They’d risen early and walked quickly to get here, their strides long and measured, thoughts of home and family pushing them faster and more insistently than they had originally planned. The sun had not yet reached its zenith and the day was already warm when Hercules and Iolaus crested the steep hill and gazed down at the village below, letting the heat of the day rest like a yoke on their shoulders.
“There it is, Hercules - - -Thebes.” Iolaus smiled and stared at the houses, thatched roofs, and busy population. He scanned the perimeter, finding the forge just at the edge of town, not far from the path that led through the woods to Alcmene’s house. How long had it been since he’d really spent more than a few days here, he wondered?
“Yeah,” Hercules nodded. “Why is it that hometowns always look much smaller than you remember them?”
Iolaus shrugged, staring down and answered simply “Yeah,” although thinking about his life since he left Thebes he concluded that the world simply became so much bigger when you grew up.
The two men stood at the overlook, each quiet with thoughts. Iolaus was thinking of a good meal, a warm hearth, pleasant conversation and maybe a skin of wine, followed by a soft bed. Hercules was thinking of family, dead and alive.
“So where are Jason and Alcmene meeting us?”
“Out by the old homestead. It’ll be good to see them.”
Iolaus nodded, although Hercules didn’t see it. He was lost in his own thoughts.
Above them the sunny sky began to darken, and thick clouds gathered from the wisps, twirling and morphing until they became dark and foreboding peacock feather eyes. There was no crack of thunder or fall of rain; just the sudden snap of lightning and the sky was brightened in a streak so powerful that Hercules had to shade his eyes.
With a whoosh, the neatly thatched roof of the biggest building in Thebes was aflame. Iolaus looked up, seeing the peacock feather eyes turn down to them and narrow in hatred winking out like the last ember of a campfire, before disappearing.
“Whoa!” Iolaus called out in surprise. “Great! Hera’s welcome.”
Hercules’ mouth pulled tight. This was a new one, Hera virtually ignoring them and applying her wrath elsewhere. There was something going on, something that he figured he’d be finding out about soon enough. After all, anything Hera did eventually turned out to be meant for him.
Turning to Iolaus he shouted, “Let’s go!”
The people in the village mobilized quickly, forming a line and finding buckets, tossing the water passed hand to hand onto the fire. But the flames grew and the heat became more and more oppressive. Each man knew that Thebes could be burned to the ground very quickly in weather as dry as this.
A turmoil of voices cried out in panic, some wanting to run, declaring the uselessness of fighting flames already out of control. Others tried to encourage the bucket line to work harder and faster.
“It’s useless! The fire is more than we can handle!”
“Watch the roof!”
“It’s spreading, it’s more than we can handle!”
The two heroes ran pell mell down the hill, dashing breathlessly onto the bucket line. Hercules grabbed a bucket from the nearest man and turning to the one who had been rallying the townspeople he asked, “Need a hand?”
“Hercules?” The man spun about in surprise, but quickly turned back to the task at hand. “Thank the gods! All our supplies are in this barn!”
Iolaus meanwhile was assessing the extent of the damage. He dashed down the line perilously close to the flames, his skin reddening from the heat, coughing slightly as the thick black smoke swirled deep in his lungs with each breath. Up close, he saw that this was way beyond the bucket line. The structure was unsafe and the fire was spreading.
“Herc, we’re never going to get enough water to put it out!” he called, waving his arms frantically. He began grabbing bystanders, and pushing at the line as the barn creaked and embers rose in the torrid heat. The barn was falling like a house of sand under the barrage of the rising tide of flames, and Iolaus was afraid for the people.
“Watch out!” Hercules called as Iolaus pulled people away. The barn fell silently, its timbers engulfed by the snapping of the flames as it disintegrated under the inferno, the small ashes blowing in the wind as smaller fires ignited and flaming pieces fell like rain over the villagers.
Hercules gave Iolaus a nod and dashed away, farther from the fire.
Everyone, get back!” Iolaus commanded as he watched his friend head to the tower that supplied water pressure for the people of Thebes. He knew what Hercules would do, and he knew what his part would be.
“Around him the people were starting to panic, a sign of even more trouble. “Quickly! It’s spreading!” Voices around him urged others to action, but Iolaus knew they needed to get away from the flames.
“Get back!” Hercules yelled as he reached for the heavy wooden legs supporting the water tank.
“More buckets! Save what you can!” People’s voices called out, oblivious to Hercules’ actions.
Iolaus tried to push people out of harms way, clear the area for Hercules, but there was resistance. One man turned to Iolaus, confused at the sudden turn of events. Smoke swirled and the crackle of disintegrating wood was disorienting. The heat was punishing, sucking the strength away from anyone who ventured too close. The light of the flames flickered, casting a ghastly rubor to the sunny day.
“What’s he doing?” a man asked, staring in wonderment at Hercules as Iolaus pushed him to safety.
“Improvising in the face of disaster!”
Iolaus reached for more people, tugging at the line and trying desperately to clear a path for Hercules. “Come on! Get back! Get out!” he called, his voice hoarse from the smoke he inhaled. “Come on!” Iolaus reached for a blanket and began beating at the flames spreading along the pathway where embers from the barn had been carried from the sudden wind.
Meanwhile, Hercules was putting a mighty effort into moving the braced legs of the water tower. He pushed once, rocking it out of the sturdy footing, but the weight of the filled tank was still balanced and Hercules realized that he needed more than strength; he needed momentum. He leaned back letting the legs touch ground, but only briefly. He pushed again, harder, ramming his chest and shoulders against the supports.
This time he felt it give a lot more. The water sloshed in the tank. And it almost came over the edge, but it rushed back against the opposite wall as Hercules’ effort fell just short. He grit his teeth. Smoke swirled through the village in cloudy wisps like evil thoughts, growing thicker and blacker by the second. Hercules tried to block out the sounds of men coughing and children crying in fear. He focused on the tank and let the shrill excitement of women’s voices and murmurs of rising panic fall away. Iolaus had taught him to be one with the object, and Hercules put this lesson to work.
Hercules let himself seemingly meld into the wooden support beams, pushing and lifting at the same time, like a tree with a sudden growth spurt. This time the action was enough. He felt the water leveling even as the tank was tipping, trying to maintain stasis when all around it was in flux. One more thing, he thought. Iolaus had taught him one more step.
“Ah-h-h-h-h-h-!” Hercules cried out in full voice, a kyai uniting body and spirit.
“Get back!” Iolaus called as he pushed the crowds away with arms extended and eyes on Hercules.
This time it was enough. The water sloshed over and the final momentum was attained. The tower fell, following the initial gust of water and lost its load in an arc of spray that covered most of the burning area.
The fire was out, leaving only small isolated patches of flame and smoldering wood and thatching. The bucket brigade would be more than capable of putting those out.
“Over there!” a woman called, and she grabbed a blanket to snuff a small fire. Around the heroes others worked diligently to make sure that no further buildings would burn. Children stamped small feet on smoking ashes and dug dirt to toss over the splinters that still glowed, while men carried buckets to larger danger spots.
Hercules rubbed his hands together and glanced over to Iolaus.
Iolaus was being treated to a welcome home that befit a prodigal son. Hercules smiled to himself as he saw Iolaus being clapped on the back, his hand shook and women reach to touch him. They were home.
Resistance was futile. The men were herded like cattle to the slaughter, bawling and bellowing their protests, digging in their heels and pushing back but Hera’s guards were too powerful. They were forced into the temple and positioned in front the altar as the guards stood attentively behind them like a wall, preventing any chance to make it out the door.
The men were angry, but most of their words were spoken as much in fear as indignation. Nothing good could come from this sort of forced posturing in any god’s temple, least of all Hera’s.
“You can leave us in here as long as you want! I still won’t worship Hera! We’re not going to pay her a tithe either,” one man practically spit. “And if you don’t like that, you can take it up with Hercules!”
The guards paid the man no attention, eyes forward and focused on the altar. Their attentiveness was rewarded. The villagers gasped as the altar, bare on entering suddenly began to glow, first a golden then a fiery red color which quivered and grew, elongating into actual flames and as the men shielded their eyes from the brightness and their faces from the heat, the flames became a woman. A very powerful woman.
She was tall and leather clad, with flame red hair, red eyes and ruddy skin, as if she had been kissed by the very fire she stepped out of, was formed from. The puzzled men didn’t know which, but they did see that she had muscles more well defined then any of them and a grace and self assurance that combined with the marvelous physique to spell big trouble.
The woman looked at them and laughed a deep throaty crackle that was more unpleasant than happy. She stared at them with fire in her eyes and spoke finally, her voice seeming to echo out from a hollow within.
“Your village will worship Hera or Die!”
It was more than a statement, it was a proclamation and her stare seemed to focus on each man individually, yet encompass the whole room.
The man who spoke so boldly to Hera’s guards felt himself being pushed forward from behind, and in the blink of an eye was standing isolated in front of the fire being. He trembled inside, but refused to show it. No good could come from inaction, yet he knew that any words other than loyalty for Hera would be punished. Never the less he spoke up, loudly and clearly.
“Well then, you’d better kill us, whatever you are.”
The men behind him could feel his fear and from the back of the pack, another took action. Rushing forward, the man drew a sword and raised it over his head as he charged toward the altar. With a single solid blow, he sliced the being in two from the top of her flame red hair right down to her waist, watching in fascination as she split cleanly, each side folding over like the petals of a delicate lily opening to the caress of the sun.
The men gasped as she stood without falling, becoming a fountain of flames. No blood, no cry of pain, just a wide fighting stance holding her balanced as the flames were slowly enclosed when she reformed like the lily petals closing for the long night.
The man with the sword screamed in horror as her eyes relit and her mouth opened, spewing forth a stream of lames unlike any the men had ever seen. More directed than lightening and hotter than the flames that had just moments before almost consumed their town, the stream flew into the man’s open mouth, steady and forcefully.
Behind him, the others watched in horror as the room grew hotter and more stifling as the smell of searing flesh rose in swirls. They saw their friend’s eyes turn blood red, his fluids being heated to gases and escaping through every orifice, his blood congealing, his skin blistering and swelling until with a snap, he simply exploded into small bits of ashes.
Only then did the woman close her mouth, her eyes hard and her hands on her hips. “Now where is Hercules?”
The men cowered and one turned to make a rush past the guards, but the sharp tone of the fire breather halted his escape.
“Stop!” she commanded. “I’m not going to hurt you! I want you to spread the word about me.” Her eyes scanned them, a stare so hard and all encompassing that each captive fell as still as a mouse under the eye of a hawk.
“Now, bow to Hera - - -and prepare for a world where Hercules lies in his grave!” She laughed full and loud and long, her voice crackling and hissing as the men fell prostrate, trembling among the ashes that once were one of their own.
In the village Hercules and Iolaus walked through the market, stalls still full of wares, but empty of vendors. At their side walked a stocky man, the official village leader.
“You couldn’t have arrived at a better time, Hercules,’ he said. “You sticking around for a while?” he asked, unable to hide his rising anxiety. This was not the first time the village had seen strange happenings and Vytos hoped that Hercules would stay and help.
“I’m not sure Vytos,” Hercules answered honestly.
“Well the village still has a pot luck dinner on the full moon. Come join us,” he urged.
“We’ll see,” Hercules intoned noncommittally, not looking at the man.
Vytos nodded, noting Hercules distant manner and respectfully walked away. No sense pushing it.
Iolaus looked across at Hercules, seeing the conflict in his face. He knew that Hera’s fire bolt had brought home Hercules’ past losses, and that Hercules was having trouble pushing that back.
Behind the two men Iolaus was aware of the grateful murmuring of townspeople, thankful for the timely appearance of Hercules and Iolaus. Hercules seemed unaware however.
Iolaus blocked out his surroundings stared at Hercules, seeing his melancholy. He stepped closer and rested his hand reassuringly on his friend’s shoulder. Iolaus turned his glance away, lips tight and concern etched in his eyes as he rubbed a hand wearily across his eyes.
“You know - - -the fire’s out.” He waited, knowing from experience that Hercules would eventually spit out what was his real issue.
Hercules stood quietly for a moment, as if weighing his words carefully. His eyes were distant, scanning first the village, then turned to the hill over which once lay his home. Finally he sighed softly, almost wistfully and spoke without looking at Iolaus.
“Look at these people! There’s such a strength in this community - - -everything that’s good and decent - - -and Hera tried to wipe in out in a single act of vengeance.” Hercules’ voice dropped into a softer sadder realm at the part about vengeance.
Iolaus could feel in his bones that this was about more than the fire in the village. He followed Hercules’ distant gaze away along the path out of town, over the verdant hills and saw that his eyes rested on a spot where he hadn’t been in quite a while.
“How long has it been?” he questioned, although he knew the answer already. He turned his eyes briefly back to his friend, and then let his eyes wander the lush greenery, bursting with life, yet holding memories of the dead.
“Too long,” Hercules spoke in a hushed voice of penitent confession.
Around the men, people hustled to clean up the damage and restore life to the normalcy that marked Thebes as a thriving community.
“I’ve barely visited their graves since I buried them,” Hercules whispered softly, as if in admitting this he could somehow atone. “That’s not right.” He shook his head in self condemnation.
Iolaus chanced a glance at his friend, surprised at the sudden admission of pain, and then turned his face quickly away. Both men stood silently, neither looking at each other, yet connected by their hearts more tightly than either would speak of aloud.
Around them the light breeze stirred up the ashes and the scent of the fire, already cloaking them, grew stronger. A few stray leaves blew loosely past flying away with great swoops, and then fell lightly to the ground again to rest when the breeze died away.
“Yeah, beating yourself about it isn’t right,” Iolaus finally ventured. He hated when Hercules dwelled on the disappointment and pain of life. “You know, um, you can’t live in the past.” He chanced a glance at Hercules but seeing the pain on his friend’s face felt like a voyeur and turned his eyes to the ground.
“Hmm. I don’t want to,” Hercules admitted. “I just don’t want to lose it all - - -the memories, the reality of it.”
Iolaus sighed and spoke softly, knowing from experience what Hercules needed to hear.
