A Rock and A Hard Place

by Melisande

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

The village of Galatea was awash with color, noise, and busyness, but it was not the bustle of a prosperous market day, or the exciting celebration of a festival. Instead, shouting voices, shifting throngs, flashing colors, and running feet filled the village streets with fear, anger, and vengeance.

Murder had been done here.

The flagged streets, the grey stone shops, and the walls of the shrines echoed with cries of “Find him!” “He can’t be far!” and “Stone him!” Clots of villagers pursued the suspected murderer in their midst - a beast to be hunted down and destroyed.

As sounds of the mobs rang throughout the village, two men ran from different directions into the nearly deserted square of the town’s agora. One of the men was tall, bronzed and powerfully built, with sun-streaked light brown hair and crystal blue eyes that swept the agora’s confines with hawk-like scrutiny. The other man was smaller, but broad shouldered and well-muscled, with a golden tone to his skin and curling hair; his eyes were a sapphire blue and matched the keen, sweeping glance of the taller man.

The two heroes were Hercules, the son of Zeus, and Iolaus of Thebes, his mortal sword brother. They met together at the center of the town square, panting with exertion and some anxiety. They, too, sought the suspected villain, hoping to find him before the mindless, bloodthirsty mob.

“Any sign of him?” Hercules asked, his gaze still raking their surroundings.

Iolaus also studied the shops and shrines that lined the agora with a far-sighted inspection. “I wasn’t that far behind him - I thought he come through here!”

“I’ll bet he did - lots of places to hide!” Hercules commented crisply, as they both continued to dance from foot to foot and scan their surroundings narrowly. “We’d better find him first to see justice done. These people want his blood!”

“Yeah, whether he’s the murderer or not,” Iolaus added with a quick headshake. “Who is this guy - anyone know him here?”

Hercules shook his head, keen eyes continuing to sweep the area. “Someone said he was a drifter, and one of the shopkeepers said his name was Cassus. That’s all anyone seems to know.”

A slight clatter behind them from the market stalls made the two men whirl. They glimpsed a flash of movement through the labyrinth behind them.

Hercules clapped his friend’s shoulder. “Go around,” he ordered tersely. “We’ll cut him off!”

Their long association and near telepathy conveyed Hercules’ plan much more clearly than the quick words. With a brief assent, Iolaus dashed off to the right as Hercules ran forward through the main isle of the market stalls.

There ensued a mad chase through the market and into the maze of narrower streets that led from the agora. Hercules could hear their quarry’s footsteps ahead, and occasionally caught a glimpse of his desperately fleeing form. Hercules could tell Cassus was trying to find a way out of town, but the noises of the groups of villagers giving chase angled him back toward the agora.

Hercules was closing on the man’s heels as they neared the square; the son of Zeus could see the short-cut hair and details of the suspect’s clothing and size. They had turned into a street paralleling the agora as the man tried frantically to find a way out of the village.

Suddenly, Iolaus flew from a side alley into the street ahead of the fleeing suspect, and behind the golden hunter came two separate bands of villagers converging on the place at once. Cassus had no choice but to turn down a street back towards the agora, with the packs of angry townspeople baying with renewed fire behind him.

Hercules and Iolaus, racing down two separate alleys, burst into the agora a brief second before the hunted man ran out of an alley between them with a chorus of pursuers close behind. As Cassus found himself nearly surrounded, he ran toward the most open direction. By luck or misfortune, he came upon several little girls playing a clapping game in the shelter of a shop front, all unaware of the adult drama that had swept toward them.

When more villagers came running toward him, Cassus grabbed one of the little girls and held a knife to her throat. All of his pursuers froze, fanned in a semicircle around him and held off by his wild eyes and tight grip on the crying, terrified little girl.

“Back off!” the desperate man cried. “I don’t want to have to hurt the little girl! Back off - now!”

Hercules, on one side of the semicircle, called out, “Let her go, Cassus - don’t make things worse for yourself.” Across from Hercules, Iolaus watched, silently and warily, letting Hercules be the voice of reason.

Cassus darted panicked glances from side to side. “If I let her go, I’m dead!”

“I won’t let that happen.” Hercules voice conveyed a bedrock certainty, but the accused man was not impressed.

He shook his head. “From this bunch? No way!”

Hercules replied, calmly, “You can’t hide behind her forever.”

High on a balcony looking out over the square, a well-dressed villager, one Perius, raised a crossbow and aimed it at Cassus, apparently heedless or much too entitled for any concern for the child who unwillingly shielded him.

An old man in the circle around the suspect caught the flash of sunlight from the metal of the crossbow. He looked up, and then at the trajectory of the crossbow bolt that might soon fly, and cried out in warning, “NO!”

Suddenly, every movement sped like wildfire. Much of the crowd along with the suspect whirled in the direction of the old man’s stare, including the accused killer. Catching sight of Perius’ aimed crossbow, screams of denial or encouragement erupted through the mob. Cassus swung the little girl even more in the path of the possible arrow.

And in a split second before he could halt his action, Perius fired the bolt. More screams filled the air, and Hercules launched himself in an astounding leap. It seemed as though gravity must not have held him like ordinary mortals, because he flew at least twenty feet. He twisted his body in flight, whirling in front of the little girl at just the precise moment, and plucked the bolt out of the air.

But even Hercules’ power could not bend all the laws of physics. His soaring momentum flung him past the accused and his screaming victim to land in a controlled roll several yards away.

At the same time, Cassus gazed wildly around the semicircle of his accusers, and glimpsed the widest portal to the agora and the open city gate beyond. He quickly realized that the crowd was thinnest there, and his main obstacle was Iolaus. The blond hunter was already poised to run toward him as Hercules was rising on the opposite side.

Cassus saw his sliver of opportunity and seized it. He flung the little girl bodily at Iolaus, and dove through the few shocked townspeople behind him. Iolaus was knocked backward by the force of the unexpected move. He danced backward, struggling to maintain his footing and his hold on the terrified little girl. Several members of the crowd caught the pair, but then could not react quickly enough to turn and grasp for the fleeing suspect.

“Everyone stay here!” Hercules cried, flinging down the crossbow bolt and sending a searing frown Perius, who had the grace to look appalled at the near miss. But the son of Zeus had no time for recriminations. He took off after the fleeing suspect.

As he reached his partner, Hercules called, “Iolaus! See her to her mother, then follow!”

The son of Zeus raced out of the city, with only a few of the men following. Iolaus needed help to pry the little girl gently from her death-lock grip around his neck. Her terrified mother suddenly thrust her way through the crowd, and caught her daughter in a grateful hug, tearfully pouring out her thanks to Iolaus and Hercules.

Iolaus stayed only long enough to make sure the child was well, and then whirled around and sprang away after his friend as though wearing Hermes’ winged sandals.

Meanwhile, Cassus raced out of town with Hercules gaining on him rapidly. The hunted man cast fleeting glances back at his pursuer and must have realized that he had little chance in the open country, because he turned suddenly to dash toward the opening of what appeared to be a mine. Hercules came around the curve in the road in time to see Cassus disappear inside.

Hercules slowed as he neared the dark entrance and stepped into the growing dimness watchfully, sure of an ambush somewhere. He walked carefully through the long-unused tunnels, following Cassus’ footprints in the dust. As he stepped slowly, on the lookout for hazards of the poorly maintained structure, he saw that an old rockfall had blocked one branching tunnel.

The footprints turned abruptly into a branching tunnel that opened into a large, high-ceilinged chamber. Hercules glanced up and observed that faint light filtered down from an upper level that must have an opening to the surface. The demigod stepped forward warily, all senses alert for a trap.

His instinct was correct. With a wild yell, his quarry dashed from a dark crevice and lunged at him with a knife.

Hercules whirled and swung a powerful arm, which blocked Cassus’ blow and also sent him flying against the chamber wall. The suspected killer quickly recovered and faced the demigod in a fighter’s crouch, the knife at the ready.

Hercules mirrored that posture, but called out, “This isn’t going to go your way!”

Cassus grimaced. “You’re making a big mistake -- you shouldn’t’ve followed me!”

“You made the mistake - you shouldn’t’ve run!” Hercules retorted. “Now - drop the knife!”

Hercules could hear the desperation in the man’s voice as he answered, “I don’t wanna kill you, but I will if I have to! I’ve gotta get out of this town!”

Hercules’ gaze never left Cassus’ eyes, though his body tensed. “I can’t let you do that.”

The man cried out wordlessly and leaped forward, slashing right with the blade. Hercules jumped back, and then leaped back again as Cassus swept the blade back again in a quick arc.

Trying to catch the demigod off-balance, the pursued man stabbed forward lightning-fast, but Hercules was faster. Even as he landed from the last backwards leap, Hercules swiveled his body to the side and caught the man’s arm as he struck. Using the knife-wielder’s own momentum, he caught the knife arm in both powerful hands and jerked the man forward.

Hercules tightened his grip to only about half his power but still Cassus’ forearm muscles spasmed. He cried out and dropped the knife. Hercules then swung him by his arm meaning to fling him away from the knife, but the man twisted his body in flight. Instead of landing in the center of the chamber as Hercules had intended, the suspected killer struck one of the hewn rock columns. As his body impacted the column there was a grating sound and suddenly a deep rumbling above them.

Cassus struggled to his feet as rocks began to fall around both men. Hercules tried to lunge forward to pull the suspect back out of the chamber, but Cassus jumped back defensively.

Abruptly, a deeper rumbling sounded from above made Hercules leap back instinctively. He cried out in warning, but a cascade of fell all around them, and for a time he knew only darkness …

Meanwhile, Iolaus ran down the road as fleetly as a deer. His speed was great because he could easily follow the fresh tracks made by Hercules and his quarry in the dirt road that was still damp from the previous day’s rain. Several of the village men had preceded him, but he had caught them and then left them far behind in his anxiety to catch up with Hercules.

Stupid to worry about the strongest man in the world - the thought flashed across his brain as he ran. But that worry was as natural to him as breathing, and would probably never leave him until breath itself was gone.

But those thoughts fled as he noticed the footprints turning suddenly from the roadway and leading up the hill toward a rocky escarpment. He stopped and quickly took in the detritus of an old mining operation around a dark opening in the rock wall, and realized that the chase had led Hercules into an abandoned mine - obviously long abandoned.

At that moment, the two men from the village, Crateon and Phorbus, ran up behind Iolaus, and stopped, panting and following his gaze. As the hunter stepped forward to follow Hercules into the dark opening, Crateon caught his arm.

“Iolaus, you should know -”

A deep rumbling inside the cave interrupted the man’s words, and all three watchers turned in horror to see a terrifying cascade of stones, dirt and splintered beams come raining down at the entrance.

Iolaus gasped. “Hercules!” he shouted, and began to run toward the avalanching stones. The other two men chased after him and caught him from behind.

“No, Iolaus!” shouted Crateon in his ear over the pounding roar of the falling rocks as the sword brother of Hercules struggled in their grasp. “You can’t help him this way! Wait till it stops and we’ll see!”

Iolaus caught his breath and stilled his struggles. He jerked out of their grip, growling “Okay!” The three stood and watched as the stones filled the opening with a foreboding roar.

“Hercules,” Iolaus whispered …

As the rock fall subsided, Hercules pushed his way out from under some of the stones. He had been lucky - a larger stone outcropping above him - obviously more stable than the rest, diverted most of the stones away from him. A few stones had struck him, and he had some bruises to prove it, but his more-than-human muscles and bones had withstood the pummeling that could have seriously injured a mortal.

Hercules went to work carefully moving the rocks, rotting wood, and other debris that blocked his way over to where he had last seen Cassus. A cold dread grew in his belly as he noticed a giant rectangular stone that lay, tilted slightly, right over that area. Peering around the edge of the stone, Hercules saw his fears confirmed - first, a hand and then the man’s head and shoulders but the rest of his body pinned between the boulder and the rock outcropping beneath him.

Hercules’ first thought was that Cassus was already dead - killed instantly by the shock and crushing weight of the stone. But a sighing moan and a cough from the trapped man testified to his continued existence.

“Don’t move,” Hercules cautioned the man as he stepped around the stone, examining the man’s predicament.

The man’s bitter laugh turned into a cough. “Like I’ve got a choice.”

Hercules bent low, looking at the stone and what he could see of the man’s body, which was very little. Trying to distract him, the son of Zeus asked, “So, I heard you name is Cassus - is that right?”

“Yeah, like you care.”

Hercules stood and regarded the man in silence. The trapped man glanced up at him and finally replied, grudgingly, “Yeah, I’m Cassus.”

When Hercules simply nodded and returned to his observations, Cassus went on irritably, but with a thread of fear lacing his words. “So - are you going to lift this thing off me, or just stand there looking?”

Hercules did not answer at once, and when his brooding silence continued a moment longer, the trapped man snapped, “Well, what are you waiting for? D’you want me to beg? I know you can do it!”

Hercules walked around to the other side of the stone, apparently still studying the problem. But had Cassus known him as well as his best friend, he would have known that for Hercules, words about death and dying were difficult to speak, if not impossible.

Finally, Hercules took a deep breath and looked at Cassus compassionately. “Your body’s been crushed. If I lift up this rock - you’ll die.”

Cassus gave a chuff of disbelieving laughter. “You’re lying. Quit stallin’ and get me outta here.”

Hercules folded his arms. “This rock is all that’s holding you together. If I move it, you’ll bleed to death in just a few moments.”

Cassus shook his head in obstinate denial, with panic nibbling at the edges of his mind. “Go shovel it somewhere else, hero. I don’t scare so easily.”

Hercules shrugged, his temper fraying at the man’s sarcasm. “Leave whenever you like. I’m telling you the truth.”

“If I’m as messed up as you say, how come I don’t feel any pain?” Cassus challenged.

“You will, if the stone is moved. Your body is numb from the weight of it.”

Cassus growled and pushed at the stone, but it was as solid and immoveable as the earth beneath him. In the silence that followed, he felt the demigod’s eyes on him.

“So - are you enjoying watching me squirm?”

Hercules regarded the man steadily. “I don’t enjoy anyone’s suffering.”

Cassus barked with cynical laughter. “I’m overwhelmed. It’s getting’ kinda crowded in here, you know - the size of your heart and all.”

Hercules shook his head slightly, then dismissed the discussion, turning his attention to more practical matters. He glanced up at the hole that had opened up between their location and what were obviously upper levels of the mine high above. Faint light filtered down from some opening to the mountaintop high above them.

The son of Zeus picked his way to the blocked opening of the chamber and studied the rockfall. From the location of the debris, Hercules decided it would be better for the clearing process to begin from the outside. His bedrock certainty and solace was that Iolaus was out there, or would be soon, and would start the clearing soon.

Cassus’ watched him and demanded, “Well, what are you waiting for? Break it down!”

Without turning or stopping his observations, Hercules answered absently. “Looks like we’re both trapped here. If I touch anything carelessly, the rest of the cavern could collapse.”

Cassus’ laugh was brittle and spiteful. “Well, you’d survive. You’re Hercules. Me, I’m just a talking corpse, so you’ve got nothing to lose.”

Hercules’ patience was growing thinner. “Except the pleasure of your company.”

“Oh, yeah - I can tell we’re gonna be the best of pals.”

