue as if you were a god,” Hercules charged coldly, “which is why I’m happy to take you back.”

“Maybe,” Sisyphus snarled, “but I’m not ready to go!” Suddenly, he flung a cloud of magic powder onto the floor, where it erupted in flames and a thick cloud of smoke, masking his escape through another corridor. There was the sound of a brief scuffle and, as the smoke dissipated, Sisyphus returned, pushed by Iolaus who had been waiting for his anticipated attempt to once again elude his fate.

“We are,” Hercules informed their dejected prisoner.

Hades, very well aware that the three-day limit was running out, took a moment from the endless pressure of processing a flooding river of souls, most of them honourable dead soldiers who awaited transport across the Styx. Sketching a window in the air, he intended to check on Hercules’ progress in bringing Sisyphus to justice. But his eyes narrowed, as he watched Daphne enter the palace’s temple, and his jaw tightened at the sight of her anguish…

Hundreds of candles illuminated the private shrine where Daphne knelt to pray, silent tears slipping down her cheeks.

“Daphne,” Timeron sighed, his soul aching with pain at the sight of her suffering.

She turned at the sound of his voice, and rose to go to him swiftly. “Timeron,” she breathed, her joy in seeing him brutally blunted by the knowledge that he was dead.

“I’ve missed you so,” he choked out, wishing so much that he could take her into his arms - protect her, love her, as he’d dreamed his whole life of loving her…

“I want to kiss and hold you so bad,” she whispered past the lump of pain in her throat, and her lips trembled as she fought the tears that blurred her eyes, dimming this far too-fleeting chance to see her beloved again, perhaps for the last time.

“I love you so much,” he breathed helplessly, hopelessly.

“Why can’t you be here with me?” she pleaded, needing him so badly.

“I’m sorry,” he told her, wishing so desperately he had the power to stay. “I wish I could.”

She looked up into his eyes, and shook her head slowly unable, any longer, to accept that they couldn’t be together. “I don’t think I can go on without you,” she admitted then. And it was the simple truth. She could envision no life, wanted no life, without him beside her, without his love…and being able to love him back.

Alarmed, Timeron searched her eyes, as he demanded, “What are you saying?”

“If you can’t come back to me,” she blurted out, tears spilling onto her cheeks, “then I’ll join you.”

And then she turned and ran…intent upon finding the path that would lead her to his side.

“Daphne!” Timeron cried out with horrified understanding. There was panic, and such anguish, in his face as he tried to think what to do. He had no physical form…he couldn’t stop her from killing herself. If he followed her, he could only watch helplessly - so he turned and ran to the one being who might yet be able to save his beloved.

Hades waved his hand, dispelling the painful images as he turned away. His jaw was tight as he considered what Daphne’s desperate act would mean if she succeeded in killing herself…a suicide, she would be condemned to Tartarus, and be forever separated from Timeron, for all the infinite moments of eternity.

Sorrow flickered in his eyes at the thought of their very tangible pain, and his lips thinned, as he wordlessly cursed the perfidy of Sisyphus in bringing their love to this…

Hercules and Iolaus were escorting their captive through the palace’s endless corridors, when Queen Karis accosted them, backed by Elusius and his squad of guards.

“Stop!” she ordered imperiously, and then demanded, “Where do you think you’re going with him?”

“We’re taking him where he belongs...” Hercules began, but was interrupted when Timeron suddenly appeared before him.

“Hercules!” the young spirit cried, “You’ve got to help me!”

Astonished, the Queen gasped, “Timeron?”

“Ah, Timeron,” the demigod tried to explain, “this isn’t a real good time.”

“You’ve got to come,” he begged. “Please.”

Frowning at the young spirit’s evident distress, even panic, Hercules asked, “What’s the problem?”

“It’s Daphne,” the youth replied desperately. “She ran up to the tower. I couldn’t stop her.”

“So, what’s she doing up there?” Hercules queried, needing clarification, not understanding, never suspecting…

Stricken, Timeron told him bleakly, “I think she’s gonna kill herself.”

Taken aback, Hercules cut a quick glance to his partner, an unspoken request to ‘hold the fort’, to which Iolaus replied with a quick, urgent nod…and then the demigod was racing to the tower.