“Herc, you can’t dwell on the negatives. You have to pick those happy moments to think about instead. Find out what was great about that time in your life, the parts that gave you more strength than you ever knew you had. The times that tested you like fire purifying gold, those were the times worth remembering.
Hercules nodded swallowing the lump in his throat. “You’re right Iolaus. Life is about moving forward, not back.”
Iolaus clapped him on the back, felt the softening of the tense muscles. Hercules had his melancholy moments, as he did too, but they didn’t define or constrain either man. In the dark of many a night each had dreamed about lives that had passed, evolved. These thoughts were simply stored memories being sifted at rest to make room for more experiences. Thoughts of family were never discarded, but rather treasured, wrapped and stored away for times of quiet inspection.
Perhaps it was simply that Hercules needed to be alone with his feeling.
“Well look,” Iolaus suggested. “Why don’t you go ahead? Take some time alone. I’ll catch up later.” He scuffed his foot on the grass and kept his eyes on the ground.
“I think I will,” Hercules answered. He pressed a shoulder against Iolaus, and left without as much as a glance back.
Iolaus watched Hercules walk away, stride purposeful, and allowed himself a small knowing smile.
Hercules bent over the graves, kneeling to face the words straight on. The pain in his heart was not to be ignored, but embraced, for this was one of the pains that gave him his strength. The Olympian Gods would never understand that the more they took from him, the stronger he would get. But sometimes He simply needed to acknowledge that one of the best parts of his life was over, and that the loss had been great, so all encompassing that he had walled it off just to survive.
But in the time he’d stayed away he’d found acceptance. Times passed, people passed, it was part of being mortal. No, they’d never be physically with him again, he knew that, but he would always carry something of them, their spirits, their love, and the lessons they had taught him. For this he was eternally thankful. To all life there is a season.
Hercules dropped his head and let the wind blow his honeyed brown hair straight backward, not even seeing the desolation of the area - - -no trees nearby, no homes. Just a hilltop where the spirits of his family could look out for him like the families of mariners gone long and far to sea did, eyes shielded against the glare of the sun.
Hercules began to talk, softly from his heart, and tried to release the last remnants pain.
He had just stood, turning toward home when he heard their voices. They sounded like kids in love. He could see flowers cradled tightly in his mother’s arm and Jason pulling her along.
They could see him from the distance, and rushed forward in joy. Alcmene always missed her son when he was gone, her heart heavy, though she rarely admitted it to anyone but her husband. Only the marriage to Jason had given her respite from her worries. And here he was! She couldn’t keep the gladness out of her voice.
“There he is!” Hercules heard Jason’s voice declare.
“Hercules!” His mother called, unable to keep the pure unadulterated joy out of her voice.
He heard the quickening of her step and moved forward. “Mother!” he breathed in happiness, taking her into his arms and lifting her right off the ground as he hugged her tight against him. Her long curly hair was soft against his neck and she smelled like roses, a scent that carried him back to his childhood. He put her gently down.
“Oh Hercules!” she breathed, not bothering to hide her pride, her love.
He smiled down at her and noticed that the flowers she had held were crushed.
“Mother, I’m sorry! Your flowers - - -“
But Jason cut him off. “Hercules, good to see you.”
Hercules grabbed Jason’s hand, shaking it vigorously, reaching for his shoulder with the other.
“Good to see you too!”
Jason stopped, looking around. He raised an eyebrow in question. “Where’s Iolaus?”
“Oh he’s back in town. He’ll join us later,” Hercules spoke unconcerned. Iolaus could always take care of himself; in fact he often took care of Hercules too. “He’ll join us later.”
Alcmene looped her arm through her son’s. “Oh, come on! I want to show you something!” As small as she was, she pulled her son along like a kite.
“Okay,” Hercules answered with a smile, his heart lighter.
Back in Thebes, Iolaus and Vytos walked through the town, glancing at the vendor’s stalls and talking quietly. Vytos was the town elder, respected for his wisdom and beloved for his kindness and understanding. Iolaus remembered him from when he was a boy and Vytos a young man. Vytos had never looked down on him. On the contrary, he had often given him dinars, and even occasionally fed him. That Vytos had risen to this respected position pleased Iolaus, and he could think of no one more deserving of it.
Vytos looked over at Iolaus, not bothering to hide the pleasure in his eyes as he walked with the boy he always knew would amount to something, in spite of what others had said. He had been an unlikely thief, the honesty shining out of those blue eyes, and it hadn’t been lost on Vytos. The young boy had simply been doing what he had to in order to survive.
Vytos slapped the fine man next to him companionably on the shoulder.
”Iolaus, if it weren’t for you and Hercules I’d be standing in a pile of ashes right now.”
Iolaus rubbed a hand through his hair modestly. Around him a crowd was beginning to group. People clapped him on the back and shook his hand, shouting welcomes and thanks. Iolaus acknowledged them and after a few minutes, turned back to Vytos.
“So what does Hera have against you?” he asked curiously.
Vytos stared across at Iolaus, eyes locked on his and face serious. “Well this village and all the neighboring ones haven’t been keeping up her temples. It’s persecution.”
Iolaus shook his head. The people should have a right to choose which god or goddess they worshipped, and the gods should earn their followers rightfully, not through fear. He drew his lips tight. No one ever said the gods were fair.
“Wow, that’s - -“ he began, thinking Hera had as usual been extreme. But before he could finish getting the words out a clamor arose.
“Vytos!” a panicked voice called out, panting for breath. “Vytos! Vytos! Vytos!” The man gasped in terror. “She’s terrible, terrible!” He skidded to a stop as Vytos grabbed him by the shoulders.
Iolaus felt a sinking in the pit of his stomach. She? Hera? Or maybe a creation? Something wasn’t right.
Iolaus held his hands up. “Hey, take it easy friend.”
The messenger clung to his ribs hugging the sharp needling cramp from running too far and too fast.
“You don’t understand.” The man shook his head. “She’s deadly. The worst I’ve ever seen.” The man shivered, no longer able to keep his terror at bay.
A look of comprehension crossed Iolaus’ face, followed immediately by a look of determination. An Enforcer. The last one had almost killed him in its quest for Hercules. And Hera would have learned from her mistake. This one would be worse.
“She?” He asked, although he already knew the answer. Hercules hated to fight women. He let them walk all over him. And Hera believed in the power of a woman. It only made sense. The last Enforcer was a woman too.
The man from the temple shivered uncontrollably, and Iolaus thought he might be in emotional shock. The man blabbered on excitedly. “Perdeus from the next village? He hit her from behind with a sword. Split her like a melon he did. Fire came out from her insides, and she just - - -pulled herself back together. Said she was - - -was - - -“
“What?” Iolaus blurted muscles taut and fists clenched. “What did she say?”
The man from the temple actually looked at Iolaus for the first time, finally focusing on him. “Said she was gonna - - -kill Hercules!”
The words burned into Iolaus’ mind, torched his soul. NO! Not Hercules. Iolaus didn’t even try to hide how upset he was. He simply started running, legs pumping as fast as his heart.
“I gotta warn him!” he called back to Vytos, and then said no more. He’d need all his breath if he was going to catch up to Hercules before the Enforcer.
The Enforcer smiled. Hera was showing her Hercules. No more voices like the last Enforcer, and no more simply following commands like a mechanical being. She could think and analyze whatever input Hera gave her. She saw where Hercules was, knew from Hera how to get there. The meadow was green and flowered and Hercules was happy. Hera showed her how Hercules was wrapping his arms around his mother and laughing. The man with them clapped him on the back. An old woman and a has been king, Hera had said. They would be easy. But Hercules - - -she licked her lips, then simply tipped her head and laughed, a sound more akin to the roar of flames in the smith’s forge, the clang of hammer on metal. She could feel her power. Hercules didn’t stand a chance.
Iolaus ran through the woods at a frantic pace. This was not a time for stealth or cunning. He wasn’t hunting or even trying to escape; he was racing against time to get to Hercules by the shortest way possible. Where the path twisted, Iolaus ran straight, through thorns if necessary. After all the shortest distance…he thought to himself. Branches slapped at him and leaves caught in his hair, but his feet tore into the ground as surely as a stallion’s when the whip is applied, picking up speed instead of losing it.
The Enforcer could see him. Hera had warned her. She stood perched like a great hawk near the top of the tallest tree and watched him approach. She bounced lightly on her feet and the thick branch which bore her barely jostled, her movements were so lithe and sure. He would be in striking distance soon.
She watched him tear through the forest, remembering Hera’s warning, that this man loved Hercules like no other and would fight like a wild boar to save him. He would be her first obstacle, a test of her prowess. The Enforcer stared down, assessing her opponent, knowing she had the element of surprise on her side and intending to take full advantage of it.
Iolaus ran on, his mind only on Hercules. He couldn’t take the time to be cautious, to survey his surroundings. He simply proceeded pell mell through the forest, head down against the obstructions and legs pumping. His breath came in tight spurts and there was a stitch in his side where his body was pleading with him to slow down, let it replenish its energy supply, but Iolaus wasn’t about to listen to it.
The Enforcer let him run straight to her, and as he hit the straight and wide part of the path that led into a clearing, she began to laugh. Iolaus was hers.
Iolaus heard the laugh echoing through the forest, but didn’t stop, didn’t even look away from the path, so intent was he on warning Hercules. He didn’t see her until it was too late, a solid, ruddy, red headed female swinging on a vine directly at him. She connected solidly, her legs straight out and as strong as a tree trunk, still laughing. Iolaus flew in an arc, the momentum of the blow carrying him for quite a distance and he landed solidly on his back, his head snapping forcefully against the hard trodden dirt.
Iolaus lay still for a moment, the wind knocked out of him. He tried desperately to get a deep breath, but it wouldn’t come. His head throbbed and he fought to stay conscious, noting that a large lump was starting to rise at the base of his skull. He could see things in a blur, mist swirling, and the laugh that heralded the Enforcer’s arrival was growing distant. The sounds of the forest grew faint and Iolaus struggled to breathe, to get his head straight. Just when he felt as if he would sink into blackness his breath came back like a sudden powerful tide, pulling his body to action. He rose, with a shake of his head to clear it, and faced his opponent.
Iolaus wasn’t shy, and he wasn’t afraid of women. He knew this was no more a woman than any Hydra was, and connected with a solid punch to her chest that would have dropped even the strongest of men. But she wasn’t fazed. She grinned sardonically down at him, not even losing her breath, not buckling or moaning, and grabbed him by the throat, squeezing with a fist of iron and cutting off his air supply.
“Ahh! Oh!” Iolaus groaned while she picked him off his feet as if he was no more than a dirty rag to be tossed away. His feet fought to reach the ground while his body ached and his head throbbed. Again he couldn’t breath and he felt his face turning as red as the Enforcer’s hair.
“Tell me where Hercules is,” she taunted, knowing full well how to get to her nemesis, simply toying with the blonde.
“Never!” Iolaus croaked.
The Enforcer simply smiled, and squeezing his throat tighter she tossed him across the clearing as if he weighed no more than a small sack of potatoes.
Iolaus landed like a sack too, every muscle in his body screaming for him to just stop and lay still, rest, but he struggled to get up yet again. A trickle of blood ran down the corner of his mouth and a gash on his scalp streaked his hair with red. Blood flowed from his nose like a small stream, and he had a large laceration on his left bicep, open into his muscle. Iolaus realized with a sinking heart that he wouldn’t have much power in that arm now, but still he tried to stand and fight back.
He finally struggled to his feet, reaching desperately for a weapon. He had to stop her, get to Hercules. His hands found a thick branch. Solid and straight, and Iolaus knew he could use it for a staff. He swung it at her with all his power, striking her abdomen and feeling the power of the blow all the way up to his shoulders, but she didn’t even move, standing as solid as a stump with roots deep in the earth.
She laughed as if this was no more than a game and swung back, the strength of the blow knocking Iolaus back on the ground, his right eye blackening almost immediately, blood flowing thick and sticky down his cheek from a new cut that transected his eyebrow.
Iolaus knew he would lose this battle. And truthfully he simply wanted to get to Hercules. Perhaps together they could defeat this new Enforcer. His body was already feeling the punishment, his legs going soft. But he stood erect and tried to think straight.
Keep breathing, he thought to himself. Don’t let the pain stop you. Focus! He wouldn’t win in a battle against this Enforcer, of that he was sure. And he didn’t want to fight her; he wanted to warn Hercules. There was only one way to do that, stay alive. Iolaus began thinking about escape, and with the staff in his hands, he swung the sturdy stick around the nearest tree trunk and used it to help him climb.
The Enforcer watched him with a smile on her face. He wouldn’t be going anywhere, except perhaps to meet Hades. She waited patiently, watching her prey as he ascended, assessing the distance, the power needed to counteract. When he had almost reached the canopy of the forest she lashed out, striking the tree Iolaus was climbing with a powerful round kick, snapping it. She watched in satisfaction as the tree splintered and fell the long distance to the ground, Iolaus with it.
Iolaus connected with the ground in a sudden and awkward manner, falling like a boulder, and suddenly feeling boneless against the hard dirt path. He struggled to stand, but his legs were like wet baklava, and as he staggered upward, they wobbled. Blood flowed into his eyes, causing him to blink. He was finding it hard to focus on the metal and leather clad, muscular Enforcer who stood looking down at him with amusement.
Iolaus managed to find his legs, standing and trying not to sway. If only he could find her weakness. But there wasn’t enough time. She chopped him on the shoulder, hard. He fell onto his side, curled into a ball and moaned.
There was no part of Iolaus’ body that didn’t hurt. Too many falls, too many blows from super human strength. Only his mind was unshattered, and Iolaus intended to use that, even if it was all that was left in the end. The mind was a powerful thing. He’d learned that in Chin.
The Enforcer stood over him. “Last chance, little man. Where’s Hercules?” she taunted, wanting him to feel responsible for his friend’s death.
Iolaus thought quickly. He wouldn’t ever give up where Hercules was concerned.
