The light exploded around him; bright, white encompassing him and then, fled leaving him in total darkness.
"Are my eyes open or closed?" Iolaus wondered dazed. He felt his face with his fingers. Yes, his eyes were open. Little good that it did him in the pitch blackness he was surrounded by. He couldn't see an inch in front of his face. Blindly, he found his feet and stood swaying, his balance disconcerted by the darkness. Slowly, ever so slowly, he began to grope his way through this ocean of darkness.
What direction he traveled, he knew not. Was this the way out or was he moving further into the impenetrable murk? He reasoned it was better to keep moving than sit still. Staying where he started would get him exactly nowhere. Being still was not in his nature.
Iolaus seemed to be in a cavern of some sort by the feel of it. He fervently hoped that there weren't any creepy things crawling on the walls. He continued feeling his way along for an indeterminate amount of time. It was impossible to keep track of anything in this gloom.
At last in the distance a faint glow arose. Iolaus steered toward it emerging into a starlit valley.
He breathed a sigh of relief at being in the open again. He took in his surroundings and was amazed at the sheer beauty of it all. The trees were tall, enormously so. The grass appeared an ethereal green in the starlight. The stars themselves seemed incredibly bright and clear. They barely flickered at all. He tried to identify the constellations, but couldn't. These were no stars he'd ever seen before. Somehow it didn't matter just then.
A brook bubbled nearby. He went to it and gazed a moment into the crystal clear water before breaking the surface and tasting its sweet flavor. A fine mist rose from the surface and clung to the bank.
Iolaus settled under a tree with one hand still draped over the bank in the cool, gentle pull of the stream. His fingers idly made patterns of tiny ripples in the surface. He closed his eyes and sighed. Never had he experienced such an enveloping sensation of calm. It seemed to permeate his entire being. Somehow the feeling seemed to emanate from this place.
He felt completely at peace with the universe. He also knew he couldn't stay here. He'd have to move on soon. Hercules would need him. How had he come to be here? Must be something in the cave, it could wait till morning.
"Why would you want to leave, brother?"
Iolaus was not startled by the voice. He should have been, he hadn't heard the man approach. Nothing could disturb the peace surrounding him.
"I have to go. Got ladies to save, monsters to vanquish, gods to thwart. Can't stay here long." He just couldn't make himself get up yet.
The man sat on the bank in front of Iolaus. He was dressed in a long brown flowing robe with the hood pulled over his head. Iolaus could not see his face but his manners were uncannily familiar. They sat in silence a long time, Iolaus still had no sense for the passage of it.
Finally, Iolaus disturbed the quiet to ask a question, "What is this place?"
"Spirit," his companion answered without turning from his contemplation of the water.
"I know I'm not dead. I've been dead. This isn't it."
The figure chuckled, "No, you are not dead, not yet."
"You didn't answer my question. Where are we?"
"Here," he spread his arms before him encompassing their surroundings. Iolaus thought he glimpsed a golden curl straying from beneath the hood as the face turned toward him.
"How did I get 'here'?"
"You sought and you found," the other said simply.
"What if I want to come back here? How will I find it?"
"This place has always been here. You could've come at any time. You created it, if you have a need to return, you will find it."
The impenetrable darkness overwhelmed him again. Iolaus opened his eyes and the late afternoon sunlight exploded on his senses. He squeezed his eyes tightly shut against the bright invasion.
A shadow fell over him, grabbed his arm and hauled him to his feet. Iolaus opened his eyes to find Hercules leading him to the stairs. They sat together on the landing. There was little furniture left to sit on.
"Iolaus, you OK?"
Iolaus looked around the room, a tavern by a survey of the debris. He remembered what happened. "A fight," it puzzled him, "why haven't they started cleaning up that must've been hours ago."
"It just ended a few minutes ago, they haven't had time," Hercules scrutinized Iolaus with renewed concern at his friend's disorientation. "How many fingers?" He held up his hand.
Iolaus casually glanced at him, "Three."
"Well, your vision's OK. Are you dizzy? Lightheaded?"
Iolaus shrugged, "A little, I guess. Herc, it couldn't have just been a few minutes. I was somewhere else for a long time. There was this whole other place. The stars were all different and the plants were like nothing I've ever seen before and there was this stream with the clearest water..."
"I think you got hit on the head too hard."
"No I...I was there. I'm sure I was."
"Iolaus, you've been here. We got involved in a bar fight. You got hit on the head. You were out long enough for me to throw out the drunks and that's all."
"Maybe, I'm not sure."