By the time Hercules arrived, skidding to a halt, he was appalled to see the grief-stricken young woman standing on the balustrade, poised to jump into eternity.

“Daphne!” he called out imploringly. “Don’t…”

“It’s the only way I can be with him,” she replied, pitifully desperate to join the only man she had ever, would ever, love.

“No…y--you can hold him in your heart,” the demigod stammered, knowing his solace was pathetically inadequate. “Daphne, one thing certain in life is death,” he continued with utter sincerity. “Don’t rush it. It’ll come soon enough.” Desperation tingeing his voice, he urged her, “Enjoy whatever life has to offer you now.”

“I don’t want to marry Sisyphus,” she wept, unable to envision anything but pain and horror in her future. “Or bear his children.”

“And you won’t have to,” the demigod hastened to assure her. “We’re taking him to Hades, who will decide where Sisyphus belongs.”

Lost in her pain, the poor young woman moaned, “Timeron and I wanted to have children of our own so badly - and we didn’t even get to enjoy our wedding night. Life without him isn’t worth living.”

“He wouldn’t want this,” Hercules insisted, his throat tight, as he watched her muscles tense to leap into the darkness. “Ask him yourself,” he urged to reclaim her attention.

“Daphne, w-we’ll be together again,” Timeron assured her, materializing again in his distress and fear for her, stammering as he tried to persuade her to go on living without him, his voice cracking with his love of her. “It may be a while, but…if you could have a happy life…the wait would be worthwhile.” All he had ever wanted, was for her to have a happy life…

“Listen to him, Daphne,” Hercules urged. “Look at him. Does he look like he wants you to die now? Hold on to life, Daphne. It’s too precious. Please.”

She hesitated a long moment more, but she turned to her beloved and saw his fear for her, and how very much it would hurt him to see her die…and she took the hand that Hercules held out toward her.

When Hercules raced back to Iolaus and their captive, Daphne hot on his heels to at least have the hollow gratification of seeing Sisyphus get his just desserts, the demigod was astonished to see that Iolaus was bound to an iron ring bolted to the wall.

Catching his friend’s look of disbelief and dismay, the warrior shook his head, grimacing with chagrin as he explained bitterly, “Well, you said I should watch him. You never said anything about her.” Iolaus gave the Queen a dark look of disgust.

“It just isn’t fair,” Karis exclaimed, unwilling to be painted as a villainess, “taking him away early because of Zeus’ revenge.”

Hercules rolled his eyes as he snorted with contempt. “Oh, and you think it’s fair that he switched places with Timeron on his wedding night?” he challenged sarcastically, with no little righteous ire.

“What do you mean?” she demanded with a frown of confusion. “‘Switched places’?”

“Ask him,” Hercules demanded, with a contemptuous gesture at Sisyphus, “what he was doing in Daphne’s bedroom - the night Thanatos was supposed to take him away.”

Shocked, even horrified, Karis wheeled on Sisyphus, but he was quick to defend himself. “Nothing happened! Ask her.”

The Queen’s eyes narrowed, as she glared at him and replied with deadly, cold, contempt. “I’m more interested in your intent.”

Irritated, tired of all the aggravation, the King shrugged it off her evident suspicion - she was irrelevant. “Enough of this babble,” he stated dismissively. “It doesn’t matter now, anyway.” Turning to Hercules, he added, “You realize I have no choice, but to kill you and your friend?”

Elusius asked, “What about Daphne?”

“Take her to my chamber,” the King ordered, well beyond pretending she had any choice in the matter.

“No!” Karis protested, appalled. “This isn’t right!”

“Karis, we’ve been through all of this,” Sisyphus snapped.

“It’s wrong!” she insisted. “I won’t be a party to it.”

With cold implacability, Sisyphus told her with harsh brutality, “Then you won’t be my Queen, anymore. I must have an heir! Guards!” he ordered ruthlessly, “Take them all to the dungeons and execute them!”