“Okay, okay, I’ll tell ya,” he moaned through thickened lips, with breath that came out in pants of pain as his bad arm splinted broken ribs. His lungs were filling with blood and Iolaus knew he was dying, but still, he had Hercules to consider. “You just have to come close,” he whispered, using what little breath he had to draw her nearer. Iolaus struggled up, grasping his ribs firmer and doubling over in pain.
The Enforcer leaned over, knowing just what he’d do, but not caring.
Iolaus punched her in the stomach with every ounce of strength that he had left. It still wasn’t enough.
She absorbed it and laughed callously, reaching for his arm and flipping him forcefully, then ax kicking him directly in the chest.
Iolaus moaned. Then lay limply. His face was caked with blood and dirt.
The Enforcer looked down on him with satisfaction. Her work was done. No one would survive her chest kick.
“Eat dirt,” she laughed at his muddied face and turned, leaving him motionless.
Iolaus lay silently, not wanting the darkness to swallow him, feeling the force leave him and his breathing stop. He waited until he heard her steps fade and struggled to suck in just one more breath. He had to get to Hercules.
Not much longer, he told himself. Hercules would be just around the bend. But each step seemed too slow, too labored to get to his friend in time. Surely the Enforcer was striding down the path that led to Alcmene’s house even now.
Iolaus fell once again; each time getting up was more and more difficult. But he had to do it, had to find the strength and push onward. Hercules wouldn’t be at his mother’s house yet, of that Iolaus was certain. He would have taken his time at the gravesite. Hercules was like that. Then he would take the path that lead by the beach, the longer way home, so he could pull himself together.
Iolaus struggled onward. One last glimpse of Hercules, one last chance to save him that was all he asked. He tried to stand, but could only manage a series of awkward lunges. His leg was broken, he could feel the grinding of the bones as he pushed forward, still attempting to use the useless limb. He would crawl if he had to, but wouldn’t quit.
Each step was torture. His muscles burned and his chest felt like a cracked eggshell, his lungs no more than yoke. His mind grew foggy with each fall, telling him to simply lay there and die, get some relief from this pain. But his heart told him to press on, because his heart belonged to Hercules. So he rose after each staggering burst forward and jarring fall back with Hercules’s name as a mantra in his head, and looked with hope over each hill top he managed to scale. His pain would end and relief would come, but Hercules must not die.
Hercules walked along the shore slowly, letting the water lap at his boots. His mother had slipped a hand through his crooked arm and glanced with concern at his melancholy expression. Jason walked to his other side, arms behind his back, understanding Hercules’ pain.
“This is where I taught the kids to swim.” He paused, lips tight for a second, and then sighed. “Ilea took to the water like a mermaid.”
His mother squeezed his arm. “This will always be your home,” she comforted. “No matter where you travel.”
Hercules nodded, patting her arm absently.
Jason watched as Hercules stared sightlessly at the water, not even noting the gentleness of the waves.
“Maybe you’re getting ready to settle down again?” he asked hopefully.
Hercules turned to him, smiling finally. “Aren’t you the same man who taught me to chase adventure, no matter where it leads me?”
Jason chuckled, cocking his head. “And I meant it,” he admitted. “But it sounds like you’ve forgotten a more important lesson.”
“Really?” Hercules spoke with challenge in his voice. “What’s that?”
“Well, a warrior can find greater comfort in his own home.”
Hercules saw Jason’s sideway glance at Alcmene, as he met his eyes. “Aw, I haven’t forgotten, Jason. It’s just that, that kind of life seems so far away now.”
“Do you think you could ever let yourself have that chance again?” Alcmene asked, unable to keep the hope out of her voice.
“Mother,” Hercules smiled down at her. “I ask myself that same thing every day.”
Hercules stared into his mother’s blue eyes, lost in thoughts of the many times he had taken comfort through them.
From a distance a hoarse voice tried to shout.
”Hercules!” It came out more of a gurgle, and Iolaus spat out blood, stumbling over the crest of the dune, finally seeing his friend at the bottom.
Hercules looked up, first in curiosity, and then when he saw that Iolaus was dragging his leg, falling, he became alarmed.
Iolaus heard the welcome voice and struggled harder to reach him. But it proved too much of an effort. Instead of sliding down the hill he simply fell, head over heels, feeling the cracking of his broken bones as the sharp ends rubbed gratingly against each other like the cold hard branches of a tree in the dead of winter.
“Oh!” Alcmene gasped as Hercules struggled forward in a vain effort to reach Iolaus before more damage was done. Iolaus had come to her many times to be patched up, and Alcmene could see that this time he was probably beyond repair. Her hand flew to her mouth as her eyes filled with tears. Not Iolaus!
Iolaus landed splayed across the sand at Hercules’ feet. He could see the horror on his friend’s face and thought for the first time that he must look just as bad as he felt. But his time was short. The curtain in his mind was closing fast, and he had to tell Hercules.
Iolaus!” Hercules gasped as he gently picked up his friend and cradled him in his arms. He felt the soft give of the normally hard chest; saw the awkward twist of the leg swinging limply in the wrong direction and the ravaged face. He saw that Iolaus’s blue eyes had lost their twinkle, dullness already creeping into the edges. NO! He thought to himself and hugged Iolaus tighter.
Iolaus felt the love in Hercules arms. He couldn’t much see his best friend’s face any more. Not that it mattered. He had it long memorized. And his time had dwindled to only seconds. He could feel it. His thread was ready to be snipped.
“Un - - -there’s a” - - - he gasped. He seemed to be able to get air out, but not in any more. Speaking was hard. No victory for Hera though. Iolaus fought, drawing in one last breath to finish the sentence. “Another Enforcer,” the words were clipped in pain, “At Hera’s temple - - - worse than before. She’s - - -she’s after you.”
Hercules felt Iolaus’s body go limp, saw his chest stop heaving, the blood slow its trickle from the wounds his body bore. He leaned closer, blocking out his mother’s sobs, not feeling Jason’s hand on his shoulder. This couldn’t be happening.
“Iolaus!” He raged in pain. “Iolaus, come on Iolaus!” Now he was begging, pulling the limp body closer. “Come on!”
Hercules couldn’t stop the tears that flowed down his own cheeks. He clutched at Iolaus, alternately hugging and shaking the body which felt more like a sack of rocks than Iolaus. How many times had they slept side to side, shoulders touching, fought back to back? Iolaus was strong, happy, kind, not a bloody lump, a body hanging in a most unnatural way.
Alcmene knelt, stroking the bloodied golden curls and let her tears fall like spring rain on Iolaus’s face. She leaned forward to place a gentle kiss on his forehead, not minding the metallic taste of his blood against her lips. The son of her heart - - -she’d always secretly known that Iolaus was the stronger of the two. Oh not physically of course, but in most other ways. And Hercules relied on him, they all did. She sobbed freely now, unable and unwilling to hide her pain.
Jason stood in stunned silence. This didn’t even look like Iolaus. It looked like prey, fallen to a stronger predator, one that kills simply for the chance of it. Iolaus shouldn’t have had to die like this. But Jason alone realized that Iolaus had survived far too long. That he’d used his Eastern techniques to let him finish his quest way beyond what any other person could ever have done, did more than impress on Jason, it was etched forever in the annals of love. There was no other reason for Iolaus to have lived with such injuries.
Jason turned to Hercules, aware finally of the strangled sobs that the demigod no longer even tried to hold back.
“No, no, no” Hercules was chanting as he rocked back and forth cradling Iolaus’s body.
“Hercules,” Jason said as gently as he could, squeezing the big man’s shoulder. “He’s dead.”
And Hercules tipped his head back, letting his honey brown hair tumble loosely against his shoulders and slip against his back. He turned his head to the golden sun and screamed.
Alcmene and Jason huddled around Hercules, who still knelt, holding Iolaus so close that they seemed more like Siamese twins joined at the chest than two separate men. The big man pressed his face into Iolaus’ hair, tasting the sweat and blood, smelling all the scents that used to be Iolaus. He was shocked, stunned that this could have happened to his friend, and that he wasn’t there to prevent it. What could he have been thinking, leaving Iolaus alone like that?
His mother could see the self doubt in Hercules’ slumped posture, hear the self incrimination in his whispered apology to his friend’s body. And through her tears, though her own heart was breaking, she tried to comfort him.
“I’m so sorry,” she choked, feeling inadequate in her miserly response. She wanted to scream, to hold Iolaus, to curse the gods and cry out to Zeus. This wasn’t fair! Parents shouldn’t out live their children. But the gods had never listened to her before, and wouldn’t start now, she realized angrily. Her shoulders shook and her body trembled and shivered as she gazed down on the battered and broken Iolaus, and on Hercules’ grief. She felt Jason wrap his strong arms around her.
“He was a brave warrior,” Jason offered, a catch in his throat. He averted his eyes, not wanting to remember Iolaus like this. “He put off dying so he could warn you.” Jason let his eyes wander along the horizon and his mind slip back to happier times - - -Iolaus at the tavern near the Academy, their years of schooling together, the quest for the Golden Fleece - - -twice. He had loved Iolaus too, like a brother, like a son, like a friend. Iolaus had been all that.
Hercules would hear no comforting however. His head shot up, eyes reddened and dirty tear stains on his chiseled cheeks.
Alcmene could see the denial flaring in his eyes, in the rigidity of his posture and set of his jaw. How often she’d seen that when he was a two year old! Hercules had a temper, usually under control now, but his mother knew what a struggle it had been to teach him that control.
Hercules stood angrily, lifting Iolaus tenderly in his arms, almost letting his broken body slip, but catching it at the last second. “No!” He declared with finality. “I’m not going to let him die!” He turned, wading out into the water, carrying Iolaus’s limp frame, arms dangling and legs askew.
“HADES!” he screamed, settling deeper in the water, farther from shore, feeling his boots sink into the wet bottom of the bay. Closer to Hades.
“Hades! I know you’re there! Where are you!” he raged, his face stony and hard. “Hades! Hades! “Hades”
Alcmene and Jason watched as Hercules and Iolaus’s lifeless body simply disappeared.
I awoke my mind blank and uncertain of my whereabouts. I remembered nothing but fog and darkness, instinctively aware that something wasn’t right, could feel it in the very core of my being. Perhaps it was the fact that Hercules held me in outstretched arms, presenting me like a child brings a broken doll to it’s father, or it could have been the tear streaks on his face, or the insane bellowing that was coming in angry spurts from his tightlipped mouth. Being in Herc’s arms was NOT good!
“Oh! UHN! Why are you carrying me?” I called out, snapping my eyes open and clawing my way out of the fog that enveloped me like a ragged curtain. Leaping up, it seemed to me as if every muscle fiber was coming alive anew.
I knew was that this was wrong, all wrong and I sprung up out of his arms and into a fighting stance, arms close to my chest and fists at the ready, a slight crouch to my stance as I had been taught in the East. I checked in all directions, becoming more aware of my surroundings. The place was dark, hot and dry. At least my ears had stopped ringing when Hercules finally grew silent.
Nothing happened as I stood at the ready. I scanned the area alertly, finally focusing on Herc. Hercules rubbed his face wearily, turning away and crossing his arms against his chest.
Not good. Herc wasn’t ready for a fight, even though he sure seemed like it when I woke. Things weren’t adding up.
“Wait a minute.” I let my hands drop to my side and cocked my head as I stared at Hercules’ trying to avoid me. No sense even trying to hide my confusion. “Where are we?” I finally asked, hearing the unaccustomed softness in my own voice.
Hercules stared at the floor and I felt my stomach drop. “The other side,” he mumbled barely loud enough for me to hear.
I didn’t think I was hearing right. “The other side of what?”
He still couldn’t look me in the eyes. Now he stared upward.
“You’re dead?” I ventured, feeling sick to my stomach at the thought. I reached for him, the pain wrenching my heart into a tight fist, and turned him, forcing him to look into my face. I could see the distress there, the watery eyes, hunched shoulders. Still he didn’t answer, simply turning away. Herc was crying.
“I’M dead?” I couldn’t help but feel incredulous, then angry.
“Yeah,” He answered, his voice nothing more than a husky whisper. I hadn’t heard Herc like that since Deineira and the kids crossed over. And it didn’t sit well with me. I was dead.
“Toast?” I asked, hoping he would admit that this was simply an elaborate joke, but then, I couldn’t remember Hercules really joking. My heart fell. Hercules would be alone once again.
“Yeah,” he whispered, not able to hide the pain in his gray-blue eyes. I watched him nod, then turn his face away, struggling to hold himself together. This couldn’t be happening!
“Oh! I can’t believe this!” I cried out, turning angrily and slapping my thighs again. I could feel the sting, how could I be dead?
“You’d better believe it!” a voice with authority called to me.
A tall dark figure, muscular and confident, strode forward, cape flapping behind him. He was staring assessingly at me, eyes roving up my frame until he stopped in front of me and his own dark eyes met mine straight on.
The beauty at his side, dark curly hair fanning out behind her, squeezed his arm, pulling him back a bit. She shot him a look I’d seen only too often, one of disapproval, which only made her more beautiful.
“Show a little consideration, Hades,” she admonished. “Iolaus has had a rough day!” She smiled across at me, and I thought that if she was here, perhaps it would be more tolerable. But then her words struck me. The man striding confidently towards me was in fact a god. And I had just proven my mortality. At least I wasn’t a stranger.
I stared in resignation across at Hades, God of other underworld, a strong and virile figure. He wore an armored chest plate, although he hardly needed it. I could see he was muscular and well built. His hair was thick and wavy, his face unlined and quite young. And he wore a cloak, black and flowing out behind him like the tail of a battle steed in full rush.
Hercules brought me back to the here and now.
“He’s not staying Hades! Do I make myself clear?” There was no mistaking the threat in his voice as he leaned forward into his Uncles face.
“Well considering the condition he was in when he left Earth, which if I must remind you was DEAD, I don’t think he has any other choice.” Hades stared back at Hercules, absorbing his glare. He waved a hand dismissively. “But don’t worry; he’ll be going to the Elysian Fields.” Hades turned his back on Hercules and started to step away.
Hercules would have nothing of it though. He grabbed Hades by the shoulder. Hard. Hades whirled around and Hercules put his face close to his Uncle’s once again.