Out at the blocked opening, Iolaus had studied the fall of stones, and knew he could begin to clear them reasonably safely. In the course of their heroic careers, he and Hercules had perforce become knowledgeable about many things, and a practical grasp of the physics of falling bodies helped him discern how to begin.

As the two village men watched warily, Iolaus began hefting the stones carefully from the pile and tossing them aside.

“Well, come on!” he urged. “It’s stable enough if we take it slowly. I could use some help.”

Phorbus answered dubiously, “Iolaus, this mine’s been abandoned for years. It’s a death trap! We can’t go in there.”

“I’m not asking you to,” Iolaus replied, hanging on to his patience doggedly in the face of the man’s justifiable fears. “Just help me clear the opening and I’ll go in.”

Craeton began lifting some of the rocks, but Phorbus shook his head. “I don’t think it’s possible to -“

Iolaus swung around and caught the man’s tunic and pulled him forward and down so they were face-to-face.

“That’s my best friend in there and I’m getting him out!” Iolaus grated out around gritted white teeth. “You don’t have to go in, but don’t tell me what’s possible. Just run back to the village and bring torches and some tools.”

Iolaus released the taller man with a quick push. “When Phorbus just stared in surprise, Iolaus growled, “Please - go!”

Phorbus glanced at Craeton and saw his expectant look, then nodded briefly to Iolaus. He whirled and took off running back toward the village.

Iolaus turned back and clapped Craeton on the shoulder. “Let’s get to it!”

Back inside, Hercules had gathered some of the wooden debris together and used the Hephaestean metal of his gauntlets to light a small fire for light in the dim chamber.

Cassus growled, “Stuck in a place hotter than Tartarus and you want to light a fire?”

Hercules fed the fire and in its light examined the nearby walls for other openings, but there were none to be seen. “You prefer the dark?” he asked absently, studying the chamber carefully.

Cassus snorted. “Yeah - makes it easier to pretend I’m not stuck in here with you!”

Hercules shook his head, but continued his perusal of their surroundings. “Look - we can spend all day trading insults or you can drop the act.”

“Act? I’m not the one strutting around acting like a real man just because my father gave me muscles bigger than everyone else’s’!”

Hercules smiled, but it was grim and did not lighten his eyes. “Slaughtering a family while they sleep - I guess that makes you a ‘real man’?”

“Oh, so now you’re the judge, jury, and executioner? Slow down, hero, other people gotta make a living, too!”

“Keep talking, Cassus. Just remember - you got yourself into this.”

Hercules’ grave calm seemed to infuriate the suspected killer even further. “You think you know what’s what - don’t you, Hercules?” Cassus spat. “Well you don’t! And I guess you don’t care either - but I’m innocent!”

In the quiet moment that followed, Hercules studied Cassus’ face with a penetrating look, using his demigodly intuition to weigh the truth or falsehood behind the suspect’s words …

Iolaus and Craeton had removed stones from the outer opening to find that the original lintel had fallen slightly but been wedged in place by other stones. Working carefully and quickly they had just broken through the rockfall with the picks that Phorbus had brought from the village. The further tunnel appeared mostly clear up to another rockfall in what appeared to be a major chamber. Phorbus handed through the torches, and turned as he heard voices and many footsteps coming from the road to the village.

Perius was in the lead, and he still carried his crossbow. Despite the earlier near disaster, he had reloaded it and strode toward the mine with a defiant look.

Two men followed on his heels, and Phorbus could hear one telling the other that indeed this Cassus had murdered an entire family and that there were bloody footprints all over the house. Phorbus walked toward the road in some surprise as others were following in the distance.

A young man could be heard telling his female friend, “I heard he cut their throats then stabbed them. Guess he wanted to do a thorough job.”

“Phorbus!” Perius cried. “Where is he? Has Hercules found that murderer?”

Phorbus shook his head and began to recount how their quarry was presently well beyond their reach or their vengeance. And he marveled as still more people followed …

In the stuffy chamber, Hercules had finally convinced Cassus to get past his surly sarcasm and recount what happened.

“It was early - the sun wasn’t up yet. I had been through town briefly the day before, and heard there might be work on the farms out that way. I heard a scream. At first I thought it was an animal, but then I realized it was coming from inside a house, so I ran to help.”

Cassus paused, and a look of horror and pain crossed his face - the most genuine emotion Hercules had seen him display since the desperation of his flight.

“It was a nightmare,” he continued, hoarsely. “They … were all dead. Blood everywhere. I heard a noise behind me and saw a dark figure fleeing through the open door. I tried to catch him, but he was gone. Someone must have seen me comin’ out of the house, because the next thing I knew, I was runnin’ for my life.”

Cassus shrugged. “I guess I picked the wrong town.”

Hercules, seated on a tall stone nearby, watched the trapped man’s face, and considered his story thoughtfully. “Why didn’t you go to the magistrate?”

Cassus shook his head. “I’ve got a history. How many people would believe a guy who’s spent time in prison?”

“What for?”

“I took a few things, here or there, to make ends meet. Okay - I’m no monk, but that doesn’t make me a killer.”

Hercules rose and walked to the other side of the chamber, still pondering the possibility of mistaken accusations, and other thieves he knew who had at one time or another been falsely accused.

After a moment, he observed, “If that’s true, you could’ve stood up for yourself in court.”

The caustic sarcasm returned to Cassus’ voice. “Where have you been all morning? Those animals out there tried to put a hole in me! They don’t want the truth - they just want blood, and mine is convenient.”

Hercules said nothing for another few quiet moments, musing. Cassus started to crane his neck painfully to see where he had gone when the demigod spoke.

“What did he look like?”

“Who?”

“The man you saw running from the house.”

“I don’t know - it was too dark. I didn’t get a good look.”

“Tall? Short?”

Cassus irritation rose higher. “I’m sayin’ that he ran by too fast!”

Suddenly, there were scraping sounds from beyond the blocked doorway and a thread of light penetrated into the chamber.

“Hercules!” Iolaus called. Anxiety just edged his voice, but it was very evident to Hercules. “Herc - can you hear me?”

“Iolaus!” the demigod called, stepping quickly toward the opening. “We’re here!”

As Hercules neared the rock-filled barrier, he saw that Iolaus had removed a stone that allowed them to see each other. His best friend’s face was a pleasant change, and he could see relief washing over the hunter’s handsome features.

“You all right?” Iolaus asked quietly.

“Yeah - I’m fine.”

Iolaus nodded and Hercules returned the nod - and a wealth of unspoken communication flashed between them.

“Didya get him?”

Hercules shrugged. “Uh - you could say that.”

Iolaus looked away, studying the rockfall and the tunnel on his side of the barrier. “You know, it doesn’t look too good out here.”

“Not much better on this side either.”

“Great,” Iolaus murmured, but staunchly continued, “Okay, so - that being said, what’s our plan?”

And Hercules began to look around for inspiration.

Unknown to either hero, outside the crowd of morbidly curious onlookers was growing. Word had obviously spread from the village, Craeton thought, even to the countryside hereabouts, and wondered at what motivated them to come.

Voices floated up to where he and Phorbus stood on the pathway to the mine.

“There’s nothing like watching a criminal get what’s coming to him!”

A traveler walking by on the road stopped and asked one of the townsmen, “Hey - what’s going on here?”

“There’s a mass murderer in there!” the villager replied excitedly, and began relaying a tale of the event that had grown with the telling.

Suddenly, coming from around the curve in the road, a food vendor pulling a cart came trundling toward the crowd, to calls of excitement and encouragement from the crowd. A group of people followed not far behind and began spreading blankets and unpacking picnics.

Craeton and Phorbus stared at each other in amazement as the crowd grew and more holidaymakers chattered.

“The children are having so much fun!”

“It’s such a beautiful day!”

“Front row seats!”

Two heavy-set men with an air of trouble about them stood at the edge of the crowd. One elbowed the other and said, “Now, I think we can have some fun here!”

Perius, still clutching his crossbow, stood just below Craeton and Phorbus on the pathway up to the mine entrance. He declaimed to his friends in a hard voice, “If criminals were properly punished, we wouldn’t have this problem. The truth is, I hope that murderer is still alive so we can hang him ourselves - a proper execution!”

Craeton looked at Phorbus and observed quietly, “You know, Perius has never been the same since his wife died.”

Phorbus nodded, but said nothing at first, still bemused be the growing crowd of morbid merrymakers at the bottom of the rise. Finally, jerking his chin at them, he asked his friend in disapproving puzzlement, “So, what’s their excuse?”

Inside, Iolaus was carefully passing a wooden beam to Hercules through the widened hole in the rock barrier.

“Careful,” Hercules breathed.

“I am being careful,” Iolaus replied, just as softly. “You really think this’ll be strong enough to brace the roof?”

“I hope so.”

Abruptly, a medium-sized rock fell from above on Iolaus’ side of the wall, and jarred his hold slightly, but it was enough to push the beam they held against the side of the opening. Stones again began to fall, first in the outer tunnel, then in they chamber.

Both friends cried out to each other to, “Look out!”

The rockfall was not as bad as the first, and ceased quickly. When it was done, Hercules and Iolaus looked up from their shielded positions on both sides of the wall to find that a good-sized hole had opened in the wall as more rocks were dislodged, and a large flat stone had fallen across two outcroppings below to create a fairly sturdy lintel above the opening.

Iolaus whistled. “Now that’s a fairly amazing happening, praise Gaia!”

Hercules glanced at the walls and ceiling in wonder. Quietly he whispered, “Thanks, Grandmother!”

A bit more loudly, he replied to Iolaus, “Yeah - no harm done. In fact, that accident actually improved things.”

Cassus could just barely see the opening from where he lay. As Hercules prepared to go through the doorway out of the chamber, he began a blustering tirade that the son of Zeus could tell hid a major fear of being abandoned to his fate.

“Yeah - it’s been a real pleasure. Thanks for the improvements - and now get outta here and leave me in peace!”

Hercules turned and met Cassus’ stricken eyes. “We’ll be back, Cassus - you can believe that!”

Cassus growled, “Yeah, sure. You tell whoever’s out there that they can all go straight to Tartarus. And while you’re at it, you and your pal go, too!”

But Hercules could see the terror lessen in his eyes. Hercules held the trapped man’s gaze a moment longer, then turned and bent to crawl out of the hole.

Iolaus met him as he emerged from the hole, dusty and coughing. The smaller man grasped his friend by both arms and observed him critically for a moment.

“You sure you’re okay, Herc?” he asked, and Hercules could read the tale of the fearful moments after the cave-in still evident in Iolaus’ haunted eyes.

“I’m fine, Iolaus - really,” Hercules assured him gently. “Just dusty and thirsty.”

Then Iolaus sighed with relief and released Hercules, but then punched him soundly in the bicep.

“Ow! What was that for?”

“The principle of the thing!” Iolaus snapped. “You don’t try to reason with a desperate man in a collapsing mine! You’re Hercules, you know! You could’ve knocked him out in any of a hundred ways, then picked him up and come out here to discuss whether he was going to face the music or not. You could’ve been killed in there!”

Hercules hid the grin that threatened to break out, and answered meekly, “Yeah, well, I’m sure you’re right, but just being the son of Zeus doesn’t mean I can think that fast. I did the best I could - and I didn’t mean to worry you.”

Iolaus shook his head and grinned at the laughing eyes behind the supposedly meek response. “Yeah, okay, okay. I’m just glad you’re all right, okay? So let’s get you some water - Craeton brought some supplies from the village.”

As the two friends emerged from the cleared mine entrance, it was evident that Craeton had brought more from the village than just a few supplies. Hercules and Iolaus looked down in amazement on what appeared to be an impromptu festival, where not long before there had only been a quiet track through a rocky field. Amateur musicians played sprightly tunes on flutes and drums, while people danced, ate picnic treats, and gossiped about the crime. Vendors with food carts and tinkers with merchandise plied the crowd.

“Wow, where’d they come from?” Iolaus observed blankly. “Where’s the party?”

Hercules’ jaw muscles bunched grimly. “Anywhere there’s a thrilling attraction, no matter how morbid. Remember that executioner’s fair we came upon in Deimos? Same kind of rubbernecking there.”

“Yeah - at least until you tore down the gallows and ran off the bookmakers.”

Hercules grinned at his friend’s sly expression. “I seem to remember having help doing that.”

Iolaus chuckled. “So, here we are again.” He took a breath and went on. “Well, let’s get you that water.”

“And some for Cassus, too.”

Hercules took Iolaus’ agreement for granted and so missed his careless shrug. The best friend of Hercules had little sympathy for someone who could’ve injured him - or worse. But Iolaus followed without enlightening him.

As they strode down the hill from the mine entrance, they came first to where Perius and his cronies were talking with increasing frustration to Craeton and Phorbus, who had taken up an unofficial guard duty at the bottom of the hill.

“Look! It’s Hercules and Iolaus!” Perius cried, pushing past his fellow townsmen to reach the two heroes. Thanks the gods you’re safe! We owe you a debt of gratitude.”

Hercules and Iolaus both dodged Perius and walked on down the hill toward the supply cart. “Don’t thank us yet,” Hercules flung over his shoulder.

“Why?” Perius asked as the others scrambled after the two friends. “Isn’t he dead?”

Hercules shook his head and turned to reply, as Iolaus moved on to the cart, content to let the son of Zeus face the vigilante townsmen. Much of the crowd seemed too involved in their fun to care about the very reason they had gathered.

“Cassus isn’t dead -- yet,” Hercules stated, baldly. He caught the waterskin that Iolaus tossed him, and both turned to fill them at the barrel of water on the back of the cart. “But he’s badly hurt and we can’t move him.”

Perius’ face fell. “You don’t mean to tell us that you’re going to protect him, do you?”

Hercules stoppered the waterskin and met the rich man’s imperious gaze with a naturally imperial frown. “By sunset, Cassus will be dead, and there’s nothing that’s going to change that. He can’t hurt anybody now, and maybe we can find out if this is justice, or if he is innocent.”

Iolaus had already begun walking back up the path. Hercules brushed past Perius to follow, but the wealthy villager let go one hand from his small crossbow and grabbed the demigod’s powerful arm as he passed, meaning to stop him. Hercules towed him for a moment before stopping, looking down at Perius’ hand on his arm, then up at the townsman with a smoldering glance.

Iolaus turned and watched, holding his breath slightly, but was relieved when Hercules did not flatten Perius. The rich man did drop his hold as the demigod’s flaming blue eyes met his, and was too angry to know the risk he courted.

“Are you going to hold that butcher’s hand while he dies?” Perius cried. “What about this poor girl’s family?”

He gestured to a young woman supported by an older man in the front of the crowd regarding them disconsolately. Hercules and Iolaus exchanged glances, both recalling having heard in the village that the only survivor of the murdered family was an older daughter, Lyna, who had taken refuge with her cousins.

Hercules’ eyes narrowed as though reading Perius closely. His demi-godly sense of truth and falsehood discerned a deeper motivation in the wealthy man.

“Who is it you’re really trying to help here, Perius? This family, or yourself? Justice or vengeance?”

“All right, then!” Perius shouted in reply. “I have a question for you, Hercules! Where were you when my wife was killed? I never even had a chance to say goodbye!”

