Just Passing Through

by Baisden

Story originally written for Hercules: the Legendary Journeys by: Gene O'Neill and Noreen Tobin

Torrential rain had beaten down on the three men, Hercules, Iolaus and his Alternate Universe doppelganger Iolaus 2. The men found a cave and poured into the rock structure as it poured outside. Exhausted, the three men settled in for the night.

Iolaus 2 was the first to rise. Not used to having nothing to do, he ambled around the cave for a bit until his stomach rumbled in hunger. He decided to make breakfast.

Dawn was just breaking when Hercules woke with the sound of sizzling. At first, he thought it might be a snake, but he saw Iolaus in front of the fire, tending to something cooking on top of a thin slate slab. He groggily sat up and saw Iolaus, his partner, sleeping soundly next to him. .

“Iolaus?” He questioned, curious as to what the doppelganger was doing.

“Good morning,” Iolaus 2 said, turning and smiling.

“Good morning.”

Iolaus 2 explained, “I woke up at the crack of dawn, thinking I had to practice my act. The Sovereign used to expect a new routine every morning with breakfast.”

Iolaus 2 grabbed the hot slate slab and holding it firm with the edge of his suede bedding, slid an omelet onto a plate.

Hercules remains dubious. The Iolaus he grew up with was not much of a cook.

“What?” Iolaus 2 said.

Suddenly, Hercules could hear Iolaus waking next to him. “He probably smelled the food“, Hercules said and nudged an elbow toward his partner. “You know, you don’t have to serve me. I’m not the Sovereign, and I don’t want anything from you but your friendship.”

“I know, I guess old habits die hard,” Iolaus 2 said.

“Do I smell food?” Iolaus said, wide awake at the prospect of eating.

Hercules grabbed the plate and quickly took a bite of the meal, fearful that Iolaus, ravenously hungry, would take it from him. “This is incredible,” he said to Iolaus 2.

Iolaus 2 smiled as he cracked another egg on to the slate and tossed some vegetables into the egg mixture. But Iolaus 2’s smile quickly faded. “Hercules, I don’t know how to think you and Iolaus for helping me get away from a world I thought I’d never escape. But, I’ve been thinking. It might be best if we went our separate ways.” Iolaus 2 dropped the omelet he was cooking onto Iolaus’ plate.

Iolaus quickly took a large bite of the omelet, not even noticing it‘s extreme heat. It was good. Even Hercules couldn’t cook that good.

“Why?” Iolaus asked, curious but somewhat crestfallen that he may not be able to taste cooking like this again.

“My whole life, I’ve been trying to figure out who I am. Now, more than ever, I’m not sure. I look like you, I sound like you. And in this world, I’m afraid people are going to mistake me for you. Iolaus, I’m not you.”

“Of course, you‘re not” Iolaus said with a mouth full of food. “I can’t cook like this.”

Iolaus 2 continued, “You’re Hercules’ partner, his best friend and a hero. I’m just an ordinary man, well, not exactly ordinary. I’m you, but I’m not you. Actually, I’m not sure who I am.” Standing next to Iolaus, Iolaus 2 was having somewhat of an identity crisis.

“And before I was Hercules’ partner, I was a thief and a hoodlum. You‘ll grow into it.”

Hercules intuitively knew what Iolaus 2 was talking about. Iolaus 2 was afraid he could not live up to the reputation of his partner. He had lived through this kind of identity crisis before, when he and Iolaus were young kids. There was a time when Iolaus wanted nothing more than to be more like Hercules and less like himself. “Iolaus, you’re nothing like…Iolaus.” Hercules said as he looked at his partner.

“What makes you so sure,” Iolaus 2 said.

“First of all, you can cook,” Hercules answered looking at his partner. “Do you remember the time you tried to cook some eggs? ”

“What? You said you‘d never tasted anything like them,” Iolaus said.

“Iolaus. I was being kind. They were half-cooked. And how did you say you cooked them?”

“I cooked them sunny-side up.” He turned to Iolaus 2. “I was hungry,“ Iolaus explained, “The white was cooked and the yellow was wasn’t but the egg reminded me of sunshine.”

Hercules laughed, “And what about the potatoes. They looked a bit overcooked.”

“They were supposed to be brown.” Iolaus defended his culinary dish. “They were called hash browns.” Suddenly, Iolaus began to empathize with Falafel, a chef with barely a modicum of talent, and for whose dishes he always grumbled about.

Hercules wanted to illustrate some other differences between Iolaus and Iolaus 2. “You might be surprised by how different you and Iolaus really are.”

Hercules was reminded of how early Iolaus 2 woke. He remembered a time when it took drastic measures to get Iolaus to wake. “For instance, you are an early riser. I remember the time…“ Hercules said and proceeded in telling Iolaus 2 the story of how he woke Iolaus up one day.

Iolaus’ mouth was curled into a goofy grin, he slumbered peacefully and Hercules determined, was probably dreaming of some romantic conquest.

Hercules had already tried the usual methods of rousing his buddy from a deep sleep. He had called out his name, and had lightly shaken the sleeping blonde, both to no avail. Finally, another thought came to the demigod’s mind.

Hercules scooped his hands under Iolaus, with one hand supporting the small man’s shoulders. The other hand wrapped around the back of Iolaus’ ankles. Then, he then picked Iolaus up. Using him as part of his calisthenics routine, Iolaus served as a reasonable barbell. The small, but compact man drifted up and down as Hercules raised and lowered him above his head.

Suddenly, Iolaus woke, and instantly recognized the up and down movement. It was almost like being on a ship in an angry swell. His eyes popped open, but all he could see was forest before him. He blinked twice and then looked down.

“Morning.” Hercules said.

“Uh, what are you doing?” Iolaus asked, wondering what had gotten into his best friend.

“I tried everything else to wake you up. I thought this might do the trick.”

Iolaus protested and began fidgeting in Hercules’ grip. “I'm up, I'm up. Now put me down.”

Effortlessly and as instructed, Hercules lowered Iolaus to the ground.

Just waking, it took Iolaus a few seconds to find his balance, but when he did, he rubbed the sleep from his eyes and yawned.

Eager to get up and going, Hercules said, “ Come on, you've missed half our morning workout.”

“Yeah, well give me some time to get the blood pumping, will ya. Why do you exercise, anyway? You're the strongest man in the world.”

Hercules began untying his over shirt. “Exercise get’s your blood pumping. It feels good, and so will you, WHEN you finish your five hundred sit-ups.”

Iolaus bent back and an audible crack came from his spine. Reluctantly, he lowered himself to the ground, and noticing Hercules’ expectant glare, he completed one sit up before he moaned. “Um, Herc. I'm still feeling those three fights from yesterday.”

“Stretching will help,” Hercules said and then began jogging in place. “I'm going for my run.” As Hercules ran away from Iolaus, he let out a deep, satisfied, sigh, “What a beautiful day.”

Iolaus groaned again in response.

As Iolaus 2 began packing up his bedding and culinary herbs, Iolaus said to Hercules, “Hey, isn’t that the day we saved Autolycus from himself.“

Iolaus 2 quickly stopped what he was doing. “You know the great philanthropist, Autolycus?“ Iolaus 2 asked, excited about the prospect that Hercules and Iolaus would have known about the legendary do-gooder.