“No, no, no,” he warned. My wife and children are the ones who didn’t have any other choice.
Hades wasn’t about to be swayed. I could see he was looking at Hercules as simply a pesky demigod, but I knew better.
“Hercules please, think about the precedent I’ll set. I can’t”
Hercules wore his pain so plainly that even Hades was touched by it. I could see the god’s face soften and watched as Persephone squeezed his arm gently and stared sadly over at me. I think this was the defining moment, the one where Hades finally realized that Hercules was hurting. He stared at the tear streaks, defiantly unhidden and I know he saw how Herc stood protectively close to me. I hated when he did that, but I could see where it would be useful here. I watched as Hades turned away, unable to face Hercules.
“Think of the precedent?” Hercules spat incredulously. “You think of the precedent I set when I convinced Demeter to let Persephone stay down here with you!” I watched as Hercules’ jaw jutted and eyes grew steely.
Hades paced thoughtfully, Hercules pursued, not about to be put aside so easily. I was hoping that Hades didn’t take after Hera’s side of the family. At least there would be hope for me.
Hades sighed heavily.
Persephone shot me a conspiratorial look and soft smile Hercules’ way. “He’s right,” she countered her husband. He’s the reason you and I are together.”
I felt the subtle shift of power as Persephone moved to MY side, facing Hades instead of at his side. Her shoulder touched mine warmly, and I wondered if I felt cool to her, now that I was dead.
Hades sighed heavily. “Yeah, but only six months of the year,” he countered.
I felt Persephone stiffen as she leaned forward, irked. “If you’re not nice to him it’s going to be NO months of the year.” She glared across at Hades, seeing him pale and knowing that she had the upper hand.
“But - - -but - - -but sweet pea,” Hades stuttered and I stifled a laugh. I remembered how Ania had set me straight on occasion, and knew how Hades felt. “Iolaus is practically permanent inventory right now!” I couldn’t miss the conciliatory tone in his voice, and saw the way he mooned at Persephone. For the first time since I’d awoken I began to feel a little hope.
“That’s not true,” she countered. “You know how badly things are backed up after the earthquake in Thracia. You’re buried in paperwork, overbooked, and this new Enforcer is just going to make things worse.” She stared across at Hades, a little fiery, a little needy. It worked for me, and I could see it working for Hades.
Then she delivered the coup de gras. “Besides, you did promise me a little quality time” - - -
Hades turned to Hercules, talking to him almost as an aside, pulling him away from Persephone and me.
“We were supposed to go on vacation last week.” He spoke to Herc almost conspiratorially. I looked on in dismay. I didn’t need Herc to be pulled over to Hades side, taking the man’s role here. I was counting on him.
Hercules came through for me. “Well?” He arched his eyebrows and I could hear the pressure in his voice. Hades wasn’t as tough as he appeared.
Hades threw up his hands in despair. “Okay, okay. You want Iolaus back you have to defeat Hera’s latest homicidal freak. But there’s conditions,” he added.
Conditions? I thought in dismay, hearing Hercules echo my mind.
Hades bit the corner of his lip, as if spontaneity wasn’t something he generally indulged in.
“Firstly, you have to do it by sunset.”
Hercules raised his arms, turning the palms up and shook his head. “Why sunset?” he asked incredulously.
Hades brushed him off with a wave of his hand. “Well, those are just the rules,” he countered dismissively. “And second…”
I tried to edge closer, closing the gap, but Hades turned a look of warning at me and pulled Hercules ahead.
“I’ll explain. Just Hercules!” he growled at me, looking miffed and pulled Herc away.
I felt Persephone reach for my arm and turned, seeing her sad doe like eyes and small smile of comfort.
“Who makes these rules?” I heard Herc mutter as he walked away.
I stood, arms falling loosely at my sides, dumbfounded at the turn of events. I was dead, and Hercules was bargaining for my existence. It was starting to soak in, unbelievable as it was, and I found myself wondering whether or not Hercules could save me once again.
Jason and Alcmene waited anxiously at the beach, holding hands and whispering quietly. They were too concerned for Hercules and mourning Iolaus, to even notice that above them a woman strode along the tracks that Iolaus had left as he staggered to his death on the beach. They never saw the fiery red hair or heard the cackle of laughter as the Enforcer tipped her head back, chortling in glee. The first one was gone, and easier than Hera had led her to believe. Now she had only to wait. Hercules would come to her.
Alcmene placed her face against Jason’s chest and wept, clinging to him, lost in pain and grief, as Jason, numb and struggling tried to comfort her.
Hercules was tired of Hades’ games. His uncle was no different from any other god, with no consideration of time.
“Make it quick, I’ve got a deadline, remember?” Hercules sighed tightly. It wouldn’t do to anger Hades.
I could hear him, though his voice was faint, and I knew him well enough to know that he would go to the ends of the earth, topple Olympus or take over Atlas’ burden for me. That’s the way he is. Hades looked irked. I caught bits and pieces of the conversation and Hades’ anxiety was telegraphed by his quick step and furtive glances in my direction.
Persephone stood silently at my side, her index finger to her lips, knowing that the other side echoed, and conversation carried.
“Keep your hair on,” Persephone whispered her husband’s words. “I’m trying to find a way to tell you that there’s no way you can win on your own this time.” I could see the armored chest plate rise and fall with Hades’ heavy sigh. “Look, I’m throwing you a bone here.” Persephone’s voice was soft in my ear.
Herc stared solidly across at Hades, his voice steely. “I’ve beaten everything else that Hera’s thrown at me,” I whispered his words to Persephone.
I could see Hades shake his head. Persephone whispered her husband’s words back to me, reading his lips. “Yeah, well you’ve never gone up against anything like this.” Her voice was soft and sweet and warmed the coolness of my ear.
“She can’t be tougher than the Enforcer.”
I watched in stunned surprise as the leather clad dark haired Enforcer, who had almost killed me before this new one took over and finished the job, strode mechanically up to where Herc and Hades were discussing my fate.
Hercules turned, catching sight of her. I saw his body stiffen as she faced him, head jerking mechanically.
“She is. Trust me.” This Enforcer intoned loud enough for me to easily hear.
“What is SHE doing here?” Hercules raised his voice, tight with indignation. “She’s not even human!”
“Charon’s been slipping up,” Persephone whispered. “I can’t stand her. She’s always following us around like a guard dog. And I mean EVERYWHERE, Iolaus.”
I cast her a sympathetic glance.
“Hades can’t figure out what to do with her,” Persephone confided.
“Yeah, well Herc can,” I answered, knowing that my friend would most certainly use what he could to his advantage. I could see the tightness of his muscles, the stiffness of his shoulders and the way he fought not to clench his fists.
“Herc’s not thinking good thoughts,” I warned Persephone.
I watched as Hades waved a finger warningly at Herc.
“He’s telling Hercules that he will need some help,” Persephone whispered. “Oh I hope he sends her out of here!”
“But her sole purpose was to destroy Hercules!” I protested. “He can’t do that!”
“Iolaus,” Persephone soothed. Can’t you see that she has no soul? She needs one if Hades is ever going to be able to decide what to do with her. This could be her only chance.”
I stared across at the sad honesty on her beautiful face, then back to the Enforcer. Hercules wouldn’t like this one bit. But he’d do it, of that I was sure. Hercules would never let me down.
Hercules appeared on shore staggering. Hades had not sent him out of the underworld gently. Alcmene saw her son fighting for balance, looking tired and discouraged and empty. She gasped at his aloneness, wondering if this was truly the last she’d ever see of her heart son, and if Hercules could ever recover from this loss, if any of them could really.
She rushed to Hercules side, reaching out a steadying hand and calling out his name to pull him back to the waiting world.
Hercules heard and wiped a hand across his face, becoming more aware. The sudden light was blinding, but he could feel his mother’s gentle touch and the rough hand of Jason plunking heavily on his shoulder, his anchors.
“What happened?” Jason demanded his voice regal.
Hercules sighed deeply, filling his lungs with the salty air, getting his bearings straight.
Alcmene gave his arm a squeeze. “Where’s Iolaus?” she choked, unable to hold back her tears, feeling his absence as surely as she would a missing arm.
“With Hades,” Hercules answered disgustedly. Alcmene watched the pain slice across his face as he continued. “I’ve got til sunset to save him.”
At least there was a chance, Alcmene thought, drawing on any thread of hope. She had brought up Hercules to always have hope and never quit. She knew these lessons had stayed with him. Even though she could see the pain he was trying to force back, she also knew without a doubt that her son still had time. All was not yet lost.
She hugged Hercules tightly.
In the water a shape shimmered and formed, glistening like quicksilver, reflecting the world around it. Images swam in her watery visage as the woman took shape, solidified and waded in to shore.
“Get behind me!” Jason ordered Alcmene as he moved to Hercules’ side to form a wall of protection.
Hercules waved him away.
“No, it’s all right, it’s all right. She’s with me.”
Alcmene stepped to his side, noting the resignation in his voice, and wondering if this new woman would be a help or a hindrance. The new woman didn’t look very friendly. In fact she looked frighteningly empty. And she had muscles like no woman Alcmene had ever met. Certainly she wasn’t wife material. Alcmene wasn’t sure what to make of this woman, but she trusted Hercules, and Hercules wasn’t particularly upset.
“Do you have to help everyone?” she whispered to Hercules, concerned that this would delay whatever it was that he had to do to get Iolaus back. She stepped closer to Hercules, took reassurance in Jason’s protective touch.
The Enforcer gazed blankly across the landscape, flexing and relaxing her muscles. She tipped her face to the sun, feeling the droplets of water on her skin evaporate. She had a purpose, a job.
“It’s good to be back,” she intoned.
The Fire Enforcer had stalked her way to Alcmene’s house, checking first the perimeter, then the house itself. Hercules wasn’t there. She would return to the beach, try once again to follow the tracks. She moved quickly over the short distance, covering it almost mechanically. She would find Hercules.
She reached the dune, climbing the slippery sand with ease, not caring that the sun had baked it to burning. At the top, she looked down once again. Hera had been right, of course. There was a new set of tracks, four sets actually. Hercules was traveling with a man and two women, footsteps smaller and lighter. Well that was no matter to her. Just more to kill if Hera wanted. She smiled knowingly. Today they all would die.
This was NOT an easy transition. I was uncomfortable with the darkness of the underworld, the cool of the stone beneath my feet; the way mists tended to crop up and swirl like ghostly visitors around my boots. And I felt different. More alone. I was dead, yet unassigned. Where were Ania, the boys?
Persephone had told me that I would see them only if I was assigned to Elysium, where they waited. But I had to stay here until sunset, when Hercules would return to bid me good bye or take me home.
I felt a sharp stab in my chest, the only thing I had felt except cold since I arrived here. I’d never thought about being without Hercules for eternity. And how could Elysium even be the paradise I’d always believed, if I was separated from the one person I had loved longer than any other, with no chance of ever being reunited again? I swallowed down my pain and tried to joke with Persephone, who walked comfortingly next to me.
“Hard to get a tan down here, huh?”
Persephone wasn’t fooled. She let her shoulder brush against me, hands behind her back and answered without looking, giving me the privacy of my pain. .
”Don’t be so blue Iolaus. You’ll like it down here. I just know you will.”
She spoke convincingly, but I knew that she too must miss her family and the sun. At least she could visit. But I was dead. Toast. The very thought made me squirm. I had so much more to do, how could I have died so soon? Hercules still needed me.
We walked in silence as I took in my new surroundings, hoping this was simply a scouting trip, and not a get acquainted visit. The passages were endless and people wandered as if lost, trying to find loved ones, a place to rest. The constant murmur and shuffling of feet was disorienting, like pebbles tossed restlessly on the shore, back and forth endlessly with the tide. Rooms were alcoves and caverns in the rock walls, simply dead ends in the maze of trails that Persephone and I trod.
I heard a particularly loud group of men, older from the timbre of their voices, shouting and arguing, voices echoing angrily off the rock walls that trapped them.
“Those guys don’t seem too crazy about this place,” I remarked as we stopped near the entrance to the room.
“That’s because they’re doomed to stay in the Asphodel Caverns for all eternity. They’re fallen Generals,” she explained. “All they can talk about is battles and strategy and weapons. No one wants to listen to them…”
I had tuned Persephone out. Fallen Generals… I gazed into the cavern, feeling colder than I’d ever been since I’d first arrived. It couldn’t be…but it was!
I stared across at the face I’d tried for years to forget, the sneer that had burned itself into my memory. He was unchanged, still cocky and arrogant and superior. But I wasn’t a frightened child any more. I wouldn’t run away again, or cry alone in the night, or ice bruises or feel the sting of his absence and neglect.
In all the years since his death I’d spent many a night thinking of what I would say to him if I was ever given the chance. I wanted him to acknowledge that I had grown up to be a fine man, more than he’d ever expected. But the shock of seeing him washed these thoughts away as quickly as a flood washes away a trail. Instead I stood, trying to keep my jaw up and my emotions in check. I would not be bullied again and dug deep inside to reach the old feelings I’d suppressed for all these years.
I met his eyes full on, not bothering to hide my contempt and anger as he tried to push down his own surprise at the way I’d once again intruded on his day. I watched his face slide mask like against his emotions, still so afraid to see me for the man I was, to acknowledge that I could have succeeded where he had failed. He wanted to see only the hungry child, smaller than the others, forced to steal and defame his name to provide for a mother he himself had left with no provisions.
He strode towards me with his cape billowing importantly and jaw jutting aggressively. I stood my ground. Let him come to ME finally I told myself, summoning up all the strength I’d gained over the years! I watched him stride forward and realized that he wasn’t nearly so intimidating now, even though he still towered over me. I let him step so close I could feel the coolness of his breath, see the steely eyes as they assessed me and found me still wanting. I didn’t step back, I simply turned my head up and let my eyes blaze my defiance back at him as I’d done so many other times.
“Well well,” he laughed at me. His eyes didn’t twinkle and his thick brows gathered as he stared suspiciously down at me. “What are you doing here boy?”
He didn’t bother to hide his derision and I answered him in kind.