Iolaus caught his breath and saw the color drain from Hercules’ face as those words hit home. He stepped quickly back to his friend’s side, and stood close enough so that his shoulder touched the demigod’s arm, glaring at Perius in fury, and ready to leap to Hercules’ defense.

Hercules felt the support, both physically and mentally, and found he was able to breathe again. He glanced down at Iolaus’ tense anger, caught his friend’s eye, and shook his head slightly. It was enough that Iolaus was ready to spring to his care, even at such an emotional blow. The old ache of Deianeira’s death and the fresher anguish of Serena’s eased in the warmth of Iolaus’ fierce love and protection. He was able to hear the rest of the man’s tirade of grief as though it bounced off an invisible shield.

“Bandits slit her throat!” Perius cried out. “She died alone because of people like that monster in there!”

“But still - he did not do it,” Hercules replied, gently but firmly, hooking a thumb back toward the mine. “I’m truly sorry for your loss. Believe me, I -” he glanced down at Iolaus briefly,“ - we … know how you feel.”

Perius was silenced. Hercules wasn’t sure if it was because of his own refusal to shout back, his own very obvious pain and the rumors that had flown about Serena’s death, or the sight of Iolaus’ incandescent anger, but he took what he could get. The two friends turned to walk back up the slope to the mine.

As they neared the entrance, Perius found his voice. “How about that murderer in there? Do you think he’s sorry for what he’s done?”

As Iolaus walked on grimly, Hercules turned. “He says he didn’t kill those people.”

“And you believe him?”

Hercules shrugged. “There’s a chance he’s innocent. Until we know the truth, we don’t have the right to condemn him.”

As the two heroes disappeared into the mine, Perius turned to his followers. “He won’t get away with this! I won’t let him!”

His sycophantic cronies nodded and babbled their agreement, but Perius barely heard them, so focused was he on his own pain and desire for retaliation. That focus also drove out the quiet sobbing of Lyna and her cousin’s soft words of comfort…

When they were alone in the mine corridor, Iolaus could ask his own troubled questions.

“Herc, you know I’m behind you in this, but I don’t get it. Why are you defending this guy? He’s a murderer!”

Hercules sighed. “Things are not always as cut and dried as they seem - you know that. Just like when Serena was murdered and you found me with a bloody knife in my hand.”

Iolaus shook his head adamantly. “But that was different!”

“How?”

“Well … because … well, you know - you’re Hercules!”

“Didn’t seem to matter much to anybody else,” Hercules replied. “And after all that - I know what it’s like to be the hunted. Even with what people knew of me, they were willing to believe the worst.”

“Yeah, but you proved ’em wrong, Herc!” Iolaus sputtered.

“Only with your loyalty and help -- and Xena’s and Gabrielle’s, of course. Where would I be now if I didn’t have friends like you to give me a better chance?”

Iolaus was silenced as he remembered how hopeless Hercules had been at that moment, and how it had required all of them to help him win through.

Hercules nodded as he saw the point really register with Iolaus. “And a chance is all Cassus is going to get - a chance for redemption and dying in some kind of peace.”

“So it really is that bad?” Iolaus asked quietly. “You weren’t just saying that to protect him?”

Hercules shook his head. “Cassus won’t stand trial. He’ll die before the evening is over.”

Iolaus studied his friend. “So … I gotta know, Herc. Do you really think this Cassus is innocent?”

Hercules looked away and sighed. “No, I get the sense that he’s lying. I think he did commit the murders.”

Iolaus sighed also, and ran a hand through his hair, but before he could speak, Hercules went on.

“But before this place collapsed, Cassus said something fairly telling. He said he didn’t want to kill me, but he would if he had to. A man without a conscience wouldn’t’ve said that.”

Iolaus replied thoughtfully, “So - what? You think you’re gonna get him to confess?”

“It’s the only way we’ll find the truth behind the act. The family needs that - and maybe Cassus does, too.”

Iolaus regarded him fondly, with a gentle shake of his head, but said nothing of his admiration for Hercules’ strong sense of justice or his caring for all kinds of people.

“I’ll get some more water,” was all Iolaus replied. “You’re gonna be in here a while.”

“Yeah - thanks.” Hercules clapped his friend on the shoulder and the blond hurried out. The son of Zeus sighed and bent to scrunch his tall form through the small opening.

Cassus’ eyes fastened on him hungrily in the dying light, but his words belied that unconscious welcome. “Ha! Did you forget something?”

Hercules strode closer and tossed the gurgling waterskin to the trapped man. “Actually, I thought you might be thirsty.”

Cassus brief moment of surprise was overwhelmed by his need for water. He uncorked the container and drank greedily. When he had drunk his fill he merely made a contented noise in his throat, and wiped his mouth.

“You’re welcome,” Hercules stated in a voice that implied he had hoped for better.

“I don’t need you here,” Cassus grunted. “I don’t want you here.”

“Gee -- that’s too bad,” Hercules answered, sarcasm edging his voice. “And I was really looking forward to seeing you again, too.”

“So - did you just come back to hear me beg for mercy?”

“I came back because a dying man deserves to have his last words heard.” Hercules’ voice was mild but stern. “And it looks like my friend and I are the only ones who’ll listen to yours.”

Cassus regarded him in honest puzzlement. “I don’t get your angle. Bein’ here doesn’t make you more popular with those villagers.”

Hercules shook his head and glanced away. “Yeah, I guess it must be hard for you to understand someone without an agenda.” Hercules sighed. “What’s popular isn’t always what’s right.”

Cassus laughed, but it was an ugly sound, both from his emotion and his physical condition. “You’re just glowing with goodness, aren’t you, Hercules?”

Hercules turned to regard the man implacably, and something in his steely gaze made the suspect’s eyes drop and his laughter falter.

“Cassus,” the son of Zeus observed shrewdly, quietly, “do you have so little respect for yourself that you can’t see when someone’s trying to help you?”

Cassus’ sarcasm died before Hercules’ undaunted compassion, and he lay stunned and silent in the face of it …

As Iolaus exited the cave, he paused for a moment, startled by the increased size of the crowd that now celebrated Cassus’ supposed infamy. Watching the vendors, picnickers, dancers, and revelers as he strode down the pathway from the mine entrance, Iolaus shook his head in disgust.

He reached the bottom of the hill and a young woman, somewhat the worse for wine, danced up to him and threw her arms around his neck. Iolaus wasted no time in unclasping her arms and pushing her gently but firmly away. The girl turned easily to another man, giggling at the blond hunter’s seriousness.

Perius, still cradling his crossbow, stepped into Iolaus’ path, and his friends followed. “You and Hercules don’t need to be protecting this killer. Look around you - you’re in over your head.”

Iolaus darted around them and stepped to the cart that held their supplies. “Thanks so much for your advice,” he replied, reining in his irritation with difficulty.

The men watched him fill the waterskins, and one asked, “What do you think you’re doing there?”

Iolaus looked up, exasperated. “Look - we’re not doing this to hurt you people!”

“Then stop it, please!” Perius snapped.

“All Hercules is trying to do is to get to the truth,” Iolaus answered, as he completed filling both skin bottles, and corked them. He looked up at Perius and the others. “We can’t be totally sure that Cassus is guilty yet.”

Perius’ eyes took on a far-away look. His voice was wrung with pain as he spoke again. “You don’t understand! Before my wife died, we were going to start a family, have children. Now all I am - all I know - dies with me.”

Iolaus’ hands stilled, and his breath caught, and the memories that still colored his dreams flowed into his mind.

Ania, her dark eyes alight with love, laughter, and promise … The joy in her eyes when she placed the tiny bundle that was Telaus in his arms for the first time …the warm roundness of her belly that was Aeacus, who lived only a little longer than his mother … the warm and sunny hillside where now they all lay buried …

Iolaus spoke quietly, his voice resonating with the echoes of his own pain. “Believe me, Perius, both Hercules and I understand your pain very well. We know you miss your wife. But killing Cassus won’t make that pain go away - trust me. And he didn’t have anything to do with your wife’s death.”

Perius was beyond reason, existing only in his pain. “How do you know? The man who did it was never caught. For all I know, Cassus did kill her.”

Iolaus sighed, knowing it was futile, but pointed toward the cave. “Doesn’t that mean anything to you? The man is in there, half of him crushed by a giant stone. He’s dying as we speak. What more can you possibly do than has already happened?”

Perius stared at Iolaus, and whispered out of the depths of his pain, “To watch him die.”

Iolaus met his gaze, and put all the force of his understanding and compassion in his voice. “Perius - it will not bring her back. And it won’t make you feel any better.”

Nothing changed in the man’s bloodless face, but the men around him were silent and thoughtful. None of them spoke or made a move as Iolaus turned on his heel and strode back up the hill. But just as he reached the entrance, Iolaus heard Perius call after him.

“You’re both making a mistake you might live to regret.”

Like we’ve never heard that one before! Iolaus thought as he paused at the dark mouth of the mine.

He did not turn, but tossed his words back over his shoulder. “We’ll take our chances!”

In the dimness of the cavern, Cassus drained the last of one waterskin. “It’s hotter than a baker’s oven in here.”

Hercules said nothing, feeling only the cool air flowing through the opened ceiling and the doorway. He wondered if Cassus might be running a fever from his massive injuries.

His attention was returned to the trapped man as Cassus tossed the waterskin away carelessly. “All gone,” the suspect complained.

“Iolaus will be back soon.”

The certainty with which Hercules spoke those words seemed to irritate Cassus. “So - you’re best pals?” he asked, with a mocking emphasis on the words.

Hercules regarded the man coolly. “I trust him with my life.” His voice held bedrock assurance.

Cassus laughed derisively. “So, you expect a thief like me to understand that much trust?”

Hercules smiled slightly, as his mind flew back over nearly thirty years of fast friendship with a former thief. “As a matter of fact, yeah. I’ve known one who understands it very well. If you can’t, I’m sorry for you.”

“I don’t need your pity, hero. I got by all right, by myself, with just my wits!”

“Yeah.” Hercules gaze raked over the man’s position, but his sense of honor wouldn’t let him drive the point home further under the circumstances.

After a brief pause, Hercules asked quietly, “You never wanted anything else?”

“I never stuck around anywhere long enough to make a friend like that,” Cassus replied, gruffly, but Hercules heard the yearning buried deeply at the core of that statement.

Cassus’ voice became harsher, derisive again, as if he could deny that yearning. “So what difference does a little mortal guy like that mean to you, son of Zeus? What d’you need with him? You’re Hercules!”

Hercules stared at Cassus, irritated, but finding the man truly pathetic. His voice conveyed that feeling as he replied. “If you’ve never had that kind of a friend, Cassus, there’s no way I could explain it to you.”

Hercules paused a moment, and his voice became warm and deeper as he continued. “That ‘little mortal’, as you call him, is my hero and the biggest man I know. I couldn’t be who I am without having had him in my life. He’s taught me what true heroism is - he lived it in front of me everyday when we were growing up, and still does. He put a brave face on a hard life, and laughed in the face of abuse and neglect. He took the hard knocks that life dealt him, and sometimes he got knocked down, but he learned from them, and he grew. He’s much, much stronger than I’ll ever be.”

Hercules became stern and his voice hinted of steel as he went on. “So it would be best if you didn’t disrespect my friend again, Cassus. I might forget your circumstances.”

Cassus was taken aback by Hercules’ adamant, unwavering expression of his friendship with Iolaus, and the casual menace that came to his voice with any slight to his friend. In the brief silence that followed, he wondered what his life might have been like if he had found that kind of staunch loyalty, even in one person.

After a moment, Hercules continued conversationally, the threat gone from his voice. “Didn’t you have any other ties? Anything else to give you roots?”

“What - like a house, a kid - a little lady on the porch?”

Hercules watched him thoughtfully. “Nothing wrong with that.”

Cassus glanced at the demigod with genuine curiosity. “So if you feel like that, why are you here, then?’

Hercules looked away. He couldn’t keep the pathos and longing out of his voice or face as he answered. “I tried to have those things. The truth is - there’s nothing I want more. But … I - I guess it wasn’t meant to be.”

Cassus regarded Hercules with real interest, finally beginning to see him as a person and not just a demigod, or a hero. A man with scars from his past that perhaps equaled Cassus’own.

“Bad luck?” Cassus asked, his voice quiet, honest.

Hercules replied hoarsely, “You could call it that - yeah.”

Cassus looked away and off into years past. “Well, you’re not missin’ much. I had an old lady once,” and the ache in his voice belied the harsh words. “Nice … pretty. Would’ve let her stick around, too, but she took off. Left her kid behind.”

Her kid?”

“Well, she said he was mine. Nico. Tell you the truth, he didn’t look much like me.”

Hercules asked, his words a breath in the stillness, “What happened to him?”

“I tried to provide for him. Gave him everything I never had. Little punk just took off. Haven’t seen him in years. Should’ve known he’d turn out as rotten as his mama.”

“Oh,” Hercules observed grimly, “so it was her fault that your son left?’

“Damn right. Man can’t be expected to take care of a kid by himself - can he?”

Hercules found his pity being replaced with anger at those words. He remembered Iolaus after Ania’s death, working like a hero daily to be mother and father to little Telaus. Giving every ounce of love and energy he had to surround the child with a warm, close bond of total love and protection that made the little one’s short life a joy and a beautiful remembrance. Hercules had to swallow his own grief at the too short lives of his dear “nephews”, before he could give voice to the anger he felt towards a man who would so easily dismiss the sacred trust of fatherhood.

“In your case, Cassus - that may be true.” Hercules knew if he went further, he wouldn’t be able to stop, and he might never learn the truth about the murders. He rose from his stone seat and, with a scathing look at the man trapped by more than just a stone, he strode to the opening and left the chamber to cool off.

Iolaus met him there with the full waterskins, but before either man could speak, Cassus’ querulous voice called out, “More water - bring it here!”

Iolaus irritation rose, more for Hercules’ sake than his own. “How much more of that are you going to take?”

Hercules shook his head, his anger burning as blue-white fire in his eyes, doing his best not to let his hands crush the full waterskins in that anger. “That guy is so full of excuses! I doubt he’s ever taken responsibility for anything in his life!”

“Yeah?” Iolaus watched his friend, and wondered where this situation could possibly go. “You know, Herc, I doubt there’s any way he’s gonna start now.”

Hercules sighed, and felt Iolaus’ sympathetic gaze wash over him like a calming wave. “I know, and I’m not really expecting that much.” The son of Zeus stood thoughtfully for a moment, turning over his conversation with the condemned man. “Unless …”

“Unless?” Iolaus prompted when Hercules continued to ponder silently.

“Well, Cassus said he had a son, Nico - a son who ran away. Probably living on the streets.” Hercules met Iolaus’ gaze with a probing look. “You think you could find him?”

“Street kid?” Iolaus repeated, thoughtfully. “Yeah, I’ve got a pretty good idea where to look. There were times I came here from Thebes back then, with the Lowacks, or to get away from them. I doubt much has changed. Why do you want him?”

“The boy didn’t just leave for no reason,” Hercules stated slowly, watching Iolaus as he spoke.

The blond warrior and former street kid regarded his friend steadily. “None of us did.”