But, for Iolaus, the voices of the continuing confrontation faded as he noticed the iron ring holding him captive starting to turn and pull free from the wall, seemingly of its own accord. “Timeron?” he gasped…and then started, surreptitiously, to help the process along by pulling on the ring to hurry the bolt from the wall…

Karis held up her hands, and her eyes flashed with fury, as she levelled her counter-order, “Stop! Don’t take another step! I am still your Queen!”

“Not anymore,” Sisyphus drawled, with cruel satisfaction. “Take them all away!”

A guard shoved Hercules, who looked across the hall at his friend in time to see the ring break free of the stone wall. Iolaus shot him a quick look, and the demigod nodded - and then Iolaus bolted away around the corner, distracting Sisyphus and throwing the guards into confusion. Several soldiers chased after him, while Hercules ploughed into those around him, jabbing back hard with his elbows to send two crashing into the walls, and then advancing on another…

Iolaus ducked around a corner, long enough to loosen the bonds binding his wrists, and then he lunged into the corridor, attacking two soldiers who’d come looking for them, jumping onto their backs, stunning them as he bashed their heads together. He rolled forward, over their shoulders to face them, and blocked their punches with his left arm, while holding his broken arm high and away from further injury…he kicked out, sending one, and then the other, flying.

Daphne backed into a corner, as Hercules traded slugs with another soldier, while giving a hard back kick to one with a sword who was coming at him from behind, disabling the hapless guard.

Taking advantage of the sudden mêlée, Sisyphus snuck to a set of double wooden doors, and slipped through, bolting and barring them from the other side.

Hercules grabbed the guard who was sparring with him in a headlock, and then swung the soldier up across his broad shoulders as he spun around, using the stunned guard as a whirling ram to knock others out of the way, sending them crashing senseless into walls…Karis pressed herself against a stone pillar…Hercules heaved the man from his shoulders to plough into another coming at him, both of them crashing to the stone floor.

Iolaus jumped up on another guard, wrapping his legs around the man’s torso as he caught him in a headlock with his damaged arm and pummelled with his left hand, until the guard collapsed, and then he turned to face two more, but these two were better trained, and knew something about kick-boxing. Taller than him, with a longer reach, they lashed out at him, their boots connecting, driving him back off-balance, and one grabbed his arm…

Hercules punched out two more soldiers simultaneously. Finding himself in the clear for a moment, the demigod chased after Sisyphus, bashing-in the bolted doors as if they were parchment-thin.

One guard held Iolaus while another brutally kicked him repeatedly…until then Timeron appeared from around a corner, and bellowed, “Aaahhhh!” - terrifying the guard, who stopped abusing the warrior and stumbled away in horror.

“Thanks, Timeron!” Iolaus called out, as he kicked the man, gripping his arm, where it hurts, and then lashed out with a back kick to the same part of the anatomy of yet another who was coming at him from behind.

“I never did like him, anyway,” Timeron grinned impishly, and then faded out of sight.

Iolaus managed to clasp both of the attacking guards’ fists with one hand and, using their weight and momentum against them, he flipped them both to the floor. While Iolaus finished off one, Daphne sharply kicked the other in the head, rendering the last guard unconscious.

Obviously more than a little surprised by her decisive intervention, Iolaus looked from her to the unconscious guard as he caught his breath. “Thanks,” he said, meaning it, and then grabbed her hand to race after Hercules, “Come on!”

Hercules had charged into a trap…as soon as he reached the centre of the large chamber, intent upon apprehending the King on the other side, Sisyphus let loose the chain anchoring the massive chandelier. The heavy, ornate, multi-tiered iron candelabra dropped like a small mountain toward him, but the demigod caught it and held it above his head with one hand…however, Sisyphus had prepared his defence well, and he grabbed up a primed crossbow, shooting it point-blank at Hercules…who caught the bolt and glared at the murderous King. As Sisyphus reached for a sword, Hercules used the chandelier to swing himself across the room and ripped a long section of drapery from the wall, tossing it to tangle the king in its folds.

