Surprise

by Sandman

Story originally written for Hercules: the Legendary Journeys by: Alex Kurtzman

Except for the fire spouts the darkness was so complete it seemed almost solid, and the air was as flat as the earth, stagnant and odorless and almost nonexistent. There was nothing to see or smell or taste. Only the rage inside her. Why couldn’t she just die? Why was there no Elysium or Tartarus or even eternal punishment, anything except this vacuum?

Callisto screamed, tugging at her oily matted hair, filthy with the sweat of countless nightmares, always responsible for her parents’ deaths, always watching them die at Xena’s hands while the Gods stood by laughing, knowing her parents hadn’t run because her own little legs wouldn’t go fast enough or far enough.

No sense closing her eyes to escape. There wasn’t any sleep for her, only the waking nightmare of black memories and too much time filled with emptiness, waiting to be rewarded or punished - - -anything but this torture of solitude, of blackness, of silence unending. If she could have stabbed herself she would have, but nothing would have happened of course. She was dead; she felt no physical pain, no hunger, or thirst, no sleep or wakefulness.

She existed. Simply that.

But her mind was intact, such as it was. And she was angry. She didn’t deserve this. Nothing that happened to her had been her fault. She didn’t deserve this or anything else that life had dealt her. She’d only been a harmless little girl in a village of farmers until Xena arrived. “NO! NO! NO!” she screamed, but the syllables slurred together into one long howl of rage.

Hera watched, smirking. Mortals were so pitiful, so weak and malleable. But this one, so strong in her rage, she could be put to use.

“Poor Callisto,” she purred. “Such rage unfulfilled.”

Callisto cocked her head. Was that a voice? Something besides what she normally heard? Who could it be? Her brow furrowed in concentration. The dark stony wall in front of her glowed and on it shone a face, with eyes like peacock feathers.

“Who are you?” Callisto’s voice sounded small, yet the challenge was still there. She’d heard voices before, small nagging voices that rattled about in her head and distracted her. But this was different. The voice she heard was strong and purposeful.

“A fan,” the voice answered. “Your crusade against Xena was so vibrant. Too bad it had to end unsatisfied. Look at you.” The voice was unsympathetic and accusing.

Callisto’s eyes narrowed and a sneer found its way to her lips. She knew that voice, and it wasn’t one of hers.

“Hera,” Callisto laughed, letting the pealing of her cynicism say even more than her words. “Afraid to show your ugly face?”

Hera laughed, but without pleasure. “Your irreverence endears you to me - - -like a pet!”

“What do you want?” Callisto snarled. She didn’t care what Hera did to her, anything would be better than sitting in this vacuum.

“To see you smile again,” the Goddess replied sarcastically. “I offer you another chance to carry on your mission against Xena.”

Callisto cocked her head. Now here was an offer hard to refuse. She crawled forward to the point where the voice seemed clearest, her face clearly showing her skepticism. “I’m listening,” she purred, but inside she wondered what the hitch was. Hera never really cared about Xena, so why now? Or maybe it wasn’t Xena she wanted. No matter, Callisto knew that she would do the Goddess’ biding simply for the chance to escape, and she figured that Hera was well aware of that.

“I’ll give you one more day of life - - -and a chance at immortality.” Hera’s voice grew colder, a cruel edge cutting through the otherwise silent space. “But if you fail, you’re back here forever.”

Callisto considered for an instant. One day of freedom versus no days of freedom. And a chance to be out of this place forever and back on her crusade. There was no downside.

“What do I have to do?”

“Kill my bastard stepson - - -the man who redeemed your mortal enemy.”

Callisto laughed, high and maniacal. “Hercules.” Just as she thought. No problem.

Hercules and Iolaus strolled through town, listening to the happy chatter of the town’s people. It was the spring equinox; days were growing longer and the weather warmer. Flowers poked their heads above the softening earth, birds sang. Demeter had Persephone back at her side. No more cold and mourning, life sprung forth undeterred.

“Oh what a beautiful day,” Iolaus sang out rejoicing. “The sun is shining, nature is blooming,” he danced backwards laughing at the silent demigod, “Come on Hercules, it’s your birthday!”

“Don’t remind me,” Hercules growled.

“What’s your problem,” Iolaus teased a grin on his face. You look great! For a man of your age!” he added with a sly smile.

“What are you talking about,” Hercules grumbled, not even looking at his friend. “You’re older than I am.”

Hercules immediately regretted his sharpness with Iolaus. But deep inside, he felt as if this day marked nothing more than that yet another year had passed. Serena should have been here to celebrate. She’d had plans, teased him about it. But the god’s couldn’t allow him even this simple happiness, Serena was nothing more than a target. Pain after pain. He still mourned her loss, felt the jagged edges of his ripped heart trying to mend, felt the anger with Ares and Strife burn at him. The gods used people. They used each other. Iolaus’ voice brought him back to the here and now.

“Herc,” he turned a worried glance to his friend, knowing that Serena’s loss had come too close on the heels of this day. “You can’t not have a birthday. It happens whether you like it or not.”

Hercules snorted, shaking his head. His birthday. Just another day except for the fact that his family wanted to make a fuss. He wished there was a monster to slay or giant to fight, anything to keep him away.

“Hercules!” a familiar voice called out from the side of the road. “Iolaus!” The voice was too cheery. “Let me be the first to offer my best wishes on this, your special day!”

Hercules stopped and nodded at the innovative food merchant. “Thanks Falafel,” he acknowledged grudgingly.

Falafel smiled a black toothed grin. “I made a delicious cake for the party,” he nodded eagerly. “You like chocolate, yes?”

“I love chocolate,” Hercules answered puzzled. “What party?” He felt his heart sink to his stomach. Not that! Anything but that! They all made such a fuss! He groaned inwardly. He wished he could simply disappear, reappearing a week later when the fuss had died down.

Iolaus shot a frustrated glance at Falafel. “Ah, the other party,” he answered for the food merchant. “Falafel!” he warned as an aside, not bothering to hide his displeasure.

“Iolaus?” Hercules questioned as he turned to his friend. Iolaus knew how he felt. How could he go along with this?

“Falafel, cocked his head curiously. “What’s the matter Iolaus? You don’t look so good.”

“Yeah,” Iolaus answered disgusted. “It was supposed to be a surprise.” He shook his head in disgust.

Falafel looked taken aback. No one had told him this. “Oh, my sincerest apologies! I didn’t know” - - -

“That’s okay, neither did I,” Hercules answered dryly.

Falafel scuffled his feet and stared down instead of into Hercules’ or Iolaus’ eyes. “Yes, well it you’ll excuse me.” He stammered. “I must go - - -stuff a chicken.”

“Bye,” Hercules answered dryly.

The two friends walked along the road to Alcmene’s house, Hercules strangely silently.

“Come on Herc,” Iolaus cajoled. “What’s one more birthday in a long line of birthdays?”

“You’re very funny today,” Hercules answered without looking at Iolaus, but hating the ‘long line of birthdays’ remark.

Iolaus threw his hands up in surrender. He knew how Hercules felt, but birthdays weren’t just about the celebrant, they were about the people who cared.

“Listen, Alcmene wanted to have a little celebration. We all thought it would be great,” he cajoled. “It would cheer you up.”

Hercules spun towards Iolaus. “Look, I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but I’m just not too excited about birthdays,” Hercules explained. He looked far away and Iolaus could see the sadness in his eyes, still mourning Serena.

“Yeah, well I understand, but you know you have to realize there are people who care about you and want to want to celebrate with you - - -Iphicles, your mother and me” - - -

“Okay,” Hercules answered with a sigh, knowing he had no other choice. The party as going to happen and the people he loved would be hurt if he didn’t show up.

Iolaus let out a sigh of relief. “There you go,” he said with conviction. “You’re smiling.” He pointed at Hercules’ face. “The little lines crinkle around your eyes.” He nodded, seeing Hercules’ discomfort. “Yeah. I better go.”

”Yeah, you better,” Hercules intoned.

“Iolaus turned to his friend with a grin. “So remember,” he grinned. “The castle at noon, and act surprised, okay?”

I’ll act surprised,” Hercules agreed as he watched Iolaus dash off. “Wrinkles,” he intoned.

Alcmene busied herself with making sure everything was perfect for Hercules’ arrival. She had decorated carefully, had Falafel bake Hercules’ favorite cake and made sure to invite everyone close to him. Hercules’ birthday was a day to celebrate. She so hoped he would truly be surprised.

Jason stood with Iphicles and Iolaus, happy to see that the King of Corinth was looking relaxed. Family get togethers could be as much stress as they were fun, and Gods knew that Alcmene’s family was no different. But he and Iphicles had much in common now, and Jason was pleased that Alcmene’s oldest son often came by to ask his advice.

“You know, Hercules isn’t the easiest person to shop for,” he confided in Iphicles.

“Yeah,” Iphicles agreed in a conspiratorial tone. “You know, he gave away the present that I gave him last year.”

Alcmene came to join her husband and son, accepting the glass of fruit punch that Jason offered.

“Thank you,” she answered, turning a worried smile on her husband. “Do you think he’ll be surprised?”

“I’m sure he will,” Jason reassured, slipping an arm around Alcmene’s waist.

Iolaus snorted, looking a little guilty. “Yeah, well I certainly haven’t told anyone,”

Falafel poked his head out of the next room, watching the mingling crowd. Things were going smoothly. There was only one thing missing.

“I’ll get the food,” he sang out, happy to be of service.

Alcmene continued to fret. “I hope he likes his presents,” she spoke nervously.

“Hey, don’t worry about it mom,” Iphicles reassured. “You’ve done a great job.”

“Everything looks beautiful darling,” Jason smiled, giving her a squeeze.

Suddenly a young woman wearing the black garb of a widow appeared at the entrance of the party room. Her eyes were tired and dark circles hung beneath their sad dark brown irises. Her face was pale and streaked with dirt, as if her journey had been a long one. She looked thin and worn and in her hands she carried a bouquet of wildflowers that she must have picked along the way.

“Excuse me, I’m sorry to intrude,” the young woman spoke softly, hesitatingly. “I couldn’t find a guard to announce me.”

Iphicles stared across at her with concern. Something wasn’t right here. She was bold for a widowed peasant woman.

“We’re having a celebration. We sent them home for the day.” In truth most had been sent home, with Jason, Hercules and Iolaus here, there was no need for them, and Iphicles knew that his men needed time with their families as well. Only the few perimeter guards remained, and they would be looking for warriors or bandits, not widows.