Hercules nodded. “Yeah, I remember.” He looked away, not feeling nearly as calm in his memories of those years as Iolaus seemed to be. “Anyway, if Cassus won’t face his responsibilities --”

Iolaus nodded, too. “ - we gotta bring his responsibilities to him.”

“Yeah.”

Iolaus continued to study his friend. “Kinda late, you know, Herc.”

Hercules nodded. “I know, but I remember it helped you to get closure with your dad, even though you had to d-die to get it.”

“So, we’re doin’ this for Nico as much as for Cassus,” Iolaus observed, in the voice of one putting the puzzle piece in place and finding a more coherent whole.

Hercules nodded, and Iolaus smiled. “That makes for a better reason. I’ll try to find the boy, Herc.”

Hercules caught his friend’s arm as the smaller man turned away. “Iolaus, you’re - you’re sure you’re okay with this?”

Iolaus grinned. “Sure I am. You helped me lay these ghosts long ago, Herc. Mostly anyway.”

The demigod studied his friend’s open smile seriously, still holding his arm. “Mostly?”

Iolaus shrugged and laughed. “The scars are well healed, Herc, don’t worry. What’s the use of my experience, if not to help us at a time like this? I’m fine, don’t worry.”

“What? Me worry about a tough kid like you?” Hercules laughed, his face finally relaxing.

“Never,” Iolaus added, laughing.

Cassus voice cut into their quiet laughter. “Hercules - more water!”

Hercules nodded toward the mine entrance. “Go - he doesn’t have much time.”

Iolaus nodded and caught Hercules hand where the demigod still held his arm. Giving his friend’s hand a quick, reassuring squeeze, the blond hunter turned and strode quickly from the mine.

Hercules watched him go, then turned with a sigh and re-entered the dim chamber. He stepped over to Cassus and handed him one of the waterskins, ignoring the man’s complaints as he thought about Iolaus’ mission.

All at once there was a faint scraping of a footstep at the chamber entrance and a shadow appeared there. Hercules spun around to see only someone’s arm with an oil-soaked, rag-stuffed earthen vessel at the dark doorway.

A muffled voice called out, “Die, murderer!” And the vessel was thrown toward where Cassus lay pinned. The brittle earthenware broke and flames erupted wherever the oil spilled. The old splintered wood of broken beams on the cavern floor went up like so much tinder.

Cassus, spattered with the oil and watching the flames race closer, shouted, “Help me! Do something!” But Hercules was already pulling off his outer shirt and beating at the flames before the man finished his plea.

Greek fire! Hercules observed as he batted at the racing blaze. He knocked down the flames near Cassus, then kicked the dry sand of the cave floor over the burning wood.

In moments the flames were dying, as the mixture was consumed or the fire smothered by Hercules’ quick actions.

We’re lucky that pitcher wasn’t larger, Hercules thought, glancing around at the shattered earthenware bits. A bit more of the stuff or a closer toss and Cassus would’ve been burning.

Before he could turn around to reassure the trapped man, Hercules heard a shout for help from outside the chamber. As Cassus yelled behind him, Hercules ran out and found the cries coming from deeper in the mine, away from the entrance.

The demigod ran toward the calls, around the curve in the tunnel. Just before the older rockfall that had sealed off the deeper recesses, a pathway skirted a deep ravine. Hercules found Lyna at the edge of the ravine, trying to hold her cousin, who appeared to have fallen in.

“I’m slipping!” he cried.

“Please help me!” she called, looking up at Hercules with terror in her shadowed eyes. “My cousin -- Geryon - I can’t hold him!”

Hercules mentally shoved his questions to the back of his mind and dashed forward. He bent to catch the man’s hand from Lyna’s hold, and nodded for her to release hers.

“Thank you,” she whispered and stepped back. Hercules concentrated his attention on getting the man up and out of the gaping ravine, as small stones rained down into the darkness and emptiness below.

“I can’t help you, I think I’ve hurt my leg,” Geryon faltered.

“Don’t worry, “ Hercules answered, shortly. “Just give me your other hand.”

The man complied warily, and was astounded when Hercules pulled him up easily, though he was no featherweight.

Hercules glanced at Geryon’s leg, and checked it quickly. “I think you just twisted it. Sit still for a moment.”

The man looked at Hercules guiltily. “We - we didn’t mean to hurt you with the firebomb, Hercules,” he said haltingly. “It was that man - Lyna and I wanted to --”

“Lyna!” Hercules realized the import of these words and glanced up swiftly. The girl was gone.

“Where is she?” he demanded.

Lyna’s cousin said nothing, but his misery was as eloquent as speech. Hercules rose, whirled around, and dashed back into the chamber where Cassus lay helpless.

Hercules heard Cassus’voice rising in fear as he reached the chamber entrance.

“What are you doing?”

As Hercules leaped through the opening, he saw Lyna in the dying firelight, standing above Cassus with a large knife poised to strike.

“You bastard!” she cried in agony.

“NO!” Hercules shouted and threw himself toward Lyna. He caught her easily, one big hand closing over the wrist that held the knife. With a tiny fraction of his great strength, he pressed the nerve below her thumb and her hand spasmed.

With a despairing cry she dropped the knife, and Hercules pulled her to his chest as she began to cry in shock and horror.

“Get that crazy woman away from me!” Cassus cried, coughing.

Struggling in Hercules’ grasp, Lyna screamed, “You killed my family!”

Hercules held her closely and quietly murmured, “Killing him won’t bring them back.”

She collapsed against his chest, sobbing. “He deserves to die!”

Hercules gently rested his head on top of hers. “Lyna, that’s exactly what he’s doing. Please, come away.”

Hercules helped her out of the narrow opening, as her raging emotions had left her weak and shaking. He held her quietly as she cried, her back against his chest, and gently said, “You shouldn’t be in here. This cavern’s not safe.”

She shook her head. “I don’t have anything left to lose. He’s taken everything from me - everything!”

From inside the chamber, Cassus called fretfully, “Do I have to listen to this little drama? I’m sick enough!”

Lyna, struggling again in the demigod’s grip, screamed, “I’ll kill you!”

As she twisted and cried, Hercules held on. “I know, Lyna, I know how you feel!”

“They never hurt anybody!” she sobbed.

“Of course not,” he soothed her. “They were innocent, and so are you. You are not at fault for having survived.”

“I should’ve been there! I’d be with them now!”

“But you’re here,” Hercules glanced up, and saw her cousin hobbling toward them, his anguish for his kinswoman plain to see. “And you have other family who would not wish you to be gone.”

“No! I don’t care - I want him dead!”

“Listen to me, Lyna!” Hercules said kindly, but firmly. “This is not the answer!”

She sobbed harder. “What do you know?!”

Hercules whispered, his own pain still raw and evident. “I know. I know how easy it is to hate at a time like this. I also know that hate can make you do things you regret.”

Lyna sagged in his arms, the tears coursing down her face. “Could I ever regret killing that monster?”

“Yes, believe me, you would. You’re too good for this, Lyna. This is not what your family would want you to do.”

“I only wish they were here! I can’t believe they’re gone.”

“I know, I know,” Hercules soothed. His eyes met those of Geryon, who stood leaning against the wall close by. Hercules nodded towards the girl, in silent instruction.

As Geryon stepped closer to take Lyna’s arm, Hercules whispered to her, “It’s going to be hard, Lyna. But you’ll make it. You have good people to help.” Hercules smiled at the man as he took the girl gently, and recognized the silent apology in his eyes for their complicity in trying to harm Cassus. The pair walked slowly toward the mine entrance.

“Get them out of here!” Cassus shouted.

At this point, Hercules’ temper snapped. There was no way to bear or excuse Cassus’ hateful remarks to the grieving woman. He wished for it all to be over, for Iolaus’ steady and sane presence, but none of those wishes dulled the blazing anger at Cassus’ mockery of Lyna’s pain.

Hercules gritted his teeth against the growl of fury that tried to escape and stormed back to face Cassus …

Iolaus entered the town at a trot, and made his way quickly to the alleys that led off the agora, into the labyrinth of ancient buildings where the youngest of the neglected and abandoned tended to hide. Much of it had changed little since Iolaus had been a child here, and fairly quickly he found a young boy of about eleven on a dingy corner.

“Hey, kid,” Iolaus approached him slowly, his hands out non-threateningly.

The boy watched him warily, dark-fringed eyes giving away nothing. “Yes, warrior?”

“I’m looking for a young guy named Nico. He’s probably been around the last couple of years. About fourteen - d’you know him?”

The boy shook his head almost before Iolaus stopped speaking, so Iolaus knew it was automatic and probably not truthful. “Look, he’s not in trouble, and I don’t want to hurt him. You sure you don’t know him?”

Iolaus tried to infuse his voice with all the warmth he could, but the boy still shook his head. Something changed in the boy’s eyes then, and he stammered, “Maybe -- maybe I’d do? Anything you want, warrior - just a dinar.”

Iolaus caught his breath and swallowed. These memories he wasn’t ready for, and he pushed all that darkness resolutely away.

“Look, kid,” he replied, his voice even more gentle, “it’s not like that. I just want to talk to the boy.” Iolaus paused for a moment, looking the child over, and saw a face that was too thin, and the clothes that were tattered and too small. “Are you hungry?”

The boy nodded, his eyes still fixed on Iolaus’ face, his expression still guarded. Iolaus fished in his belt pouch and found several dinara. He held them out to the boy. As the child darted a quick hand out to take them, Iolaus paused for a moment.

“This is for food,” Iolaus said gently. “You have a safe place to go and eat?”

As the boy nodded, Iolaus went on. “Good. I wanna get news of Nico, and that’s all I want. I’ll be around here. If you find out anything, let me know, okay?”

As the small coins fell into the boy’s palm, he looked up at Iolaus, and his expression warmed slightly. “Sure you don’t want anything else, warrior?”

“Yeah, kid. Take care of yourself, okay?” Iolaus answered. The boy nodded, and streaked away toward the agora.

Iolaus sighed and briefly closed his eyes. I guess those scars run a little deeper than I remembered.

He straightened his shoulders and went on with his search. Some of the kids would barely even let him get close; others had expectations much like those of the first boy he’d seen. Iolaus moved through the back alleys of Galatea, frustrated by the tight-lipped kids who continued to protect their own, and pushing back into his heart the painful memories that their wary young faces evoked.

Finally, Iolaus leaned against a pillar at the edge of the agora, wondering which direction to try next, when he felt a slight tug on his vest. The dark-haired boy that he had first spoken to stood there, looking up at him, still wary and ready to run.

“Well, hello again,” Iolaus greeted him.

The child ducked his head. “Warrior,” he replied, and glanced up.

Iolaus studied the boy. “Did you get something to eat?” he asked gently.

“Yes, sir, and it was good!”

“That’s good. You have a name?”

The boy regarded him silently for a moment, then replied, “Ino - I’m Ino.”

The man smiled. “Well, Ino, I’m Iolaus. Did you save some of that money?”

The child nodded. “I found out something,” he added, watching Iolaus’ reaction.

The blond hunter grinned. “Good work! Do you know where he is?”

“No, but Lyris might.” And the boy turned and darted away, pausing only long enough to see that Iolaus followed. The hunter strode after his guide, and was led to an even dingier alley, where the boy located a slightly older child with long blonde hair.

Iolaus couldn’t tell if Lyris was a boy or a girl; the child had an androgynous prettiness that pre-teens of both sexes often share. Iolaus guessed Lyris cultivated that mystery deliberately, whether for protection or provocation he wasn’t certain.

What was certain was that Lyris was not happy that Ino had brought Iolaus. The older child nearly ran, but Iolaus’ calm, non-threatening manner was soothing, and finally the near teenager admitted that Nico was around.

It took more persuasion, and the last of Iolaus’ money, but Lyris at last pointed out the direction of Nico’s hideout and gave directions.

As Iolaus handed Lyris and Ino the last of his coins, he asked them, “Are you safe around here?”

Lyris shrugged, and Ino bragged, “I can take of myself.”

“Well, you do that, okay?” Iolaus replied with a faint smile. “Both of you. I may try to check on you now and then, when I’m back through this way, all right?”

They both simply nodded, watching him in some surprise as though wondering when the catch would come.

Iolaus looked off in the direction that Lyris had pointed. “You sure I can find Nico there?”

Lyris watched him a second longer. “You won’t hurt him?”

Iolaus shook his head. “No more than I have you.”

Lyris nodded. “You can find Nico where I said.”

Iolaus nodded back. “Take care, both of you.” And he ran off down the alley, hoping against hope that he would be able to get through to Nico, as he had the younger children. But then he remembered himself at fourteen, and groaned inwardly.

Somehow, I think Nico may be a tougher sell …

Hercules burst into the cave, and for the first time Cassus could see the man who was the son of the god of lightning and storms. Even in the dimness, the demigod’s light blue eyes were the wrathful grey-blue of a sky in a winter gale. Cassus was not certain if the son of Zeus was growling in his throat or if there was a rumble of thunder in the distance. Hercules appeared twice as big in the close cavern as he stalked over to the trapped man; he caught the front of Cassus’ tunic and yanked his shoulders up off the rock that supported him.

“What the hell is the matter with you?!” Hercules raged. “She hasn’t been through enough today - you have to mock her grief as well?”

Cassus, his lips bloodless with terror at the transformation of the usually calm, controlled hero, stammered defensively, “Wait - wait - in case you didn’t notice - she tried to kill me!”

Hercules dropped the man’s shoulders against the stone with a hard shove. He whirled away with a muted cry, realizing dimly he had to put distance between himself and the criminal fast.

“Put yourself in her place, Cassus - is that remotely possible for you?” Hercules shouted. He turned to face the quaking suspect from that distance, and went on in blazing fury. “Her family was stabbed to death! She’ll never see her young brother grow up! Never hold her mother again, or have her father’s guidance! What if someone did that to your son?”

Cassus coughed and finally found his voice. Hoarsely he replied, “I haven’t seen him in years. How do you think it’d make me feel?”

“I think you were too afraid to find out!”

“Afraid? I didn’t -”

“Yes afraid!” Hercules snapped. “I’m not sure yet if you had anything to do with the deaths of Lyna’s family, Cassus, but it sounds as if you had a lot to do with the loss of your own. People don’t just leave without a reason, and you sure haven’t taken any responsibility for first your wife and then your son leaving you. If you were such a good father and husband, why did they leave?”

“They left because they were no good!” Cassus screamed.

“Oh, yeah?” Hercules shouted back. “Somehow I don’t think so. Watching the way you treated Lyna gives me the idea that you didn’t treat your wife and son any better. Somehow it makes me wonder if you are eaten up with guilt inside, both from the past and the present, and you can’t stand to face it!”

“Damn you, Hercules!” Cassus roared back. “What happened to that girl’s family is a tragedy - but for the last time, I didn’t kill those people!”

Hercules stared at the man, trying to get the best of his fury, trying to push it away. He took several deep breaths, and at last was able to speak more normally, though the lightning of his anger still crackled faintly between them.

“Whether you did or whether you didn’t, Cassus, you’re dying because you ran from the accusation. As I see it, you have a choice to die taking responsibility for yourself one way or another. To die with repentance and closure, or with only hate and anguish in your heart and left to your name. That’s your choice. Think about it.”