Could it all have been a dream? In his mind's eye Iolaus pictured the misty valley. The stream began to bubble quietly in his ears. An immense sensation of calm flowed over him. Then, he realized what the mysterious figure had said. He would always be able to go back there. The valley was inside him somehow.
He came to his senses abruptly, "Huh?" He saw Hercules' concerned stare, "Oh, I'm OK."
Hercules continued staring.
"Really, I'm alright." The shadows were becoming long in the fading sunlight. "It's getting late. You think we should stay here tonight?"
Hercules nodded slowly obviously not believing his friend, "I think we'd better."
By the next morning, Iolaus had shaken off the strange sensations from the day before. A solid breakfast inside him and he was ready to go. The two heroes set off for Farsala to deliver the message from King Nimious promising to renew the peace treaty with the neighboring kingdom. Hercules had helped arrange the original treaty and even though this was really a formality, he took pleasure in carrying the scroll personally.
They reached Farsala by midday. The road was filled with travelers coming in for the festival. They decided to split up.
"I'll go to the castle and deliver this. You'd better reserve a room for us before they're all taken."
Iolaus nodded, "I'll meet you in the tavern downstairs." He headed down a side street toward the inn they had stayed at before.
Hercules delivered the scroll and was shown directly to the elderly king.
"Hercules, thank you. This is a grand occasion." He opened the scroll and read it, "This looks in order as it should be. Don't let me keep you. You're young, there are plenty of pretty girls out there waiting to capture your attention. You don't need to spend your time here with an old man. Go, enjoy yourself."
"Thank you, your Highness." Hercules bowed and exited the room with relief. He didn't have to stay and be bored with the tediousness of state proceedings.
Hercules returned to the inn, ordered an ale in the downstairs tavern and sat at a table to wait for Iolaus. He gulped his drink quenching his dry throat and wondered where Iolaus had gotten off to. Suddenly, he felt groggy and there was a queasy feeling in his stomach. The room began to spin around him before he even realized it. His vision became dark. He shook his head to clear it but he had no effect. Hercules passed out before his head hit the table. No one in the tavern seemed to notice.
Hercules woke feeling awful. His head pounded unmercifully. He peered around with eyes squinted against the light. The tavern was a mess, There had obviously been a fight.
He staggered up to the bar and leaned heavily upon it. He asked the bartender about Iolaus, "So tall, blond hair?"
"Oh yes, he took the last room for the two of you. He came downstairs awhile ago and some large men jumped him and hauled him out of here. You can see the mess from the fight he put up. We've called for the magistrate but he's been delayed in getting here."
Hercules scanned the room again, obviously Iolaus hadn't gone peacefully, "Which way did they take him?" He asked urgently.
The man shrugged. Hercules asked where their room was.
"Last room at the end of the hall."
"Sorry, we won't be needing it after all," he ran upstairs and collected their things. Hercules asked around at the tavern before leaving and found a couple of witnesses who gave him a general direction. When he reached the edge of town he picked up their trail and began to track them easily. There were several horses and several men on foot.
Iolaus' head throbbed painfully. He opened his eyes and found himself staring at the side of a horse. He had been slung across the saddle, hanging upside down. The blood had rushed to his head. He moaned.
"Good, he can walk"
Hands pulled Iolaus roughly off the horse. He had been hanging too long. His legs couldn't support his weight and he fell to his knees.
"Get up!" The man pulled on the rope attached to Iolaus' wrists and yanked him to his feet. His knees held, but only just.
Iolaus glanced around, too many to fight. He'd have to bide his time and hope that Hercules wasn't too far behind. The last Iolaus had seen of his friend, he was apparently unconscious at a table in the tavern. They'd done something to him.
"Hey, where are my gauntlets? Did you steal them?"
The man laughed, "I suppose you could say that. Two of my men are planting them to mislead your friend as we speak.
"Hercules will see through that." He breathed a sigh of relief, at least Hercules was ok.
"Oh, I intend him to, I merely need to delay him until we've reached Hera's Temple."
The man laughed again, this time at the face Iolaus made at the mention of Hera.
Hercules continued tracking them late into the evening. He had to stop when he lost the sun. He couldn't follow their tracks anymore. His head still pounded as he settled in under a tree. Hercules spent a restless night worrying.
Iolaus was awakened by a kick in the ribs, "Hey!"
He was rudely jerked up and the march began again.
"Not even breakfast first?"
"We don't need to feed the bait, besides our plans for you require that you have an empty stomach."
"Bait? Great," Iolaus flipped back at him ignoring the second half of his captor's statement verbally but it frightened him mentally. Iolaus continually sought a chance to escape but they never gave him one.