“Hello to you too, Father!” I spit.
Hercules led his family along the ridge quickly. The grass was slippery and Alcmene wasn’t as young as she used to be, so he found himself traveling just a bit slower than he wanted.
The Water Enforcer trailed, head cocked listening. No more voices. She heard only the whisper of the wind and the sigh of the rippling grass. She was without direction. Each step was mechanical, as she waited for something, but for what she didn’t know.
“Hercules, where are we going?” Alcmene asked impatiently.
I know a place where you’ll all be safe until I get back,” Hercules answered, looking straight ahead and squinting against the sun.
Jason recognized the route. “Sofia Caves?”
Alcmene was lagging. The hill was steep and the day was hot. Her husband and son were in better shape than she was and her legs were tired. Beside her now, the strange leather clad woman warrior caught up and slowed down to match her pace.
Alcmene was taken aback. What should she do? This woman didn’t seem to talk, much less interact with others. Well, she’d try.
“So, How long have you and Hercules been friends?” she ventured.
“Friends?” The Enforcer cocked her head and turned a blank stare at Alcmene.
Alcmene held back a sigh. “That’s what I thought,” she muttered. “Hercules?” she called out in question.
“Don’t ask,” was all she heard as Hercules strode ahead.
Hercules raced around the front edge of the Sofia Caves, looking for the least conspicuous entrance. The rocks were tall and forbidding, blocking out the sun and giving the area a cool dampness that belied the nice weather. The wind whistled across the tall thin door like a musician with a flute, and Hercules squeezed his large frame tightly through, beckoning for the others.
Alcmene hurried to catch up to her son.
“Your friend’s not much of a conversationalist,” she prodded, knowing there was a story there which she’d yet to hear.
Jason steered the conversation away. Hercules had told him of the encounter with this Water Enforcer, of the beating she’d given Iolaus. Both men had agreed that maybe Alcmene didn’t need to know everything, at least not now.
“Oh they say still waters run deep,” Jason spoke softly.
“Not in this case,” Hercules retorted without so much as a glance in the Enforcer’s direction
Inside the cave, Jason sidled over to Hercules. “So this new Enforcer, what do you think that Hera’s concocted?” he spoke softly.
“I don’t know,” Hercules answered. “But she could be carved in stone and be better company than this one.”
Alcmene gasped, hearing the whispered conversation in the silence of the small cave. Worry lines etched her face and she spared a glance in the strange woman’ direction. “Uh oh, she’s…she’s Hera’s enforcer?”
“Yeah,” Hercules finally admitted, unable to hide the truth from his mother.
“She’s…she’s going with you?” There was no mistaking the concern in Alcmene’s voice.
“I’m afraid so.” Hercules stared up at the ceiling to avoid looking at his mother. He couldn’t be bogged down in emotion now. Every second counted.
“Can you trust her?” Alcmene asked in a small voice. Jason slipped an arm protectively around her.
“Nope.” He answered simply. “But I don’t have any choice.” He sighed and looked around the cave, hidden but still feeling exposed. It would be hard to hide from Hera.
The Enforcer had stood silent and still, but now she cocked her head.
“Trouble.” She spoke mechanically.
Hercules sprung into action. “Split up!” he yelled to Jason, who pulled Alcmene protectively behind him.
They heard her before they even saw her, her laugh crackling and echoing through the cave, preceding her arrival.
Hercules stood transfixed as the Fire Enforcer held him in her stare. Her eyes were red and glowing, her hair flame colored and straight up on her head like a torch, and she looked every bit as strong as the Water Enforcer, but taller, and obviously smarter.
The laughter stopped as the new Enforcer sized up the situation. Two groups. No problem. She opened her mouth, took in a deep breath and exhaled forcefully. Fire spewed forth, hot in the confines of the cavern, making it feel like an oven. The Enforcer turned, letting the fire act as a quill would, drawing two circles around the groups, connected like a Greek infinity sign.
The flames rose around Jason and Alcmene, walls of heat crackling and dancing like savages, meeting the ring around Hercules and the Enforcer. Trapped inside, they could barely make out her figure as she turned to leave.
She laughed again, letting it echo eerily and as she slipped through the small exit, she pulled a huge boulder across the opening, closing the captives in.
Hercules stared across at his mother, calling out. “Mother! Jason!” He’d led them into a trap!
“We’re all right Hercules!” Jason called out over the crackle of the flames. He held his hands aloft to shield himself from the heat but it was useless.
“No we’re not!” Alcmene shouted back in fear. “Get us out of here!”
Hercules had never heard his mother so upset and it spurred him to action. He pressed forward, thinking he could somehow ford the gulf of flames that separated them, to no avail.
“Oh! That’s hot!” he shouted as he felt the flames lick hungrily at his hands and face. He stepped back, trapped, trying to think. Time was short.
Outside the Fire Enforcer knew she had one more job. Hera had told her that Hercules was cunning and strong. But she was stronger. She stood back, facing the rock that blocked the exit. She took a deep breath and again she exhaled, letting her flames heat the rock to an almost molten state, sealing the exit. When she was satisfied, she stepped back to assess her work.
“Signed, sealed and delivered!” she shouted “For you, Hera!” She stepped back and punched the air victoriously, practicing the fighting moves that would make her invincible, posturing for Hera. Finally she laughed gleefully. It had been almost too easy.
She’s sealed us in!” Hercules exclaimed in despair. He turned to the Water Enforcer at his side.
“Any ideas?” he asked. She never even met his glance. “That’s what I thought,” He finished, sighing in frustration.
In the next circle, Jason’s pant leg had caught fire.
“Jason! Your leg!” Alcmene cried out in terror. “Get it out!”
Jason knelt in the dirt, just as scared, but determined not to show it. He slapped at the flame, feeling his hand searing, and then started tossing sand on the flames. His leg was burned, the pain told him it was bad, but he could bear it. He stood and comforted Alcmene, trembling next to him.
In the other circle Hercules watched the Water Enforcer as she spun in small circles assessing the situation. He could hear the gurgle and slosh of the water inside her and knew immediately what he must do.
“Jason!” He yelled. “Give me your knife!”
Jason didn’t hesitate. Over the years he’d learned that in a pinch it paid to follow Hercules’ lead.
Hercules caught the knife, feeling the heat of the handle from its trip through the flames. He turned to the Water Enforcer and she faced him, knowing what he wanted.
“How quickly can you heal yourself?” he asked, wanting but not willing to open her without consent.
She stepped close to him, her flat black eyes raised to his. “Do it!” she commanded. A purpose, she had a purpose.
“Are you sure?” Hercules hesitated.
“Now!” she commanded, pressing her abdomen close to the knife.
Hercules didn’t hesitate. The flames were hot and he felt himself burning, knew his mother and Jason felt it even more acutely. He had to get out, had to save Iolaus. He sliced the Enforcer wide open.
She didn’t blink an eye as her belly was laid wide open, exposing the skin, the subcutaneous tissue, the muscle and finally the water. She turned as she sprayed, losing her life force in a gush against the pounding heat of the flames. First she turned to Alcmene, extinguishing the blaze in front of her, and then she turned to Hercules, feeling herself grow weaker. Almost done, she thought as she saw the openings where her water extinguished a pathway of escape.
Alcmene gasped in surprise. “How’d she” - - - But she didn’t get to finish.
“Jason, Mother, GO!” Hercules shouted, as the Enforcer sealed her wound, the water flow slowing to a drizzle, then stopping. She staggered and Hercules grabbed her arm, pulling her away from the flames to join his mother and Jason.
But the door was still sealed and the flames were not completely extinguished. The cavern was hot, a steam bath as the fire consumed the trapped oxygen and Hercules knew they couldn’t last much longer.
“Let me handle this,” he spoke as he ran toward the rock barrier that sealed the door.
Groaning, he pushed, using all the strength that Zeus and Alcmene had had given him and then some to not just move the stone, but also shatter it to bits.
Hercules tumbled out, covered in dust and stone, followed closely by his mother and Jason and finally the Enforcer.
“Is everyone okay?” he asked through gasps of breathlessness as he righted himself.
His mother reached for him weeping. “Oh, oh!”Was all she could manage. Hercules could feel the heat of her body pressed close to him, and smell the smoke singed scent of her hair.
Alcmene held him tight then looked up into his face, tears streaming freely.
The Enforcer looked on curiously, feeling weak, but finding her legs stable. She turned to Jason.
“She is also made of water?”
“Hmm?” Jason answered distracted. “Oh, no, no. Sometimes people cry when they are happy.”
The Enforcer cocked her head. This was unknown to her. She stared up at Jason’s own dry face.
“You are not happy?” she asked.
“Oh yes, yes I am,” he answered absently.
She stared up at him trying to absorb this new information.
“I do not understand.”
Hercules stared across at her unable to make sense of this strange enforcer, evil or good?
“Buy you a drink?” he finally said, wondering if she could even understand the joke.
The Fire enforcer was celebrating her victory by rampaging through the nearest town and demanding converts to Hera. Around her Hera’s thugs robbed and beat the town’s people while she laughed and urged them on. The people cried out, trying to save their precious belongings. Women shepherded children away from the strange flame haired woman as they crouched low, scurrying towards the roads leading away.
But for many, there was no escape as the looting and fighting continued, the Enforcer at times joining the fight as the men of the town tried to repel the invaders. She was too strong however, and with a single snap kick sent the men’s leader flying in a none too graceful arc that resulted in him smashing through the roof of a distant shop, and falling lifeless to the road in front.
“This is just the start!” she declared. “Now that Hercules is dead, there will be no backsliding in worship - - -and no one to stand in our way! Soon the entire province will be ours, then all of Greece!” She laughed maniacally, tipping her head back and letting some flames fly.
My father wouldn’t leave me alone. Just like when I was a kid and he was actually home from whatever war he was directing. He stared at me with that same squinty eyed look as if I was some raw recruit that needed his badgering to make him a man. But what he didn’t realize is that I’d grown up. I’d married. I’d had a family. I’d fought in my own battles. Without him, or his guidance, if you could call it that.
So now he circled, wary hawk-like eyes staring unwaveringly at me, getting closer and closer and pulling himself up just so he could look down on me. It was all about power with him, always had been. But I knew something he didn’t. Love and friendship are real power, not wearing a general’s armor and pushing people around. His thumbs were hooked in his belt and he finally leaned forward, getting so close to my face I could see the cracks in his teeth.
“Well I hope you were man enough to go down fighting.”
I had my arms across my chest and tried to look casual, leaning against a stalagmite.
”Yeah. I was,” I answered, my voice clipped, knowing my face betrayed my distain.
He stared hard at me and I met his eyes dead on and unwavering. He was an old man, a dead old man and no longer had any control over me. And I had nothing to answer for, but he did.
“Good, good!” he declared, not even caring what my battle had been, only that I’d died a warrior. “A chip off the old block, huh?” he continued and I found myself grinding my teeth.
I would NEVER be a chip off the old block, I thought to myself. I’d been a great husband and father, not an absentee one. My family knew I loved them. And I provided well for them too. My sons would never have had to steal to support their mother. And they never felt ignored or neglected. I wanted to turn away, but that would have been a child’s response, so I continued to stare him down.
My father puffed up with importance as he continued. “Well, I’ve got to straighten out these muttonheads I’ve been swapping yarns with.” His voice dropped, became conspiratorial, as if that would endear him to me. “They don’t seem to understand the importance of my pincer movement in the battle of Helispont. And they were Generals too, just like me!”
I couldn’t stand it. I let a heavy sigh slip out then bit my lip. Being a General was always most important to him, his status was what made him a man, at least in his eyes. I bit my lip to keep from responding. I wasn’t going to be sucked into his life, or death as it was. But he was thick, not choosing to see that I was his son, and not his friend or his foot soldier either.
“Come on, BOY! Check it out for yourself,” he declared, taunting me and grabbing at my shoulder.
That was my breaking point. I wasn’t going to be pushed around by him. I wrenched myself away. Letting my anger show full on my face. “
”First, my name is NOT boy. It’s Iolaus.” I pushed my face right into his, tipping it upward.
He sneered down at me, trying to use his height to intimidate me, but all it did was emphasize how little he really knew me. My height was never an issue. I traveled with Hercules; I was always looking up anyway.
“Oh, a little peevish are we?” he taunted, so close I could smell his breath. “Well being killed can do that to a man.” He smiled sarcastically and I wanted to hit him.
It was always about him, the pulling at me, the getting in my face, the calling me boy. I wasn’t going to let him get away with it though. Not any longer. I was being given my chance to prove that in my eyes he was not the all powerful patriarch he thought himself to be, but just a poor father, a self centered person and a dead General.
I shook my head. All he cared about was war. I had died and thought of Ania, the boys. But my father had never even mentioned my mother. He had no idea if she was dead or alive, if his leaving had caused her death or if she had just continued on with her life. It seemed an unimportant fact that he had left behind a family, and I felt my blood boiling. My father was a self centered man, in life and in death. That my mother had suffered so much during her years with him, and that he didn’t even acknowledge it only served to force that home to me. And I intended to make him face his failing.
“And secondly,” I continued tightly. “Don’t you want to know what happened to mother?”
I got to him. I could see it in his eyes. The tide of the battle was turning and the foot soldier had the advantage.
“You know” - - - his voice faltered. “I, I don’t think about her very much.” He let his eyes fall away.
“Did you ever?” I challenged, my eyes shooting more fire than the Enforcer could. I watched as he shifted and turned his eyes to the floor in discomfort. But then he remembered that he was the general, the commander speaking to the weakling, the runt, the crybaby. To his son. To me. His head snapped back up.
“Watch your tongue BOY! I’m still your commanding officer!” he snapped back angrily in my face.
“No! No you’re not!” I answered back vehemently. “You’re a coward who deserted his family!” In that single sentence I released all the anger and resentment that had built up through the years, laying my true feelings as a naked sacrifice before my father. And I wasn’t ashamed.
“Grow up boy!” he answered, but I could see his throat working and he swallowed hard. He stepped away, turning his back on me, collecting himself. His maroon cape billowed behind him like a comet tail, and I thought it represented all the blood that had poured over his hands, the fire that infected his soul, the path of life and death he’d chosen. War and not family.