And Hercules stalked away to the opening, unable to stay in the close confines of the cavern with the man till his own fury had cooled again …

Iolaus threaded his way through the back alley as quietly as if he were hunting the shyest animal. He made his way noiselessly along the wall Lyris had mentioned and saw the broken board. When he came to the opening, he smiled grimly, for this was one doorway Hercules certainly couldn’t have negotiated. The golden hunter slipped through the narrow way with only a scrape of his broad shoulders.

His entrance was so quiet that it took a moment for the occupants of the dusty room to realize he was a stranger. As Iolaus glanced around at the surprised, distrustful faces, he realized he had found the lair of the older street kids. They began to step quietly from the shadows, boys and girls both, all watching him like young predators, uncertain of his purpose.

Iolaus scanned their faces, and held out his arms, away from his weapons. “I’m not looking for trouble. Does anyone here know where I could a kid called Nico?”

Several of the kids exchanged glances; many looked to the oldest boy there, a young man with broad shoulders and honey-colored hair topping Iolaus’ height by an inch. He looked to be fourteen or fifteen.

“Who wants to know?” the apparent leader asked sullenly, guarded and watchful.

Iolaus smiled easily, but the ease disguised a hyper-vigilance. “Well, you can ask Nico once I find him.”

“Tell ya what,” the boy replied. “You can turn around and walk out that door, or you can stay and bleed.”

Iolaus shook his head, scrutinizing the boy, and still smiled. “It’s been a long day already, kid, and I’ve got no time for your macho games. Why don’t I concede that you’re the big dog around here, and you just tell me where I can find Nico?”

The boy scowled, but it was his physical tension that shouted danger to Iolaus. “Maybe you’ve just got time to die!”

And with the last word, the boy bent, slipped out a boot knife, and struck at Iolaus, all in one swift movement. Despite the lad’s quickness, Iolaus was well ahead of him.

Before the boy had reached the knife, the hunter’s muscles were tensing; as the knife flew upwards, Iolaus leapt into a scissor kick; just as the knife came forward, Iolaus’ strong leg smashed into the boy’s arm sending it flying and the knife sailing toward the ceiling.

In a flash, Iolaus landed, reached up, and without taking his eyes from the young leader’s face, caught the weapon by the handle as it fell. Within a split second of the boy grabbing his knife, Iolaus now bent him backward over a grimy table and held that knife to his throat.

“You know, if you’re gonna stay in this game, you gotta react a lot faster,” Iolaus said, gently touching the tip of the weapon to the lad’s skin.

Then Iolaus straightened, stepped back a half-step, and hefted the knife to that he offered the handle back the its owner. “But then again, I don’t advise it.”

As the boy tried to take the knife, Iolaus stepped back further, flipped the knife and caught it. He brushed past the boy, and slipped the knife into his top belt. Iolaus purposefully kept his back to the fuming boy, but every sense was attuned to him.

Iolaus heard the other kids whispering, goading their leader - “I wouldn’t take that from an old man.” “Yeah, what’s up with that?” “What are ya -chicken?” “Maybe he’s scared!”

The leader glanced at his gang, smarting with anger and humiliation, and his decision came swiftly, as Iolaus knew it would.

The boy leaped forward, punching with a roundhouse right fist, but his target was suddenly not there. Iolaus seemed to hear the swing cut the air.

He pivoted away, faster than the kid could follow. The warrior caught the boy’s arm and the front of his vest, and with the momentum of his own whirl, swung the boy around and slammed him onto the table on his back.

Dust rose in a cloud of sparkling motes. The only sound was the lad’s harsh breathing and the whispers of the awed kids. They stepped back away from the obviously dangerous stranger.

“You see what I mean?” Iolaus pinned the boy with one muscular arm on his hand and the other across his chest. “It also helps to pick your battles more wisely.”

The boy shook his long hair out of his eyes and stammered furiously. “So what d’you want?”

“Oh - hard of hearing, or a poor memory?” Iolaus shook the young man once, hard, but without real harm. “Once again - I’m. Looking. For. Nico!”

Before Iolaus could shake him again, the boy shouted, “I’m Nico!”

“Oh, yeah?” Iolaus stood and pulled the boy up with him. He released the boy’s vest, and straightened it absently, and briefly wondered if Telaus would have grown to be much like this well-formed sprout, and taller than his father.

Iolaus put a more gentle, restraining hand on Nico’s strong shoulder. “And what would’ve been so hard about sayin’ that from the first?”

Nico watched Iolaus with a scowl of confusion. Iolaus laughed briefly, but without mockery. “Never mind - I know the answer to that question.” He let the smile fade and met Nico’s dark eyes seriously. “If you’re Nico, we have to talk.”

Nico shrugged Iolaus’ hand off his shoulder irritably. “We got nothin’ to say to each other.”

“Yeah, we do, although you may not care to hear it,” Iolaus answered, with quiet sincerity. “It’s - it’s about your father.”

Nico laughed, but it was an ugly sound. “I don’t have a father.”

Iolaus regarded the boy with a frown.

I didn’t really expect this to be easy …

The scene outside the mine was getting more raucous and out of control as the moments passed. Craeton watched the crowd growing with travelers and thrill seekers, who were only out for excitement, profit, or trouble. More vendors had joined the throng, some which tested the imagination.

One enterprising salesman even had quickly turned out souvenir tunics emblazoned with a hand clasping a bloody knife upon it. “Bury the Butcher of Galatea!” shouted the brilliantly painted slogan.

“Amaze your friends!” the vendor called. “Show them you were in Galatea when the killer struck! Get your souvenir tunics right here!”

Two guys who definitely looked like trouble to the quiet Phorbus stood not far away at the vendor whose cart sported kegs with various spirits.

He heard one say to the other, “You got the mead - that’s what I need!” He took the mug and held it up. “This ought to hold us a while till this killer’s wake gets a bit more interesting!”

His buddy laughed and toasted him. “Yeah - I thought we might get to see some skull-crackin’!”

“Yeah, well, maybe we can find a way to start it!”

They laughed uproariously, as Perius and his friends watched them distastefully from the foot of the path up to the mine. The wealthy merchant shook his heads and addressed his fawning audience.

“This used to be a safe place to live!” He shook his head as he watched the two bullies, but was careful to keep his voice low. “Now we can’t even sleep without fearing for our lives.”

One of his listeners gave a sharp nod. “Perius is right - I’m tired of being afraid!”

Another nodded also. “But what can we do?”

Perius gazed at them sternly. “We can stick together, so that scum like that murderer will know they can’t hide from justice! Hercules can’t protect him from all of us!”

The three men loudly agreed, and the small group began to move slowly toward the mine entrance.

They were in turn being watched by one of the two bullies by the wine merchant’s cart. His elbowed his buddy, and lifted his chin toward the small delegation.

“Know what I think?” he asked his friend. “I think we’re gonna get what we came for!”

The other man laughed. The two men clapped their mugs together again in a hearty toast and they drank, ready to either egg on any mischief or make it.

Back in the village, the other kids had cleared out on Nico’s order, leaving their leader and Iolaus alone. As they sat down by a sunny window, Iolaus gestured at the last of the gang slipping away.

“This won’t cause you any problems in the gang, will it?” the blond warrior asked.

Nico gave a snort of derisive laughter. “They all know I can beat their asses, plus I have the best ideas to keep us fed. If I couldn’t beat you, neither could any one of them, and they know it.”

“So, you do a pretty good job of leading them, huh?” Iolaus asked casually.

“Yeah, I do - what business is it of yours?” the boy growled.

Iolaus shrugged. “None. I just wondered if you had thought of putting your talents to better use.”

“Oh, yeah, like what?”

“Oh, I don’t know - the army … learning a trade … King Iphicles’ service - something like that.”

Nico regarded Iolaus as though he had grown two heads. “Yeah, I can see that picture now - me a street rat from Galatea marchin’ up to the king’s palace and sayin’, ‘Sign me up!’”

Iolaus’ air of calm interest didn’t fade. “Trust me, I’ve known stranger opportunities to come to a street rat - if he believes in himself.”

“Yeah, right.” Nico didn’t quite roll his eyes. “So - what’s this big important thing you need to talk to me about?”

Iolaus accepted the change of subject, and launched into a quick explanation. He kept it brief, and left out judgments about Cassus, but didn’t try to soften the facts. Nico listened intently, his face giving nothing away.

Finally, as Iolaus finished, Nico shrugged, nonchalantly. “Well, that’s a tragic story, but what do you want me to do about it?”

Iolaus watched the boy’s face carefully. “I thought you might want to see your father before he died.”

“Well, you thought wrong. He’s been dead to me a long time.” Nico’s eyes slid from Iolaus’ view, but the warrior felt he caught a glimpse of deeper emotions in those eyes.

“That’s a really big chip you have on your shoulder,” Iolaus observed mildly. “You wanna carry that around for the rest of your life?”

Nico tried to rise, but Iolaus arm snapped out and thrust him down with a strong hand on the lad’s shoulder. The boy jerked his shoulder from Iolaus’ grip and turned away sullenly.

“Look, kid - I don’t blame you for running away. I --“

Nico turned back quickly, with a choked laugh and a grin that was more a grimace. “Is that what he told you? Well, it’s no surprise. You probably won’t believe me, but I didn’t run away. He walked out on me!”

Pieces fell into place, and Iolaus’ intuition whispered that the boy told the truth. “No, actually, Nico, I do believe you.”

Nico glanced at Iolaus with a thread of amazed disbelief, but then went on with a gathering frown. “Well then, you can just go back there and tell him exactly what he told me when he left.”

Quietly, Iolaus asked, “What was that?”

Nico met his eyes, and Iolaus just glimpsed his pain and anger. “Nothin’!”

Iolaus’ eyes were on the boy, but his memories briefly replayed dozens of slights and thoughtless cruelties that Skouros had inflicted on him. He pushed them away with the relative ease of long practice, but heard the echo of his own pain in the boy’s voice.

All at once, though, the memory of his father’s face in the Underworld, and the closure they had been able to find, soothed the old pain till it was - mostly - gone. Iolaus returned his attention to the present and found Nico watching him thoughtfully.

“I know it may mean nothing to you, Nico, but my father had a lot in common with yours, and in the end he abandoned us, too. He died before I had the chance to face him as a man, and that left me with a butt-load of frustrated anger and a lotta other crappy feelings that I carried around for a long time. Didn’t affect him any, ’cause he was gone, but it really twisted me up for a while.”

No need to get into the whole dying and meeting in the Underworld thing here! Iolaus thought with a brief inward grin. He went on quickly.

“But if I’d had the chance, I’d’ve faced him outright, and I’d’ve told him exactly how I felt.”

Nico shook his head scornfully. “Why bother? What would it change? Him? Not bloody likely.”

Iolaus caught the boy’s eyes and held them seriously. “Maybe nothing would change - maybe nothing physically could, ’cause he’s dying, and nothing will stop that. But it might make a total difference for you - how you remember him … the last picture, the last words you carry around in your heart. And maybe it’d make his dying a little easier.”

Nico was silent for a long moment, staring out the window absently. After a moment, he looked back at Iolaus out of a mask of adult cynicism with the eyes of a child’s pain.

“He didn’t worry about making my life any easier. I don’t see why I should give a damn about making his death any easier.”

In the face of that raw justice, there was nothing Iolaus could say. This time when Nico rose from the bench, the blond hunter made no move to stop him. As the boy walked away, Iolaus sadly pondered the delicate and terrible improbability of second chances …

Out at the mine, Hercules, too, was lost in melancholy pensiveness. He stood in the shadows near the doorway and gazed out at the macabre spectacle at the bottom of the hill.

You’d think it was a festival day. So many people, morbidly curious, celebrating death.

Hercules watched for a moment longer, and noticed his anger was only embers now, and felt it was safe to go back into the cavern. But he felt heartsick at the waste of the life that had started all of this, the waste of the life back in that cave, and the waste of the time and energy of the people outside.

When this is all over, Iolaus and I are going to shake the dust of this place off our feet, and find a real festival somewhere. A small smile came to Hercules’ lips, imagining Iolaus’ face as he heard that idea.

That thought gave Hercules the impetus to return inside. With a sigh, he turned and strode back to the dim chamber. Cassus’ eyes fastened on him with some trepidation as he entered, but Hercules said nothing, He merely returned to where he had built the small fire earlier, and fed the flames again with more pieces of wood he’d gathered in the outer corridors. The demigod could sense Cassus watching him, but didn’t feel like talking, and decided to let the trapped man start any conversation.

After a few moments of watching Hercules watch the fire, Cassus sighed irritably, and said, “So you came back after all.”

Hercules shrugged without turning. “I’m not going to abandon you, Cassus.”

“The bloodthirsty crowd still gathering outside?” Cassus growled, his eyes avoiding Hercules’ gaze.

Hercules made his way back to the tall stone he had leaned on earlier, and watched the suspected murderer dispassionately. “Yes, it’s quite a throng,” he replied quietly.

After a moment, Cassus began shaking his head back and forth, and gazing around a bit wildly. “I should’ve expected this,” he groaned. He put his hands up on the stone that covered him and slapped at it. “To be trapped here like an animal. A mob out there that wants my blood on the wall. Bad luck has a way of following me around.”

“Oh, so that’s why you’re here, huh?” Hercules asked, with a hint of reproof. “Just bad luck?”

“Why not? I didn’t ask for this to happen to me - it just kinda fell on me!” Cassus laughed bitterly, but the laughter ended in a cough.

Hercules folded his arms. “Yeah, you’re right. People can’t always control what happens to them - but they do have choices that make a difference.”

“Get off your high horse, hero!” Cassus griped. “You had everything handed to you! Son of a god - strength of a thousand men. You never had to struggle for anything in your life!”

Hercules shook his head with a faint smile. If you only knew, he thought fleetingly, but only said, “This isn’t about me. It’s about you. And to hear you tell it, you’re just the victim here, huh?”

“I’m no victim - you don’t hear me whining!” Cassus snapped defensively.

“No?” Hercules asked and began ticking off points. “Let’s see - the town’s misjudged you. Your son didn’t repay your …ah … kindness. His mother’s rotten. Sound familiar?”

Hercules watched the trapped man frown as he continued inexorably. “Face it, Cassus. You played a part in this. You ran into this cave rather than face your accusers. The choices you made led you here. You made rotten choices and you’re suffering from the consequences.”

Cassus swung his head back and forth as if to keep the thoughts out. “Get out! Get out!” he shouted at Hercules.

Hercules ignored the man’s rising hysteria and sternly asked, “It’s much easier to blame others for our failures, isn’t it?”

Cassus gritted his teeth and pushed at the massive stone with all his strength. The cords stood out in his neck as he screamed, “Get this thing off of me! I can’t take it anymore!”

Hercules saw the man’s emotions were getting out of control. He stepped closer and clasped Cassus’ shoulder. “Stop it, Cassus!” he ordered. “Stop it, now!”

Cassus continued to shout and struggle. “Get it off me!”

Hercules squatted beside him to be on eye level. He shook the man’s shoulder gently and said, firmly, “Cassus. I can’t. You know that.”

Cassus’ strength suddenly ebbed, and his breath came in ragged sobs. “No! I can’t! I can’t go this way! This is no way for a man to die!”

Hercules watched the emotions wash through the trapped man and was glad at least to reach honest feelings. He sighed. “I want to help you, Cassus.”