They moved out of the clearing and silence fell over the place, a silence broken only by the soft sound of Iolaus' medallion as it clattered against the tree trunk.
Hercules had been on the wrong trail. He'd found one gauntlet and then another but he soon realized that there were no other signs to be found and he had been led merrily astray. His frustration mounting, Hercules began back tracking, looking for signs of another trail.
The group arrived at the temple midafternoon. Iolaus was led before the priest.
"You, friend of Hercules, serve a noble purpose in the great plan. You have the honor of being the lure that will bring Hercules to us. Even if he does somehow manage to rescue you. It will be too late. You are the source of Hercules' strength. If we take you away, he will be vulnerable and that much easier for Hera to dispose of.
"And just how do you propose to do that?" Iolaus asked.
"Poison, of course."
"Of course," Iolaus lashed out and fought like a mad man but he was overwhelmed by the sheer numbers. Bloodied and beaten it still required several men to hold Iolaus down while the priest poured the vile liquid into his mouth. Iolaus spit half of it back at him before they forcibly closed his mouth and held it. Another pinched his nose. Iolaus struggled against them and tried to hold out but it was swallow or suffocate. He swallowed. They drug him to a cell and changed his ropes for shackles and bound him to the wall.
"You won't be so feisty once the poison starts it's work," his captors left laughing.
"We'll see about that!" Iolaus spit back at them.
As soon the door closed, Iolaus began coughing and gagged himself to purge his stomach of what he could but he knew his body had already begun absorbing the poison.
Iolaus bit back the panic and let his anger and frustration at his predicament surface. He couldn't do this to Hercules. It couldn't end this way. He knew from his Eastern teacher that the mind could control the body. He forced himself to relax and tried to meditate. Maybe if he could slow his body he could slow the poison and last until Hercules arrived.
Hercules found the medallion at dusk. He had followed the clattering sound in the dim light. He clutched it to his chest and sat under the tree where Iolaus must have lain the night before. Their delaying tactics had done the trick. Hercules was a full day behind them. It had taken most of the afternoon to find the right set of tracks. "Hang on, Iolaus, I'm coming, I'm coming."
Hercules knew he needed to rest but he was too worried, too afraid that something terrible might happen because he was too stupid to realize that the trail he followed was false. He was too far behind. If anything happened to Iolaus he could never forgive himself.
In the wee hours of the morning Hercules finally worried himself into a restless sleep.
Iolaus heard a stream gurgling softly. He opened his eyes as a wave of serenity washed over him. He let go of the tree branch he had been hanging from and dropped to the ground. The place was very familiar. He'd been here before. His knees were weak and he felt feverish. He sat against the tree and closed his eyes. For only a moment or so he thought. When he opened them again the hooded figure was beside him perched on the edge of the bank.
The unseen face smiled at him from beneath his hood, "See, you found your own way back when you needed to. You had but to look within yourself for your answers."
Again there was silence between them. Iolaus felt himself growing hotter by the moment. It felt like he was burning from the inside out. The sensation started in his stomach and spread outward.
He had to do something. Last time he was here asking where he was hadn't netted him any answers. Time for a new tactic.
"Who are you?"
"Many things, friend, warrior, lover, a small aspect of a complex personality." Again there was silence between them.
Then, the figure that seemed so familiar to him spoke, "You love him don't you?"
"Hercules, the one you are dying for."
"He's like a brother. He needs me. I can't die like this."
Iolaus moaned softly and slid to the ground. He curled into a ball and clutched his stomach.
The other moved to his side and placed a hand on Iolaus' shoulder. "The poison within you has reached a fever pitch. Time to douse the flames. Come, let the stream cleanse it from you."
Iolaus allowed the cloaked figure to help him wade out into the stream and lie down. His companion supported Iolaus' head as he floated on the surface. The cool water soothed his hot flesh.
Iolaus took a deep slow breath and closed his eyes. The cloaked form shimmered and blurred, "You must tap our inner strength if we are to survive this. Allow me to give you strength and see us through this. There is not much time."
Iolaus nodded wearily. He needed help and stronger sounded right.
The figure vanished in a shower of golden sparkles that swirled around and were absorbed by Iolaus' body as it drifted slowly in the serene current.