Iolaus scoffed at the idea. “In our universe, Autolycus is a thief, and not a very good one, at that. The only thing Autolycus is great about is getting himself into trouble.“

Iolaus could well imagine Autolycus stealing the precious ruby from it’s perch. As the sun began to wane, the sunlight streamed through the small window, glinting off the precious jewel setting on a silver headband positioned precariously on the forehead of a stone, panther statue.

As the end of day drew near, a group of tourists walked past and ogled the jewel.

The guard approached them, eager to call it an end to his miserable day. “Sorry, folks, it's closing time.”

The second guard opened the museum doors as the first guard was quick to usher the tourists out. As he casually glanced around prior to closing and locking the door, he noticed the precious jewel was missing - gone in the span of a second.

“Lock the doors! Someone's stolen the sacred ruby!” He barked at the second guard. “ We search everyone!”

There was a collective gasp from the tourists as the museum doors slammed shut.

Remembering the day, Iolaus told his look-alike counterpart, “You know, I probably talk a lot about the virtues of being a hero and all, but it really isn’t ALL pomp and circumstance. Capturing Autolycus can be real work.”

“Unlike that morning when you went back to bed,” Hercules reminded him, and then told Iolaus 2 the story.

Iolaus had fallen back asleep. But woke up with a start when he heard rustling through the trees. Not wanting to disappoint Hercules, Iolaus earnestly began doing sit-ups and was well into his fourth one when Hercules emerged from the brush.

“Four.. hundred ninety-nine, and... five hundred.” Iolaus said as he pretended to strain on the last sit-up. “You're right, Herc, I feel much better.” He jumped to his feet. “Ah, Exercise!”

“Good for you. And all this time I thought you just went back to bed.”

Iolaus blew a raspberry between his lips, “Never.”

“Wow, you must be in great shape, you didn't even break a sweat.”

“All right,” Iolaus confessed, “I fell asleep! But I dreamt about exercising.”

“And I'm sure you're in great shape.” Hercules said, and then in a lower voice added, “in your dreams.”

“Yeah, yeah“ Iolaus said, and then noticed the fruits and berries in his partner‘s massive hands. “What's for breakfast?”

“I gathered some fruit and nuts on my run.”

“What are we, squirrels? No way. I'm having leftovers.” Iolaus said as he walked to the fire pit that had kept them warm and protected during the night. Still on the spit was the rabbit the hunter had cooked the night before.

“You had rabbit for breakfast, yesterday. And lunch. And dinner.” Hercules said.

Iolaus shrugged as he took another bit of his breakfast. “I'm a creature of habit.”

Just then a man, burst through the brush. It was clear he had been running for quite some time. “Excuse...me...are you...Hercules?”

“Yes, I am. Catch your breath,” Hercules said, concerned about the man‘s panting. He turned to Iolaus and quietly bemused said, “How do they always find me?”

Taking a deep breath, the man said in another breath, “The sacred ruby of the Ipathean panther! It's been stolen! If you don't get it back, the panther will come alive and destroy our village!”

“Ooh, that doesn’t sound too good,” Iolaus said contemplative.

“Come on. Let’s go,” Hercules said, prompting Iolaus to follow him.

The two men walked several steps when the man caught his breath again. “The ruby must be returned to the panther by dusk!”

Hercules and Iolaus turned around and walked back to the man who had pleaded for their help. “By dusk?” Hercules said.

“We don't usually get this much notice.” Iolaus said somewhat facetiously. He was still tired, and didn’t see the urgency of the task.

“We should get going, just in case.” Hercules chided him.

Iolaus began to protest. “Come on, we've got all day. Can't I just grab a little more shut-eye?”

Hercules gave his partner that you’ve-got-to-be-kidding look.

“I'll get my things.” Iolaus decided.

Hercules looked back at the villager finally catching his breath. “See, that’s what happens when you don’t exercise,” he said to Iolaus

“Yeah, yeah,” Iolaus answered.

Iolaus 2 finished dousing the fire with the black earth from the cave. “So, Iolaus can’t cook and he wasn't a morning person? That’s all you got?”

“That isn’t the only difference. Is it Iolaus?” He asked his partner as if expecting Iolaus to divulge some deep, dark secret.

Iolaus 2 picked up his bag, and when he did, a container the size of a small box fell out. Iolaus 2 quickly picked it up and tried to conceal it.

“What’s that?” Iolaus said.

“It's nothing. Just a little something I made.”

“I'd really like to see it.” Hercules said, other than Iolaus’ creative hunter’s tricks, which quite frankly marveled the demigod, Hercules’ blonde friend did not typically invent new or interesting devices.

Iolaus 2 shrugged, not really thinking anything of his invention. He handed it to Hercules. “Take the top off“.

Iolaus moved and stood next to Hercules as the demigod took the top off. He looked at the contraption with careful consideration.

It looks like a piece of iron, a flint, a candle wick, and…” He sniffed the candle wick and recognized the distinctive smell of…”oil“.

“Spin the wheel.” Iolaus 2 said.

“Sounds like the beginnings of a new game show,” Iolaus said laughing.

Hercules spun the iron wheel and when he did, a spark lit the wick. The oil soaked wick sustained the flame.

Iolaus eagerly snatched the lighter away from Hercules and tried the contraption himself. Not once, but several times. Each time it lighted with ease.

“It’s for starting your campfire. I call it 'Sparky.'“

Hercules was impressed with the ingenuity of such an invention and could see it being used every day. “This is a great idea. I didn't know you were an inventor.”

“Well, I got kind of sidetracked when I met the Sovereign.”

Although Iolaus couldn’t exactly say his life was sidetracked, he did remember what it was like to take another path. As a young kid, Iolaus was a pickpocket and a thief. Hercules took him on another path, perhaps similarly, but not as totally warped, as the Sovereign did Iolaus 2.

“Well, now you've got the rest of your life to find out who you want to be.“ Hercules said, and then added “And from what I can tell, you're a lot closer than you think.”

The three men began walking. “You really think this is a good idea?” Iolaus 2 said to the two men walking beside them

“Definitely.” Hercules said.

Iolaus added, “And you know, if you filed down the iron and got a smaller container, you could carry it in your pocket. Assuming you had pockets.” Iolaus said as he indisputably noted that he had no pockets on his leather-clad trousers.

“Yeah, you're right. I'll work on it.” Iolaus 2 said as he put ’Sparky’ away. “So, are you going to tell me what happened after the villager asked for help?”

“Of course,“ Hercules said as he continued narrating the story.

“Go back to Ipathea. Tell them we're on the way and…not to worry.” Hercules told the villager.

The villager nodded his understanding of his task. “Of course, Hercules. Thank you.” He turned to Iolaus and said, “Thank you both.”

As the villager began his trek back to the village, Hercules stopped him, “Oh, and assure the people their gold shipment will arrive on time, at noon. “

Nodding again in agreement, the villager said to himself, “Gold shipment. Noon. Right.” He took off at a full run.