“Help me how? I’m dying - get it?”

“But you’re not dead yet,” Hercules answered quietly. “There’s still a chance to die with some self-respect.”

“How? By confessing?” Cassus laughed wildly. “You know what I think, hero? You want me to be guilty, because if I’m not, there’s still a murderer running loose out there. And you’re to blame for the death of an innocent man.”

Hercules’ face did not change, but a sudden doubt chilled his spine. That innate demigod thing of his still sensed that Cassus was guilty, but that sense was never much more than a whisper. His human doubts were troubling.

What if he really isn’t guilty?

Outside, Lyna and her kinsman Geryon stood at the edge of the unruly crowd. Geryon had tried several times to get Lyna to leave and return home to his family, but Lyna refused.

“I’ve got to see this through!” she had whispered to him. “I’ve got to!”

Geryon sighed. He watched his kinswoman wring her hands. The terrible strain of the waiting and the obnoxious gaiety of the mob made her grief even more palpable.

Suddenly Lyna burst out, “I shouldn’t have gone to visit your family yesterday, Geryon! I should’ve stayed home. Maybe it would’ve made a difference!”

Geryon caught her hands, stilling their anxious motions. “There’s nothing you could’ve done, Lyna. And if you had been home --”

“If I’d been home, I’d be with them!” she cried, her tears overflowing again.

Geryon said nothing, only pulled her close and let her cry. He turned her away from the sight of a group of merry-makers tossing a woman into the air on a picnic blanket.

The two drinking buddies who had earlier sought the mead vendor had since been greedily partaking of the man’s wares. The two men strolled up to stand beside Geryon and Lyna. One laughed and elbowed the other.

In a booming voice he asked, “How many dead people can you fit on a meat wagon?”

“As many as you want to,” the other man chortled. “As long as you slice them thin enough!”

Lyna caught her breath, and Geryon felt her stiffen with shock and hurt.

“How about a little consideration?” Geryon beseeched the two men, torn between anger and disgust.

"You got a problem, buddy?” the darker haired joker asked, turning to Lyna’s kinsman in irritation.

Lyna glanced up at the two big men, as the threat in the speaker’s voice penetrated her grief. “Geryon - don’t!” she whispered, anxiously, knowing her shopkeeper cousin was no match for these muscled bullies. “They’re drunk!”

Geryon didn’t take his eyes off the men, and pushed Lyna behind him. “Doesn’t give them a right to shoot off their mouths!”

The lighter haired bully snickered derisively. “And what’re you gonna do about it?” he asked disdainfully.

Geryon did not back down, but Lyna clung to his arm. “Please, Geryon, no! I don’t want to lose you , too!”

A strong, clear voice from behind the two bullies caught all four of them by surprise.

“Fellas, this isn’t the right time.”

The bullies turned to find Iolaus standing behind them. The blond warrior had arrived in time to hear their horrid joke. Iolaus’ quiet tone was one Hercules would have recognized as his most dangerous.

The big men looked down at Iolaus in stunned surprise, seeing only a solitary, short man, regarding them with narrowed eyes and a deceptive stillness.

The darker-haired bully glanced at his friend, then back to Iolaus. “Gee, you’re right,” he replied in a sickly-sweet voice. “I’m sorry about all this. C’mon, pal.”

Iolaus watched the men walk past and away into the crowd. He stepped closer to Lyna and Geryon.. “Some people,” he observed grimly and shook his head. “So insensitive!”

Suddenly, Iolaus was struck across the back and neck from behind by a six-foot long piece of board. The darker haired bully watched in glee as the smaller man fell to the ground, stunned.

The lighter haired bully grabbed Geryon and held his arms tightly. Lyna screamed and was thrust away carelessly. The bully who held Geryon growled, “This is what you get for making friends with a murderer.”

“Hold him tight!” the darker of the bullies snapped. He hefted the board like a club and pulled back to swing at Geryon.

Suddenly, Iolaus leaped in front of the bully who brandished the board. Just as he landed, the blond warrior booted the man in the groin with a high-flying kick. As the man reflexively hunched over with a grunting cry of pain, Iolaus used the momentum of his leg swinging down to pivot his body swiftly. In one fluid movement, he brought the same leg up in and kicked out with the force of his body behind it and struck the dark-haired bully directly in the face.

The man was knocked backwards with a scream of pain and the plank flew up and out of his hands. As the man staggered back dizzied with pain, Iolaus caught the board out of the air.

Iolaus’ face was alight with the fey joy of battle. “Your swing needs work!” he sang out to the groaning bully. Holding the board like a staff, he began to turn. “Here let me show you!”

Iolaus whirled, swinging the board around like a quarterstaff and whacked the dark-haired man across the face with it. The man was knocked spinning and fell, groaning and cursing.

The lighter-haired bully had held on to Geryon in the brief moments of the fight so far, but now thrust him away with a growl and stalked after Iolaus. Iolaus caught the man’s charge out of his peripheral vision and used the momentum of his turn to batter the second man with the thick board.

The darker haired man staggered forward and Iolaus struck him with the board across the shoulder. As Iolaus danced back, watching both men, the two bullies shook their dizzied heads, and then whipped around, snarling furiously, to attack him from the right and left.

Iolaus spun the thick plank in his hands so that he held it perpendicular to his body. As the two men charged, Iolaus pushed off rapidly and ran toward them, holding the board like a sideways ram. As they closed, Iolaus flung the heavy board so that it caught them both in their midsections, knocking their breath out.

Iolaus, dancing backwards, saw both men’s arms fly up to their bellies as they bent, gasping, inadvertently holding the board in place. His quick fighter’s senses glimpsed a perfect opportunity. He darted forward and leaped with a powerful thrust of his strong legs.

As he flew forward, Iolaus planted his grip on the center of the board, using it like a vault, and swung his legs up and around. He struck the dark-haired man in the face with both feet. As the man staggered and fell, Iolaus landed, still holding the plank and used the force of his movement to rip the board from the lighter-haired bully’s weak grip. Catching the board with his left hand, he thrust the second man sideways with a stiff-armed blow of his right.

Iolaus whirled, dancing backward with the board, and watched the two bullies like a hawk. Both men were bleeding from mouths and noses, and appeared dizzied and muddled, but their fury at their nemesis fueled their attack lust. As Iolaus watched them crouch to start their charge again like big, mindless bulls, he smiled grimly, readying his defense.

Like so many big men except Herc - brawn without brain. No strategy, no tactics. Thanks for the lessons Herc - Cheiron - Yu-Lin …

The big men charged. Simultaneously, Iolaus caught a deep breath and gathered chi from the earth as Master Yu-Lin had taught in his chi gung lessons. He rooted himself deeply in the earth with that power, and snapped the heavy board up, again crossways.

The heavy plank met both charging bulls at the base of both thick necks, with the force of their own chi as well as the deeply rooted chi power with which Iolaus held the board. Both men were knocked flat, their feet flying into the air. The act of striking the board then the ground with such force sucked the breath from both men, and they lay, senseless and gasping at the smaller man’s feet.

Iolaus whipped the board beneath his arm like a staff, his attention snapping around to his surroundings, but no other attackers appeared. In fact, quite a few of the drunken revelers cheered and clapped for his victory.

The blond warrior ignored them. He tossed the board aside and turned his attention to the big men on the ground. He knelt quickly to examine them, relaxing when he could tell that both of them were breathing through intact windpipes, though still poorly. Iolaus heard Master Yu-Lin’s teaching sutra ringing in his memory.

Avoid rather than check. Check rather than hurt. Hurt rather than maim. Maim rather than kill. For all Life is precious …

He reassured himself that the two bullies were - mostly - intact and breathing, but were definitely checked and unlikely to cause more trouble. Iolaus rose and looked for Lyna and Geryon. They stepped forward, regarding him with amazement and gratitude.

“Are you both all right?” he asked the pair, visually checking them out with concern.

They both nodded. “Yes, Iolaus, we’re fine,” Lyna said gratefully, clutching his arm. “Thanks to you! What you just did was -”

“ - what anyone would’ve done,” Iolaus broke in, quickly, uncomfortable as ever with praise.

Geryon shook his head adamantly as he clasped Iolaus forearm in a hearty shake. “Not ‘anyone’!” he replied wryly, gesturing at the heedless revelers, none of whom had raised a hand to help. “And few could have succeeded as well with those louts.”

Iolaus flushed, but was saved from having to reply as Perius and his hangers-on came striding up.

“What’s going on here?” the wealthy merchant demanded officiously, holding his small crossbow as though he were the protector.

“You well might ask, Perius,” Geryon replied, unimpressed by his fellow merchant’s assumption of authority. “While you’ve been waving that crossbow about - after firing it at helpless children! - Iolaus took on these big roughnecks single-handedly and kept Lyna and I safe from them.”

Iolaus smiled grimly. “Or you might try asking them,” he added pointing to the groaning men still dazed and senseless on the ground. “Once they’ve gotten over their - uh - hangovers, that is.”

Iolaus met Perius’ angry, shamefaced look with a level, clear-eyed honesty. The golden hunter remembered what it was like to have that much grief and anger so new and so raw. He was willing to make allowances for Perius’ mindless pain - but only for so long.

The blond warrior turned and started to walk away toward the mine, flexing a sore shoulder, when Perius called after him, “You and Hercules brought this on yourselves, Iolaus! What did you think you were doing? Did you really think you could light a fire without getting burned?”

Iolaus half-turned to regard the wealthy man with narrowed eyes. “You should ask yourself that question, Perius. The fire was lit when Lyna’s family were killed. Hercules and I were just doing our best to put it out - to bring a suspected killer to justice. What are you and your pals trying to do here? Put the fire out, or fan it with vengeance? If you want to talk about being burned by that fire, you guys should look to yourselves.”

Perius was silent, his stony face obstinate with his pain and frustration. His followers exchanged quick, confused glances.

Iolaus went on with a sternness that did not mask his compassion. “Look around you, Perius,” the blond warrior instructed. Iolaus swept an arm to indicate all the people gathered there - Perius’ followers, Lyna and Geryon, and the milling throng of revelers. “These people listen to you! Why don’t you try and stop this farce before it’s too late? Before this crowd turns into a mob!”

A muscle twisted in Perius face, but otherwise he appeared unmoved. “Hercules is the only person who can stop this!” the merchant snapped.

Iolaus stared at Perius, disbelief in his hard, blue gaze. Finally, the blond warrior sighed and shook his head, then without a word turned and ran lightly up the slope to the mine.

And Perius turned to face the restless crowd sightlessly, with a bitter anger twisting his features …

Hercules heard the sounds of purposeful footsteps in the corridor outside and recognized Iolaus’ tread. He walked toward the narrow entrance and was there to meet his friend as Iolaus climbed through the opening.

Hercules smiled slightly, but was relieved to see his friend. Unaware of the fight outside, the demigod was still knowledgeable enough of the ways of mobs to be relieved to see Iolaus intact.

“Hey - you okay?” Hercules asked quietly.

Iolaus met Hercules’ welcoming gaze with a slight smile of his own. He nodded, but Hercules saw all was not well. He frowned, but Iolaus shook his head, still with a faint smile. Later, Hercules heard, as if his friend had spoken.

Out loud, Iolaus said, “Yeah, no problem. I’m fine.” The smile faded as he continued, “But it’s getting worse out there.”

Cassus overheard Iolaus’ words and snarled, “Blood-sucking leeches! Told ya they weren’t interested in the truth!”

Iolaus’ blond brows snapped together and he strode quickly to the trapped man. “Damn you, Cassus, you wouldn’t know the truth if it bit you on the ass!”

Glancing at Hercules, the hunter stabbed a hand toward Cassus. “Ask him why he abandoned his son!”

Both men turned to regard Cassus stonily, and saw the color drain from the man’s face. Iolaus fixed the man’s gaze with eyes of sapphire flame. “I found Nico, you lying bastard!”

Cassus stammered, still trying to bluster, “You - you had no right!”

Hercules paced forward to stand beside Iolaus. “I thought you said he ran away!” the demigod rapped out harshly.

Cassus summoned the shreds of his mocking bitterness and replied, “We can’t all be perfect, like you, Hercules! What do I know about raising a kid? I did him a favor, walking out on him!”

Iolaus snarled something incomprehensible and whirled away, his thoughts on two little boys, his own Telaus, and Nico. One who did not have a chance to live his life because of Hera, but whose time was cherished; another who lived and grew strong but was thrown away by a father’s neglect or cowardice .

Hercules noted the grief beneath Iolaus’ rage as he paced by, and added another point to Cassus’ toll. “You did yourself a favor, Cassus!” the son of Zeus snapped. “You’re a coward and your son is paying the price!”

“He survived, didn’t he?” Cassus shot back, as if proving a point.

Iolaus spun around and strode back to Hercules’ side. He replied heatedly, “Yeah - he ‘s survived - no thanks to you! Stealing, hand-to-mouth, living on the streets! It’s survival - not much else!”

Iolaus looked up as he felt Hercules’ hand clasp his shoulder. In their near telepathy, the former street kid could see understanding and concern in his sword brother’s eyes for what he had been forced to re-live. Iolaus nodded infinitesimally.

Cassus was unaware of that brief exchange, and Hercules’ hand dropped from his friend’s shoulder quickly. “Well, it worked for me! I got by just fine!” the trapped man boasted.

Hercules’s anger flamed. “You call this ‘getting by’?” He gestured at the dark walls that would be Cassus’ tomb. “You call prison or abandoning your family ‘getting by’?”

It was Hercules’ turn to whirl and stride away, to discharge anger in movement. He met Iolaus’ equally stormy gaze. “Unbelievable!”

Hercules paced away and back again, but it was not enough. “That’s it, Cassus!” the demigod roared, striding to Cassus’ side, his aura crackling with fury. Cassus pressed himself back into the stone he lay on.

“I want the truth - the total truth this time! There was no intruder, was there?” Hercules bent closer, his handsome features blazing. “You killed those people, didn’t you?”

“NO!”

“I don’t believe you!”

“I don’t care!”

“Yes, you do, Cassus - I know you do!” Hercules shouted. “You say you want to die like a man. If you do, then tell us the truth!”

Iolaus wiped a hand over his face and stepped to Hercules’ side, as Cassus shook his head side to side, his eyes wild.

“Nothing is going to make a difference to those maggots outside!”

“Maybe not!” Hercules flung back. “But it’ll matter to you! And maybe someday it’ll matter to your son!”

“I don’t care what he thinks either!” Despite the words, Hercules caught the sound of a desperate yearning in the hoarse voice. “He didn’t even have the guts to come and see me!”

Suddenly, all three men were startled by the sound of another voice in the firelit chamber.

“Haven’t changed a bit - have you?”

Hercules and Iolaus turned, and as they moved, Cassus lifted his head. There by the opening was Nico. The older men were startled into silence, and Cassus’ rapid, panting breaths were loud in the echoing cavern.

Cassus finally choked out, “How long have you been standing there?”

“Long enough,” the boy replied shortly, his bitterness more palpable than his father’s.

Hercules glanced down, met Iolaus’ meaningful gaze and nodded. The two friends slipped quietly to the opening, leaving father and son to their reunion - and farewell.