Hercules rolled over and sensed a presence. He opened his eyes and thought he saw a shimmering, cloaked figure walking away into the fog but when he blinked the apparition was gone. He sat up, shook off the perceived dream and his breath caught in his throat. There was Iolaus sleeping on the other side of the fire. Hercules blinked slowly and he was still there. He didn't fade away into the mist that clung to the ground. Even in the dim firelight, Hercules could see the pale pallor of Iolaus' face and the dark circles under his eyes. Hercules moved to his side and examined him. Iolaus' wrists were scraped and raw where ropes had burned and shackles had bit into them. He was covered in bruises and cuts. His skin felt cold and clammy to the touch. Hercules almost woke him but Iolaus looked so peaceful that Hercules couldn't bring himself to disturb him.
Thunder sounded in the distance. Hercules hurriedly covered Iolaus with a blanket and erected a lean-to over him to keep out the incoming storm. He built up the fire as the rising sun lit the storm clouds. Still Iolaus slept. Hercules bandaged his wrists and discovered dried blood on Iolaus' hands. He washed it off assuming that it belonged to Iolaus but didn't see where that much blood would have come from. Hercules wet a cool cloth and laid it over Iolaus' swelling eye. It was a recent injury and hadn't turned black yet but it would. It must've occurred during his escape. He noted that Iolaus had a little fever. Hercules was still unwilling to wake his friend even though he was desperate to know what had happened to him.
He wondered if Iolaus was being pursued by his captors and kept a close eye on their surroundings. Hercules pulled some brush around their shelter to further camouflage their camp from anyone on the path.
The storm broke. Hercules had a hard time keeping the fire going in the steady rain but he managed with the fever he felt he should keep Iolaus as warm as he could. It rained through the day not slowing down until late afternoon. Hercules shot a quail that wandered into the small clearing with Iolaus' bow. He was just setting the bird on the spit when he heard a voice behind him.
"You're up early."
Hercules released a sigh of relief and turned, "No, my friend, you've slept late nearly the whole day. How do you feel?"
"Stiff, sore, but OK, got a headache," Iolaus sat up on his elbows. "What? Why are you looking at me like that?"
"You don't remember."
"Remember what?" Iolaus was perplexed.
"Some men came into the tavern and drug you off. I've been tracking you for two days. They kept leading me the wrong way."
Iolaus thought a moment, "Hera's goons. Took me to a temple as bait to lure you there." His eyes grew wide, "Herc! They poisoned me. So, that even if you rescued me. She'd win."
Hercules was alarmed, "You said you felt ok?"
"Yeah, I do. I feel much better than I did. I'm gonna be fine, but I shouldn't be, huh?"
Hercules felt his forehead, "Well, the fever's broke, I'd say maybe you rode it out?" He handed Iolaus the water skin and he drank deeply from it then laid back down. Both men smiled and a silence fell over them as they contemplated the possibilities.
"Herc? Did you rescue me?"
"No, I found you sleeping here by the fire when I woke up early this morning. Do you remember what happened?"
"I was in a cell, my arms were chained over my head. I tried to meditate to slow down my metabolism so the poison would travel slower. Then, I was in that place with the green valley and the stream and that strange guy in the cloak was still there and he..." Iolaus' voice trailed away as he thought.
Hercules started at the man's description but he didn't have time to ask before Iolaus gasped.
"Herc! We've got to find out what I've done!" Iolaus leaped to his feet and swayed unable to find his balance.
Hercules pulled him back down into the shelter of the lean-to, "No, Iolaus, the sun is setting. We can't travel until morning. What did you remember?"
Iolaus sat. "I'm not sure. It's all hazy. It's like I'm watching myself from somewhere else. I was filled with rage. I was...unstoppable." The final word was a whisper and his eyes were haunted.
"We'll head out in the morning." Hercules tried to comfort his friend. "I wouldn't put too much into what you remember. The poison was affecting your senses. There's no telling what you might have imagined or how real it might have seemed."
A shiver went through Iolaus' body as he slowly nodded.
"Here, you should eat something." Hercules handed him a piece of the quail. Iolaus ate slowly, then, wearily slid back down into his blanket. Hercules leaned up against the tree and finally slept, lightly but he slept.
They made good time toward the temple. The morning was bright and sunny. They found the temple in ruins. It looked like someone had laid siege to the place. The roof had caved in.
"What happened here?" Hercules asked.
Iolaus quietly surveyed the scene of destruction, "I did this."
"Iolaus, that's crazy. I'm not sure I have the strength to do something like this."
Iolaus wasn't listening. He walked to the broken wall of the temple. Hercules followed. Before them lay the bodies of Iolaus' captors. Iolaus was afraid to enter. Hercules stepped around him and took a few steps inside to better see the carnage before them. Some of the dead appeared to have been ripped limb from limb. there was blood splattered everywhere. The sight turned his stomach.