“Hey, don’t you have a girlfriend in Ipathea? Or as you like to say, the girl from Ipathea.” Iolaus said, remembering the last time they had visited the small village. The woman developed a serious crush on Hercules and constantly followed the demigod around, practically stalking him.

“Don't start.” Hercules warned.

“Yeah. Talk about getting caught between a rock and a hard place. Ever since you saved her life, Lucretiana's been carrying a torch for you the size of a bonfire.”

On that eventful day, Hercules and Iolaus were helping the villagers of Ipathea build a retaining wall, when the enamored girl fell in between two large rocks being moved with pallets and sticks. Hercules had to rescue her.

“I couldn't just let her get hurt, could I?”

“Of course not. Talk about a crush you can’t get over. But you didn't have to lead her on,” Iolaus said. He had known that his partner had not led the impressionable girl on, but Iolaus found it fun to unmercifully tease the demigod.

“I didn't lead her on, Iolaus.” Hercules defended, just as Iolaus knew he would.

“Now let me quote you Hercules, 'Don't worry, I'll be back some day, Lucretiana, I

Promise.’”

“Well, it's true, isn't it? We are going back?”

“But don't you see how that sounds, Hercules? You've got to learn to say ‘No‘.”

Hercules scoffed at the unsolicited counsel, “Great advice coming from you. You've got so many notches on your belt, I'm surprised your pants stay up.”

“At least I know how to let a woman down gently. But fine, I'll say no more about it.” Iolaus said as if he were slighted.

“My day's looking better, already.” Hercules said.

“Oh, One last thing. What gold shipment?” Iolaus asked.

“There’s no gold shipment. But, if the thief thinks there is a gold shipment. The thief might want to stay around…”

Iolaus stopped at the edge of the road. “So, if there's a rumor of a gold shipment, the thief who stole the ruby will stick around and try to steal the gold?”

“That’s right. If you know him as well as I do, he will.”

“Autolycus,” Iolaus breathed with disdain.

“And he's just arrogant enough to think the ruby's curse won't hurt him.”

“Curse?” Iolaus asked.

The Ipathea ruby is one of the twelve jewels of Olympus, you know: the garnet of Gelos, the Tibberon topaz, the Morean opal. Each carries with it a curse.”

Hercules continued on the path that lead to Ipathea. “Tell you what, we'll find Autolycus, get the town out of danger, and then teach the King of Thieves not to play with cats.”

Iolaus didn’t move from the path. Instead, he tried to digest what Hercules had just said, “There's a curse?” he finally asked.

Hercules continued to walk, “Maybe I've been too easy on Autolycus.” Then he turned to Iolaus. “What do you think?”

Iolaus finally caught up with his friend. “Greece to Hercules... what curse?”

Iolaus, Hercules and Iolaus 2 stopped by a well. Iolaus 2 looked at the two men beside him and said, “You sure you guys are friends?” Iolaus 2 then cupped his hands and dipped his arms into the well, drinking long from the water in his cupped hands. He then splashed water on his face.

“We’re the best of friends,” Iolaus told his look-alike.

“It sounds more like you drove each other crazy.”

“Yeah, that's what friends are for.” Iolaus said.

A look of bemusement clouded Iolaus 2’s face. For a moment, Iolaus almost asked his doppelganger if he had ever teased the Sovereign, but quickly know what the reaction to such a tease might be.

“Look,” Hercules said, trying to explain their unique relationship. “Iolaus and I spent more time together than we did by ourselves. Teasing each other was our way of showing we cared.”

“If I had talked to the Sovereign like that, he would have had me beheaded.” Iolaus 2 said. He ran his hand along the wooden well post and then quickly jerked it back, in pain.

“He wasn't exactly your friend. What’s the matter?” Hercules said noticing the grimace on Iolaus 2’s face.

Iolaus 2 brought out his hand and displayed a small sliver of wood in the palm of his hand. “It's just a splinter.”

“Wait, I’ve got a great hunter’s trick to get that out,” Iolaus said as he riffled through his haversack.

“No, that’s okay,” Iolaus 2 said as he rummaged through his own bag.

Hercules took a drink from the well and then looked up to see one Iolaus with a pair of glasses holding them close to his face and the other Iolaus looking quizzically at him. Iolaus 2 was carefully examining the place where the splinter had entered his palm.

“Uh... what's on your face?” Hercules asked.

“They help me see.” Iolaus 2 said matter-of-factly.

“I see,” Iolaus said equally matter-of-factly. “Really?”

“I discovered that a curved piece of glass actually bends the light, and helps to focus my vision.”

“Do you realize how many people could benefit from this?” Hercules said. He could see more differences between the two Iolaus‘. Whereas his friend, Iolaus was street-smart and intuitive, Iolaus 2 was conceptual and could think outside of the box.

“You think?” Iolaus 2 said.

Iolaus wanted to see what Iolaus 2 had seen through these magical glasses so he grabbed the glasses from the fingers of Iolaus 2.

The glasses acted as a magnifying glass. Iolaus played with the glasses as he waved his hand underneath them. He had never noticed so many wrinkles on his hand before.

“Absolutely.” Hercules said, and then turned to his friend before he said, “You see things in a way most people don't, Iolaus.”

His friend, Iolaus nodded in agreement. He certainly didn’t have a contraption like that to pull out of his haversack. He only noticed glass for their pretty colors or for the ale that was sometimes poured into them.

“That's what makes you unique,” Hercules finished.

Iolaus 2 smiled at the compliment. He quickly grabbed the glasses back form Iolaus and then said, “Problem is, it's so tiring to hold these things up all the time.”

“Well, what if you put side pieces on them that rested on your ears?” Iolaus suggested.

Hey, that's a great idea.” You know, that's two ideas of mine you’ve already

improved.

“Yeah, but they were your ideas.” Iolaus said. He wondered how it was he could come up with ideas to improve such inventive items, but not come up with the idea to begin with.

“Well, then I'd say we make a pretty good team.” Iolaus 2 was suddenly silent, wondering how it was that he could not see the simple improvement on the items that Iolaus could.

Hercules smiled. He could see that Iolaus 2 was beginning to see some of the real and meaningful differences between himself and Hercules’ partner, Iolaus.

Curious about how the two friends could spend an entire day traveling together when he spent as little time with the Sovereign as he could Iolaus said, “So, what did you talk about on your way to Ipathea.”

“Oh, you know, all the burning issues of the day,” Hercules said as he continued to tell the story.

Traveling toward Iolaus Ipathea said, “So if Autolycus stole corn from a garden, would he be charged with stalking?” Iolaus laughed. “Or how about, If Autolycus fell in wet cement, would he become a hardened criminal?”

“Funny,” Hercules said sardonically, shaking a finger in Iolaus‘ direction. Iolaus could rarely tell a funny joke. The problem was: if his joke was funny, Iolaus would usually blow the punch line because he couldn’t fight off the laughter. If he could hold back the laughter, then Iolaus’ jokes were usually pretty lame.

“What are you saying?” Iolaus said, sensing, as usual, that Hercules did not appreciate his Autolycus jokes.

“Have you noticed that you always laugh at your own jokes?”

“So? They’re funny. You’re supposed to laugh at funny jokes.”

“It’s just…maybe they'd be funnier if you kept a straight face.”