Cassus watched Nico’s face hungrily as the boy stepped closer to his rocky bier. After a moment he spoke, quietly, harshly. “Why’d you come?”

Nico studied the man with equal intensity, but his face gave away nothing. “I wasn’t about to let you leave again without an explanation.”

Cassus stared at the boy, his eyes glittering with more than the firelight. In a softer voice, he said, “You’re braver than I thought.”

“Wish I could say the same.” Nico hunched a tense shoulder, then glanced around, as if trying to find something to say. “Heard you were in prison.”

Cassus looked away. “Heard from who?”

Nico shrugged. “Word gets around.”

“Well, whaddaya know? I’m famous.” Cassus’ voice was as dry as dust.

Nico snorted. “For getting caught?”

Cassus shook his head, and grimaced, but did not reply.

“So - is prison as rough as they say?” Nico asked, to break the silence.

“Why? You lookin’ to try it out?”

Nico laughed derisively. “That’ll never happen to me.”

“Yeah - you’re too tough for that, eh?” Cassus answered with some of his former sarcasm.

Nico’s eyes narrowed. “Well, you didn’t leave me much choice, did you?”

Cassus bitter smile fled, and he sighed. “No, I didn’t. did I?” he whispered, in a more genuine voice than Nico had yet heard.

A silence of dead ends and burnt bridges filled the dusky chamber …

Perius stood, watching the entrance of the mine, trying to push away his memories of Iolaus’ words, trying desperately to hold onto his anger and hate for the criminal Cassus. As long as he was filled with fury and the thirst for vengeance, he could keep from feeling the anguish of loss and grief. And it was getting harder to do.

“That’s it!” he cried, sure that he must either act or surrender to the pain. “Listen up! We’ve waited long enough! The time for talking is over. If that beast isn’t dead - we’re gonna kill him! Who’s with me?”

His small cadre of friends shouted their agreement, as well as several of the revelers who stood nearby. The group walked to the bottom of the slope, when Hercules and Iolaus came striding out, with faces like thunderclouds.

Some of the merrymakers fell back into the crowd, unwilling to face the two heroes in such a dark mood. But a number kept walking with Perius to the foot of the pathway.

“Not so fast!” Hercules shouted. He strode directly to Perius and stood looming over him, his height and size made greater by the slight rise of the ground. Iolaus stood at his shoulder, silent and watchful.

Perius swung his crossbow around and pointed it in Hercules’ direction. “You won’t stand in our way this time, Hercules!”

“Dammit, Perius! Haven’t you seen enough death already?” Hercules snapped. He paused, but when there was no reply, growled, “No?” He grabbed the front of the crossbow and pointed it directly at himself. “Then shoot me!”

Iolaus came up on the balls of his feet. Every muscle tensed, every sense focused on Perius’ finger on the trigger, and he was ready to tackle the man if he even twitched.

Perius stared up at Hercules as the big man dropped his hand, and left the weapon pointing at his own heart. Hercules met the man’s frowning, startled gaze with his own icy, sky-blue eyes.

“But just ask yourself one question, Perius,” Hercules went on. “What would your wife say if she could see you now?”

Perius’ eyes widened, and he caught his breath. After a brief silence, he stammered, “She’d say - she say …”

And suddenly the crossbow faltered, and began to fall from Perius’ nerveless fingers. Iolaus swooped and caught it before it hit the ground. He quietly ratcheted down the tension and took out the bolt with the ease of long practice. He broke the bolt over one knee, tossed the pieces aside and silently gave the crossbow back to one of Perius’ followers, who took it reluctantly.

Hercules walked around the merchant’s bowed and shuddering figure, and surveyed the crowd, which had fallen silent watching the tense encounter. Hercules could tell, however, that this was the silence of excitement and expectation, of thrill-seekers and morbid fascination.

“Look at yourselves!” Hercules called out forcefully, his deep voice ringing in the rocky valley. “Is this your idea of justice? To celebrate death and the waste of life?”

His contemptuous gaze rested on a vendor’s cart. “To profit from it?”

He stepped further down the slope to where Lyna and Geryon stood apart from the crowd. “Lyna’s the victim here - she lost her family last night.”

Hercules’ voice cracked, and only Iolaus knew why. His fists clenched in pain and sympathy for his friend’s losses, and in aching memory of his own.

“But it looks like you were all too absorbed in your pleasure and gruesome curiosity to see what you were doing to her, and what you should have been doing for her!”

Hercules voice was now charged with disappointment and disgust. “Well - the party’s over. Go home!”

The words were not screamed or uttered threateningly, but the biting finality of the demigod’s tone and the power of his presence shamed or intimidated everyone. Silently, the crowd gathered up their belongings and began to slowly walk away, back toward town, or on along the road.

Hercules and Iolaus turned to see Perius and his original friends walking over to where Lyna stood, leaning on his cousin’s sturdy frame in exhaustion of body and spirit.

The two heroes stepped closer, reaching the pair as Perius and his friends did. Hercules studied Perius and spoke more quietly, but no less forcefully.

“I know you have suffered, Perius. But you aren’t the only person suffering here today.” He gestured at the pale young woman. “This is where your attention should have been today. This is where it should be now. You can honor your wife’s memory by helping someone who needs your support.”

As they watched Perius’ face, it seemed something broke, and the rigid bitterness of hate and vengeance seemed to flow away. It left behind only an aching sadness and a deep understanding as he met Lyna’s sorrowful gaze.

Perius reached out his hand to her, and whispered, “Forgive me, please.”

Lyna studied him for a moment, and what she saw caused a slight, grateful smile to fleet across her lips. She reached out and clasped his hand.

Iolaus glanced up at Hercules with a small smile that was lighter for what they had seen. The son of Zeus met his friend’s eyes, and some of his sadness ebbed. He nodded, and they both turned and walked back up the path to the mine …

Inside the rocky chamber during this time, the atmosphere had been strained. Nico seemed wary of coming closer, so Cassus decided to find a way to make that happen.

“Nico? Bring me some water?”

Nico glanced around the dim cavern and saw the waterskins where Hercules had left them. He procured one and walked closer to the stone that trapped his father and handed it to him.

After he drank his fill, Cassus glanced up at the tall lad. Corking the waterskin and letting it drop, the man began to speak.

“There are some things … some things I wish I’d never done -- ”

Nico’s shoulders tensed again. “It’s too late for that now.”

“No, listen! Let me finish. If I had another chance … well, damn, I’d probably do it all the same. But that’s just me.”

Nico frowned and looked away from his father’s intense gaze.

Cassus went on relentlessly. “But you don’t have to make the same mistakes.”

“You lost the right to give me advice a long time ago!” Nico stated, and for the first time his voice lost some of its nonchalance.

“Listen to me, kid!” Cassus shot back forcefully. “I’m not talking to you as your father! I’m talking to you as someone who’s been where you’re going - and look where it’s got me!”

Hercules and Iolaus slipped back in, and stepped quietly to the other side of the stone bier from the boy.

Nico’s voice hardened. “Why should I believe anything you say? You’ve never told the truth in your life!”

Cassus glanced up only then realized the other two men had returned. “Damn you, both of you! Damn you for bringing him here!”

Nico looked up at the two men, and they both could tell that, for all his anger, there was a lot of anguish in the boy as well.

With a speaking glance at Iolaus, Hercules stepped closer to the trapped man and his son, marshalling his thoughts carefully. When he began to speak, his words were quiet and firm, but imploring.

“We live forever in the hearts of those we leave behind, Cassus. Your son may never forgive you, but he doesn’t have to remember you as a coward, and a liar.”

Cassus realized that Hercules was talking about a confessional, and he glimpsed a possibility of some kind of redemption. He looked at Nico, whose eyes dropped. The boy was angry, mutinous, but yet he had not stormed out. That small gesture gave Cassus a sliver of hope, and a chance of peace.

The dying man grasped at it.

“That’s what I’ve been, my whole life,” Cassus said quietly, all the fight drained from his voice, leaving it pure and sincere. “A coward.”

Nico looked up, watching his father’s face, but sadness had replaced the tense anger, and he listened.

“It was only last night, late … doesn’t seem possible,” Cassus’ voice drew them all as he described his memories. “I only meant to rob the place. It was so quiet - thought all was well, but I didn’t hear the man sneaking up behind me.”

Cassus sighed, no longer making excuses. “He was protecting his house, his family. But I panicked. He leaped toward me as I spun around. All I could think of was prison, and how I couldn’t go back there.” The trapped man closed his eyes. “I drew my knife as a reflex, and it was like the man threw himself on it.”

Cassus opened his eyes, and a tear ran from the corner of his eye and mingled with the sweat on his face. “But I killed him. And when I’d done that, I turned to find his wife and little son screaming and crying, and I killed them, too.”

Hercules tried to speak, but couldn’t form words. Iolaus stepped closer, his shoulder touching the taller man’s arm in mute support.

“I wish I could undo it … go back and never go in that house … but I can’t. But that’s just the last of my transgressions.” Cassus looked back at his son, tears smearing his dark eyes. “Hercules is right, Nico. I didn’t have the courage to raise you. And for that I’m very, very sorry.”

The scowl that seemed to be a permanent fixture of Nico’s face melted into a deeper sadness, and yet he seemed to look at his father with less judgment.

Cassus tore his eyes from his son’s. “Hercules,” he implored. “Grant a condemned man is last request.”

Hercules met the man’s eyes with no anger left, only a bone-deep sorrow.

Cassus went on, softer now. “Set me free?”

Hercules stammered quietly, “Cassus, I -“

“Please - it’s time.”

Hercules glanced at Iolaus who nodded, his eyes affirming his friend’s next action. The demigod nodded, and knelt beside the stone that had covered Cassus for so long.

Cassus reached out to his son and gestured to the opening of the chamber. “You go on, now,” he said, fatherly at last. “You don’t have to see this.”

Nico’s eyes never left his father’s. He stepped forward, took Cassus’ hand, and gripped it tightly. “No. I’m staying … Dad.”

It was the first time Nico had used the word. Cassus smiled brilliantly, though tears ran down his face. “You got all the courage I never had, Son. Use it, please, and don’t go down this path!”

Still gripping Nico’s hand, he looked up, though his sight was far from the rocky ceiling so high above. “I just hope my death gives that girl some peace.”

Hercules could only nod, as Cassus turned to look at him. “And that’s the truth,” the condemned man said quietly, peacefully.

Hercules, his blue eyes bright with unshed tears, whispered, “Yeah, I can tell.”

Cassus looked from Hercules up to Iolaus, just behind him. “You two heroes never gave up on me.”

Hercules smiled gently. Iolaus could only nod mutely, glad that peace might come to someone in this waste of life.

Cassus gazed up at his son with a slight smile. Nico could not smile back. His anger was burnt away, but his sadness had an air of acceptance to it. Cassus nodded, and Hercules knew it was his signal.

He slowly began to lift the great stone, and even for the demigod it was a mammoth task. Cassus began to sob quietly, clutching his son’s hand as the anguish rushed in with the feeling. Somewhere in the shadows of the floor, Cassus lifeblood must be pouring out, Hercules thought, but he had no wish to see.

Gasping but silent, Cassus face lost all color. Suddenly he caught his breath, his eyes rolled back in his head, and then every muscle relaxed. That last breath ebbed, and his hand fell from his son’s grip.

Nico clenched his empty hand into a fist, and shut his eyes briefly. He opened then after a moment, and stood gazing at his father. Hercules slowly let the stone back down, knowing that none of them wished to see what it had done to Cassus’ lower body. The son of Zeus glanced up at Iolaus, and met his friend’s eyes briefly, dark indigo in an ashen face.

Iolaus stepped closer to Nico. “That was well done, lad. Are you ready to go?”

Nico’s eyes remained on his father’s still, and now peaceful face. “Shouldn’t we bury him, or raise a cairn, or something?”

Iolaus glanced at Hercules. “I think Herc can take care of that, faster and easier than either of us can help.”

Nico glanced at the son of Zeus, gently releasing the huge boulder. “Yeah, I guess he can.” The boy stepped up to the bier, and reached out slowly to touch his father’s forehead gently. Iolaus and Hercules watched in silence, the pathos of the act wringing both their hearts.

At last, Nico sighed. “Yeah, I’m ready.”

He turned and walked slowly toward the opening of the cave. Iolaus followed, but just as he was about to go through, the blond warrior glanced back at Hercules. The demigod knelt in the same place, gazing sadly at the dead man.

Hercules felt Iolaus’ eyes on him. As he turned, Iolaus met his glance with a questioning lift of his brows. Hercules gestured for Iolaus to go on out, and gave a quick smile and nod. Iolaus bent and darted through the narrow opening, knowing that Hercules wouldn’t be long behind him.

The demigod spent a quiet moment gazing at Cassus’ now tranquil face. Hercules considered the man’s last redemptive moments, and silently made peace with his spirit. Then Hercules rose and slipped through the opening. Just outside, in the corridor, he began pounding the fragile walls with all of his power. Hearing the rumbling begin above him, Hercules hit the breaking wall with one final, massive blow, then turned and fled out of the mine.

Tons of rocks fell from the levels above that burial chamber, and collapsed upon the entire ground level of the mine, burying it deeply. As mounds of rock, earth, and timbers filled the mine entrance, Hercules shot out just in advance of the rock dust.

Cassus was entombed truly and well. The tragic drama of his death was over. Hercules sighed and turned from the rock-filled tomb.

Now to pick up the final pieces.

Hercules glanced around to see Iolaus talking quietly to a subdued Nico not far away. As the son of Zeus walked up to them, he heard Iolaus ask the boy, “So you’ll stay around Galatea and away from trouble till you hear from me?”

Nico scuffed a boot in the loose dirt an glanced up at the shorter man with a mixture of suspicion and hope. “Why do you want to help me? What’s in it for you?”

Iolaus met Nico’s wary gaze with a serious, open, sincere face. “Because it’s right. Because I can’t walk away without knowing you have a chance to make it onto the right path. And because some people cared enough twenty-five years ago to make sure I got on that path.”

Nico kept his eyes on Iolaus’ face with that special extra awareness that street kids seemed to develop in abundance. He must have divined the truth and honor that backed Iolaus’ words, because Hercules noticed a relaxation of his stern features. A shy curve of his lips, too slight to call a smile, began just as the boy looked down.

“Yeah, okay,” he mumbled, as the unfamiliar emotion of gratitude derailed his usually slick speech. “I’ll be here, and I’ll try.”

Iolaus held out an admonishing hand. “No - just ‘trying’ is not enough! You’re either gonna do it, or not.”

Nico grimaced. “Okay, already, I’ll do it.” But the older men could tell he was somehow gratified to be scolded in this way.

Iolaus lowered his arm in invitation, and Nico hesitantly took it in the warrior’s clasp. “See you before the equinox festival,” Iolaus stated firmly. “Take care of yourself, okay, Nico?”

Hercules stepped closer and offered his arm as well. As Nico took it, the demigod smiled at him, and said, “If he says he’ll see you, he’ll be here - you don’t need to think twice about it.”

Nico’s smile was a bit more natural this time. “Yeah, I’m kinda getting’ that. Uh,” his eyes fell and he stammered, “ - thanks … both of you. From me and from my Dad.”

Hercules nodded, and Iolaus caught Nico’s attention again. “I’ll see you soon.”