“I’ve come to pay my respects,” the widow spoke. “Last year my family was attacked - - -on the road to Macedonia. My husband was killed. My child and I - - -we would surely have died.” Her voice quavered. “But Hercules came along.”

Iolaus crossed his arms on his chest. This woman didn’t look familiar, and he didn’t remember either himself or Hercules making any trips to Macedonia in the last year or so. Yet this woman seemed so sincere. Perhaps Hercules hadn’t told him about it. Still, he was wary.

“Where’d you say this was?” Iolaus questioned.

The widow ignored him. “I heard it was his birthday.” She fixed her eyes on Alcmene, remembering the last time she’d seen Hercules’ mother- - - pregnant. She’d so wanted the woman dead, but it hadn’t worked out. She turned her face down so the cloak covered her eyes and she appeared no more than a humble widow. “I just wanted to leave a small gift.”

Alcmene looked concerned. This young lady was so thin, so sad. Yet there was something familiar and bothersome about her. She should know this woman; she felt it in her heart. She looked so much like someone from her past. The vague thought of a vibrant young woman, strong and healthy flashed in her memory. The fireball goddess, - - - but it couldn’t be. That was so many years ago and this girl was young, much thinner and gaunt. She had such deep circles under her eyes. She didn’t look even remotely healthy. And she stood so stooped; she must have had poor nutrition.

Alcmene shook off her doubts. The fire goddess had never been seen again. She shook aside her doubts even though she usually listened to them and stepped forward to slip an arm around the waif’s shoulders, steering her into the room. “You poor dear,” she crooned. “Come, join us.”

“Oh no! I wouldn’t dream of imposing!” The widow pulled back, but Alcmene wouldn’t hear her protests.

Iolaus leaned against the wall, watching the woman. She seemed evasive, and where was the child she mentioned? Her family was gone, only herself and the child, yet she was here alone and telling a story that was not even remotely familiar. Iolaus could feel in his bones that this was wrong. Why wouldn’t she show her face more clearly? Even women in mourning didn’t hide from other women, though this widow had yet to show her full face to Alcmene.

“Oh please, make yourself at home.” Alcmene pulled the young woman into the group and away from Iolaus., taking the small bouquet and giving it a place of honor on the table with Hercules’ other gifts.

“Would you care for a drink?” Alcmene offered, knowing the widow must be very thirsty after her journey.

“Yes thanks,” the young woman answered and moved to the punch bowl. She drew out a small vial from beneath her black cloak, and with an evil grin poured the contents into the punch. She stirred the sweet drink, mixing well, and then ladled a cup of the spiked beverage.

Falafel entered, holding a tray of sweet pastries. “Try one of these he offered.

“Oh they look great,” Iolaus spoke, reaching for one. He kept a wary eye on the widow.

Falafel smiled. “Thank you my friend.”

Alcmene placed one in her mouth, enjoying the cream filling and light crust. “You’ve outdone yourself,” she sighed, glad that Falafel had offered to cater, and letting the wonderful taste of the cream puff allow her mind to wander from her worries.

The widow brought punch to the group, humbly extending a cup, her head bowed and hood covering her face. “More punch anyone?” She smiled innocently, but Iolaus wondered if her voice seemed a bit more cheerful than it should.

Hercules strode up to the castle, surprised that it was unguarded. Iphicles must have his reasons, he thought as he pushed through the door. The main hallway was empty and his footsteps echoed on the stone floors. Disconcerted, Hercules called out.

“Ah, hello. Is anybody here?” He took a few more soft steps, shaking his head. “Act surprised,” he muttered. Maybe they were hiding, ready to jump out and yell at any second. He reached the end of the corridor and pushed open the door to the castle’s main chamber.

Instead of a shout he was greeted by silence. He stared at his friends, Iolaus and Falafel, at Iphicles and Jason and at his mother, as they lay strewn like discarded trash in small heaps twisted into unnatural positions on the floor. He moved forward concerned. This wasn’t at all what he expected.

From the shadows a small dark cloaked figure stepped out, the only movement in a room that looked visited by death.

“Surprise!” the figure spoke, tossing off the hood, and then pulling away the black cloak of mourning that had so effectively covered her face.

Callisto!

Hercules first concern was for his mother, lying crumpled on the floor.

“Mother!” Hercules rushed to Alcmene’s side. “Mother can you hear me?”

“My my,” Callisto spoke, tossing her head and stepping forward. “Looks like someone spiked the punch. Glad to offer you a sip,” Callisto smiled as Hercules picked Alcmene up, cradling his mother in his arms. “You’ve never witnessed the effects of Xanthelian powder before, have you?” Callisto’s mouth turned up in a sneer. “It affects the mind, makes the victim susceptible to their wildest imaginings. By sunset your family will be, um” she grinned maniacally, “driven mad. Well, that’s if they don’t kill each other first.” Callisto paced, keeping her eyes on Hercules. When he raised his head, his eyes meeting hers, she continued.

“Oh, there is an antidote, but it’s tough to get.”

Hercules placed his mother carefully down in a reclining position and rose, moving to Callisto grabbing her by the shoulders and squeezing her firmly, uncaring whether or not he hurt her. She didn’t flinch. The dead feel no pain.

“What do you want?” he growled.

Callisto grinned up at him unafraid. “Safe passage through the labyrinth of the gods to the chamber of life. One bite of the fruit cures any illness. Or madness.” She laughed, not bothering to hide her anger, her insanity. She walked over to Iolaus making sure Hercules watched as she stoked the golden curls, cradling Iolaus’ head then pushed it viciously against the hard stone floor.

Hercules stepped towards her, pushing her away so hard she hit the wall soundly. He fought to remain rational. “And a whole one makes you immortal.”

“We have so much to celebrate!” Callisto declared, pushing herself away from the wall and walked over to where his gifts waited. She examined the beautifully wrapped gift Alcmene had lovingly prepared for her son. “Your birth and my release.” She ripped open the gift box and held up a pair of woven leather pants his mother had made.

“Oh, my name is Callisto,” she smiled, but her eyes were cold.

“Callisto,” Hercules intoned. ‘Impossible, Callisto’s dead.”

Callisto circled Hercules like a predator. “Hera was kind enough to grant me one day’s reprieve.”

Hercules shuddered. It figured that his hateful stepmother would be involved with this.

“See, we need each other Hercules. I don’t have the strength to defeat the labyrinth’s traps, and you won’t find your way without me.” She tossed his mother’s gift to the floor with distain. “Nice pants.”

“You’re insane.” Hercules spoke angrily, feeling his blood boil, wanting to go retrieve his mother’s gift, place it respectfully on the table. But that would seem weak and in the end, his mother would understand.

Callisto could see that she was getting under Hercules skin even more quickly than she had hoped.

“Just misunderstood,” Callisto purred in response. “Shall we go?” she asked commandingly.

Callisto teased Hercules, sensing his discomfort with his hatred of her, a young woman. “After so little time together it’s funny, I feel like I know you.” She tucked herself closer to Hercules and tipped her face up with a disconcerting childlike smile.

“You don’t,” Hercules answered flatly, turning his face away and refusing the lure with which she baited him.

“The Fates brought us together.” Callisto clapped her hands excitedly. “Although I have to admit you aren’t at all like I thought you would be.”

“How disappointing,” Hercules answered noncommittally.

“Oh not at all!” Callisto purred, continuing her taunting. “On the contrary, I couldn’t be more pleased!” That look back in your castle? The fire and Hera - - - I wonder, did you wear that same look when you watched your children die?” She danced backwards wringing her hands in delight. “And the delicate little golden deer that meant so much to you was just another one of your victims.”

Hercules shot her a murderous look and turned his face away. If it wasn’t for his mother, his brother, his friends lying on the castle floor he might have unleashed all his anger on her in a single punch. Don’t push me,” he warned with a growl.

“Oh but that’s the beauty of it,” she sneered. “I CAN. “There’s an exciting side of you just waiting to come out, I can just feel it!”

Iolaus was the first to awaken. The stone floor was cold and hard beneath his stiff muscles. “Oh, what a party,” he moaned, thinking it was years since he’d woken up in this condition. “I’m getting too old for this,” he groaned, shaking his head to clear it.

“Iolaus!” Iphicles spoke hoarsely as he tried to raise himself to a sitting position. “What happened?”

“I don’t know,” Iolaus answered groggily. “Maybe it was the food.” He shot a lopsided grin at Iphicles, but it was lost on the King of Corinth.

Instead, Falafel rose to consciousness. “Hmm,” he muttered weaving as he tried to rise. “Oh! I heard that!” He eyed the two other men suspiciously, unable to shake the paranoid feeling creeping up inside.

Alcmene tried to sit, but found the room was spinning. “Jason?” she questioned weakly.

“Are you all right?” Jason asked as he struggled to his feet and moved to her side. He reached for his wife’s hand and helped her up, slipping an arm around her waist to steady her.

“Yes,” she answered, not wanting to alarm him. But in truth, she felt strange, weak and her mind was racing with uncertain thoughts

Iolaus meanwhile had started pacing the room on still unsteady legs. Something was definitely not right. The widow wasn’t here, and Hercules definitely wasn’t here either. Hercules wouldn’t have left them like this, laying on the floor in a stupor. Not unless there was something so wrong that he had to leave to make things right. He let his eyes roam the room, familiar with all its dark corners. This all had to do with the widow.

“Look!” he declared pointing. The cauldron of punch was smoking, the gray mist rising like a fog above it, the scent musty and disagreeable.

Iphicles turned to look where Iolaus pointed.

“What is going on here?” he shouted angrily. That his castle security was breeched and that his judgment had been in error ate at him like worms on a corpse. A king didn’t make big mistakes and remain ruler. He thanked his lucky stars that Rena had gone back to Phlegra for the birth of her sister’s child. He wouldn’t have wanted her to have been in danger or to have seen how poor his judgment was.

Iolaus moved to placate Iphicles, seeing his anger. “We’ve been drugged,” he gave the King’s arm a squeeze. “Everybody alright?” he asked as he scanned the room for threats. The only one missing was the widow.

“Where’s Hercules?” Alcmene cried panicked.

Falafel looked at the open boxes. “Ah, looks like he’s been here.”

Iolaus stared across at the open boxes. “Oh yeah?” He questioned. “Open his presents while we slept? I don’t think so.” He shook his head knowingly. “And left without thanking anyone? Not Hercules.”