Hercules sensed Iolaus step through the doorway and even from several feet away he saw his friend pale even more. Hercules went back to him afraid he might collapse.
"I did this," Iolaus repeated in shock.
"Iolaus," Hercules led him away out of the temple and tried to change the subject. "I saw that man you mentioned leaving camp yesterday morning, right before I saw you sleeping there."
"He's me, too." Iolaus said. His voice sounded dull and unresponsive.
"He is me or a part of me. He gave me strength. He used my body to do that."
Hercules moved in front of Iolaus. At his confused look Iolaus continued, "Remember I told you about that man from the East?"
"The one who taught you how to fight guys bigger than you."
"Yeah, he told me once about spirits who look after you and protect you if you let them."
"You think that's what this whatever was?"
Iolaus shrugged, "I don't know. I think that he is a part of me, a part hidden way down deep inside. I don't really remember. I was floating in a stream and then, I woke up with you. What happened in the middle are a whole lot of images that don't make sense." He shrugged again.
"We can't leave this place like this." Hercules said.
Iolaus nodded and they walked back to the building.
"I think you should wait out here."
Iolaus nodded, not wanting to go back inside. He'd already seen too much.
Hercules went in and picked up a vase of oil. He began sloshing it around, when he finished he picked up a torch in preparation for burning the place. Iolaus moved out of the way to let him back out. He still seemed in a daze.
"Are you OK with this?" Hercules asked.
Iolaus nodded, "Yeah, I can't really be upset about what I can't remember, can I?"
"I suppose not," Hercules threw the torch into the temple.
"Besides, they worked for Hera," Iolaus replied as they watched it burn.
When the fire had burned down to a level where they wouldn't have to worry about it catching the surrounding forest on fire, they walked back into the woods in silence. Hercules kept a close eye on his friend.
Iolaus didn't know what to think or do. His thoughts were in turmoil. Had he done that terrible thing? He had vague memories that indicated he had. He vividly remembered feeling uncontrolled rage and seeing the priest's face as his own hands broke the man's neck. Or was it a delusion caused by the poison like Hercules said. How could he have brought that roof down? He didn't have that kind of strength, only Gods did. Iolaus wasn't even sure he had the physical strength to break a man's neck. He 'd never killed in cold blood. Hercules must be right. The images in his mind would fade with time. He felt tired and weak. He hadn't fully recovered from the poison yet. A little rest and he'd be fine. Iolaus sighed and decided to shake it off and get on with his life but that decision didn't alleviate the knot that had settled in his stomach.
Iolaus' mood seemed to lighten as they got farther from the ruined temple. Hercules finally began to relax when Iolaus stepped off the path to snag a rabbit he'd spied for lunch. It was mid afternoon and Hercules hadn't realized how hungry he was. The routine meal preparation seemed to bring Iolaus back to reality.
"Where to now?" Iolaus asked quietly as they ate.
"Back to Farsala. I've got a bartender who slipped me something in my ale that I have a score to settle with."
"The festival should be in full swing by now."
"Festival? You feel up to a festival? After this?"
"Sure, I'm Iolaus remember? Festivals are my thing, you know, pretty dancing girls and stuff. Why? What do you want to do?"
"I thought sleeping sounded pretty good to me."
"Sleeping? Boring Herc. You gotta learn to let go and live a little."
Iolaus made light conversation and didn't mention the incident again the rest of the day. Hercules knew it was a cover for how upset he really was but he let it slide. They bedded down that night in a small clearing. Iolaus, obviously still weak from his ordeal dropped off to sleep immediately. Hercules had just drifted off when Iolaus began screaming and shouting.
"Whoa! Hey, it's ok." Hercules caught his flailing arms and held them until recognition came into Iolaus' eyes. "That was some dream."
Still gasping for air, Iolaus nodded his agreement.
"You wanna talk about it?"
Iolaus took a couple of deep shuddering breaths, "No, it's nothing. I'm fine."
"Yeah," Iolaus accepted the waterskin from his friend, "You go back to sleep." He managed a weak smile that he hoped appeared more confident than he felt.
Hercules looked dubious, "You can go back to sleep now?"
"Sure, I will in a moment. Soon as I catch my breath and slow my heart down a little." Iolaus watched as Hercules crawled back onto his blanket.
Iolaus knew that sleep was out of the question. He'd only wake up screaming again with distorted images of bloody bodies before his eyes. Bodies that he had destroyed when they tried to stop him from leaving. He tried to meditate and at least rest his body but he couldn't calm his mind long enough, couldn't still the hidden rage within himself. What if it happened again? What if Hercules got in his way? Would he be able to stop himself? He couldn't' afford to lose control again. He couldn't take the risk of hurting anyone or worse .