Iolaus stopped and looked at his long-time friend. It was his turn to be sardonic. “I can’t believe you. You insult me by saying I don't know how to tell a joke? I'm the king of comedy.”

Iolaus 2 stopped his two traveling companions. “I don’t get it. What’s funny about someone falling in cement?”

Hercules looked at Iolaus 2 and then looked at Iolaus as if saying, “See what I mean, your jokes aren’t funny.“

Iolaus then felt the need to explain his joke to Iolaus 2. “It’s a play on words, get it. Like, a boiled egg is hard to beat. You can‘t beat a boiled egg with a spoon because it‘s hard, and you can’t beat a boiled egg for taste too.”

“Oh, I get it,” Iolaus 2 finally said, being polite. He didn’t quite understanding the cleverness of Iolaus’ joke. “No, I still don’t get it.”

Feeling the need to move to another topic, Iolaus 2 said, “Never mind. Tell me the story about the panther's curse.”

Hercules continued with the story.

Hercules and Iolaus were on the edge of Ipathea near a pond. Hercules had already explained the panther’s curse.

“It hunts the thief down and rips him from limb to limb? Not a good day to be Autolycus.”

Hercules stopped, picked up a small rock, and bounced it in his palm. “Nope,” he said as he threw the rock. It bounced off the spruce branch, hit the oak tree, went through a hollow stump and finally skipped the pond.

“Your turn, buddy.” He said to Iolaus.

Confidently, Iolaus picked up a stone and studied its smooth edges in the palm of his hand. All right, watch this.”

Iolaus chucked the rock toward the pond. The stone ricocheted off the tree stump, and whacked the shorter, blonde man squarely in the forehead. Iolaus quickly lost his footing and fell, head first, into the pond.

“Iolaus, you okay?” Hercules said as he helped his buddy out of the pond.

By this time, Iolaus was holding his dignity by a thread. “I’d like to see you try that.”

“Maybe another time. We have to get to Ipathea.”

Iolaus began to follow Hercules when he said, “Well, good thing my clothes are drip dry.”

Hercules notices the tear in the knee of Iolaus’ pants. He pointed to the tear. “Sorry about your pants. I'll make you a new pair.”

“You sew?” Iolaus asked incredulously.

“If I have to.” Hercules shrugged, “Alcmene taught me.”

Hercules picked up a stick from the side of the road and held it up to Iolaus’ leg. “Hold still.”

“What are you doing?”

“Measuring your inseam.” Hercules said as Iolaus pushed his hand away.

“Look, don't bother. I'm more of an off-the-rack type, anyway.” Iolaus said and began their trek toward Ipathea.

“Fine. If you don't want a free pair of pants.”

Iolaus and Hercules arrived with the village of Ipathea in chaos. Hearing that their cursed stone was stolen, the villagers thought it better to leave the town before the panther came to life and destroyed everything in its wake.

A beautiful woman, towing a large bag in one hand and holding her skirt in the other, struggled across the street. She quickly noticed the two men approaching town and dropped her luggage.

“Hercules,” she yelled with excitement. “You came back for me!”

“Oh, uh, Lucretiana...how, how nice to see you again.” Hercules said as he wanted desperately to pry the strong arms wrapped around his chest.

“Don't speak,” Lucretiana said, “Just hold me.”

“Uh, Iolaus, how about a little help?” He asked his friend and partner.

“You seem to be doing just fine. Tell you what, I'll go find Autolycus.”

“But,” Hercules said as Iolaus walked off.

In another part of Ipathea, Autolycus’ brow furrowed with suspicion. He was standing beneath an obelisk, waiting.

He stroked his mustache absently thinking, as he said, “It's almost noon, if this obelisk isn't fast. And there's no sign of the gold.” His eyes widened as he saw Iolaus coming toward him. “I smell a rat. A short, blonde rat: Goldilocks. What is he doing here.”

Iolaus grabbed the thief by the collar. “Where's the ruby, Autolycus?”

“Ruby? I haven't seen her in years,” Autolycus said as he dismissed Iolaus’ accusation. “But I can tell you, she was a real redhead.” Patting Iolaus on the shoulder in camaraderie, Autolycus said, “Well, Iolaus, nice to see Hercules let you off the leash.” He used his arms in a sweeping gesture toward the village he had just pillaged. “Roam free“.

Iolaus slammed him hard against the obelisk. “You are so predictable. There's not going to be any gold shipment, because we set you up. Now, where's the jewel?”

“Listen, you're all screwy. I'm not the robber with the ruby from the Panther of Ipathea.”

“Well, good. You don't have to worry about the ruby's curse, then.”

Autolycus gave a dismissive wave. “Superstition and folklore, my good man. Keeps the natives in line, but I'm no dupe. There's no such thing as the Ipathea curse.”

The sentence barely left the thief’s mouth when he got a peculiar feeling in his gut. He shuttered in response, at war with his spastic limbs.

Suddenly, the obelisk in which Iolaus and Autolycus were just under, fell from it’s base and crashed between the two men.

“You were saying?” Iolaus said, noting the apprehensive look on Autolycus’ face.

“Nonsense. It must be signaling the beginning of fall, that’s all.” Autolycus said of the fallen obelisk.

“And what about your…” Iolaus said, imitating the odd gyrations Autolycus had just exhibited.

“Just a bit of indigestion” Autolycus answered.

Hercules, Iolaus and Iolaus 2 pushed through a copse of thick brush, which bordered the path that lead to the next town. As they traveled toward the path, they saw Falafel on the side of the road, standing behind a makeshift kiosk.

“Hercules and Iolaus, and…Iolaus?” He said notices the two Iolaus‘.”

“Oh, no.” Iolaus said to his two traveling partners. Falafel was all grinning and unfortunately, open for business.

“Come, eat!” Falafel said, wanting his friends to partake of his latest creation.

Iolaus 2 was not familiar with Falafel’s culinary skills, in fact, the cook had quite a respectable reputation in his alternate universe. He had the opportunity to taste some of his creations, and his mouth watered.

“Great, I'm starving.” Iolaus 2 said eager to eat.

“Well, at least that’s one thing we have in common. I’m hungry, too. Just not for Falafel’s cooking,” Iolaus said to his partner.

“You can be the first to try my latest delicacy.” Falafel said, satisfied that Iolaus 2 wanted to try his cooking.

“Thanks.” Iolaus 2 said, readily taking the concoction.

“Should we tell him,” Iolaus asked Hercules.

“Iolaus, wait…” Hercules said, trying in vain to grab the hand that was about to take a bite of Falafel’s food.

It was too late, Iolaus 2 had taken a bite, but immediately spit it out. “What is this?!”

Excitedly, Falafel explained, “Breaded weasel nose. It helps control dandruff and staves off boot rash.”

Iolaus 2 quickly wiped his tongue off with the edge of his tunic. “That’s good to know,” he said again trying to be compliant.

“We tried to warn you,” Iolaus said.

“It’s my fault. In my world, Falafel was the Sovereign's chef. People used to come from miles around to sample his cuisine.”

“Well, here they run for miles to avoid it.” Iolaus offered.

“Iolaus, why are there two of you?” Falafel asked. “A mishap with the Chronos stone again?”