He spun back suddenly. “There were wars to be fought! I protected your right to be a crybaby in all of them!” He stood, his finger pointed in judgment of me, his pain and anger plain upon his rough face and I had to turn my own face.
I inhaled deeply, pushing his childhood taunt away. I was not what he thought I was, never had been. This man truly didn’t know me. But he would learn now, if it took eternity.
He strode back to me, confident that he’d regained his footing in this pissing match, top dog once again, but he hadn’t bargained for a son who was strong and capable and could hold his own. I would not be intimidated with old insults.
“You know what?” I pressed my face close to his. “I think mother really was lucky. She didn’t know it back when you left us, but she does now. She married a poet - - -and she has NEVER been happier.” I said the words slowly, not backing down, wanting to hurt my father just as he had hurt me.
“A poet!” he snorted, turning away, his blood red cape swaying behind him.
“You go back and tell all your friends about all the slaughters you’ve seen!” I called at his departing back. “Have a nice after life - - -DAD!”
He spun back, and even from the distance I could see the pain etched in his face, the disappointment. I felt my eyes watering with my own pain and disappointment that I still wasn’t what my father wanted, and infact had been spiteful and mean to him as he had treated me in my youth.
“No,” my father spoke, this time with soft sadness in his voice. “I don’t think I will. Not now.” He turned back and I heard him speak a single word with a shake of his head.
Hercules led his family and the water Enforcer through the trashed town, feeling sick at heart. These people were his friends. They’d done nothing to deserve this. Hera’s new Enforcer had been through to wreak vengeance upon them, and recently. The fires still burned, the streets were littered with debris. Alcmene could hear the soft moan of a man, then silence. Jason hugged her tighter.
“This is the shortest way home,” Hercules reassured her. “Keep your eyes open,” he addressed the Enforcer, and then he turned to Jason.
“How’s the leg?”
“Don’t worry about me,” Jason responded, but in truth it burned, and every step pulled on the tender skin. But Hercules needed him, Iolaus needed him. He would have to be dead not to fight at Hercules’ side.
“Is it all right if I worry about you?” Alcmene asked in a small voice, trying not to think about what happened to the inhabitants of the now vacant town.
“You, YOU’RE allowed,” he smiled down at her.
Hercules walked catlike, scanning the area, while the Water Enforcer found a ladle and started drinking the water it held. She scooped again and again, not caring that the water was dirty, wanting only to replace what she had lost in the fire.
“She’s close,” Hercules spoke softly to Jason.
Jason nodded. He felt it too. “Yeah, real close.
Suddenly, a flash of armor at the top of a staircase caught Hercules’s eye. Hera’s goons were coming down fast, carrying weapons and looking for trouble.
Hercules turned to the Water Enforcer. “Keep an eye on mother and Jason!” he commanded her, knowing that she was a superior fighter and Jason was already hurt.
Jason pulled Alcmene away, standing in front of her to defend her and started fighting the goons right away.
Hercules took a cast iron kettle and wielded it with ferocity. He had to get to the Fire Enforcer. These guys were simply a diversion. Iolaus’ life was at stake. He swung the kettle, shattering the skull of the closest fighter, and then swung back catching another one and feeling the satisfying snap of his attacker’s arm breaking. Chancing a glance at the Water Enforcer, he saw she was fighting as well, kicking high with great extension way over her head to kick an attacker behind her.
Hercules was concentrating on the fight and didn’t see where she came from, but he felt her, the heat she exuded, heard her laugh. “Still alive?” the Fire Enforcer asked.
“Last time I checked,” Hercules answered as he finished off another fighter. They just kept coming like a colony of ants at a picnic.
“You are lucky, son of Zeus!” she called out teasingly.
“That’s my middle name,” he answered.
Meanwhile Jason saw that a goon with a sword was approaching the Water enforcer, and she was pretty busy fighting off her own assailant. He swung her way, impaling the man with his sword, pulling it free and watching as the man dropped lifeless on the ground.
“I owed you that one,” he called to her. He looked for his wife, calling out to her, “Take cover.”
But it was too late. The Fire Enforcer had her and was dragging her kicking and screaming into the barn. Hercules didn’t notice, but the Water Enforcer did, after all she had been commanded to watch the woman. And she had been created to follow orders. She didn’t even bother to look back, just followed her fiery counterparts path to the barn.
“Where’s mother?” Hercules shouted to Jason, distracting him.
Jason turned his head but didn’t see his wife anywhere. Suddenly he felt the slash of a sword across his arm. The cut was deep, into the muscle, but Jason slashed back, killing the attacker. He fell to the ground, grasping his arm, stopping the flow of blood. Had to keep fighting.
But Jason was worried. “She must have taken cover,” he spoke mostly to reassure them both, but the Water Enforcer’s absence troubled him. “I’ll find her!”
Inside the barn Alcmene was both frightened and angry. This was the “THING” that had killed Iolaus! How dare she! But she knew in her heart that there wasn’t much she could do, she’d seen this enforcer’s power.
“Stay!” the Fire Enforcer commanded her.
But Alcmene had taught Hercules to fight injustice and she wasn’t ready to back down yet. She still had her staff, and she swung it hard, catching the Enforcer hard across the abdomen
The Enforcer growled and grabbed Alcmene by the throat, lifting her off the ground.
Alcmene could see the Enforcer’s anger, feel her heat and saw the burning in her eyes. Hitting had been a mistake, but she couldn’t take it back now. She felt the pressure on her throat grow firmer and fought for a good breath. She would die here in this barn and Hercules would be truly alone.
The barn door opened with a slam, and through her hazy vision Alcemene could see the Fire Enforcer’s head snap around.
“Let her go!” the Water Enforcer commanded and stood like a solid wall between her counterpart and the door.
The Fire Enforcer tossed Alcmene away without a second thought and advanced on the Water Enforcer.
There was no wary circling or posturing, the Enforcers simply went at each other like separate halves of a puzzle, trading kicks and punches, spinning in tandem and blocking as if they could read the others next action telepathically.
The Fire Enforcer was first to stop. She recognized the pattern and laughed. “Ooh! I’m scared!” she taunted.
“You should be,” the Water Enforcer answered flatly. She cocked her head, the flat black shark eyes unwaveringly on her opponent.
The Fire Enforcer laughed. This other was out moded. No emotions, no joy in the fight, it could be a strength, or it could be a weakness. The Fire Enforcer thought she would enjoy this fight.
The Fire Enforcer moved into the fight again with a quick set of snap kicks to the Water Enforcers abdomen. But the Water Enforcer countered with the same, and then threw in some straight punches. Her hot opponent blocked them, and countered while the two women moved as if choreographed, striking punishing blow after punishing blow to each other.
Finally the Water Enforcer broke the pattern. She ran at her nemesis, lifting off the ground and kicked up her legs in a powerful flying side kick that sent the Fire Enforcer staggering. The redhead lost her balance, falling hard against the barn wall and dropping to the floor.
The Water enforcer stood close, not following up, staring down.
Alcmene saw her chance. She ducked low and made for the door, but the fire enforcer saw her. She quickly grabbed a scythe, hurling it in a strong backhand directly at Alcmene, when it landed hard into the wall inches from her head.
Alcmene gasped and drew herself back to where she started as the Fire Enforcer commanded.
The Water Enforcer flew into action. She had been told to keep Alcmene safe. A scythe near the head wasn’t safe. The other enforcer must be stopped. She began fighting anew, no longer directionless.
She fought with increased abandon, striking and kicking the Fire Enforcer with a ferocity that surprised her opponent. Her machinelike chops and blocks frustrated the Fire Enforcer, who made another mistake, coming in just a bit too close.
The Water Enforcer seized her chance and grabbed the Fire Enforcer, picking her up and tossing her like a dart at the wall behind her.
The Fire Enforcer hit the wall hard, impaling herself on two wooden spikes used to hold up tools. She looked down in surprise. This shouldn’t have happened. SHE was the superior one.
The Water Enforcer turned to Alcmene.
“Run. Now.” She said simply and watched as Alcmene ran for the door, stopping by her side for a second.
“Thank you,” Alcmene whispered to the Water Enforcer, and touched her savior’s cool strong arm before running free.
Outside the fighting continued. Hera’s men seemed to come never endingly. Hercules was covered in a pile of them, all punching and fighting. But he simply rose up quickly, tossing them high in the air. He caught sight of his mother, calling out to her.
“Mother!” Another wave of men came at him.
“I’m okay,” she reassured him. Looking around she caught sight of her husband, fighting bravely, his arm gashed and bleeding heavily.
“Jason!” She rushed to his side, the vision of Iolaus dead in Hercules’ arms flooding her mind as she saw Jason’s blood flowing freely, forgetting momentarily to send help for the Enforcer.
Inside the barn the Fire Enforcer dangled, feeling no pain, simply laughing. So, the fight would continue. This Water Enforcer was smarter than she looked, but no one was unbeatable, except perhaps herself. She pulled the spike from her side with a loud kyai, tossing it down, and then jumped to the Water Enforcer.
The fight resumed, the two women equally matched. The fire Enforcer enjoyed a good fight, but she needed to dispatch this pest. She reached for the staff the older woman had left behind. Any weapon would work. The Water Enforcer saw her. She must finish, go out and watch over the older woman, that was her job. She grabbed the scythe out of the wall the other enforcer had thrown and advanced on her opponent.
The Fire Enforcer laughed again, and then her smile hardened. She pushed the staff at the Water Enforcer, too confident, too close.
The Water Enforcer sliced off her hand at mid forearm level with one simple sweeping motion of the scythe.
“Lost your grip?” she asked flatly, her head cocked, standing in wait to see if this would prove the mortal blow or if the other would leave to heal herself. Must get back to duty, protect the woman.
But the Fire Enforcer simply laughed.
“When you’re hot, you’re hot,” she grinned, turning her flaming amputated limb on the Water Enforcer.
The Water Enforcer simply stood there puzzled. This one leaked fire. Her arm had become a torch, a weapon, not a hindrance. She could feel her water start to boil, steaming her muscles, leaving them feeling weaker by the second. She couldn’t move as her insides bubbled and expanded, no longer fluid and powerful, but becoming an expanding gas, trapped inside a container it wanted to escape.
“Ooh, you’re steaming now!” The Fire Enforcer laughed evilly, feeling the power of victory in her sights.
Hercules had just finished polishing off the next wave of goons. He turned and saw that finally he was alone. Hera must have decided that she didn’t need to distract him any longer, he thought, and suddenly worried. Where was his mother? Could Hera have gone after her?
Alcmene was tending to Jason’s arm. She had ripped away part of her under dress and was carefully binding the gash tight enough to stop the bleeding.
“Are you all right?” Hercules asked anxiously as he ran to her side.
She looked up at him, suddenly remiss at having forgotten about her savior in the battle in the barn. Perhaps it wasn’t too late to send help - - -
“You have to help the Enforcer. She helped me to escape,” she started, but was stopped by a hard scream of agony.
Hercules wheeled around and dashed for the barn. “You stay here!” he yelled back at Jason and his mother.
Hercules slammed through the doors, ready to fight, but even in the dim light he could see that the Fire enforcer had escaped. A thin shaft of light from the open door slashed through the shadow falling on the spot where the Water Enforcer lay twitching. Hercules gasped, racing to her side.
“I’m sorry,” she spoke as he leaned over her. She twitched and her body gurgled and hissed. She lay powerless feeling herself grow weaker as the water vapor left her.
Hercules knew there was nothing he could do for her. He smiled down on her kindly, knowing that he had misjudged her, that she wasn’t inherently evil, but simply a tool, and directed by the right person, could have learned good.
“No,” he answered. “I was wrong. You helped save my mother’s life. And for that I will always be your friend.”
She nodded, accepting his offer, but curious about this new word.
“Friend?” she gasped.
Hercules stared sadly down at her, someone who had never known love, or friendship. He could only hope that Hades would remember this when he sat in judgment of her.
“It’s someone who cares about you,” he told her. He watched a tear slip down her face, wondering if it was condensation or if she was actually crying. He touched his finger gently to her cheek, wiping it away, noting the path it had taken. A tear, he decided.
She twitched again, more violently, and then when her body grew quieter, she answered simply.
Hercules watched as the blank eyes grew duller and her body stilled completely thinking to himself that he had learned a valuable lesson from her; that you never know what’s in the scroll until you open it up to look.
Hercules knew he had to make a new plan. Now that he no longer had the Enforcer, he couldn’t bring his mother along. She needed to be safe. The Fire Enforcer wanted him, so Alcmene had to be as far away as possible. And Jason was hurt; bringing him along would put him in danger as well. This Fire Enforcer was simply too strong. She’d kill Jason in a second.
“What happens to the Enforcer now that she’s dead?” Alcmene asked anxiously, breaking into Hercules thoughts.
Hercules could hear the pain in her voice. She blamed herself for not telling them fast enough. Hercules had tried to reassure her that the battle was over too fast for anyone to have intervened, but it was of little comfort to Alcmene. He knew his only reassurance could be through his next words. He couldn’t lie however.
“I don’t know,” he finally said. Hades has to make that decision. I hope he knows how loyal she was, and brave. I think he’ll take that into consideration.”
Alcmene nodded. “I hope so too.”
Hercules looked up at the sky. The sun was dipping lower. He had to get Iolaus back. He didn’t have time to be slowed down. He hoped they understood.
“I’d better get going,” he said. “If I don’t end this by sundown, I’ll never get Iolaus back.” The words frightened him. No Iolaus. What would life be like without his noise, his chatter his camaraderie? Hercules didn’t want to find out.
“Not by yourself!” his mother worried aloud.
“Just give me a couple of minutes,” Jason offered. “I’ll be good as new.”
But Hercules would hear it. “Stay here. You’ll be safe.”
“But you’re going up against something that no one can defeat alone,” he protested.
“Listen to him please Hercules,” his mother’s voice trembled. “There’s been enough tragedy for one day.” She thought of Iolaus, of the Enforcer and knew that she simply couldn’t lose two sons in one day. He needed Jason, someone at his side! But what if Jason, too, was killed?