Morning came and Iolaus greeted it with both relief and dread. He felt mentally and physically exhausted and they had to get back on the road to Farsala. Iolaus didn't know what to do. If he did go berserk again, Hercules was the one man who might be able to stop him. However, he could never forgive himself if he hurt his friend. It was in sleep that he feared he'd lose control, so he'd just have to get along without for awhile. His eastern teacher seemed to go days without sleep. He rested his body in meditation. Iolaus decided that would have to do for now, at least until he knew the dreams wouldn't disturb him.
Iolaus ate little for breakfast and even less for lunch. Hercules noted the even darker circles under his friend's eyes and knew that he hadn't gotten any sleep. Hercules kicked himself mentally for going back to sleep before Iolaus did in spite of the fact that he hadn't slept well in several nights.
Seeing that Iolaus was still weak from the poison and needed to rest. Hercules stopped frequently during the day to perform mundane tasks; to refill the waterskin at a stream and take the time to wash his face, hands and feet, to pick and eat berries along the path. Anything to stop for a few moments. He even suggested they take a nap after lunch but Iolaus didn't want to stop that long. He mumbled something about, "keeping the pretty girls waiting," and headed back to the path.
Hercules didn't buy the act for a moment, "Iolaus, talk to me."
"What? Herc, I'm fine."
"You're not sleeping."
"I had a bad dream. I went back to sleep, I'm fine."
They both knew it was a lie.
That evening, they strolled into town and directly to the magistrate's office. Hercules explained what had happened to him at the tavern. The magistrate accompanied them both back to the inn and placed the bartender under arrest.
The two men decided that they'd be better off finding rooms elsewhere. The festival was winding down and the inns were not completely filled anymore. Iolaus sighed with relief when he closed his door and found himself alone at last. He didn't really feel up to going out to the festival despite the act he had been putting on for Hercules. He built up the fire and placed a blanket on the floor. He pulled off his boots and vest, sat down and began a meditative exercise. He sensed his new found fear of sleeping and tried to find the source of this rage within himself. If he could accept it as part of him maybe he could put his mind at rest, but he could never achieve an actually restful meditative state.
Hercules rose in the night, too worried about Iolaus to sleep. He really wished there had only been one room available instead of two. He didn't want his friend that far away where he couldn't keep an eye on him. He was dreadfully tired and his body ached for sleep. "Maybe," he thought, "if I peek into his room and see him snoring away and know he's ok, then, I can come back and sleep."
Feeling only a little guilty at checking up on his friend, Hercules walked down the hall in his bare feet with his shirt untucked and silently opened Iolaus' door. He was disappointed. Iolaus' bed was empty and he was sitting cross-legged on the floor. His hands resting on his knees, meditating. He needed sleep and food and he wasn't allowing himself either. Hercules went back to his room to wait for morning. He was going to have to take matters into his own hands.
The next morning found Iolaus feeling even more tired than the day before. He contemplated breakfast in the tavern and decided that his stomach didn't feel up to it. He was glad that Hercules had already risen and gone out. Iolaus didn't have to explain why he wasn't eating that way. He wouldn't have to put up with Hercules' mother hen looks.
As Hercules walked to the market he went over in his mind the rationalization for what he was about to do. He had known deep inside that something was very wrong with his friend. Iolaus wasn't sleeping at all and he wouldn't talk about it. He even denied that he wasn't sleeping. It had started with that temple. Iolaus was certain he had been single-handedly responsible for all of the deaths and destruction. Hercules couldn't see how that was possible. In extreme circumstances he knew mortals could become very powerful. He knew in battle that Iolaus could be like a small army, but this was another thing entirely. Hercules felt frustrated. He couldn't force Iolaus to talk, he'd do that in his own time. Pushing him would only make him stubborn. He did know that his friend needed to rest. Maybe if he could get a good night's rest, dreamless rest, he'd snap out of this frame of mind.
The market abounded with people, many greeted Hercules cheerfully as he passed their booths. He nodded and smiled in reply. He didn't take time to stop. He was looking for something specific; a vendor of specialized herbs. He wanted just a little narcolepsis dust, enough to give his friend some relief from whatever dreams were disturbing him.
It took Hercules most of the morning to find what he needed. He returned to the inn and found Iolaus at a table sipping a glass of water. He still hesitated to use the herbs but the even darker circles under his friend's eyes convinced him. Iolaus looked as though he was losing weight as well. His cheeks looked hollow and his skin never had regained his usual healthy color.