“No. But it’s a long story,” Hercules answered.

Falafel looked at Iolaus and then at Iolaus 2. “But he looks like…”

“Iolaus,” the two Iolaus’ said in unison.

“And he sounds like…”

“Iolaus,” the two Iolaus’ said simultaneously.

“So, what do I call you?” Falafel asked.

Iolaus 2 looked at Falafel, shrugged his shoulders and then said, “Iolaus.”

Falafel blinked. He didn’t know how to answer to that conundrum.

“Well, it’s nice to see you again Falafel. It was life threatening, as usual.” Hercules said as he bid the chef his goodbyes.

“Uh, yeah.“ Falafel said, still speechless. “Nice to see you, Iolaus. Nice to meet you…Iolaus.”

As they ambled down the road, Iolaus 2 said, “It looks like I can expect that reaction from everyone I meet. How many people are going to expect me to be you?”

Iolaus was about to answer when Hercules said, “It’s going to take you some time to get used to this world.”

“And it’s going to take some time for this world to get used to you.” Iolaus finished.

“You know, it will take longer for me to find me as long as I’m by your side.” Iolaus 2 said.

All his life, Iolaus had walked behind the shadow of Hercules, and it took some getting use to. Iolaus 2, in essence, was now walking in the shadow of Iolaus. That must be weird, Iolaus thought. At least Iolaus could never be mistaken for Hercules. He couldn’t say Iolaus 2 would never be mistaken for Iolaus.

Again, wanting to avoid the subject, Iolaus 2 focused on the story the two partners told as they traveled to the next village. “So, what happened after the obelisk fell?”

It was Iolaus’ turn to recount the story.

Iolaus and Autolycus considered the fallen obelisk. “See, you are cursed. You stole that ruby!”

Please, Iolaus,“ Autolycus said, again dismissive. “It’s a random accident. It proves nothing. Go ahead, search me if you want. You won't find a thing.”

Iolaus fought off the repugnance of even touching the thief, and he began frisking Autolycus. Iolaus pulled out a pearl necklace from an inside pocket.

“Hey, talk about your sticky fingers. You planted that.”

A cascade of silverware tumbled out of another pocket. Iolaus couldn’t believe it was a service for six.

“Four's too few, eight's too many.” Autolycus defended.

Iolaus then pulled out a key to the city.

Autolycus touched his heart in empathy. “From the relieved citizens of Ipathea.”

“Yeah, you relieved them alright. Of this.” He threw the key on the ground. “All right, where'd you hide it?”

“On my grandmother's hallowed grave, I swear I hid it nowhere in this village. The ruby that I did not take.”

“Yeah, and I bet your grandmother is still alive,” Iolaus said.

“You swallowed it, didn't you?” Hercules said as he approached the two men.

“Swallowed it?” Iolaus said, “No, he's not stupid enough to…”

Just then, a loud rumble escaped the King of Thieves stomach. Smiling awkwardly Autolycus burped.

Iolaus knew Hercules was right. Autolycus had swallowed the ruby. The demigod and the hunter slowly advanced on Autolycus as he backed away, improvising, “I would suggest,” he burped again, “that you avoid today's special at the tavern. Warthog...fricasseed.. with a muskrat flambé.”

“Sounds totally falawful,” Iolaus commented, as they both advanced on him again.

Hercules could have tried to shake the jewel out of Autolycus and, in truth, his desire was to choke the jewel out of the King of Thieves, but in the end, the demigod decided to hang the thief upside down, in hopes of persuading the jewel from the stomach of Autolycus.

“Hey... big man…” Autolycus said as he hung upside down.

Iolaus was enjoying the precarious situation the King of Thieves had found himself in, and delayed the inevitable with idle chatter. “So what did you say to Lucretiana?” he asked Hercules.

“Excuse me?” Autolycus said, somewhat miffed that Iolaus’ attention was not focused totally on him. Generally, the smaller hero would be berating Autolycus at that moment, and by and large making him feel miserable about his chosen profession.

“I didn't have to say anything.” Hercules said to Iolaus. “She's engaged. The wedding is this afternoon.”

Hercules bounced the King of Thieves head on the ground. Iolaus was casually surprised it didn’t make the empty sound of a hollow trunk as his head hit the solid ground.

“Oh, thanks. That cleared my sinuses.” Autolycus said.

Iolaus continued his conversation with Hercules. “Once again, you didn't have to say ‘no,’ or even let her down gently.”

Hercules unceremoniously dropped Autolycus to the ground.

“Or me, either,” Autolycus said as he first rubbed his head and then his rump. “If you were going to dump me, why didn’t you just say so?”

Iolaus pointed to Autolycus. “Guess there's no way to convince him the ruby's cursed.”

“Until the panther comes to life,” Hercules said.

“But by then, he'll be dead. Finished. Kaput.”

Autolycus rose slowly from the ground, following the two men’s conversation as they volleyed the dreadful possibilities back and forth.

Hercules added to Iolaus’ statement. “Can't run, can't hide, because now he's a panther magnet.”

“No matter where he goes, it'll hunt him down.” Iolaus thought he could hear an audible gulp from the throat of Autolycus.

“Of course, if he wants to work this out for himself…” Hercules said.

“We should wish him the best of luck, and let him go on his merry way,” Iolaus finished.

“All right, I swallowed it! They were searching everyone, everywhere. I had no choice!”

“You didn't have to steal it in the first place.” Hercules said.

Autolycus could have agreed with that, but like the countless jobs before this one, Autolycus found it a challenge to steal, especially in front of the noses of sanctimonious guards.

Suddenly, a pain jab in his stomach, and although Autolycus didn’t necessarily believe it, he was compelled to say to Iolaus and Hercules, “Don't you see? I've got a problem, man! It's a sickness! If I were the last guy on earth, I'd steal from myself! You've got to help me! I don't want to die!”

“There is one other way to get the jewel out of him,” Hercules said.

“I trust we're not talking amateur surgery,” Autolycus said.

Iolaus and Hercules directed Autolycus to the marketplace in the center of Ipathea. After getting a large bag from a farmer, Hercules tossed Autolycus the sack. “One large bag of prunes.”

“Prunes? I hate prunes. They remind me of my grandmother.”

“I thought you said your grandmother was dead,” Iolaus said.

“My point, exactly.”

“Start eating.” Hercules commanded, irritated by the thief’s reluctance.

“Guys,” Autolycus said as he pushed the bag of prunes toward Hercules. “This isn't necessary. I'm as regular as a sundial.”

Pleased with his discomfiture, Iolaus said, “Enjoy. It might be your last meal.”

Autolycus reluctantly took a prune out of the bag, and slowly slipped it in his mouth. He chewed grudgingly as Hercules and Iolaus responded with a smirk. Iolaus especially liked tormenting the King of Thieves.

Autolycus stopped his chewing when he heard a woman calling Hercules’ name. The three men turn to see Lucretiana bounding toward them.

“Lucretiana,” Hercules answered, surprised. “Shouldn't you be getting married?”

Lucretiana didn’t answer the demigod, but instead, jumped on the big man and wrapped her legs around him. She kissed him fervently on his lips.