It was too much. Alcmene let herself weep as she hugged Hercules.
“I know you miss Iolaus,” Hercules soothed. “And I WILL get him back. But I can’t risk you and Jason. She wants me.”
Jason stood, reaching for Alcmene. ”I’ll keep her safe Hercules,” he promised. “You just come back with Iolaus.”
Hercules nodded. “I’ve never backed down from Hera before, and I’m not going to start now.”
I have to admit, I was feeling blue. I’d really gone off on my father and I was sort of ashamed of that. But he needed it, really. His perception of me, of mom, of our entire lives was so skewed by his absences and his high opinion of himself that I let out everything that I’d wanted to say since I was a kid. Only it came out different than I wanted. Meaner. More like what I would have expected out of him, not myself.
I sat on a rock, mist swirling at my feet and stared across at him, sitting on a rock in the Asphodel cavern, mist swirling at his feet as he tried not to look at me. Was I so different than he was?
I had left my mother just as he had done, trying to justify it by walking a path with Hercules. But when push came to shove, I hadn’t gone back, hadn’t sent any messages and hadn’t gone to see her even when I’d taken the time to visit Alcmene. I felt guilty, and rightly so. My mother loved me, which I knew. As an adult, I could finally see what I’d I could never fathom as a child, that she had let herself be yelled at, spoken down to and neglected because my father was going to do it to someone, and of course she felt better her than me. She was protecting me, and all those years I’d thought of her as downtrodden and subservient. Well, I vowed, if Hercules got me out of here, I would make it a point to get home to see her.
My mind drifted to my father. People were a product of their past, how they reacted to the situations that had arisen there. And I had met his mother, my grandmother. She was a lovely person, kind and caring. And yet my father wasn’t very much like her. Surely there was a reason for his seeming so callous. I truly knew so little about my father. My opinions had been formed on the perception of a child. Perhaps I could better approach him, reconcile my past with the present if I simply tried to see him as I would see myself.
I stared across at my father, sitting with the fallen generals, head in hands, paying them little attention. He seemed to be doing the same as me, thinking. His back was slumped, a posture I didn’t remember ever seeing, and I knew then that he was unaware of my watching him. Surely I had some of my father in me, yet I could see none of that. We were of the same blood yet so different.
His mother had loved him as Erythia had loved me. His own father had died before they even knew each other, leaving him to find his way in the world as best as he could. And unfortunately, Leandra was never given the chance to even try and raise her son, to heap her love and goodness on him, to shape him and mold him. Taken in by another family, much like Alcmene had taken me in, he probably always wondered about his real family. What would he have been like if he had not wandered away from his mother the day his village was cursed? Would he have been a great dad, a faithful husband who provided for his family? Would I even be alive? I’d never know that. The Fates had knotted a thread in his life, and it had affected all of us.
I squirmed and turned another look his way, caught him averting his face from me. I tried not to think of the nights mother and I spent alone, with little food and a cold house. I was too small to cut much wood, but tried to bring the biggest pieces I could home. We never had enough money and although mother was a good gardener, she had nothing to barter once the provisions ran out. My father was never home enough, never sent dinars when we needed them, or even word of where he was fighting. He was a man absorbed in his job.
And when he was home, I tiptoed around. This was a man used to be being obeyed, used to issuing orders and not being questioned. His voice was loud and demanding and scary. Praises were few. Sometimes at night, when they thought I was asleep, I would hear them talking, voices rising until they were shouting. Mostly I heard him. Sometimes she cried. And I huddled in a small lump under my blanket afraid to get up and see what was happening, knowing they would both shoo me away and afraid that I might get a slap from my father’s big hand.
My mother had tried to make me understand that my father’s gifts lay in strategy, in dealing with the unknown. She would have had me believe that he was the finest General in all of Greece, maybe all the known world. But I just wanted a father, someone to help with my homework, play ball with, tell me what a good kid I was and just be there. I felt that in his eyes wars were more important than being available for a son, and people who obeyed and laid their lives down as directed bore higher regard than the wife and runt child who waited back home.
I didn’t know whether I could ever forgive him for not being there for mother and me. I’d successfully pushed these feeling away for so many years, never thinking I would be given a chance to reconcile with him, and I didn’t even know if I could do that.
The voices of the Generals grew loud, the discussion heated. But my father’s voice wasn’t among them. I glanced over again, this time our eyes met, neither of us willing to give ground and turn away first. I let my eyes fix on him and my mind retreat.
He hadn’t been a good father, but he’d never broken any of my bones, or more than backhanded me for talking back. And he hadn’t been absent from our family because he wanted to, at least not at first. He had a duty to fulfill, a calling that my mother said only he could answer. He’d won many battles and I imagine his innovative strategies had saved a good many lives. But in the end he’d walked out the door never to return, even when the battles were ended. He chose to wait for the next war not at home, but with others of his kind. Perhaps it was simply the war that had changed him, and not his feelings about mother and me. I might never know this. Maybe it was simply conjecture, wishful thinking. All I knew was that when he’d died my mother cried, but not too hard. I hadn’t shed a tear.
I had a chance here and I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t truly forgive and certainly wouldn’t forget how his life had so negatively impacted us. But on the other hand, he’d never really had control of his own life. No mother to teach him, or father to guide him. Called to war before he’d learned to be a parent. Taking on great responsibility, only to return home to more of the same, yet ill equipped to handle it. Could I truly hold him accountable for his actions? Perhaps the gods, Hephestus and the Fates, held just as much accountability for what my childhood had been as my father.
He HAD come to the parent’s day at the Academy, even though I neither wanted nor expected him. That had been a debacle. And he had approached me first here in the Underworld. My mother had loved him, defended him even when I thought he’d done her wrong, and I’d trusted and loved her. Maybe he wasn’t all bad. Maybe he was a product of his upbringing. It wasn’t a good excuse for his behavior and its effect on us, but it was a start.
He had been a warrior and I had been too. He had been a father and I had also been one, although better I must admit, but mostly because I’d learned from his example what NOT to do. He’d been forced to fend for himself as I had done. And I had to admit grudgingly that in some ways, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
It was a start. I knew I had a lot of feelings to work through, and if we both stayed dead I’d have plenty of time. But if Hercules came back for me - - -
I focused on my father now, seeing that he was no longer looking at me, and I wanted him to look up, to me, to acknowledge my presence, as I would do his. Maybe we both had a lot to work out. I could neither return with Hercules nor stay here for eternity with my heart in such conflict. This much I realized: That though I couldn’t fully forgive him or wipe away my memory of the turbulent years of my childhood, perhaps I could at least understand why he had become the man he had. I loved his mother, my grandmother Leandra. Maybe I could at least find common ground, a thread to bind us and maybe even draw us closer. And I vowed to myself that I would return to see my mother.
I turned and stood, thinking to show myself as the real man, but saw to my surprise that my father had risen, a mirror of myself. I took a step towards him and watched as he did the same. But his step quickened and he came swiftly out of the Asphodel Cavern and stood, face to face with me. I stood, assessing him, the lines etched ever deeper in the face that should no longer age, the sorrow around his eyes and the stoop to his posture.
“I lied to you,” he started without preamble. “I want you to know that.” He stood unwavering in front of me, not bothering to hide his naked honesty. “I thought about you and your mother every day after I walked out. His voice became hoarse, but to his credit he maintained eye contact. “I just couldn’t go back. I was - - - too ashamed, too frightened.”
I rubbed my hand against my mouth, wanting my eyes away from his yet knowing that I couldn’t do that as I collected my thoughts at this unexpected turn of events. I held him in my gaze as I answered.
“I’m sorry you felt that way. And I’m sorry I felt the way I did.” I paused, hoping I didn’t sound too rueful, that he would see my strengths for the first time. I drew a deep breath and let it out. “Dad, I need to tell you something.”
He stood unmoving, eyes on mine, not judging, just asking forgiveness, when in my heart I knew that I too, had much to atone for.
“Father, I met your mother, Leandra.”
I saw the astonishment spread across his face like a drop of fine oil in a puddle. His eyes flooded with questions and his mouth loosened and for a moment the wrinkles faded away and I could see him as a child.
“How?” was all he managed.
I sighed. “It’s a long story dad. If I stay I’ll tell you the whole thing. But the short version is that Hephestus cursed your town when you were playing near the river. The town and everyone in it disappeared.”
He stared across at me stunned.
“But why?” There was a sharp edge to his voice, a pain barely hidden as he tried to push the old wound, now opened, back into submission.
I scuffed my foot on the floor. The truth would be painful, but my father was a warrior and he’d handle it.
“Hephestus wanted to marry your mother after your father died.” I carefully omitted the part about Aphrodite. If I stayed that would come out, but I was still hoping that Hercules would come through for me. “She refused. He doled out punishment.”
His eyes grew tight and I could see a measure of disbelief starting to take over. “You just stumbled upon a disappeared city?” I heard him clip off the “boy” before it was fully out.
I sighed, rubbing my mouth again. It sounded ludicrous, but I knew I had to finish.
“You see dad, the curse had just been lifted. The people didn’t know that fifty years had passed. Your mother was still looking for you. And she was frantic. To her it was the very same day.”
I could see my father fighting not to believe what I was telling him, trying to protect himself from the emotions that raged out of control after so many years in solitary confinement. He turned away, running his hand across his face much as I do, and then turned back. His face was raw, alive as I hadn’t seen it or remembered it in years past. He seemed at a loss for words, his throat working but his mouth silent.
“She’s still alive, and beautiful,” I told him. “And I told her that you had grown up to be a General, like your own father, that you’d died a hero’s death.” My own voice choked up, remembering Leandra’s pain and seeing my father’s own wonder and pain.
“How is she?” he managed to croak, his eyes boring into mine.
“Fine dad, better than either of us right now.”
My father stared across at me, and tentatively reached out a quivering arm to place his hand on my shoulder.
I felt the coolness of his death, the still strong grip and my stomach clenched. He hadn’t touched me since I was a child. I couldn’t even remember a single touch of caring.
“Son,” He choked. “If you get out, if your friend gets back to you…”
He was having a hard time finishing. I placed my hand over his.
“Tell my mother I still love her.”
I nodded and squeezed his hand, willing my eyes not to tear.
“There’s nothing I’d like to do more,” I responded honestly.
He nodded, and I could see the relief flooding through him, the relaxing of his muscles, the small nod of his head. It was then that I felt Persephone’s light touch on my shoulder. I turned to see Hades behind me, a small smile on his face.
“I see you two have brokered a truce.” He stared across at my father.
My father answered him as if he was a commanding officer.
“Yes sir.” He looked behind himself at the arguing in the Asphodel cave. “I should be getting back. They count on me to keep them in line.”
I could hear the bravado in my father’s voice, and felt sorry for him. This was no existence. He was a man who was a product of the weaving of the Fates. He shouldn’t have to be punished twice.
“Is that what you really want?” Hades asked him, honest curiosity in his voice.
“Well, no, to tell you the truth,” my father answered. “Military strategy is as interesting to me as boiled fish, but I don’t know any way else to fill in my time.”
I could see the honesty on my father’s face, the humility in the presence of Hades, his own commanding officer, and for an instant I was proud of him.
“What do you say Iolaus?” Hades turned to me. “Do you think he could get by in the Elysian Fields?”
I stared first at Hades in wonder, that I would be given a say in where my father would ultimately spend eternity. The magnitude of the decision wasn’t lost on me. Had I been asked that only a few hours ago, I would have let him stay right where he was, content that Hades had correctly seen my father’s life and deeds and given him the appropriate reward. I would have let my feelings dictate my father’s eternity.
But I had seen what my father really was, and realized that sometimes childhood memories are colored by the lack of adult understanding. I learned that not communicating made things even worse, and a child’s perceptions weren’t adequate to base a judgment on. My father may not have been the BEST father, but he tried to do what he could, at least at first.
I stared across at my father long and hard, noting the softening around his eyes, the stoic turn of his mouth. He awaited my decision, much as I had awaited his each time I’d seen him return from war. And I’d learned that no one wants to be let down.
“I think he’s ready to go to the Elysian Fields,” I spoke to Hades but never took my eyes off my father.
He tried to keep his emotions in check, but I could see the grin unable to stay suppressed. His eyes sparkled and he didn’t look back at his comrades in the Asphodel Cavern. I smiled across at him, not ready to forget, but certainly willing to try and forgive.
“Then that’s it,” Hades spoke, and my father turned his gaze on the God of the Underworld.
“Reporting for duty sir!” I could hear the joy and humility in his voice. He turned to me. “You coming?” he asked for the first time EVER.
I had to shake my head, much as I would have liked to finally go with him, enjoy my acceptance.
“Ah, no thanks,” I answered with a shake of my head, because I knew that Hercules had always loved me and never, ever, given up on me, and he surely wouldn’t now. And I knew that Hercules was the most important person in my life for more years than anyone else had ever been.
“I’m stubborn enough to believe that Hercules will save me,” I answered. I smiled ironically at him and my father understood. Maybe he’d always understood more than he’d let me know.
“Stubborn huh?” he nodded and winked. “Wonder where you picked that up?” He turned to Hades, taking a step in his direction, speaking as he walked away. “Well, have it your way” - - - He turned back. “Boy!”
“Well, there it is then!” Hades declared.
I stared on in wonder; at first taken aback by his derivative ‘BOY’ but finally realizing that it meant nothing. It was simply my father’s way of relating. And I laughed for the first time since I’d been here. Then I turned away, unable to see him leave once again while I stood by watching.
The Fire Enforcer thought she was alone in Hera’s temple. She was engrossed in thought as she placed her stump of an arm into the flames raging on the altar. The Water Enforcer had put up a good fight for a simple mindless vehicle of destruction. Mirroring her own tactics had worked well. But when the Water Enforcer got that “original thought” in her head to dismember her, it was the beginning of the end. The Fire Enforcer laughed as she watched her arm being reformed by Hera, shining in the flames and growing bronze and strong once again.