Alcmene seemed lost in her panic. Her son was gone, the punch was smoking, gifts were open and cast on the floor. The pants she’d so carefully woven for him were in a heap near the fireplace. Hercules would never have done that.

“Who could have done this?” she cried frantically.

Iphicles couldn’t shake the feeling that there was a conspiracy here. And he thought he knew who was behind it. “That woman!” he spat. Where is she?” The anger bubbled forth like lava erupting from a long threatening volcano.

“Something terrible has happened! I just know it!” Alcmene wrung her hands, her voice catching in fear and worry.

Jason stood as the voice of reason, wrestling with the feelings of uselessness that were trying to worm their way into him. “Let’s not jump to any conclusions,” he moderated. “We’ll search the castle.”

Iphicles shot his mother a look of disdain. Why was she so soft on his brother? Hercules could always take care of himself. He was one left to fend for himself. But she WAS still his mother. “I’ll go with Mother,” he growled, stalking out of the room as he reached for Alcmene’s arm and grabbed it a little too tightly. Maybe she was involved in this plot. He tried to shake the thought out of his head.

“Iolaus and I will take the west wing,” Jason offered, knowing that Falafel would be useless in watching his back.

“Okay,” Iolaus agreed, though he fought back an unreasonable sense of dread. That woman- - - .

Falafel sucked in a deep breath. Fear crept up from his toes to his heart, wrapping icy fingers into his very core. He was going to be alone. They didn’t want to be with him, didn’t like him. Thought him inferior. He wasn’t chosen - - -

“What about me?” he asked, voice trembling and eyes wide.

Jason stepped out of the room and Iolaus turned back, sensing the panic in the cook. “You stay here,” he ordered, but seeing the rejection on Falafel’s face, softened his tone. Everyone needed to be wanted. “In case Hercules gets back.”

It made sense to Falafel. And though he didn’t want to be left in the kitchen alone, someone had to be on watch for Hercules. He nodded at Iolaus and tried unsuccessfully to calm himself.

“By myself?” Falafel spoke before he could even think. He could feel himself shaking as they turned to leave. The sweat poured down his brow, his chest felt damp and a small moan of worry slipped from his lips.

Iolaus looked over at the chef with a mix of compassion and frustration. He sighed heavily. “If anything happens, yell.” He advised with a glance over his shoulder as he headed off after Jason.

“Yell?” Falafel threw up his hands in frustration.

Alone in the kitchen he turned back to the table where he’d been preparing Hercules’ birthday feast. “Wonderful,” he muttered. “Big help!” But his jaw dropped as he watched a bowl of noodles transform into slithering wet earthworms.

It couldn’t be! Falafel covered his mouth to keep the scream inside. He was a great cook. Very inventive! He didn’t sauté worms!

Callisto was thoroughly enjoying herself. This torturing Hercules wasn’t a task it was a pleasure. How she hated his righteousness! Who was he to judge her as he tried to ignore the hate he felt for her. Was he really so very different?

“La- la- la-la- la!” She walked as if she was strolling through the woods, knowing it would irritate Hercules.

“Cut It out!” he snapped.

Callisto danced backwards. “Oh, now, now Hercules,” she laughed, arching an eyebrow. “Just because I poisoned your friends doesn’t mean we can’t be nice to one another,” she chided.

Hercules simply shook his head. “Amazing.”

“You have NO reason to be angry at me,” Callisto pointed out in a taunting voice. “After all, I’m not the one who hung the giant bull’s eye on your loved ones.”

“You leave my family out of this!” Hercules growled, his eyes flashing with anger and his fists clenched.

“Oh think about it,” Callisto toyed with him. “I mean, if your children weren’t YOUR children, well then they’d still be alive wouldn’t they?” She danced past him, waiting to slip in the dagger. “And the Hind, such a deer! But certainly not destined for immortality once you gave her that bracelet!” This was so much fun! “Your love, it’s a curse,” she sneered.

“And what’s the alternative?” Hercules answered wearily. He’d had this same argument with himself so many times in the past. “Be like you? Alone, alive only in your hate?”

Callisto cocked her head as if some strange voice was calling her. She whirled around and faced Hercules.

“I’d rather take my chances,” Hercules responded.

Callisto was angry. How dare Hercules judge her! He had no idea what she had suffered, what her life had been like and how no gods were there for her either. No, she was disposable, used by man and gods alike to attain their own desires. But today she had been given a chance to change all that. Hera couldn’t be trusted, Callisto knew that, but she had her own plans.

“Tell me Hercules,” she snapped not bothering to hide her anger. “Late at night in the dark, all alone, do you hear your children screaming; see the blood on your hands and the little Hinds empty eyes? Do you lie awake at night wondering if there was something else you could have done, maybe if you had gotten there a little sooner, been a bit more respectful to Hera”- - -

“Drop it!” Hercules yelled, feeling unnerved. He whirled around facing Callisto. “I wouldn’t expect someone like you to understand.” He pushed his face close to hers.

“Oh, but I do understand,” Callisto responded with fire in her eyes. “My family was slaughtered like helpless animals as well!” Her eyes blazed.

“You didn’t learn much from it, did you?” Hercules responded.

“I learned to get exactly what I want when I want it!” Callisto responded, shaking in anger, her hands balled into fists.

She knew it was time for her trump card.

“You realize that the only reason that your friends are alive is that I allowed it,” She pushed her finger angrily into Hercules’ chest.

“And I suppose I owe you thanks?” he snarled.

“Oh no, you owe me all!” Callisto responded, her eyes blazing as she pushed her face close to his.

“This is all my fault! I never should have let that woman in!” Alcmene wept, wringing her hands. She had let Hercules down, failed to protect him and now he was taken from her. And on his own birthday! Alcmene trembled in agony. Not Hercules!

Iphicles drew his sword and took small guarded steps watching the perimeter of the room carefully. He tried not to listen to his mother whining about Hercules, always Hercules. Stop it, he told himself. You put that behind you long ago. Parents have favorites. You have Rena, Hercules has mother - - -and Iolaus.

“Hercules is a big boy,” Iphicles snarled none to kindly as he heard his mother breathing hard and fighting for control. “He can take care of himself!”

“I know you’re right,” Alcmene simpered. “I just so wanted this to be a special day for him.” She placed a hand to her mouth, trying to keep her feelings in. Iphicles was mad at her, just like when he was a youth, so hurtful. Hercules was never like that.

“Oh-hoh, I’ll bet you did!” Iphicles chuckled icily. “After all, he’s Corinth’s most favorite son. You know what? I’ll declare a holiday in his name. That make you feel better?” He spoke arguementivly, not even bothering to look at his mother. He was King of Corinth, and it didn’t hold water next to his brother the demi-god.

Alcmene wept. It was her fault. She hadn’t been there for Iphicles. She’d favored Hercules and inadvertently hurt her oldest son. But Iphicles was gone, taken by his grandparents and Hercules was all she had for such a long time - - -“Why are you talking like this?”

“Because he had brought nothing but trouble to MY kingdom!” Iphicles bellowed in frustration and rage.

Alcmene crept up behind Iphicles, afraid that he’d swing the sword around and hurt her, but more afraid to be alone in the castle.

“How can you say that?” she cajoled, trying to assuage his anger. “He’s your brother.”

“Oh yeah! We’re one big happy family!” Iphicles’ voice dripped with sarcasm. “Tell me something mother,” Iphicles seethed. “Who insures your safety every single day, hmm? And where is Hercules through all this? He graces us with his presence when he’s not too busy saving the world.”

She’d failed him. He’d seen her favoritism, even though she hadn’t realized at the time that she was doing it, she hadn’t just failed Hercules, she’d failed Iphicles as well! The realization hit her like a lightning bolt from Hera.

“Iphicles,” she stuttered, trying to salvage the situation. “You’re - - -not yourself.”

“I’m just not who you want me to be!” Iphicles didn’t even try to hide his anger. He pressed his back against the wall, guarding against the unseen enemy. “You think HE should have been King of Corinth, not me! Well there can only be one king and no one is going to change that! Not even you.” He shut his eyes trying to block out the voices in his head telling him he was unworthy, unloved. But they laughed.

“I’m surrounded by infidels!” Iphicles rushed away, leaving Alcmene alone.

Alcmene barely noticed. She’d heard Hercules’ voice. She looked down the hall in the direction it had come from.

“Mother, it’s going to be alright.” Hercules stood there speaking reassuringly.

Hercules picked up the pace as they neared the temple. He had to get the antidote for the Xanthelian powder before it was too late. He could only imagine what his family and friends were suffering now.

Callisto could see his discomfort and danced backward, enjoying her taste of freedom. As far as tasks for the thankless Gods went, this one was turning out just fine, fun even.

“Oh, it’s beautiful!” Callisto called out happily, knowing how much it bothered the demigod. She clapped her hands together, staring up slack jawed at the great height of the temple, its peak a strange tilted cone. Letting her eyes roam downward, she saw that it was in good repair, except for the vines covering one of the sides, camophlaging it from any direction except the direct path.

“Look!” She couldn’t believe her luck. She pointed to the entrance. “An open door is a friendly invitation.” She started to run forward, but came to a sudden stop, jerked back by the firm pressure of Hercules hand squeezing her shoulder.

“Oh!” she cried as she fell backward, barely missing being burned by the jet of flame that turned their way from the tip of the temple. She caught her breath, feeling a ragged sharpness in her chest.

“You were saying,” Hercules muttered dryly, not even deigning to look at her.

“You can’t kill the dead,” she laughed maniacally up at him. But her tirade was cut short.

“All who seek passage must first answer my riddle!” a disembodied voice declared. “Fail and you will die.” Flames shot forth once again, the heat reddening Callisto’s sallow skin and forcing Hercules to draw her back further.

The forest echoed as the lone deep voice of the temple intoned. “Give a name to this earthly conceit. It is unchangeable, but it can change you. It can teach you or trap you. All who reside there are immortal. But you can never go there.”

“I hope you’re as smart as you are strong,” Callisto worried, not trusting Hercules to find the answer. Eternity in Tartarus waited and time was short. She bit a nail, spitting it out.

“The answer lies before your eyes. Choose your answer before the sands run their course!” The voice was loud and low, the warning growl of a predator.

Callisto watched wide eyed as a giant minute glass spun over of its own accord. “It’s unchangeable,” she blurted, her brows furrowed.

“All who reside in it are immortal,” Hercules puzzled. Callisto’s heart beat fast and hard against her ribs. Time was running out. “It’s Olympus!” she screamed. But she was answered by jets of flame bursting out with a great whoosh, almost catching her boots on fire. She turned to face Hercules feeling her panic rising. They had to find the answer! Eternity rested on it!