After pulling herself from Hercules lips, she said, “Wonderful news. I broke it off with my groom to be. I couldn't deny what I felt when you held me close“.

Under his breath Iolaus said to his partner, “Hercules... just say ‘no‘.”

“Uh, Lucretiana, I don't…”

Not wanting to hear Hercules’ objection, Lucretiana touched her finger to his lips. “Shhhh, I know. I feel it, too. We hear each other's unspoken thoughts. Now come on, you have to meet my family!”

Autolycus was enjoying Hercules’ awkwardness at the situation, and without realizing it, picked up another prune and popped it into his mouth.

Hercules looks to Iolaus, pleading. Iolaus was also enjoying Hercules’ uneasiness and slapped him on his back. “Congratulations, buddy.”

As Lucretiana drug him off to meet her family, Iolaus shook his head and grinned.

Without the distraction of Hercules, Autolycus finally realizes he had quickly eaten two prunes, and dumped the bag of prunes behind a bush. Holding the empty bag for Iolaus to see, Autolycus said, “Well, I finished the prunes.” And wanting to comment on the departure of Hercules, he asked Iolaus, “Where's he going?”

“To get married, apparently.”

Autolycus felt another jab in his belly, and although he would have liked to contribute the pain to the prunes, he couldn’t. It was the infernal, cursed ruby.

Suddenly, the King of Thieves was overcome with emotion he could not place. He bit his lower lip to stifle the pain, and then dabbed at his misty eyes.

“Ah, true love,” Autolycus said, thinking back to the one woman he had truly loved, and the only one that made him feel the pain of loss. He put an arm around Iolaus' shoulder, who was with him after he let the love of his life marry another man.

“What's the matter with you?” Iolaus said of Autolycus’ strange behavior.

“What's the matter with me? I'm dying, and I've only just begun to bite into the thighs of life! Don't you see, every moment's precious!” Autolycus grabbed Iolaus and gave him a big, bear hug.

“Except this one.” Iolaus almost squeaked. Autolycus was hugging him tight.

Iolaus watched Hercules come back. When he approached, Iolaus asked, “Well? Did you work it out?”

Hercules looked down, somewhat embarrassed.

Iolaus responded by throwing his hands up in frustration. “Oh, no. How can you continue to lead her on like this?”

“I was about to set everything straight, I swear, but her family surrounded us. She looked so happy, what was I supposed to do?”

“Hercules, repeat after me... No!”

“No,” Hercules said, trying to be cooperative.

“Don't argue with me, just do it. Say ‘No’.”

“No.”

“Why not? Don't you see I'm trying to help you?” Generally, Iolaus though, Hercules was not this stubborn, unless it was of course, in response to some injustice.

By now, Hercules was confused. “Iolaus, I said ‘no’.”

“Fine, suit yourself.” Iolaus said as he turned toward Autolycus. “But don't expect me to hold the ring.”

By now, Autolycus had wandered off. He sat on the ground and considered a rock next to his left foot.

Hercules noticed Autolycus examining the rock. “What's with him?” Hercules said.

Autolycus picked up the rock. “Do you see the way the sunlight enhances the little, random flecks of lavender, like a constellation of color, in this firmament of stone.”

“Don't ask.” Iolaus said as he sat next to Autolycus.

A villager approached Hercules, timidly. “Excuse me, Hercules. My name is Leandrus. My son is very ill, and it would mean the world to him if you and Iolaus pay him a visit.”

“Of course, lead the way.” Hercules said to Leandrus. Although he had other pressing matters, like saving Autolycus from a curse, Hercules was a father once, and remembered what it was like to have a sick child. He would want to do anything to make the child feel better.

Iolaus got up from the short stone wall, where Autolycus was sitting. “Get up, you’re coming with us.”

“Why?” Autolycus asked.

“I want to make sure that everything with you comes out okay, that’s all.”

“Ah, Iolaus, you’re the best.” Autolycus said as he converged on the blonde man for another hug.

Iolaus left the King of Thieves and followed Hercules, shaking his head as he went.

In the hospice, Iolaus and Autolycus ambled past rows of recovering patients.

As Autolycus walked by a decrepit old man, the old man reached out his arm and grabbed Autolycus’ hand. Autolycus recoiled.

“Please, I...I have something to tell you…”

Intrigued, Autolycus looked over to Iolaus and shrugged. He then sat down next to the old man. Forcing a smile Autolycus said, “How are you, old timer? I'll bet you could tell me a thing or two about smelling the roses, eh? Talk to me.”

Iolaus kept his distance from the old man and Autolycus. He watched the caring way Autolycus treated the old man, so he leaned back against the wall to watch the two interacting.

His contemplation was suddenly interrupted when a glob of porridge splattered against the wall, only inches from his right ear. His attention was no longer on the King of Thieves and the old man. Iolaus turned to see a little monster in the form of a small boy standing on a bed, nearby.

“Hey, you!” The boy cried trying to get Iolaus’ attention. “Was that Hercules I saw walk through here?”

Iolaus left Autolycus, and moves toward the small boy.

“Yes, you did. I'm his partner, Iolaus.”

“I don't care who you are,” he said with a impertinence. “I want to see how strong Hercules is! Get him!”

In an effort to make his demands known, the small boy threw more porridge toward the partner to Hercules. Iolaus ducked as another splat of porridge landed on the wall. Brimming with anger, Iolaus said, “Did anyone ever tell you it's not polite to throw things at people?”

“Do I look like I care?” the boy said with the same insolence. “Shut up and get Hercules! I want Hercules!”

The boy began jumping on his bed with each new demand. Iolaus reached up to gently stop him.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t get your name,” Iolaus said to the little boy.

“That’s because I didn’t tell you.” the boy talked back, but the stern look on Iolaus’ face made him answer.

“It’s Dardo.”

You know, Dardo, I was a pretty bad kid myself. I told lies, I was a thief, I ran away... but Hercules taught me a very important lesson…” Iolaus said as he eased the young child toward the bed. “It was never strangle children.”

Realizing the impact his confession might have on the young boy, Iolaus said, “Just kidding. The real lesson is, there's a little bit of good in everybody. Even you.”

“Really?” the little boy said, sounding sincere. “Thanks, Mister.”

Iolaus turned away, confident that his message got through to the small child. Moments after he turned, he heard a splat, and felt a glob of cold, wet porridge run down his neck.

Iolaus 2 interrupted the story, “I’m surprised the little boy didn’t like you,” he said to Iolaus. “Kid’s usually love me.”

“See, that’s another difference between the two of you,” Hercules said.

“Sometimes, the Sovereign would let me entertain the children at the hospice. I would juggle for them, make shadow puppets and tell jokes. You just have to speak to them on their level. When you do, they usually respect you.”

“Thanks for the advice,” Iolaus said, knowing that he could generally get along with any child, hellions excluded. In some respects, Iolaus was still a big kid at heart.

Iolaus was finding the similarities and differences between himself and his doppelganger to be an interesting dichotomy. They weren’t exactly opposites. And while he had hoped that Iolaus 2 was gaining some perspective on what it was like to live as Iolaus in his world, Iolaus was also hoping he was gaining enough confidence to live as himself in this strange, strange world.