The boy nodded, then turned and started walking back toward the village. The friends watched him till he was out of sight at the curve in the road.

“You think he believes you?” Hercules asked.

Iolaus shrugged. “Not really. But he will when he sees me coming back.”

“So - what’re you going to do with him?”

“I’m gonna see if I can get him into the Academy.”

Hercules smiled and clapped his friend on the shoulder. “That’s a great idea! I’ll help.”

Iolaus grinned. “Good thing - I’d already planned for that.” At that point Iolaus’ attention was drawn past Hercules to the people who waited there. “For now, we’ve got one more duty here, though.”

Hercules turned and glanced down the slope to the deserted party ground, where only Lyna and Geryon stood. The demigod looked back at his friend. “You’re right, buddy, and the most important one. But then we’re shaking the dust of this place off our boots.”

Iolaus darted a glance to the westering sun. “Getting late, Herc - you sure you wanna travel?” Turning back, Iolaus saw in his friend’s face the same soul-deep melancholy from the day’s events that he himself felt.

“Yeah - I do,” Hercules replied, with a sigh. “Never more certain. I want to get away from this place.”

“Yeah, me too, big guy,” Iolaus smiled slightly, trying to give Hercules’ spirits a lift. “But right now, I think Lyna is waiting for us.”

Hercules nodded. “She can’t begin to heal until she gets closure on this.”

The two men walked down the slope to where the cousins waited. As they reached the pair, Lyna looked up, and asked, “Is he --?”

“Yes, he’s dead,” Hercules answered solemnly.

Lyna closed her eyes and drew a sobbing breath. “I’ve been seeing his death over and over. The way he looked when I was about to kill him.” The smile that fleeted across Lyna’s lips had nothing of laughter in it. “The satisfaction I would have felt taking his life.”

Hercules frowned, but before he could speak, Lyna continued, in a softer voice. “But now he’s dead - I’m glad I didn’t. You were right, Hercules.” she glanced up at him quickly. “Now he’s dead, I don’t feel any better about my family - it’s just as empty without them. You were right.”

Lyna reached a hand to him blindly. Hercules took it gently, but just listened as she continued. “I want to believe that someday the pain will go away.” A tear slipped down her cheek as she pressed her eyes closed again, and whispered, “But I don’t.”

Lyna leaned back against Geryon, crying softly. Hercules spoke gently. “I won’t lie to you, Lyna. It gets better, but it never really goes away.”

Quietly Iolaus added, “There will come a time, Lyna, when you can remember them in love and gladness. For now, you know that at least there was justice for their deaths, not vengeance.”

Lyna nodded, and pressed his hand as well. Her fatigue was palpable, and Geryon’s hold on her tightened slightly. “Come, Lyna,” he said, with a grateful nod to the two heroes. “Let’s get you home.”

“Farewell.” Hercules and Iolaus echoed each other

Lyna nodded, and the pair turned to begin the long walk back to the town. Hercules watched them for a moment, and clasped Iolaus’ shoulder with a sigh.

“That emptiness she spoke of is the worst part, you know, Iolaus?” the demigod said quietly, as his eyes turned to the shorter man.

“Yeah, all too well, Herc, all too well,” Iolaus answered, his eyes on the retreating cousins, but his gaze seeing far away. He felt Hercules’ gaze on him, and looked up with a faint smile. “But we’ve both learned that the best antidote for that emptiness is to fill it with life. And I agree we’ll find that someplace other than here. So - where shall we go?”

“Someplace with bright fires, peaceful conversation, crisp ale and maybe a friendly smile or two.” Hercules smiled down at him. “Maybe on the road to a festival somewhere.”

Iolaus nodded, and his smile grew brighter. “Now that sounds like the right medicine! And I’ve got just the place!”

Hercules’ fatigue was lightened by a grin. “Somehow I knew you wouldn’t let me down, Iolaus! Lead on.”

And together the two friends walked away from a place of loss and darkness to a place of light and life …

Epilogue

It was all that Hercules had asked for, when he had envisioned a sanctuary for the night. Iolaus remembered that a former comrade of theirs, Demetrius, had established an inn in his native village of Cygnus when he had retired from Jason’s service some years earlier. Luckily enough, Cygnus was just two leagues from Galatea, on the road to Eleusis. And in Eleusis in less than a week, there was a spring festival.

It was past twilight when they arrived at the sign of The Swan, but delicious aromas still floated in the air as the friends entered. Demetrius was at the counter and hailed them immediately, pouring them each a home-brewed ale as he observed the dust and weariness of travel on them. Several acquaintances called out greetings, or chatted a bit in passing, but Demetrius had taken the measure of the heroes’ fatigue and quickly shepherded them to a quiet table. It stood next to a smaller corner fireplace and away from the main section of the room and the large fireplace opposite the counter.

“You’ll be wantin’ a bit of peace and quiet while you eat, I’ll be bound,” Demetrius had told them as they sat down. “This way the regulars can see you and say hello, but know that you need some time apart. Rest yourselves, and we’ll take care of you, lads.”

Both Hercules and Iolaus sighed in grateful relief, glad to be in a peaceful, jolly company, but yet able to ease their tired minds and bodies. Brandy colored firelight and lamplight flickered over the whitewashed walls and tall, beamed ceilings. Quiet conversation, laughter, and occasional bursts of song surrounded them with life and joy, but left them in a tranquil corner of togetherness. They were able to stretch out in the high backed chairs, drink the brisk, frothy ale and talk easily together. Both men felt the melancholy sluicing from their souls as comfort flooded in.

Soon, Demetrius and his wife Philomela came with their supper - a thick, rich boar stew with vegetables, fresh, crusty brown bread with butter, a tray of cheeses, olives, and figs, and more of the refreshing ale to drink with it. Philomela, as diminutive and bird-like as her husband was large and calm, fussed over them happily. She gave the weary men moist towels scented with herbs to wash their faces and hands with before eating, and promised them the best room in the house for the night.

“For it’s clear to us both, Demitrius and I, that the two of you have been out fighting bad things and righting wrongs and it’s taken somewhat out of you both. Take your ease here, lads, and let the world turn for itself for a little while.”

They laughed and promised her to obey, but before she left, she cocked a knowing eye at Iolaus and said, “And you, dear heart, keep your hands from yon waitress! She’s my niece’s child and not ready to keep her head with your sweet talk and blue eyes.”

Hercules chuckled. Iolaus pretended to be hurt as he looked up at her through his thick, long lashes, and replied, “But ’Mela, how could I even look at her with your sweet beauty before me?”

And catching her waist quickly, he gently pulled her close, and kissed her quickly on the cheek. The motherly woman pulled away with a cry as the room filled with laughter and jesting, and clouted him on the shoulder with a towel, but she could not hide her dimples or dancing brown eyes.

“Go on with you, now, Iolaus,” she laughed. “Of all the sauce! Hercules, can’t you teach this one truthful speech?”

“Well, I do try, Philomela, but in your case Iolaus is telling the truth!” And Hercules saluted her with his mug and his quieter charm.

“Oh, Hercules, you flatterer!” she chuckled, as Demetrius returned to the table with a large earthenware jug of ale. “Right here in front of my man, as well!”

“Ah, but Demetrius knows that he must share you with all your admirers!” Iolaus replied, grinning at the big innkeeper, as the man placed the jug on the table. Demetrius caught his wife by her still trim waist.

“That’s my lot in life, my dear!” Demetrius said, with a dramatic sigh.

“You’re all hopeless,” The pleased matron shook her head, and took her husband’s arm with a quick smile up at him. Then she turned back to Hercules and Iolaus, and said, more quietly, “But I’m glad you came to us tonight, dear ones. Rest and release your cares for now. Stay awhile. Perhaps you can give us a tale or two tomorrow night.”

The innkeepers turned to see to the rest of their guests, and the two hungry men fell to their victuals. Little was said as they happily demolished the feast. But as it was over, the pair sighed in pleasure, stretched their feet to the fire, and sipped their ale.

For a time there was the easy silence of close friends between them, but then Iolaus glanced from the fire to check his friend.

The demigod looked like a statue of bronze in the lambent glow, and Iolaus felt a thread of concern for the lingering sadness in his eyes. He turned and smiled at Iolaus, and the sadness retreated, but the blond warrior was not certain it was gone.

“So - day’s ending better than it began, huh, Herc?” he noted lightly.

Hercules nodded. “Definitely better now, buddy,” Hercules replied. “But it was a tough day.”

“Let me guess - you’re sitting there finding a way to blame yourself for Cassus’ death, aren’t you?” Iolaus divined shrewdly, his tone accusing.

Hercules shrugged, turning back to regard the fire pensively. “I chased him into the cave. I hit him and he hit the wall, which caused the cave-in.”

Iolaus shook his head. “I should have known. Herc - you told Cassus this yourself! He chose to run from justice. He chose to fight rather than surrender to you. He attacked you! Is any of this ringing a bell? Am I getting through?”

Hercules looked back at Iolaus, and a grin slowly replaced the melancholy distraction. “I did say that, didn’t I?”

“Yep. And if you take responsibility that isn’t yours, that’s not much different than Cassus refusing to be responsible for himself,” Iolaus pointed out. “You can only truly take responsibility for yourself, Herc, even though you have this burning desire to save everyone.”

He chose a fig from the platter and began to munch on it as Hercules regarded him with a thoughtful stare. “Besides which, Hercules, you did save him, in every way that matters. His choices caused him to end up - literally - between a rock and a hard place. But when you had the idea to bring him and Nico together, you gave him a way to die like a man, and in peace.”

Hercules flushed, and met Iolaus’ gaze with a grateful smile. He knew what his friend was doing, and it was working. Hercules could feel the melancholy emptiness draining from his heart, being pushed out by the warmth of Iolaus’ caring insight.

“Yeah, well, that wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for you finding the boy, Iolaus,” Hercules replied. “And whatever you said to get him out there. It couldn’t have been easy.”

Iolaus chuckled, and shook his head. “I didn’t think he was going to come at first. He was a hard one, but all in all a smart, tough kid. I think that’s what got him to the mine.”

Hercules shook his head with a knowing grin. “Now who’s not taking responsibility? If you hadn’t gone after him, if you hadn’t known where to look, if you hadn’t obviously found a way to reach that kid, Nico wouldn’t’ve come, and nothing would’ve been gained for Cassus.”

Hercules reached over and lightly rapped Iolaus in the back of the head. “Face it, Iolaus. You saved him, and you’re gonna continue saving him, getting him into the Academy. You’re a hero, however hard it is for you to accept.”

It was Iolaus’ turn to flush. He shrugged and grinned. “Yeah okay, I guess you’re right. Funny, isn’t it?” he mused, popping an olive into his mouth and chewing thoughtfully. “That sometimes a checkered past can turn out to be helpful if you use it right?”

Hercules nodded, as he took another draft of ale. “Yeah, and if you learn from it, the way you have.” He shot a keen glance at his friend. “You really saw yourself in the boy, didn’t you, buddy?”

Iolaus snorted with dry laughter. “Didn’t you? It was kinda like looking a mirror from some twenty-odd years ago.”

Hercules smiled reminiscently. “Yeah --about the time that you got caught for stealing in the agora, and then sent to the Academy.”

Iolaus laughed and shook his head. “Wild times.”

But then Iolaus turned back to the flames, and after a moment, Hercules glanced back at his friend. The firelight painted him in hues of gold, from his bright hair to the tawny skin. But Hercules mainly noticed that the laughter had drained from his face, leaving him serious, and his blue eyes distant and sad.

“Dinar.”

“Hunh?”

“For your thoughts.” Hercules watched him closely. “Whatever is banging around in that blond head of yours and giving you that look I had on at first.”

“Oh, well, it’s stupid, I guess.” Iolaus glanced back at Hercules a bit hesitantly. “It’s just, after comparing myself to Nico, it suddenly occurred to me that once upon a time I came real close to being like Cassus.”

“No way in hell.”

Iolaus glanced back at his friend, startled but not surprised at his vehemence. He shook his head. “No, Herc, you can’t talk me out of this one. It could’ve easily been me in that cave.”

Hercules looked mulish. “Minotaur droppings.”

Iolaus sat forward, passionate suddenly to prove his point. “No, Herc - it’s true. Cassus didn’t have anyone in his life to call him down, to give him a place to belong , to - to keep him honest, and to hit him upside of the head when he needed it.”

“I’m going to hit you upside the head if you don’t stop talking like that,” Hercules replied, half seriously, and feinted a right at the blond head.

Iolaus laughed and blocked it easily. “Stop it, Herc, I’m serious here!” He pushed the demigod’s hand away and went on, earnestly.

“I was going down the same path Cassus did, but you saved me - you first and foremost, but then Alcmene and Mantius and Cheiron and Jason, too. I was lucky enough to have all of you, so I turned away from that path.”

“You’re going to have to fight to convince me of that, Iolaus!”

They traded a few more laughing feints and blows, Finally, Philomela, passing by on her way to the kitchen, placidly adjured them to mind the crockery. The pair begged pardon like errant schoolboys, but found their hearts lighter for the silliness.

Iolaus took a long pull on his ale, then turned when he felt his friend’s eyes on him. “What? Best not hit me again, Herc - I’ll rat on you to ’Mela.”

Hercules grinned, but his eyes were warm as he studied his friend. “Nah, I was thinking of that comparison, Iolaus, and I know what makes it unacceptable to me.”

He turned in his chair and leaned on his folded arms, equally passionate now in his defense of his argument. “There’s a major difference between you and Cassus, Iolaus, and I think - no, I know! - it would’ve kept you from the road he chose. You see, you were never a coward. Never, since you jumped in to help that big clumsy kid against those bullies all those years ago when we met.”

The big man watched Iolaus’ face change, and flush with an even deeper gratitude now. The sapphire eyes fell briefly, but returned to meet Hercules’ sky-blue ones with a half shy warmth.

The demigod went on firmly. “You faced up to it when you saw your path was leading nowhere. And you were never a victim, either, Iolaus. You took responsibility for your actions, and faced it like a true hero.”

“Yeah, but I wouldn’t have known the right way to go if it hadn’t been for you, Herc,” Iolaus broke in, gesturing to his best friend with an open hand. “You showed me the way to be a hero.”

Hercules shook his head, and caught Iolaus’ hand in a tight and fast grip. “I think we showed each other, Iolaus. I seem to remember a few times you hit me upside the head to get me back on track.”

Iolaus chuckled, and Hercules grinned. At that moment, both felt the weight of the grim day slide from their shoulders. The solace of the warmth around them, and the inexpressible comfort of the strong and shining cord between them, finally eased away the last of the dark emptiness.

But Hercules wasn’t quite done with his defense. “So, I just don’t think there’s any way you’d have ended up like Cassus, Iolaus. You have too much strength of character.”

Iolaus glanced down at their clasped hands, and felt the power in Hercules’ grip, which was nothing to the power of his heart. He grinned up at his friend with eyes made brilliant by the joy of that power, and his gaze was deep and real and absolutely certain.

“Yeah, I guess I do - and he’s the strongest in all the world.”

And high and far away on Olympus, Zeus looked down on them and smiled, as he felt the balance of the world slip a bit further toward light and life …

--The End-

Melisande
July, 2005



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