“It’s not a place, that’s the trick,” Hercules spoke logically.

“Yeah, well, I don’t see you coming up with anything.” Callisto snarled in frustration.

“Well, if you’d be quiet, maybe I could think!” Hercules snapped back. An answer was all that separated him from saving his friends, his mother.

“Well I won’t be holding my breath for that now, will I!” Callisto dripped sarcasm. But as she watched the sands fall lower in the glass she felt panic rising once again, replacing the anger. “Oh! We’re almost out of time!” she cried frantically.

“Maybe that’s it,” Hercules spoke reflectively.

“Oh yes, of course. It’s time!” Callisto shrieked, but the flames chided her haste. She turned, eyes blazing as she jabbed Hercules in the chest. “Well that didn’t work. Any more brilliant ideas?” she spoke accusingly, not bothering to hide her frustration.

The disembodied voice laughed menacingly. The sands of time had almost run out.

The answer lies before your eyes,” Hercules mumbled, eyes searching then focusing on the old temple. “The past!” he yelled out just as the last grains of sand dribble through the neck of the minute glass. The flames died down and stopped. The door remained open.

“Huh?” Callisto curled a lip in disbelief. Hercules had answered the riddle. Perhaps big strong men weren’t so dumb after all.

“After you,” Hercules offered, not bothering to hide an air of superiority as Callisto eyed him suspiciously.

Alcmene couldn’t believe her eyes. Here she’d thought something terrible had happened, but no, Hercules stood in front of her.

“Hercules!” She didn’t try to hide her joy at seeing him instead rushing to him arms open in embrace. But instead of wrapping her arms around the strong solid body of her son, she passed right through him. She turned, facing him in amazement.

“I’ve come to say good bye,” Hercules spoke seriously.

“Good by?” Alcmene couldn’t hide her concern. Her voice trembled.

“I’ve crossed to the other side,” Hercules stared, straight faced and aloof.

Alcmene wanted to crumble. Her favorite son was dead, not immortal, as she had always hoped. He raised a hand to her mouth to keep the cry inside. “It’s all my fault! I should have protected you!” She didn’t bother to hold back her tears. Hercules was her reason for living. Her voice was high with stress. She wrung her hands.

“It’s too late for that now.” He stared across at his mother unsmiling.

“No - - - no, this can’t be!” Alcmene couldn’t believe what she saw. Hercules stood passively, almost accusingly, not moving to her. Alcmene raised a trembling hand to her lips, wondering if she’d ever really known her son.

“I never wanted to be a hero, mother. But you didn’t leave me any choice.” Hercules’ voice was cold. “There was no other way for this to end.”

Alcmene realized with a sinking pain that she’d pushed her wishes on her son. He was the son of a god, but with his mortal blood, she had thought that he could be so much more than just anyone. For the first time she realized that perhaps she had never even bothered to really know what Hercules had wanted, he had striven to please her so.

“Hercules, please forgive me,” she begged, melting.

“Perhaps in time,” he answered noncommittally. “Good bye.”

Alcmene couldn’t believe it. She had thought they were close, that she knew what was right for her son. “Wait!” She held her breath. “Let me come with you, please.”

“I was hoping you’d say that,” Hercules intoned as he stared impassively at his mother.

Hercules hated having to work with her, Callisto could see it in his face, his stiff posture, the way he kept his eyes away from her as much as possible and the way those blue eyes blazed with fire when he had to meet her eyes with his own. Fire! How she loved it, and as much as Hercules hated doing this, she enjoyed it.

She watched with curiosity as he foraged around in front of the temple. He pulled an old torch from a pile of discarded items, then scanning the area sighted what he was looking for.

“Ah, there’s an oil pouch,” he said stiffly. “We’ll use it to keep the torch lit.”

Callisto turned her lip up in a sneer. “Poor baby - - -afraid of the dark?” She owed this man no deference. On the contrary, she’d promised Hera a job, and she’d do it with relish.

Callisto turned her back on Hercules, leaning in to the decrepit well. Being alive again had its distractions. Her stomach rumbled and her throat was parched. Such distractions when there was work to be done! She struggled to pull up the bucket, heavy with water. The rope was old and coated with a slick green algae and getting a grip was difficult. Callisto wasn’t weak, but the time in Tartarus had left her out of condition, tired.

“You don’t look like you’re doing too well,” Hercules commented, watching Callisto struggle, small whimpering kitten noises escaping with each pull on the rope.

“Oh don’t you worry your pretty little head about me, I’ll be good as new soon enough.” She shot back. “In the mean time, a little water should do the trick.” She tugged on the slippery rope, feeling the weight of the full bucket pulling back, the rope slipping and burning her hands. She was weak! Though certainly not powerless as long as she had her will.

“Here,” Hercules said, seeing her need and judging her unable to finish the job. He hauled the bucket up the rest of the way, holding it while she grabbed the ladle and slurped thirstily at it.

“Such a gentleman,” she purred, but deep inside she wanted instead to roar like a lioness.

“Yeah,” she heard him say with distain. He was simply tolerating her, as most others did, but soon, he and the others would be worshipping her if things went according to plan.

“The world doesn’t deserve you.” Her voice dripped with sweet sarcasm as the water ran in rivulets down her chest.

“It doesn’t deserve you either,” he answered without even bothering to look at her.

She laughed meanly. “We’re not as different as you think.”

“Oh really?” She could hear the disdain in his voice. He uncorked the vial and sniffed it, making sure that it was oil. So deliberate, so predictable.

“We both believe the wicked should be punished,” she goaded him. “Only I know something you don’t.”

Yeah? I’m sure you’ll let me know what it is,” won’t you?” he yawned.

“ALL people are wicked,” Callisto let her eyes grow far away, her mind wander to the places she’d been and the people she’d seen, those that hurt her, judged her without knowing anything at all about her. “And they deserve everything they’re gonna get!” Her eyes were slits, nose wrinkled as if she could smell the evil, so real to her.

“I’ve known too much good in the world to believe that,” Hercules countered.

“Good?” She turned to him in stunned disbelief. “Is that supposed to be some kind of joke?” She cocked her head. “If every one was good, we wouldn’t need you around, would we?” she questioned, speaking as if she was a goddess, not just a simple pawn of Hera.

“You’ve seen the darker side of people. A child who’s seen her parents die has my compassion,” Hercules debated. “But you had a choice and you chose evil. That’s where my compassion ends.”

Callisto clapped as if she’d just listened to the most brilliant oration ever. How little he really knew! “Your faith in the world is touching!” Her voice was high pitched in anger. “Let’s see how well it holds up at the end of the day.” She raised a corner of her lip and pressed her face close to his in challenge as the bucket crashed to the bottom of the well.

Jason felt very insecure. The castle security had been breeched. When he had been king, this wouldn’t have happened. Perhaps he hadn’t chosen as well as he thought. He held his sword erect, watchful as he progressed down the corridor.

“Anything?” He asked Iolaus.

Iolaus raised his pendant to his lips, worried. The sweat poured off his forehead, dripped down his neck. This wasn’t right. “No, no sign of him,” he answered, dropping his pendant.

Jason felt as if this whole incident was his fault. He should have spoken to Iphicles about letting the guards take time off. He should have guided him better. What could be done to secure the castle?

“Now what?” Jason asked.

Iolaus wiped the sweat from his brow. “Ah, it’s hotter than Tartarus in here,” he spoke. “You know, I have bad feelings about this,” Iolaus spoke. “Let’s go back.” Iolaus scratched his neck. Licking his lips, he turned to leave. This was definitely wrong, and he’d always been pretty good at sensing a situation. Iolaus turned.

“Wait, wait, wait.” Jason spoke with concern. “What’s wrong?” he asked, knowing Iolaus would never walk away from trouble. Jason put an arm around Iolaus’ shoulders.

Iolaus couldn’t tell him what he was really feeling, that something was desperately wrong, deadly. Not like a monster, a visual and potent threat, that could be touched and slain, but something more powerful, something that was in each one of them waiting for the perfect moment to destroy them.

Instead he answered, “There’s more here than meets the eye.”

Jason didn’t hear him; he was listening to something else. Down the corridor a voice was laughing at him, mocking.

“Did you hear that?” Jason asked nervously.

“What?” Iolaus shot back. Usually he had courage by instinct, but tonight he had to pull deep to find it. The hall was silent and yet Jason stood with an ear cocked.

“What?” Iolaus asked again.

“Shhh!” Jason commanded, holding his hand up to stop Iolaus from speaking or even moving. Something was down there. “There it is again,” he whispered.

“I can’t hear anything!” Iolaus stared at Jason, perplexed. His friend’s face was deep in concentration, eyes wary and posture ready for a fight. But the corridor was empty and the castle as silent as a tomb.

But Jason could clearly hear it, and he was going to find whoever it was who breached castle security. When he had been king, at least when he had been sober, this wouldn’t have happened. “I’ll be right back,” he said softly without even looking at Iolaus.

Jason was gone. Iolaus was alone. He took a deep breath. A person should always have someone covering his back. A pair of fighters should never leave the other; that was the cardinal rule. Jason knew that. Iolaus felt a shiver of cold run through him. Maybe Jason thought that Iolaus could no longer hold up his own end. Maybe Iolaus was too old to help anymore.

“Jason!” he yelled spinning around. He thought he’d never be left behind deliberately. “JASON!” He wasn’t a has been, a lead weight that needed to be shed. “Jason wait!” he called, not sure whether to be angry or hurt.

Falafel kept himself busy in the castle kitchen. Surely he’d hear if Hercules arrived. He hummed, hoping that would alert the hero to his presence. And if it was anyone else well what better place to be than with his knives at the ready.

He chopped the empty cutting board with precision, the heavy knife whacking down in a rhythmic thumping. The vegetables were important in this recipe. He saw before him lovely ripe eggplant, shining the color of a two day old bruise, ready to be sautéed in olive oil and spices, maybe with some garlic.

Iphicles swooped into the kitchen, sword held high. His eyes scanned the room, awaiting the enemy who plotted against him.

Falafel didn’t even turn around. The eggplant dish needed something else, too bland- - -another vegetable perhaps. “Ah, King Iphicles,” he said grandly. “Would you be so good as to hand me that bowl of turnips?” Yes, turnips had that bite that eggplant needed.