“So, how did you end up handling the kid?” Iolaus 2 said.

“Well, I’ll tell you,” Iolaus said as he continued telling the story.

“Come on, we’re going,“ Iolaus said to Autolycus as he walked briskly by his bed. Iolaus and Autolycus exited the hospice as Iolaus wiped the porridge off his neck.

“That brave, old soul. Facing death with such dignity.” Autolycus said as his voice filled with emotion. “Oh, the humanity.”

Iolaus stopped as he noticed something in Autolycus' pocket. Iolaus reached in and pulled it out. “What's this?”

“Uh... It’s a grocery list.” Autolycus said, “Just a few, simple purchases to lighten my last moments.”

Iolaus unfolded the piece of paper and began reading it. “’I, Trigoran of Ipathea, leave all my worldly possessions to…Autolycus?’”

He looked up at Autolycus. A new repugnance for the King of Thieves crossed his face. “You stole the old man's will?”

“I didn't steal it, he thought I was his long lost grandson!”

“Has it ever occurred to you that this curse is a way of telling you it's time to change your life?” Iolaus said, “And I'm not just talking about getting yourself a pet rock.”

Autolycus stroked his chin in his usual thoughtful manner. Suddenly, his eyes widened. Iolaus wasn’t sure if it was the prunes working on the thief’s digestive track or Autolycus’ conscience had finally gotten the best of him.

“You know, Iolaus, I think you're right. I'm being punished. And I swear, if I live through this, I'll let go my thieving ways, and lead a righteous life.”

Autolycus looked up to the heavens and to the dark clouds that seemed to be gathering over the town of Ipathea. “Save me! Show me the light!”

Suddenly, Autolycus was overcome by another spasm. As it began to pass, a bolt of lighting flashed overhead and struck the hospice, only feet from where Autolycus stood. A puff of smoke escaped the spot where the lightning hit, and was quickly replaced by a raging fire.

“Was that bright enough for you?” Iolaus said as he and Autolycus ran toward the burning building.

Hearing the crackling of the fire and smelling the burning thatch of the roof, villagers began pouring out of their homes and stores. As the villagers began battling the fire, Hercules ran from the burning hospice carrying a bundle of kids.

Iolaus had picked up Dardo and another boy. Dardo wiggled in his arms trying to get free.

“Get your hands off me, monkey butt!” Dardo protested.

Iolaus set him down, only after he felt they were far enough away from the fire. “Quit wiggling!”

Once on the ground, Dardo showed his appreciation to Iolaus by kicking him in the shin. And then, Dardo quickly ran back into the burning hospice. “I want Hercules to save me, not you!”

Hercules ran up to Iolaus, as Iolaus hopped on one leg holding his shin in pain.

“Nice kid,” Hercules said.

“Yeah, the son I never wanted.”

“I'll get him.” Hercules said as he ran back inside. As he crossed the threshold, he saw Autolycus emerging from the hospice, carrying the frail, old man.

Iolaus limped toward the hospice, and joined the other villagers battling against the flames.

Autolycus set the old man safely down. “Hang in there, old timer. You're going to be all right.” Autolycus said as he gripped the man’s thin shoulder in camaraderie.

The old man clutched Autolycus’ hand gratefully.

As Iolaus and the villagers were extinguishing the last of the flames, Hercules came out of the hospice with Dardo.

Hercules set the boy down. Finally getting what he wanted, Hercules’ undivided attention, Dardo ran off in delight. “Woohoo! Hercules saved me! I'm the king of the wor…” In his excitement, Dardo didn’t see the rock in front of him and tripped over it. He careened forward and smashed his face into the dirt.

Hercules winced but ran over to help Dardo up, while Iolaus stifled a snort of satisfaction. With the exception of his pride, it was clear the child was not hurt from his fall.

Now, go on home, Dardo.” Hercules said and Dardo ran home crying to his mother.

“You know,” Iolaus approached Hercules, “We might need a back up plan for Autolycus.”

“Where is he, anyway?”

Hopefully looking for a friendly bush, if you know what I mean,“ Iolaus said, “I'll go find him.”

Iolaus left, searching the woodlands just north of the hospice for Autolycus. He disappeared behind a copse of bushes, deciding that would be a good place to go, if someone needed to go.

“Hey! Can't a guy get some privacy around here?” Autolycus said as he turned around and pulled up his leather pants.

“Whoa, sorry,” I didn't know it was a full moon.” Iolaus said, immediately leaving the copse. He waited in the clearing for Autolycus. “We thought you were on the run.”

“You mean, you hoped I had the runs. No thanks to you and your prunes. Nope.” Autolycus emerged from the bush as he buckled his belt. The two men began to walk back toward the hospice. “False alarm.”

“Look, that panther's coming to life soon, and if you don’t deliver the stone, he’s going to come to the source looking for it. We're running out of time.”

Autolycus stopped and looked to Iolaus with resigned affection. “Iolaus, we've always been the best of friends.”

“Uh, no, we haven't.”

“And now that I'm only a stone's throw away from total body dismemberment.” Autolycus pulled out his grappling hook. “I'd like you to have this.”

Then in another overwhelming fit of emotion, Autolycus gripped Iolaus’ shoulders and said, “Don't forget me, buddy.”

The King of Thieves put his grappling hook in Iolaus’ hands. Iolaus quickly handed it back. “Look, Autolycus, you're not going to die. Do you really think Hercules and I would let that happen?”

“You... you mean, you have a plan?”

“Well, no. I don‘t, but I‘m sure Hercules has. Let‘s go find him.”

Iolaus and Autolycus found Hercules inside the museum where Autolycus had originally stolen the gem. Iolaus helped Hercules spread a huge, chain mail net across the floor, in front of the statue.

Autolycus stared, incredulously, “You planning on scaring it out of me? ‘Cause I’m scared. You think a net is going to hold that thing?” He pointed to the stone panther.

“Hey, whatever works,” Iolaus said sarcastically.

“Look, while you were out in the woods trying to...you know...I paid Hephaestus a little visit. This is the strongest net he had. Besides, we only need to hold the panther long enough for you to…”

Hercules and Iolaus checked the ropes that lead to a counterweight above the net.

“See? Feel better now?” Iolaus said.

Autolycus slid against the wall, to the floor, hopeless that, short of disembowelment, the panther was going to get the ruby. “I’m at the top of my game. I've turned into a spaz, I'm crammed with prunes, and now I'm about to become Cat Chow.”

Suddenly, Lucretiana appeared in the doorway. She was wearing her wedding dress. “Hercules! Where have you been?”

“Lucretiana…” Hercules said rising from the chain mail net. “it's almost dusk, you shouldn't be in here. It's not safe.”

Lucretiana didn’t heed the demigod’s warning, but moved toward him and nearer the net.

“I'm not leaving without you. Everybody's waiting for us at the temple.” And then she noticed that Hercules was not appropriately clothed. “Why aren't you in your wedding suit?”

“Look, we've got a lot to talk about, but now's not the time,” Hercules said as he approached Lucretiana trying to usher her out of the museum.

Unexpectedly Autolycus stomach began to spasm, contorting his face and body with the pain.

Frightened and disgusted, Lucretiana backed away and toward the net. “Eww, what's wrong with him?”