Hercules placed the small vial on the table out of sight behind a few other things he'd purchased.
"I haven't had lunch yet. You want anything?"
Iolaus shook his head, "You go ahead."
He still wasn't eating either. Hercules sighed. Iolaus may be mad when he wakes up but it's time to put him to bed. Hercules popped the cork on the vial of Narcolepsis dust and rose to order his food. He hadn't made it halfway to the bar before he heard Iolaus' head hit the table. He carried his friend upstairs and put him to bed at last.
Hercules sat with him wondering what could have happened to his friend during those 2 days. Something so terrible that he couldn't sleep without being plagued by nightmares and so upsetting that he couldn't eat. Hercules wasn't very hungry himself.
Hercules gave up his room and bedded down on the floor in Iolaus' room. He wanted to be near if Iolaus began dreaming. His presence was not necessary, Iolaus slept through the night and the entire next day. He woke with the sun the following morning.
He sat up and stretched luxuriously. Then, he noticed Hercules sleeping on the floor. It puzzled him. He walked over quietly and shook his shoulder.
"Why are you in here? Didn't we get you a bed of your own?"
"I wanted to be here incase you needed me."
"Was I sick or something? I don't remember being sick."
"No, not exactly. Are you ok now?" Hercules noticed that his friend's color had improved. He look like his old self.
"I will be as soon as you get up and we get some breakfast. I'm starved. I feel like I haven't eaten in days." He pulled on his vest and boots.
"How'd you sleep?"
"Great. I haven't slept that good in months. Get your boots on. Let's go"
Iolaus hustled Hercules downstairs and proceeded to eat enough for three larger people. He didn't seem to be bothered by the incident of a few days ago. Hercules didn't mention anything about it, not wanting to risk causing a relapse this soon. Iolaus' long sleep appeared to have transformed him for the moment. Hercules didn't think he'd heard the last about Hera's ruined temple but he was glad his friend was feeling better for awhile.
He wondered about the poisoning. Obviously they hadn't given him enough to kill him. Maybe it just took a few days to work out of his system completely. Now, that he'd gotten some much needed rest and a little good food, perhaps, he was back to normal. Hercules hoped so.
They decided that they would move on after lunch, heading north into Arcadia. They traveled without incident for two days before deciding to stop and fish for awhile. It was too hot to travel this sunny afternoon.
Iolaus had been fine. No dreams to wake up screaming from. Hercules breathed a sigh of relief as he lay on the grassy shore. Time for truth.
"What?" He, too, was sprawled, completely relaxed, a short distance away.
"I need to come clean and be honest with you about something I did."
"Okay. What terrible thing did you do?"
"Back in Farsala, look, you weren't eating, you weren't sleeping. You had these big, dark circles under your eyes. What was I supposed to do. I had to do something."
"Herc, what did you do?"
"I opened a vial of narcolepsis dust at the table when I got up to get lunch."
"That's why I slept so long."
"No, I only gave you enough to knock you out for half a day. You slept more than twice that long. You needed the rest. Iolaus, you should have seen yourself. You couldn't walk straight down the hall. You weren't talking sense. All I can figure is that the poison just hadn't worked it's way out of you yet."
Iolaus was quiet for a moment, "I suppose I should thank you. I'd have done the same if it was you. Sounds like I was farther gone that I thought."
"You had me scared."
"It's ok, as long as you're alright now. We are not catching anything this way. Time for new tactics." Hercules got up and picked up a small rock.
"Aw, Herc. That's cheating."
"It is not. I'm hungry."
"Instant gratification, that's all people want these days. They can't enjoy the challenges in life anymore."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, I'll cook my fish while you're still waiting for yours."
"No, that's ok, Herc. I'll cook it. You cooked yesterday. I'd like something edible today."
"Edible! I'm gonna throw you in this river."
"If you did that, you wouldn't catch any fish. My arrival would scare them all away."
"So, I'll owe you and throw you in later, Buddy."
They ended up camping along the river after the humidity kept their clothes from drying out. They started out the next morning. There was a village about a half day's travel that had the best boar stew in the known world. After the dinner ruckus the evening before, the two decided it would be best to let strangers cook for them tonight.
As they approached the town they both noted how strangely quiet it was. No horses or playing children, or sounds of buying and selling in the market. When they reached the village they knew why.
Everyone was dead. The village had been horribly attacked. There were bodies lying everywhere. It was a gruesome sight. Women, children, all hacked to pieces. The bodies in the streets appeared to have been trampled by many horses. The blood had already soaked into the ground.
Iolaus felt sick to his stomach. They continued walking through the village. Hercules met his eyes and saw the haunted expression there. It worried him. These bodies were like the ones at the temple.