Iphicles shook his head in disbelief. The cook was crazy. “What are you talking about?” His voice rose. “There’s nothing there!” He held his head in his hands against the pain, the thoughts that he must kill all in the castle. They were intruders. This one couldn’t even see what was in front of him.

“Are you blind? Falafel spoke with disrespect. “I’ll get it myself. SO little time, so much to cook.” He lifted a ladle from an empty pot on a cold stove and placed it carefully to his lips, blowing across it first. He took a tentative sip. “Hot stuff! Watch the tongue!” he declared as he turned to offer the ladle to King Iphicles.

Iphicles was frantic. Something was wrong with this strange man! He had no food in front of him, yet he offered empty bowls and spoon to royalty! Perhaps he was the intruder, responsible for the disruption that spoiled Hercules’ party.

“I’m warning you!” Iphicles growled, holding his sword above the cook’s head.

“Be honest, you won’t hurt my feelings,” Falafel spoke without turning to Iphicles. In truth, what Iphicles had to say could hurt, Falafel acknowledged that in his mind. All he could do reasonably well was cook. He was no king, no hero. But he had ideas about food, good ideas.

“I want everything to be perfect when Hercules arrives,” he prattled on. “It’s his birthday, you know. A surprise,” he put a finger to his lips. “Not a word to anyone.”

This man was totally impudent. Iphicles was king of Corinth and an intruder had taken over his kitchen. Well his job was to protect the kingdom and protect it he would!

“Traitor!” Iphicles yelled as he raised the sword high with one hand and with the other struck the empty ladle, knocking the weapon from Falafel’s hand.

“What did you do that for?” Falafel whined as he watched his lovely stew spatter all over the kitchen floor. More work! And just when he needed to be ready for Hercules!

He turned away from the king, looking for a cloth to clean the mess.

Behind him, Iphicles raised his sword high, preparing to lop off Falafel’s head. He swung the well honed metal blade with all his might. But he didn’t notice the rope that suspended the chandelier. The blade sliced through cleanly, but Iphicles felt the loss of momentum and realized just a fraction of a second too late what was happening.

“Huh!” he grunted in pain as the heavy wood and candles fell directly on him. He slumped to the floor unconscious.

The clatter of the sword hitting the stone floor caught Falafel’s attention. Not another pot turned over! He couldn’t clean everything and meet the deadline for this catering job. He spun around and saw the king was on the floor.

“King Iphicles?” he questioned, his face crestfallen. “He didn’t like my stew?” Crestfallen he turned away.

Callisto walked with Hercules through the dark subterranean corridors of the temple. The stone walls were damp and musty, and the floor was dirty and rough underfoot. She could feel the gentle descent of the path and it reminded her of her own descent, to evil, to death, to Tartarus. But she hadn’t found anything easy or soft or gentle on her own path, just descent.

“You’re not living up to my expectations,” Callisto prodded. “I imagined you’d spend the day trying to convince me that I can change.”

“You can only change if you want to,” Hercules intoned flatly.

‘Really now?” Callisto grinned broadly. Ah, here was where Hercules was wrong. Callisto let her words insinuate their way under Hercules’ skin like the blade of a tanner’s knife.

“It’s strange, you know,” she continued, ready to twist the knife. “You believe in justice and redemption, yet you revile me.”

“Wrong,” Hercules answered, trying to keep his voice even and his emotions in check. “Our definitions of justice aren’t the same.”

“Oh it’s true, very true,” Callisto purred. Know thy enemy. “I believe that you’d like to see me die, a very slow and painful death.’

“Vengeance isn’t justice.” Hercules spoke with conviction. This was a subject he knew about. “And if you realized that you’d find peace.”

“Peace?” Callisto whirled to face him, her voice childlike, and her eyes hard and cold. “I dreamed of peace once.” Her voice had taken on a hard edge. “I imagined it. In fact I died to find it. Tartarus should have been a welcome end to my suffering.” Her hands were balled into fists, yet she skipped before Hercules, tiny dancing happy steps.

“Instead I learned the true meaning of torture!” Her jaw jutted out and her eyes blazed. “I was trapped in my hatred with nothing to do!”

Hercules deigned a quick glance at Callisto. “Lady,” he intoned. “Immortality won’t solve you’re problems.” He turned, striding away from her.

Callisto stood in her anger as the blackness of the corridor swallowed her up and her hatred ate away at her soul like acid on metal. She hissed as the torch that Hercules carried became a simple tiny flame.

Running, she vowed to find a way to make him truly understand torture.

In the corridor, Iolaus suddenly realized that he was truly alone. The walls seemed to close in on him, growing closer and tighter until he felt as if he was bound in winding cloth in the confines of a coffin. Alone. Without Hercules. Without Jason. Without anyone.

“Jason!” He spoke quietly at first, but the panic rose in his chest and his heart thumped harder than when he had fought the hydra - - -alone. “Jason!” He yelled this time. “JASON!”

But there was no answer.

Iolaus padded with soft hunter’s steps down the long corridor. He was wet with perspiration, his hair hanging in damp ringlets. His pulse kept a staccato beat. Hercules covered his back, but Hercules was gone. And Jason had disappeared as well. They’d both left him. One might have had a circumstantial reason, but both?

The end of the hall was dark, but Iolaus thought that he saw a pinprick of light there. Perhaps someone held a torch. He proceeded carefully and silently, checking to make sure that there were no enemies near. Two steps stop and listen, look around, two more steps the pattern continued. The walls closed in tighter and the dank smell of fresh turned earth seemed to permeate the air.

He reached the point of light, a bend in the corridor, and when he glanced there, he saw himself, as if in a mirror, alone. But he was old and tired and forlorn. He was scarred and his back was bent, fingers crooked and face lined from years of toil. But this wasn’t what bothered him; having worked hard enough to show the physical wear and live to old age was an honor. No, it was something else that stabbed at his heart. There was no one there for him. No wife, no children, no Hercules. All the good deeds he had done were unanswered and in his soul he felt so cold and isolated he couldn’t even move away from the vision.

It was as if his whole life had been without effect. He had had no influence on the future, had never made a difference for the good of mankind. All his scars, his twisted bones were just a wrapping for an empty existence. He felt with certainty that had he never been born, there wouldn’t have been even a chink in the weaving of the Fates. He had touched no one, was remembered by no one, cared for by no one. He was simply a small man who had already lived too long.

Iolaus took a long deep breath and closed his eyes, hoping that the vision would disappear, but the darkness brought back the mind image of the tomb, leaving him feeling as if his fate was sealed. Could it be that he would die a meaningless death? That no one would mourn his passing? That he would slip silently and unnoticed into that final good night?

NO! He had fought at Hercules’ side, helping villagers free of monsters, warlords and Hera’s influence. He’d risked his life for Hercules, for Jason, for so many others, it couldn’t have been for naught.

Iolaus turned away. It couldn’t be true. Hercules would never leave him like this or forget what they had. Their friendship was more than this. It was simply a trick of his mind. He forged ahead. Jason might need his help.

Hercules was getting impatient. This was a task that was taking too long. Too many people were counting on him and yet the path was still far from clear. Callisto was leading them through the dark corridors as if she knew where she was going, but Hercules could see her hesitation as the paths grew more complex.

“Don’t tell me we’re lost,” he spoke sarcastically as she paused at a fork in the road.

She placed a finger to her lips. Hera hadn’t been complete with the information. The thought that Hera may have set her up had nagged at her since the beginning. “I can’t seem to - - -left or right,” she furrowed her brows. This was more complicated than she’d originally thought. “I should have written it down.”

Hercules rolled his eyes. “Great!” Time was of the essence and Callisto hesitated. Perhaps she meant to torture him, or less likely, she was really lost.

Callisto stared at the cleft in the path, rubbing her mouth thoughtfully and shot him a hateful glare. What difference did it make? If she picked the wrong way he’d save her and she’d continue along. But if he couldn’t save her, well she was already dead.

“Oh no, no, it’s left.” She nodded, and without hesitation stepped to the left path.

The vines wrapped around her immediately. They seemed to grow from the ground at an amazing rate, their tendrils tying her so she couldn’t even hope to move. Callisto panicked. She’d never liked to be restrained. “Hercules!” she screamed without so much as a thought.

Hercules shook his head. Vines. That was nothing. “I guess it was right.” He didn’t bother to hide his disgust,

Callisto laughed, trying to hide her panic. Sure she was already dead, but Hera hadn’t told her about this little obstacle. What else didn’t she know? If she didn’t get Hercules to act, she could hang there until her time was up and then it was back to Tartarus.

Callisto wouldn’t go back to Tartarus. Ever! She would do whatever it took, taunt, goad, plead, and even cry. She had been given the chance of a lifetime, of an eternity and she wouldn’t lose it.

“Looks like I’m in a real bind,” she called out to Hercules, obscured from her view by the rapidly growing vines.

“Callisto!” Hercules yelled.

Callisto heard the note of panic in his voice. He needed her, and she meant to keep it that way.

“I’m right here!” she called, listening but not hearing his approach. “Here!” she screamed again, not wanting him to give up too quickly. “Here!”

“Callisto!” Hercules called back. “Keep talking!”

Panic, that was good. He was worried about his family and friends. How touching!

“That’s what I’m trying to do!” she answered. “I’m over here!’ She knew that the vines obscured her, but Hercules could fight his way through them easily. “Here Hercules! Hurry, hurry!” She tried to keep the taunt out of her voice, the smirk off her face. She knew she had the upper hand. “Your friends, if I die, they die,” she reminded him.

Hercules ran through the path, down the boulders and into the vines, panic crushing his chest. All that he held dear rested on this moment of rescue. He heard her calling his name over and over and tried to track the direction of the sound. The cavern was deep and large and echoes made it difficult.

“Callisto! Hold on!” he screamed as he ran to where he thought the sound of her voice rang out.

She was there; he could see her being held tight, and fought through the twisting, supple vines. He ripped at the binding tendrils, frantic. Time was at a premium. The vines were still growing, reaching for him, trying to strangle him too. But he was stronger. He tore them like paper, exposing Callisto hanging there.

“Callisto, hold on!” he called as he pushed through the tangle of vines, one arm extended and reaching for her. He felt her tiny waist in his hand and snaked his arm around it, pulling her to him, and with a mighty tug, freed her.

“Oh, my hero,” she grinned as she leaned in against him, feeling him pull away in disgust.

Hercules dropped her and stepped away. “Yeah, right,” he answered, thankful only that he could still save his family.