“No, wait!” Hercules warned her, but it was too late. The chain mail net closed around Lucretiana and as she jerked up into the air, she screamed. The counterweight fell as the panther came to life. He opened his mouth with a fierce snarl.

“Somehow, I don't think it's housebroken.”

The panther jumped off of its platform and roared. As it approached Hercules, it growled again and swiped at the demigod. Hercules jumped over its paw.

The panther turned toward Iolaus. Iolaus dodged it‘s angry paw and rolled into a fighting stance.

Knowing that he was the panther’s true victim. Autolycus stood frozen, terrified. “You'd think if there was ever a time I'd pass the stone, it'd be right now.” But Autolycus knew that he had to get away from the panther, so he pulled out his grappling hook and swung it up, toward the beam in the ceiling. It snagged a beam near the net and near Lucretiana.

Like a cat-nipped laced toy, the panther followed Autolycus into the air, and jumped on the spot where the net used to be. “Here's my back-up plan.” Autolycus said as he scrambled up the rope while Hercules and Iolaus tried to bait the panther.

By the time he scrambled up, Autolycus was eye-level with Lucretiana. “Don't worry, doll. We're safe up here.”

The panther leaped up, grabbing Autolycus‘ backside and ripping his pants. Lucretiana screamed. “Then again...maybe I should back up what I said about my backup plan.”

Hercules grabbed Iolaus' knife from his side and flung it at the rope holding the counterweight. The knife sliced clean through the rope. Lucretiana dropped from the net, but Hercules was underneath her. He adeptly caught her.

“You saved my life.”

“Not yet.” Hercules said. He tore the net open to free Lucretiana as the panther turned on them.

“Iolaus, distract it!”

“Distract it? How?“ Iolaus asked dumbfounded. Thinking quickly, Iolaus called to the panther, stuck his thumbs in his ears and wiggled his fingers at the beast.

The panther turned toward the hunter, snarled, and the leaped at Iolaus. Iolaus quickly dove away, and then rolled under the airborne panther. The action gave Hercules enough time to guide Lucretiana to the door. He slammed it unceremoniously behind her.

The panther turned back to Iolaus and lifted his killer paw. But just before the panther struck the killing blow, the panther stopped and cocked his head up quizzically. His real prize, Autolycus, was still hanging from the ceiling. Growling again, the panther leaped up and slashed the ropes keeping Autolycus safe.

Autolycus crashed to the floor. He rose, but clutched his throat, not able to breath.

“The fall brought up the jewel!” Hercules said.

“Yeah, and now he's choking to death,” Iolaus answered.

Autolycus was getting red in the face as he still clutched his throat. The panther rose a paw over him to strike.

Hercules quickly ran toward the panther and rammed the cat in his side, crashing it to the wall.

As Hercules engaged the panther, Iolaus raced over to Autolycus. He slapped Autolycus hard on the back trying to dislodge the ruby.

The panther, angry at being attacked by the demigod, whirled around and swiped at Hercules. He jumped back in response.

But the panther sensing there was a more defenseless victim in the room, turned to Autolycus and moved toward him.

Iolaus watched the approaching cat, but undaunted, he grabbed Autolycus around the rib cage and pushing up, under the sternum, forced the ruby out of the King of Thieves throat.

The ruby flew out of Autolycus' mouth, over the panther's head, and right into Hercules waiting hand. The demigod considered where the jewel had just come from and cringed in repugnance. “Yuck.”

As the panther leaped through the air toward Iolaus and Autolycus, Hercules flung the ruby from behind the big cat. The jewel bounced off the left wall, and then off the right wall; off the torch holder, and then off the ceiling; off the urn, and then flew toward the panther’s head, lodging in its forehead. Suddenly, the cat froze into the stone statue, once more.

“I'm glad there's nothing you can't do.” Iolaus said to Hercules.

Hercules shrugged. “It was a lucky shot.”

Being forced out of the museum, Lucretiana told the villagers what was transpiring, and then congregated the entire village just beyond the museum’s doors waiting for the heroes to exit. As the three left the building, they heard the villagers exalted cries. "You're heroes! You saved the village! And beat the panther!"

The villagers converged on their heroes and women were fawning over Iolaus and Autolycus. “Ladies, please,” Autolycus said, loving the attention. “I'll get to each of you one at a time, or in some other combination.”

“Don't forget to mention this was all your fault.” Iolaus said to the King of Thieves.

“Why spoil their fun?” Autolycus said over the din of the woman. As one dark-haired woman goosed him, he cried, “Have mercy!” And then more to himself than to anyone, he said, “I could get used to this hero business.”

“Good, because now that you've vowed giving up stealing, you'll need a new line of work.”

“What? When did I say that?” Autolycus said as he escaped the attentions of the women. He walked toward Iolaus. “It was the curse talking! You can't prove anything! I…I…I got to run.”

Autolycus awkwardly ran hurriedly as the village women followed him.

“I just hope it doesn't hit the fans.” Iolaus said as he watched Autolycus go.

Hercules approached him and looked toward the fleeing thief. “Let me guess... he had to go.”

“In a big way,” Iolaus answered, “Hey, what happened to Lucretiana?”

It turns out seeing the hazards of our lifestyle was a bit too much for her. She's going back to her fiancé.”

“Incredible,” Iolaus mused, “Once again, you didn't have to say no, did you?”

“No,” Hercules said.

“See, I could never do all that you do,” Iolaus 2 said to Iolaus at the end of the story. “Hunting down thieves, battling panthers, rescuing women.”

“All in a day’s work,” Iolaus said, “But you don’t have to be me. You just have to be you.”

“And I can see a lot of potential in someone who can invent his own portable ‘spark jug.’” Hercules added.

“You mean the new, improved, smaller version.” Iolaus 2 said, looking at Iolaus.

Iolaus was beginning to believe that as long as Iolaus 2 traveled with him, it would be difficult for Iolaus 2 to see past his doppelganger. Since the three men were traveling close to Iolaus’ grandmother’s home town, Syllabus, Iolaus decided he had a plausible reason to allow Iolaus 2 to find his own way into this world.

“You know, Hercules, all this reminiscing was getting me thinking. We’re close to my grandmother’s home town, and it’s been a while since I’ve visited Leandra. I thought that maybe I should make a visit.”

Hercules understood what his partner was trying to do. “Are you sure?” he asked Iolaus.

“How about I meet up with you in a couple of weeks or so?”

“What do you say Iolaus? Do you want to hang around with me until Iolaus gets back?”

“Well, uh, yeah, sure,” Iolaus 2 said, unsure.

“Okay, two weeks,” Iolaus said as he turned toward the path that would lead to Syllabus. He waved to the two men on the path.

To get Iolaus 2’s mind off of his troubles and Iolaus‘ leaving, Hercules asked, “So, what other inventions do you have up your sleeve.”

Iolaus 2 was quick to answer. “How about an ax that folds so you can carry it safely in your pocket? A ‘pocket ax.”

“Interesting. What if it was a knife?” Hercules said as they began to walk.

“A pocket knife, what a concept,” Iolaus 2 mused as they walked down the path that lead to their next adventure together.

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