But, by the time he’d dropped to the floor and raced to apprehend the vicious monarch, Sisyphus had disappeared from under the now limp material, now was draped uselessly over a low bench. Heaving open the bench, Hercules found a ladder built into the wall. Hastening down behind the escaping King, the demigod heard the rasp of a stone door closing on a hidden and secret passageway. He hauled it open with his bare fingertips, and chased up a dark spiral of narrow stone steps, oblivious of the cobwebs…

Sisyphus pushed open the upper stone door, emerging through another section of the palace’s interior walls, thinking himself safe…

…when Karis bashed him over the head with a heavy metal platter, sending him staggering toward Daphne, who wound up a wooden club…and let him have it, hard.

Sisyphus was still reeling, when Hercules pushed open the hidden doorway and lunged forward…and then only had to lightly shove the well-subdued villain, to send him crumpling to the floor.

And the prolonged battle to take Sisyphus was, finally, really over…

Timeron appeared once more, a short way down the corridor. “Daphne,” he called poignantly.

She raced toward him, desperate to hold him, knowing it impossible, and gasped wretchedly, “Timeron! Timeron…if only I could…”

Iolaus watched, his sorrow for them shadowing his eyes as he turned away, to give them some last bit of privacy. But he couldn’t help but hear Daphne moan, “I miss you so much.”

Reluctantly, knowing there was no choice, Iolaus looked up at Hercules. “You know? We’re going to have to leave now, if we want to make it by first light,” he said unwillingly, but knowing they had no choice but to take Timeron back.

“Yeah, you’re right,” Hercules sighed wearily as he looked at the young lovers, tremendously sorry that there was nothing he could do to make their tragedy right. Swallowing, his jaw tight, he reached down to haul Sisyphus to his feet, as he rumbled, “All right, let’s go, King.”

And at the far end of the corridor, Timeron took one, last, lingering look at his beloved Daphne, and then whispered brokenly, “Goodbye, my love,” as he faded from her sight.

The crowded conditions at the dock on the River Styx had only gotten worse in the time since Hercules had seen the cavern last. One soldier griped bitterly, “Hurry up and wait. Hurry up and wait. You think the army’d be different once you’re dead.”

“Same old story!” another observed cynically, as he leaned against a stone column, “The rich go first!”

Spotting Hades, Hercules dragged Sisyphus by the collar to the God of the Underworld. “Here’s your man, Hades,” the demigod said, with no little satisfaction. “Right on time.”

Well pleased, Hades signalled to Charon, as he ordered briskly, “Tartarus - watch him close.”

One of the soldiers, who had been waiting for days for transport to the Elysian Fields, protested, “Hey! No cuts!”

And Charon was sympathetic to the plight of the waiting military men, who had died with some honour, after all, and richly deserved better than being crowded together like cattle. “Yeah, that’s right, pal,” he sneered to Sisyphus. “Money talks. No coinee - no ridee.”

In no way prepared to give Sisyphus any opportunity to make another escape, Hercules told the ghoulish boatman, “Just…put it on my tab.”

Snorting, Charon demanded sarcastically, “What am I? A restaurant?”

“You know I’m good for it,” the demigod replied impatiently, not particularly interested in debating the issue as he looked around again for his uncle, who had already moved on to other matters.

Behind him, Charon groused to anyone who’d listen, “Ah! Whad’ya mean, ‘Put in on my tab’? First, ya steal my lantern. Then, ya steal my pig! Now, ya expect me to take Sisyphus across the River Styx!” But despite his running stream of complaint, he’d sternly shoved Sisyphus into the boat, and then climbed in behind him, to take the former King of Patras on a one-way trip to meet the very large boulder he’d be pushing uphill in Tartarus, for the rest of eternity…

Once again finding his uncle in the thronging multitude, Hercules asked, “Hades, I, uh, I was wondering if there’s anything we could do for Timeron?”

“You’ve already done it,” the god replied dryly. “Thanks to you, his spirit is spared eternity in Tartarus, and he’s headed for the Elysian Fields.”

Not getting the answer he wanted, the demigod pressed, “No, no - I mean, physically. He and Daphne are so much in love. What happened…it’s just not right, and you know it.”

Hades frowned, and his lips twisted unhappily, but he shrugged and tried to turn away. “There’s nothing I can do. It’s a tough break, but we have rules. Once you’re on the Other Side…”

“Come on, Hades!” Hercules cut in. “You and your rules! What if this were you and Persephone? What if you’d been separated from her, before you could consummate your love? Huh? What if you couldn’t see her for any months of the year? Would the rules matter then? Look at him! Come on!”