"Who did this?" Iolaus demanded.
"I don't know but we are going to find them," Hercules assured him.
Rage welled up inside Iolaus and suddenly he couldn't breath. His throat constricted, he gagged and was sick all over the ground in front of him.
Hercules kneeled beside him and put a hand on his friend's shaking shoulder. "You ok?"
Iolaus felt as though he might faint and sat back on his heels. "No, I'm not ok. Herc, I can't be a part of this. If I get angry at the people responsible for this and I will get angry. I might do something terrible. I might hurt people like at the temple," he finished in a whisper.
"Iolaus, that's nonsense."
"It's true. Look at what I did before. They gave me the poison, yes. I lost control and I was so angry at them that when they got in my way, I destroyed them. I can't let that happen again. I can't let the rage take over. I'm sorry, I can't deal with this."
Iolaus rose in one swift motion and ran into the woods
He ran straight into the lush, green, peaceful valley. The hooded figure which before had been merely mysterious, now seemed ominous to him. He had his robe hitched up and tucked into his belt. He stood in the middle of the stream and appeared to be wading; picking up rocks on the bottom with his toes.
Iolaus was wary of him.
"Be at peace with yourself, Iolaus. This place knows no evil."
"How? When I don't know when you are going to take over and make me rip people limb from limb again?"
Iolaus felt the rage coming and let it come. "Who are you? I want answers, now!" He tromped out into the stream that had once comforted him and pulled the hood back to stare into his own eyes.
It wasn't the first time Iolaus had the experience but it was the first time it had happened in his own mind. One doesn't expect the evil within themselves to wear their face.
"A trick, it's a trick."
His doppleganger chuckled, "There is a dark part that lives in all of us. Your strength, and courage and even your rage, your righteous indignation, all come from here. You cannot survive without it."
"And you are that part of me?"
"Iolaus, you allowed me control while the poison incapacitated you. It was the poison, don't you understand?"
Iolaus gave no answer so the figure continued.
"The poison would have destroyed you. Your conscious mind could not do what was needed to survive. You did the only thing you could to save yourself. You raged against it. You released control and I rode out the storm in your place. We had to survive to reach Hercules. You said it yourself. You couldn't die that way. You won't harm anyone else. I did what had to be done for both of us at the time. We do not kill in cold blood, self defense, yes, but not without reason."
"No more. Iolaus, your will is our own. It always has been. I trust you, you must trust me. I'll always be here if you need me. Hercules is worried about you. You have to go back. We'll talk again, someday."
Iolaus woke in Hercules' arms, still in the middle of the devastated village. Hercules had moved him to the shady side of a building out of sight of the worst of it.
"Iolaus, are you alright?"
"Yeah, a little shaky but ok. What happened?"
"You passed out." Hercules propped him up against the side of the building and gave him some water. He was treating Iolaus as if he were fragile and might break apart any moment. Maybe he wasn't that far off.
"Hercules, I'm ok, really. I saw him again."
"The cloaked man?"
"Yeah, whatever, he said I don't have to worry about going berserk on you and that it was the poison that was made me crazy for awhile."
"I've been telling you that for days," Hercules sighed with relief. "And you're ok now?"
Iolaus nodded and looked around. "I guess we'd better start building a pyre. We can't go looking for responsible parties until we take care of this."
"Are you up to that?" Hercules asked cautiously.
Iolaus took a deep breath, "I think so."
He stood using the wall for support. Surprised to find that his legs held him, he flashed Hercules a grin.
"See, all better. Come on, the sooner we get this started the sooner we'll be able to get after those guys. I want to make them pay."
By evening the grim tasks had been completed. Hercules and Iolaus caught up to the village survivors who had escaped death because they were working in the fields. They had already located the raider's camp. The group was captured and remanded to the magistrate in the next town for swift justice.
By the next evening Hercules and Iolaus had camped outside of town and planned to move on in the morning.
The stars were crisp and clear. The fire crackled warmly as the two friends slept quietly on either side of the fire.
Hercules woke instantly at the strangled scream of his partner. Iolaus stood ready to attack something. Hercules saw him immediately realize where he was and begin to relax.
Iolaus sat down in a heap, "Yeah, I'm alright." He felt Hercules' eyes on him, watching him. Iolaus smiled.
"Herc, I'm really ok. A giant hydra was trying to eat me."
Hercules smiled back at him. "Well, if that isn't normal for you, I don't know what is. Can you go back to sleep?"
"Yeah, hydras I can handle."
Written 25 August 1998
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