Iolaus was struggling to keep the thoughts at bay. They wanted to worm their way into his brain, eat at him and even drive him mad. He was sweating, shaking with the effort. He had learned many things in the east. He had meditated. He could slow his heart and breathing down and stay underwater for long periods. He could endure pressing weights. All of this was done through mind control. When the master’s hand sliced through the brick, it was because his mind willed it to, turned the brick to nothing more than butter.

Iolaus had sliced thick boards, bricks and even walked on fiery coals during his time in the east. He’d tried to master his body by using his mind. But this vision was threatening to take hold of him.

He closed his eyes. A mistake. He saw his aged self, head in hands and knew he had squandered his life. He should have found a wife as he grew older, instead of admiring so many women. He should have settled down and had children. Yes, then he would truly be a hero, not a lonely and forgotten old man, a life with no impact and no future.

Hera had robbed him of that, he thought blackly. He’d been doomed to a life of dalliances and would have no future other than as a lecherous old man. He took a long deep breath, in through the mouth, out through the nose, a cleansing breath. Black thoughts would not sustain him. Hera wouldn’t win. There would come a time when he could have a real relationship again

He closed his eyes hoping that a moment of meditation would ease the way to finding Hercules. After all, Hercules was what this was really all about. Iolaus knew that Hercules wouldn’t let any mortal keep him away from his friends and family when they expected him, so Hera must be involved, or Ares, but the god of war was still reveling in his victory over Hercules with Serena. He had been the mastermind, Strife his puppet. Yes Ares was lethal, but his strategy was usually a bloody one, not something as feminine as poison. No, this was Hera,

Iolaus drew another deep breath and tried to push away the black thoughts. He was supposed to feel empty when he meditated, awake to the inner self, but sealed off from the troubles of the world. The answers always lay within; the masters had taught him that. But instead of feeling empty he felt besieged. His mouth opened to speak but the voice was Hera’s.

“The bastard demigod will live forever, but you mortal will die alone,”

“NO!” Iolaus shouted. “Not real!” He opened his eyes, and took a deep breath. He truly wanted to meditate and cleanse his mind, but closing his eyes only brought the visions back. He took some deep cleansing breaths as he focused his line of vision on the empty hall way. He could slow his heart, stop its relentless pounding and let his muscles soften, still strong and ready for action. But he couldn’t close his eyes, or his mind.

He must stay strong. Though he could feel the power of the potion coursing through him he would make every attempt not to let it consume him. Hercules was counting on him. The others would be under its power by now, not a clear head among them. It was up to Iolaus to stave off tragedy, at least until Hercules arrived.

Jason walked the empty corridor alone. In the old days he would have held his sword high without feeling fatigue eating at his arms, the weight of the metal bearing down, pulling away at any power he might wish to put into a thrust. It seemed that even yesterday he felt stronger than this. But right now, he felt powerless, a has-been king who couldn’t even choose a successor with the foresight to post a single guard at the palace door.

Jason took a deep breath and whirled around, sword raised but still heavy in his hands. Was that a shadow he saw on the wall? Maybe there was someone, light on his feet and agile, walking silently, stalking through the castle. Well, he wouldn’t let fatigue rule his decisions. He may have relinquished his royal heritage to a neophyte king, but he could still protect himself and Alcmene.

Jason’s heart beat in a staccato rhythm. Sweat rolled down his brow, trickling across his jaw line and down his neck. His breath came in spurts. Former king didn’t mean former man. He’d see this hunt for Hercules’ abductor through.

Callisto walked familiarly through the dark stone halls, not bothering to touch the damp moss on the walls or cobwebs dangling from above. Her mind was elsewhere. In only a few steps she would be a free woman. She smiled, turning to watch Hercules’ face as she talked.

“I think the first thing I’m going to do is find the good Xena and rip out her tongue out just so she can whistle an apology!” He voice was childish and petulant and she saw with pleasure how it grated on Hercules.

“I hate to spoil your fantasy, but you’re not out of here yet!” He barely looked at her, didn’t bother to hide his disdain. She was loathsome, an evil, hateful person who was being rewarded by the gods for the traits that would most harm mankind.

“Oh, but neither are you!” Callisto shot back snidely as she raised an eyebrow knowingly. She turned, pressing herself close to him, enjoying the fire of his anger.

“When we make it to the tree of life, and when I save my friends and family you are going back where you belong. I’ll see to that myself,” He threatened, letting his rage pull him even closer.

“Enough!” she yelled back, enjoying the provocation. For the first time in ages she felt really alive, purposeful. Hercules’ anger empowered her. “NO room can hold me,” she sneered, surprised that he hadn’t figured things out himself. “You’re the only one that can stop me and to do that you’d have to kill me. But you can’t,” she curled her lip in disgust. “I’m already dead. Besides, your misguided sense of justice won’t allow it!”

Hercules snorted. “You’re over looking something.”

“Oh, am I?” she replied haughtily.

“The only reason you’re still standing is because I need directions.” He put his face so close to hers he could smell the stench of her oily hair, her unbrushed teeth and filthy skin.

“I’ve underestimated you,” Callisto purred. Let him get angry, look for revenge, threaten her. She thrived on it. Much better entertainment than an empty room and a few fire spouts.

“I’m flattered,” Hercules spoke dryly.

“Fortunately, YOU’VE overlooked something as well,” Callisto smiled. He truly was clueless. She had far more power than he could ever imagine. This was a win-win situation. Dead, she could still get her way, but if they reached the tree of life- - - well, that was even better.

“I don’t think so,” Hercules shook his head and started walking away. Callisto was a dead woman being lead by a two faced goddess who looked out only for herself.

Callisto stomped a foot. She didn’t like being dismissed so easily. “If I go back to the underworld, I won’t be suffering alone,” she called. I’ll find your children- - - Clonus, Aison and - - -little Ileia, is that it?” She watched in satisfaction as his forward progress halted. He turned to face her, steps quickening as he returned her way. “And I WILL make them suffer!”

Callisto laughed cruelly at the rage in Hercules expression. “After all, I got HERE, didn’t I?” she taunted. “I can get to them.”

Hercules could contain himself no longer. He reached out, grabbing her by the throat and held her up, letting her feet dangle as she strangled, her slim neck no more than a twig in his hand.

But that wouldn’t do. He couldn’t his family, Iolaus die. As much as he didn’t want to admit it he needed her. Hercules let her drop like a small sack onto the dirt of the hall floor.

“That’s it! That’s the spirit! Kill me, I dare you!” Callisto laughed in the high childish voice.

She stood, but Hercules grabbed her. She was nothing but a rag doll, and an evil one at that. He picked her up and hurled her at the stone wall hard enough to make the wall crumble away as Callisto fell slumped at the base, rock powder raining down on her. You couldn’t kill the dead, or even really hurt them for that matter.

“Who’s trapped in their hatred now?” she sneered knowingly.

Jason felt his heart pounding hard against his ribs. There was someone here. He knew it. The steps were soft and deliberate, but undeniably there. He had been an Argonaut, the King of Corinth, strong and respected. He came from a long line of kings. Not that he’d always made the right decisions. Gods knew that his life and choices hadn’t always been stellar, but here he was being given a chance to atone, to slay the person who had captured Hercules.

Jason pressed himself against the wall, feeling the rough cold stone digging into his back. No matter. He would redeem himself whether he lived or died. A little discomfort was a small price to pay for getting the upper hand on an opponent strong enough to take Hercules.

Iolaus walked down the corridor in quiet thought. He tried to keep his demons at bay, not think about Ania, about being alone, but the echo of his steps only reinforced his loneliness. He concentrated on controlling his heart beat, his breathing. He didn’t seem to be able to empty himself, but at least he didn’t feel like jumping out of his skin.

Normally he would have noted the sudden complete silence, the scuffed dust on the floor. These were special circumstances though. He needed to concentrate his efforts on the problem within himself, not the outside. Unfortunately, this left him vulnerable.

Jason heard the steps nearing, pulled his sword into ready position. Iolaus stepped around the corner.

The enemy! Jason swung, his blade slashing across Iolaus’ bicep cutting deep.

Iolaus spun around, the blood running down his defensively raised arms.

“Jason!”

But Jason heard nothing, saw only an unknown man, the one who had taken Hercules from them, caused Alcmene pain.

“No!” Iolaus shouted as he ducked just in time. He felt the fanning of air as Jason’s sword swooshed where his neck had been moments before. This just wasn’t going to do. He couldn’t hurt Jason, and he knew that as powerful as Jase was, he didn’t have the advantage of youth or constantly fighting at Hercules’ side working for him. There was only one course he could take to keep them both safe.

Iolaus ran.

Alcmene followed her son seeking peace, but deep inside something felt wrong. Yes she loved Hercules; he was her son, her strength, the one who’d kept her going when she felt like giving up. But here he was urging her to give up - - -for him.

And then there were the feelings for her oldest son. Wouldn’t he feel abandoned if she blindly followed Hercules? True enough, both of them had felt that before and survived, but she didn’t want to be the CAUSE of it.

Hercules’ voice called and soothed. “We’re almost at the other side mother.”

“But Jason and Iphicles” - - -she protested, unable to keep the uncertainty out of her voice. Was this favoring Hercules? Would her family view it as just another in a long string of favoritism? She glanced over to her handsome son, the demigod, looking for answers instead of into herself.

Hercules could see her discomfort. Of course she worried, that’s what mothers did. “They’ll be joining us soon, and then we’ll all be together again,” he soothed.

He was oddly cool but Alcmene brushed that aside. Hercules always did what was right. He helped people. Of course she should trust him. She smiled up at him feeling empty. “Yes,” she answered.

Callisto paused, putting a finger to her lips. She tapped the finger, staring away from Hercules, calculating.

“Don’t tell me you’re confused again,” he spoke with distain. She was taking her time, playing games while the people he loved were in danger. Her total disregard for life was wearing thin. Hercules knew he was running out of time.

“Oh no, I’m - - -quite certain it’s - - -this way.” Callisto pointed, looking puzzled and uncertain.

Hercules stepped forward and she stood her ground waiting and watching. This was when Hera’s plan was supposed to unfold in its entirety.

Callisto bit her fingernail as she watched him walk tentatively forward, scanning ahead with watchful eyes. He needed to stand on the trip plate. Hera had made that clear. As if on cue, Hercules placed a foot on the select floor block, leaning forward and putting his weight on it.

Callisto clapped as the giant slab of stone studded with razor sharp blades started moving towards Hercules. Yes! They moved so smoothly and swiftly that she knew Hera most definitely had her hand in it.