Hercules heard her laugh as he crouched behind an urn. He truly wished he could have the element of surprise, but he suspected that Hera was still watching, perhaps warning this Enforcer. He heard a knowing laugh and dashed for a new hiding place. She may know he was here, but he’d try to make it tough for her to get him.
She saw him as she turned, but she’d planned it that way. Moving with none of the stiff precision of the former Enforcer she flew at him, landing a giant round kick that sent Hercules crashing into the wall on the far side of the temple.
The Enforcer again called out tauntingly. “It hurts, doesn’t it?”
She was fast, and as Hercules tried to push the pain back down he never saw where she went. He looked around, confused and wary, listening to her teasing laugh echo through the temple. Where had she gone? He didn’t want to be caught from behind. Time was running out, and he wanted Iolaus back, needed Iolaus back. He felt the ache in his heart far deeper than the pain the Enforcer administered and it stirred him onward.
“Let’s get this over with!” Hercules growled, not willing to play her cat and mouse game. He stood, letting his heart lead him, his courage from his desire to have his friend back.
“Good!” She answered, showing herself “I’m going to enjoy tearing you apart.”
She didn’t wait, once the challenge was issued. She simply opened her mouth and let the fire blow out, hotter than a bellows fueled forge. Hercules had anticipated it though, and jumped to safety.
The Enforcer was not to be denied. She raced to Hercules and with a series of kicks and punches worthy of an Olympic champion, sent Hercules sliding on his stomach across the cool stone floor, landing face first at Hera’s altar like an offering.
“She’s good!” Hercules groaned as he pulled himself up, the encouraging voice of Iolaus in his mind, urging him forward.
The Enforcer was ready. She grabbed a whip, snapping it like a dominatrix and wrapping it tightly around Hercules’ neck. She pulled, snapping the leather and stretching it like the tethering leash on an unruly dog.
Hercules tried to get his hands around the noose of leather, working his fingers against the flesh and muscles of his neck, feeling the breath caught in his chest. He dropped to his knees, his ears ringing for lack of oxygen, sounding like Iolaus’ infectious laugh. But it wasn’t, and just that fact made Hercules fight a little harder.
No use. Hercules found that he was being swung in a circle, feet lifting off the floor and leather whip pulling even tighter around his neck. The temple seemed to be graying around the edges of his vision. But he wasn’t ready to give up yet. He dug his fingers in deeper, finally getting a grip around the weapon’s purchase. Mustering up what strength remained as he whirled, unable to breathe. He finally loosed the leather noose.
Hercules knew he had the edge. Iolaus would have told him to “go for it”, would have been watching his back, and trying to take her down. But she’d already felled Iolaus. Hercules wouldn’t let her get him as well.
Hercules felt the loosening and using it to his advantage pulled hard, jerking the unsuspecting Enforcer off her feet. She fell to the floor and Hercules jumped up, grabbing her ankle. He spun her just as she had done to him, but this time he made sure that a stone pillar stood in the way of her trajectory. He slammed her, HARD, against the stone, causing it to wobble, felt the loosening of her body and felt the heat against his hand as she simply exploded into a ball of fire.
He dropped her, stepping back and shielding his eyes from the glare and the heat. But she was no different from molten lava, and as she cooled in the temple air, she reformed into a solid being, laughing at his astonishment.
Hercules grabbed the whip that had been tossed aside, and snapping it at her, was surprised to find she simply grabbed onto it easily. He tugged hard, but she stood in a solid stance and tugged back, her Hera given strength an even match for his own. But she had the advantage of fire.
The whip heated, becoming red hot and Hercules watched in dismay as the burning heat traveled the distance between them, finally causing him to let go, shaking his hand to cool it. But the whip had ignited and Hercules found that his pant leg was in flames.
He patted it out quickly, leaning forward to toss some sand on it, while the Enforcer laughed.
“What’s the matter Hercy? Can’t take the heat?” She saw her advantage and took it, leaping at Hercules with divine inspired ability, clearing the ground between them with a single jump. She was on him as he knelt, administering two fierce shoulder chops that had Hercules wincing.
She didn’t expect him to react so quickly. He was a big man, muscled and deliberate, and this caused her to misjudge his ability. Hercules reached back and got her in a head lock, his arm firmly around her neck. With one swift pull he had her over his shoulder and slamming into the ground in front of him with force enough to knock out a mortal. But she was far more than that.
The Enforcer jumped back quickly, regaining her footing. But Hercules had already drawn his sword. He watched as she circled out, a traditional fighting move. Hercules knew the style. Iolaus did this, an Eastern technique. He would have to stop her before she leaped. He lifted the sword as if to parry and she moved to the side. This was exactly as Hercules had planned. He leaned forward, not with the sword, but with a fierce straight punch right to the solar plexus, if Enforcers had them, not stopping when he felt his hand hit the leather, but continuing straight on through her.
Iolaus had taught him to visualize, seeing the punch all the way through, because that was what kept the momentum going. It was exactly what was needed. Hercules felt the fire against his hand as he pierced her leather, her skin, and his fist went right inside her. He withdrew his hand before it burned, watching the flames burst forth, hearing her screams.
But then the screams turned to laughs and she spun herself toward him, menacing closer.
Hercules thought fast. Fighting Graegus with Iolaus and Xena he had proven that evil defeats evil and he hoped that this would also work here. As the flames poured forth from her open belly, Hercules grabbed a heavy metal shield, left by one of Hera’s guards and held it at arms length directly into the fire, turning her own flames back at her.
She laughed, and Hercules realized that this technique was having little effect. He pushed closer, keeping the shield at arms length. He could take care of burned hands, but if his torso burned or hair caught on fire it could be the end of him. The shield began to glow and Hercules could feel his hands searing under the heat, but he kept moving forward until the shield rested hard against the opening he had punched in her abdomen.
His hands hurt and the burning traveled up his arms, but Hercules chanced a glance at the door and saw that the sky was starting to glow orange as it dropped low in the sky. Iolaus! He had to finish, here and now.
With a burst of strength, he pushed the shield against her like a cork in an amphora, and it had the desired effect. The Enforcer looked mildly surprised, no longer laughing. She began to glow and Hercules could feel the heat increasing, fought against the natural instinct to draw away. Iolaus had died for him, could he do any less?
But he didn’t have to. The Enforcer burst into a ball of flame, and soared towards Hera’s altar, merging with the flame there. Hercules stood staggering with the effort, watching to see if she would reform. But she didn’t. Instead, the fire died at the altar and in its place laid a peacock feather.
Hercules couldn’t say he’d won. Not yet. Hera didn’t give up that easily. He looked to the door and saw the sun now hunched barely above the horizon. NO!
“IOLAUS!” he screamed in pain and fear, calling out to Hades in the last moment of his chance to claim his friend back.
To tell you the truth, the underworld is boring, at least this limbo part. I don’t know how my father put up with it for so long. Time just stood still, and I didn’t know whether it was still day or night, only that the sun hadn’t set even though it felt like forever. If it had, I would be being sorted into Elysium right now.
I waited for Hercules like a faithful dog, sitting in the same spot where he left me. Persephone tried to get me to come with her and see what else was around, but I knew that there would be ample time for that if Herc didn’t show up. I was betting that the tour would have to wait until next time though.
I won’t lie. I did consider the possibility that he wouldn’t be back, that for some reason he had failed, but not died because he’d be here with me. He’d snatched me from the jaws of death before, but it was inevitable that there would come the time when he couldn’t get me back. That was the way with mortals. Our threads were woven differently from the demigods, weaker and shorter, more apt to snap given too hard a pull. A knot in the tapestry didn’t look very good and my thread was already knotted once, and drawn thin yet another time.
But still I waited, if only for the chance to say goodbye. This time I’d tell him how I felt, how I loved him and cherished the gift of his friendship and brotherhood. I’d try to comfort him and give him a big hug, even though he feels all strange about that sort of thing, awkward, but he’d go along with it. It might have to last for eternity.
I’d been sitting on the same rocky spot where he’d brought me, where I’d sprung from his arms, while time ceased to exist for me. My butt was cold and the mist swirling at my feet left them damp. But when Hercules suddenly staggered into the Underworld, nothing could keep me from jumping up!
“Herc! Herc! You did it!” I screamed, and laughed and danced, grabbing at his arms and staring up at his face, soaking in the tired lines around his eyes and the smoke around his nostrils. “I knew you would!”
He smiled down at me and placed his hands on my shoulders, as much to still my jumping as to greet me. “I wish I’d been as sure of it as you were.”
I could see the confidence returning to his eyes, his posture straightening as he gripped me by my shoulders. Hard. Then he slung an arm heavily around me. This was as close to a hug as it got with Herc. I wrapped my arms full around him, if only for a second and he didn’t pull away. If he hadn’t come back I never would have gotten the chance. There were a lot of chances I didn’t want to lose.
I stepped back and clapped him on the back. “Oh come on! There was never any doubt! Was there?”
Hercules looked very uncomfortable and turned his gaze to the floor. Yikes! Closer than I’d thought! He scuffed a foot, trying to find the right words, but didn’t have to. I knew what he meant, what he wanted to say and how he felt. I felt it too.
But Hades came up with Persephone on his arm, providing a welcome interruption to our moment of manly discomfort. I took the chance to change the subject.
“Hey! Guess who I met down here!”
Hades laughed. “Don’t make him guess. It’s time for show and tell.”
Persephone turned to her husband, stepping closer and brushing her hip gently against him. “Oh Hades, You’re so sweet!” she gushed.
He looked down at her with a smile, his feelings evident in his eyes. “I’m the king of sweetness, my dear. Watch.”
With a sweep of his hand, Hades opened a portal to the Elysian Fields. The view was breathtaking. Flowers swaying in a gentle breeze, a blue sky sparkled with sun, wispy clouds floating overhead. And there was my father, a big grin on his face, walking next to the Water Enforcer!
“Hey! Hey, what’s she doing with my dad?” I called out, knowing she was simply Hera’s creation, while Dad had honestly made strides to get his reward. I didn’t even try to hide the confusion on my face as I glanced between Herc and Hades.
“Going to the Elysian Fields,” Hercules answered simply, a small smile flickering across his mouth.
“What!?” I sputtered, finding this hard to digest.
“Trust me,” Hercules said. I stared across, thinking that my father and the Water Enforcer were actually remarkably alike. For most of my life I’d seen my father as either soulless, or with a soul as black as a raining starless night. They were both warriors, destined for battle, pawns of the Gods. And Hercules had seen a redeeming factor in her, as I had seen one in my father.
But this wasn’t what I really wanted to see.
Hades?” I asked, sending a thought his way, and he nodded, wiggling his fingers.
The portal shimmered and my father and the Enforcer melted away deep in conversation. In their place Ania and the boys appeared.
It took my breath away. My knees felt weak and if it weren’t for Hercules grabbing my elbow I might have fallen.
She was as beautiful as I ever remembered and the boys were so vital and handsome. They seemed content, even happy and I found myself thinking that death wouldn’t be so bad if it meant eternity with Ania and my boys. I swiped a tear from my eye as my father strode into the picture, wrapping his arms around Telaus and lifting him high, a huge smile on his face as Ania cradled the baby in her arms.
“Close it!” I commanded Hades as I turned away, clutching my ribs to keep the gasps of pain inside. I closed my eyes tight to keep the tears in. Ania was happy. My father was happy. Then why was I so damn sad?
I felt Hercules reach for my shoulder, gripping it hard, pulling me back to the here and now.
“Dad deserves to go there,” I choked, trying to push the picture of Ania out of my mind, needing to isolate it until I was alone and could revel in its every wonder. “He turned out to be a nicer guy than I thought,” I babbled. “First time I ever felt good about my family…” I choked. This time Persephone slipped an arm around me.
“It’s all right,” she whispered. “Know that they wait for you and that time doesn’t exist there. It will seem like seconds to them. Do what you must, what you need to…they will still be there when your time comes to pass.”
I nodded, pulling myself together.
“Hercules, you could see yours - -” I started.
“I could open a window to their world too,” Hades offered.
Hercules shook his head, noting how I had fallen apart and probably not wanting to do just that in front of his Uncle. He would want to be prepared, not at a loss for words. “No, I know where I can go and do more than just look at them,” he answered.
And at that moment I thought that Hercules was probably the wisest man in the world.
Hercules knelt, the ground warm and comforting, the soil deep and the grasses, crushed by his weight, wafting fragrant. He held a bouquet of wild flowers awkwardly in his hand, a few of the stems bent and flower heads bowed. He placed the small offering at the base of the largest grave and watched as the wind ruffled the petals, sending a few flying off, soaring freely skyward. He bowed his head, as if the weight of his thoughts was simply too much. He let the words of his heart pour out, carrying with the petals to Deineira and the kids.
“If I could bring you back too I would,” he whispered, his voice full of pain, a hushed apology to a carved wooden marker. “But I can’t.” He stopped, choking on the unbidden thoughts that seemed to swell like a full moon tide against his heart. The gods had not wanted her alive. It was as simple as that.
“Herc,” Iolaus ventured, stepping close to his friend and placing a consoling hand on his shoulder. “I’ve learned one thing. The past is what shapes you. It makes you are. The present shapes your future. The present is ever changing. We can learn from the past and use it to direct our future,”
Hercules thought about Deinera, felt guilty that he hadn’t fought so fiercely for her as Iolaus. But she had been targeted simply for her status as his wife, while Iolaus had actively placed himself in the path of mortal danger simply to save Hercules. He pushed those thoughts away. His family waited for him for him in Elysium. They were safe, and that was more important than Hercules’ happiness.
“They’ll never take my memories,” he vowed as he turned his eyes on Iolaus. “And my memories are enough. Because just thinking about them makes them come alive again. “
Hercules stopped, letting the soft breeze caress him, lifting his hair and stroking his neck as Deineira had once done. But then he felt the strands feather back against his neck, lying motionless. It was time to move forward, Iolaus was right. He would choose to remember the memories that strengthened him.
Hercules rose, in the silence of the evening, and turned casting a final glance at the graves. Iolaus stepped forward, letting him know that he was there, followed by the silent unity of his mother and Jason.
He still had Iolaus. He wouldn’t walk alone.
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