Hades rubbed his forehead, trying not to remember the poignant scene of hopeless and lifelong love he’d witnessed…and he thought about what it would mean to him - to never see Persephone again…

Sensing that his uncle was wavering, Hercules pressed his advantage. “Look, Zeus won’t care…his main concern was to punish Sisyphus, and to make sure the creep got what’s coming to him for his…schemes. And, it’s not like you’ve already put Timeron into inventory. I mean look at this place! You’re never going to catch up with all the work you’ve already got! What’s one more soul right now? You’ll get him eventually…”

“There’s the small matter of the fact that he doesn’t have a body,” Hades drawled unhappily. “You realize what you’re asking me to do?”

“Yeah, I do - but, maybe it’s not so impossible,” the demigod argued. “I realized, when Daphne thought, even if only briefly, that Timeron might still be alive, that nobody had really seen his body…they’d just been told he was dead - by Sisyphus - and everyone knows they can’t believe a word he says. The soldiers who killed him, even Thanatos, didn’t know who he was. Zeus, your own staff here, all pretty much believed that you’d gotten Sisyphus in the first place, and now he is where he belongs! So - why would it be so hard to, I don’t know, pretend Timeron was knocked out or something, and only just now able to make it back home?”

When Hades bowed his head and slowly shook it, Hercules pushed - this was too important not to succeed. “I know you have the power to do this - and you can’t tell me the Fates want him here, that this was the plan for his life!” the demigod insisted. “Think about what a mess the screw up will cause for the future! One simple little thing can make everything right…too easy…just give him his body back, whole and healthy. Give him a chance to live the life he was destined to live!

Sighing, Hades looked around at the crowded cavern, scores more souls arriving every other second. “It’ll take me fifty years just to clear this lot,” he mumbled. And thought again of Persephone…and of the tears on Daphne’s face as she raced to the tower, preferring death to life without Timeron…and the look on the young guard’s face when he’d been so helpless to stop her. Wanting only her happiness…

Blowing out a breath, he threw up a hand and capitulated, “Fine. Get him out of here and I’ll forget I ever saw him.”

“And his body?” Hercules pressed.

“By the time you get to the surface, he’ll be as good as new,” the God of the Underworld grated gruffly, as he again made to turn away and go about his business.

But Hercules caught him briefly, and said with a tight throat and moisture glittering in his eyes, “Thanks, Hades…”

The God of the Underworld glanced from Hercules to Timeron, who was oblivious to what had been decided, and was standing bleakly against a wall, the misery of the ages in his eyes. Swallowing, Hades brushed his nose with his thumb and shook his head. “No thanks necessary, Hercules,” he replied, making the effort to sound as uninvolved and unmoved as his role demanded. “This never happened. He was never here. It wasn’t his time…”

Looking up at his nephew, Hades added quietly, “Go on - take him home, where he belongs.”

Daphne was huddled on the side of the bed, once again curled over the tunic she’d so lovingly made for her husband, aching with the need of him, weeping helplessly for her hopeless lost love…

…when the door opened quietly, slowly, and she looked up, for a moment unable to see through her tears.

“Daphne?” he choked, his lips trembling with his joy at the so-unexpected, but so desperately desired, miracle that had been granted them.

“Timeron?” she gasped, slowly rising to her feet. “Oh, Timeron…how can I do this? How can I live without you?”

His throat too choked with emotion to speak, he moved forward and took her into his strong embrace…

…and she looked up at him, her eyes wide with astonishment and then a smile broke over her face as she reached out to hug him hard, pressing her face into the crook of his neck, breathing in the scent of him.

You’re alive!” she exclaimed. “Oh, my love - you’re alive!”

And I’ve come home to you,” Timeron murmured into her hair as a tear slipped down his cheek. “Where I belong…

Outside, in the darkness, one tall hero softly drew the door closed, while another sniffed as he surreptitiously rushed at his eyes…

Hercules draped an arm around his best friend’s shoulder, as Iolaus smiled softly…and then they moved on into the night.

Their work here was done…


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