But Hercules sensed the door closing in on him, and whirling, placed his back against the solid wall and slapped his hands out to stop the forward progression of the deadly wall. With effort he kept the daggers in place only inches from his body, one at his head, one at his chest, one at his gut and the last at his groin. The weight of the stone and the force that was causing it to close was great enough to cause Hercules’ arms to tremble and his brow to sweat.

Callisto clapped. “Oh I lied!” she cried in her childlike voice, so pleased with her new surprise. She stepped forward and ran a finger along the blade closest to his face. The skin of her finger sliced bloodlessly and she placed it to her lips by habit. “Lovely detail! Hephestus is quite a craftsman.’ She turned away, circling and staring at the blind end of the corridor.

“Hera! Hercules delivered as promised! I fulfilled my end off the bargain, now it’s your turn.” Callisto spoke with conviction. The queen of gods would be watching, of that she was certain.

What looked like a solid wall rose into a panel in the ceiling and behind it a room shone with the beauty of the tree in its center, bearing glistening golden apples which seemed to be the sole light in the room.

Hercules turned his head to the open door, careful not to lose his focus on holding the blades away, seeing the antidote for his family, yet unable to even reach for one. The slab of rock pushed back at him and he strengthened his grip against it.

“It’s not over yet!” He growled at Callisto in anger and frustration.

Callisto turned coldly to face him. “Hercules, I have enjoyed our little time together. But you know, I think I can take it from here.” She shot him an evil look and stepped closer. She ran the sliced finger down his cheek letting it trail suggestively across his chest, feeling the soft curls there and then ever so deliberately trailed the wet finger down his abdomen. She enjoyed his trapped anger, like a bull before the kill. Well then, a farewell kiss was in order.

She turned his face towards hers, placing her open mouth against his, tongue flicking like a snake as she kissed him savagely, feeling him try to pull away, yet unable. She thought she could taste his anger, hot and spicy, smell the sweat as he labored to stay alive. Callisto had never felt so powerful.

She moved away forcefully, hoping his lips were bruised. “Are we having fun yet?” she crooned. “Oh look at the bright side, you’ll be meeting up with your friends soon enough.” She bent, reaching for the fallen torch, extinguished but smoking slightly.

“Oh and this” - - -she slammed the heavy end of the torch into Hercules abdomen with all her might, watching with pleasure as he fell and lost his grip on the door. “- - - Is for Xena. Good bye Hercules!”

Hercules felt the air pushed out of his lungs, saw the daggered door sliding in ever closer and fought to regain his position. But even as he reached his arms out gripping the door he knew he’d lost valuable ground. The daggers now rested mere inches from his body. He could feel the edge of a blade at his face, another over his heart so closely that each beat threatened to make it pierce the skin, another pressed to his abdomen and the last pressing against the leather of his codpiece. The sweat poured down his forehead, trickling across his cheeks and dripping to his chest.

Callisto stepped into the room. The air was fresh and clean in spite of its depth and confinement, the light in the room as pure as if the sun was there. But it wasn’t. She regarded the tree, her sunken eyes hungry. She reached a thin, dirty arm up and plucked one of the golden apples from a low hanging branch. She no longer paid Hercules any heed. He was a dead man standing, soon to be joining his family and friend, but she would soon be alive in a way she never had before. She bit into the apple fiercely.

Callisto felt her body tingle after the very first bite. She took another and another. Hunger, it was a wonderful sensation. She felt the strength course through her muscles and the cold that pervaded her faded away to warmth. ALIVE! She was alive; better, she knew this apple gave her immortality if she ate it all.

Hercules watched as she consumed the golden apple, licking the juice off her fingers. A swirl of glitter surrounded her and suddenly her skin was clear and clean, cheeks rosy and eyes bright. Her hair glowed with health. Her muscles grew strong and she moved with litheness that had before been lacking.

While his family and Iolaus suffered and died, evil incarnate had gained immortality. Hercules felt his anger rise, bubbling closer to the surface then ever before. Hera had taken his family once; he wouldn’t allow her or this one to do it again. With a mighty thrust, Hercules pushed the door away and jumped free.

Callisto was aware of everything that was going on around her. Her senses tingled. She could smell his anxiety, feel his anger. But she had been transformed from a weak and withered dead woman, to her former athletic strength and prowess. She leapt with catlike grace, flipping high in the air, enjoying her new strength and landed on Hercules shoulders.

Astride him, she poked him in the eyes as she finished consuming even the very core of the apple.

“Delicious!” she prodded as she sucked her fingertips. She felt Hercules shift, trying to regain his balance as he bucked under her, his eyes seeing only stars and the pain seeming to tell him to stop and drop.

He wouldn’t. He thought of Iolaus, how many times he had fought beyond his mortal capacity for Hercules, of his mother, who took abuse and ridicule without retort to teach him strength, about Jason who had seen his weakness and risen above it, Iphicles who had lived in his shadow yet found his own strength and bearing, and even Falafel, who strove to please. Hercules vowed to fight to the end. Ares, great God of War had never completely beaten him and neither would this immortal villainess. He tossed her off his shoulders viciously.

“Oh, you’re going to die on your birthday. How convenient!” she taunted as she took Hercules out with a foot sweep to his ankle. She watched with pleasure as he hit the floor hard, and with lightning fast reflexes, started kicking him in the abdomen.

Hercules gasped at the ferocity of the attack, curling up and trying to move away. Callisto took the torch and lit it from one of the candles in the room. With a flick of her wrist she touched the tree, setting it on fire.

“NO!” Hercules screamed, watching the only hope he had for saving his loved ones start to burn.

Callisto enjoyed the pain on his face, the anguish in his voice. “Blow it out and make a wish!” she laughed as he approached her, murder in his eyes. She reached down and gathered a handful of dried leaves from the tree, tossing them into his eyes.

She watched as he stopped short, blinded.

“A pity we couldn’t work out our differences. We would have made an unstoppable team.” She grinned, knowing how her words cut him. She leaned into him with a punch that would have made any goddess proud.

But she didn’t account for his loyalty or love, emotions she hadn’t known in so long.

“I already have a partner,” Hercules spat, finding his strength and grabbing her, sending her into a disorienting spin before releasing her on the fly and letting her sail into a stone wall, sinking finally to the floor. He took advantage of the moment. Rushing to the burning tree, he picked a single apple.

Callisto found her bearings. “Not for long,” she laughed, knowing that Iolaus was as good as dead. After all, she was immortal. She could fight him forever and that meant Hercules would never leave with the apple.

At the castle Iolaus ran as fast and far from the others as he could. Jason was great with a sword, and although older now, still powerful and well practiced. He couldn’t risk any more injuries. His arm stung where Jason had slashed it earlier and it made Iolaus think about the outcome had it been Falafel instead of himself at the other end of Jason’s sword.

Iolaus was scared. He didn’t have full control of himself and he was running for his life. The intrusive thoughts and a pervading feeling of loneliness hounded him, waiting for him around every corner he turned. But he fought back. This was no worse than a hydra and he’d fought those twice - - -and survived.

Panting he stopped. A door to his left was ajar. He couldn’t run much longer. He slipped into the room, trying to collect his thoughts.

But Jason was on him as if he’d left a blundering trail. The door opened with a slam, hitting the wall hard enough to leave a chink in the stone. Iolaus whirled around, raising his arm defensively against Jason’s blow. He spun to the side and the heavy sword cleaved the mattress which he’d stood against.

“Jason!” he screamed. “NO!”

But the sword came down again dangerously close to his shoulder, only missing because Iolaus’ instincts were stronger than his conscious thoughts. Must keep moving, Iolaus thought as he fought against both Jason and the demons in his mind. Had to get Jason away from the others, out of the castle before he slaughtered them all.

He pushed through the door and ran.

“Why can’t you just die like a good boy?” Callisto screamed in anger and frustration. She displayed her temper with a vicious blow to Hercules’ hand, knocking the golden apple out, causing it to fly in a high arc and hit the floor rolling.

“I guess I don’t know when to quit,” Hercules quipped as he reached for the rolling apple and retrieved it in one smooth motion.

“Well let me inspire you!” Callisto snarled. “Even if you could find your way without me, you won’t make it in time to save your friends.” She let a smile of superiority slip over her lips.

“That’s where you’re wrong,” Hercules retorted. “I know something you don’t.”

Callisto laughed, feeling renewed. She knew everything. “Oh?”

“We’re out of oil.” Hercules raised an eyebrow, inviting her question. He tipped the oil container upside down and let the last drops fall to the dusty floor.

Callisto stared at the trail of droplets in the sand and screamed in anger, pulling at Hercules’ arm to prevent his leaving. He reached for the lit torch and tossed it out the door with his free hand, watching with satisfaction as the path of oil caught aflame. Then he took the arm she held and tossed her back, away from him and into the burning tree.

Callisto screamed as if she was in agony, and though Hercules had already stepped his foot out the door her words caused him to turn back.

“Oh, please don’t go!” She covered her eyes with her hands. “Don’t leave! I can’t see!”

Hercules sighed as he considered his options. He made no move to her, but when he heard the small sob he turned to check her. She looked so small and vulnerable, childlike and alone. He took a step toward her. To leave her in pain for an immortal existence was a fate he knew only too well withered the soul.

She saw her chance. With a scream she launched herself at him, eyes open and focused in their rage on the face of the demigod.

He threw the snarling goddess off with a single well aimed punch, the force tossing her limply back to base of the tree. She was nothing more than another of Hera’s lackeys. And she wouldn’t die here. Couldn’t - - -immortal that she now was. He dashed to the closing door as it continued its descent and pushed through the last remaining space, pulling his foot to the outside hall just as the heavy stone swung tightly closed. “Let Hera save her.

He could hear Callisto’s screams, trapped behind Hephestus’ door. There would be no release for her. At least until one of the other meddlesome gods took pity, or were curious, or more likely saw an interesting and beautiful female and let their hormones rule their heads.

Callisto knelt in the closed room, feeling as if this was simply déjà vu. The flames crackled around her and consumed the tree of life, leaving only fire spouts and the cackle of Hera’s forbidding laugh. Hercules was alive. She was trapped now in immortality, no better off than before. But there had to be a way out.

At the castle Falafel was frantic. He couldn’t remember the recipe! All that he recalled was that it took meat. Perhaps if he could find some meat and hold it, chop it, well then the rest would come back to him. Hercules’ birthday was a celebration all of Greece would be talking about, and if he was the chef, well his triumph would be celebrated - - -or his failure would ruin him. This forgetting just wouldn’t do.

Falafel held his cleaver high, eyes roaming across the room. “Must find meat,” was his mantra. He turned slowly and deliberately.

Yes! There it was, a pig caught under the fallen chandelier. How had it gotten there? Falafel had no clue, but considered it a gift from the gods. Such a handsome pig, strong and vital. And such healthy squeals too. Surely its meat would be lean and tasty, just the thing to bring back his memory of the forgotten master recipe. He walked towards it shaking his cleaver and noting the terror in its eyes.

Iphicles struggled to move the weight of the chandelier off his torso. The cook was crazy. It was he who had sabotaged the party. Perhaps he could be appealed to. A cook who killed a king would be executed.

“Falafel, come on,” he pleaded. “Give me a hand!” he called out to the wide eyed cook. “Get this off me.” The chains from the chandelier lay heavily across his arms and Iphicles was more than aware of his vulnerable position.

Falafel stepped closer, laughing maniacally. “Here piggy, piggy, piggy!” The gods must have placed this fine meat here. Well, he could certainly make use of it.

“Falafel! What are you doing?” Iphicles cried out as the cleaver rose high above his neck.

Iphicles grabbed frantically for a fallen meat hammer, his fingers scrabbling across the floor, extending to find the handle. It was his only chance. He felt it under his fingers, nursed it towards him, finally getting a grip on the handle.

The cleaver started its descent.

Iphicles swung the meat hammer, connecting solidly with Falafel’s leg.

Falafel groaned. How did the pig do that? He slipped, letting go of the cleaver which arced its way up. Gravity took hold, pulling the sharp knife back down heavy blade first, aimed directly at Iphicles’ neck.

Iphicles turned his head away, flexing his neck and avoided the sharp edge of the blade by a hairs breadth. His heart was pounding, eyes closed.

He heard the thump as the blade imbedded in the floor, felt the air as it coursed past his ear. Turning, Iphicles struggled to reach the knife. He wrenched the chained wrist against the sharp edge, cutting through the metal easily, and shuddered at the thought of what might have become of his neck if his reflexes weren’t so quick. He twisted, finally finding purchase on the handle and wrestled it from the solid hold of the floor.

Within a second he had slashed his way free of his bindings and was on his feet facing Falafel. He raised the cleaver over his head.

“My turn!” Iphicles yelled powerfully, his eyes mere slits, his sweat permeating the room.

Falafel’s jaw dropped. Could a pig really do that? And the squeal, it was the loudest and most threatening he’d ever heard. This wasn’t right! Falafel turned and ran. Swiftly.

Alcmene could see him striding ahead of her, her big strong son, the pride of her life. But why wasn’t he next to her? As if on cue, he slowed his step and turned, a small smile on his solemn face. He reached for her hand as they approached the stairs which led to the castle’s highest parapet, the one she and Jason used to love to climb. They used to survey his kingdom, watch the sun set and feel the coolness of breeze across their flesh.

But this time it was Hercules who beckoned. “This is it, mother. Right up here.”

She could feel his encouragement. Hercules would know what was right, he always did. She took his hand in hers and let him step back as she started her ascent.

Iolaus counted this as one of the most difficult struggles of his life. Not only was he trying to escape a maddened Jason, but also had to struggle to keep his own demons at bay.

For someone who had chosen a life of quiet marriage, Jason had certainly not lost his edge. Iolaus had struggled to stay ahead of the sweeping sword as Jason followed him whooping and slashing through the corridors, not missing a single turn. Of course he would know the castle better than Iolaus, it had been his home longer than not.

Iolaus was panting as he veered to the left. He didn’t know how much longer he could last. If he let himself concentrate on escaping, the thoughts filtered back into his mind, the loneliness and worthlessness. But when he actively fought to block them, he couldn’t concentrate on escape.

Iolaus skidded to a stop against the heavy oak door that led to the exit from the castle. He leaned against the wall next to it as he saw Jason turn the corner and head his direction. So it would come to a fight.

Jason ran straight into Iolaus, grabbing him and readying his sword for the kill. But Iolaus had thought ahead. He tossed Jason away like pesky mosquito. Jason bounced off the wall and came back, back straight arming Iolaus across the chin.

Iolaus steeled himself for a battle, fought the demons in his mind.

Suddenly the door burst open, Iolaus jumping out of the way of its trajectory with agility.

“Jason, don’t!” Hercules warned as he burst through, separating the two men, grabbing Iolaus tight against himself and tossing Jason away as he disarmed him. He slammed both of them down and with one fluid movement tossed the golden apple in the air, drawing Jason’s sword and slicing it as it fell, chopping two pieces from it and watching as the pieces fell to his friends’ mouths. He grabbed the rest of the apple as Jason and Iolaus chewed the slices that had fallen in their mouths.

Iolaus swallowed the apple slice, trusting his friend. “Hercules!” He declared, feeling free of the fear and anxiety, knowing that what had ripped him in two was gone. He felt his strength and will power flooding back.

“Hercules!” Jason echoed, as he felt a peace surround him, no longer needing to protect a kingdom that wasn’t his, or having to prove himself to anyone.

“Don’t talk with your mouth full.” Hercules admonished, a small grin splitting his lips as he basked briefly in the knowledge that he had saved his two closest friends. But before he could congratulate himself a scream from Falafel permeated the air,

Iolaus and Jason followed Hercules as he dashed to the kitchen, seeing Iphicles trying to slaughter Falafel.

Hercules sprang into action. He grabbed a blanket and wrapped it around Iphicles, incapacitating his brother.

Iolaus held the struggling Iphicles while Hercules pulled the pan that Falafel wielded from his hand.

Falafel turned a frown of disbelief on Hercules. Couldn’t the big man see the pig would keep trying to kill him? Why, its father must be a wild boar! He tried to pull the iron pan back but Hercules held him tightly as he put the pan out of reach.

“You’ll thank me for this later,” he told the chef who looked as if he’d do anything but that. Hercules lifted Falafel and hung him with care high on a meat hook. “Here! You stay!” he commanded.

He turned to Iolaus. “Have you seen Mother?”

Iolaus could hear the tension in his voice; saw the lines of weariness under his blue eyes. He wished he could be of more help, but his escape from Jason and battle with his own demons had consumed his attention.

“No, I haven’t seen her,” he admitted somewhat chagrined and more than a little worried himself.

Jason gasped. In his hast to prove himself a better king than Iphicles, he had forgotten entirely about his wife.

”No!” he called out in panic but Hercules held out a hand and gripped his shoulder reassuringly.

“I’ll find her, but I need you two here to help Falafel and Iph. Meet me outside when you’re finished.” He tossed a piece of the golden apple to Iolaus and another to Jason.

“Here, give them each a bite.”

Iolaus nodded, wanting to go with Hercules to find Alcmene. He felt the guilt rising inside. He’d been so self consumed and all the while Alcmene had been at risk. He jammed the piece of apple into Iphicles resisting mouth just a little harder than necessary in his frustration as Jason, equally chagrinned, did the same to Falafel. It had been the widow. He knew it in his heart. She was trouble, always had been and still would be. Maybe he couldn’t place her, but he could trust his instinct.

Alcmene stood at the top of the turret with only the small top wall as the safety against falling. Hercules was at her side, solemn and quiet, expecting that she would obey him, that she would prove her loyalty. A son needed his mother, in life and in death.

“One more step and we’ll be together forever,” he urged, and Alcmene felt her heart beat faster. She was supposed to do this.

“I’m coming Hercules, I love you!” she called dramatically as she stepped onto the top retaining wall. She stretched put her arms like a sacrifice to the gods, hoping that she would indeed be in Elysium with Hercules. From behind her, she heard his voice.

“I love you too, mother.”

The voice was stronger than the other, clearer and for the first time she could hear the emotion. What was this? Did the dead feel?

She turned in confusion to the side where she remembered her dead son as standing. “What kind of trick is this?” No one was there. She turned her head the other way and there stood Hercules, hand held out to her and anxiety lining his face.

“He looks like you,” she said in confusion, but couldn’t see the other Hercules there.

“Mother, I’m right here!” His voice was comforting.

“No! My son is dead!” Alcmene’s voice was shrill, her muscles tense. She stepped forward, closer to the edge. She wouldn’t be tricked by the gods, kept from her son.

“I’m not.” Hercules reached for her, taking her small hand into his, and she felt the life there, warmth and power. He was alive! She stepped down and embraced him.

“Oh mother!” he sighed in relief as he hugged her close.

She pulled away. “Hercules? Does this mean I’m not going to the Underworld?”

“Uh, no not yet,” he stuttered, uncomfortable with even the thought. Remembering the apple he kept talking before she could question him further. “Uh, here, I brought something for you.” He extended the last piece of apple for her.

Alcmene looked at the slice of golden apple, shining bright in the last glow of the setting sun. It was beautiful.

“Oh for me?” She placed a hand on her chest feeling the beating of her own heart. Hercules so seldom brought gifts. And it was his birthday too.

“Yeah,” Hercules answered hoping she’d bite it quickly. He extended to her and she took the slice from his hand.

“You shouldn’t have!” she protested but took it from him anyway. She placed the apple to her mouth and bit into the slice. It was the sweetest most delicious taste she could remember, melting in her mouth. As she swallowed things became clear, Hercules wasn’t dead and the fog in her mind abated.

She turned to her son. “Oh Hercules! Now where have you been? I’ve been worried sick!”

Hercules gathered her in his arms, hugging her close. “Mother it’s been a very, very long day. I’ll tell you about it later. Let’s go find the others, ok?”

Hercules stood at the door of the castle, Iolaus at his side, Iphicles, Jason and his mother behind him.

“Hey, I’m sorry you missed your birthday!” Iphicles extended a hand to his brother.

“Well, the day’s not over yet,” Jason spoke up.

“We still have cake!” Falafel nodded, his face serious.

“Yeah, you gotta open your presents yet,” Iolaus grinned, pulling Hercules back into the castle. Today was a day to celebrate. They were alive. Hercules was with them.

“Oh, that reminds me,” Alcmene chimed in. “There was a woman here, poor thing. She wanted to leave you a gift.” She cocked her head, trying to remember where she’d seen the widow before.

“Hercules chuckled and shook his head. “Well she did. She made me appreciate my family even more.” He clapped a hand on Iolaus’s shoulder.

“Let’s celebrate.” He gave the hunter a squeeze, took his mother’s hand and went back for cake. He couldn’t stop what had already happened. He could only wait and intervene when the time was right.

The End



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