Argo was in full gallop by the time Xena whistled for the horse to come to her aid. With one unfalliable final blow, Gabrielle finished off the last of the soliders invading the small village. She ran after Xena to catch up with her. Out of breath, Xena helped her up on the powerful animal’s back.
“Let’s hope that was the last of them.” Xena said, glancing back at the small community. Gabrielle secured her staff and leaned forward as Xena kicked Argo back into a full-blown gallop.
“Xena, you know, Hercules is probably near here. If this keeps happening, we may need his help. I mean, if these soliders are followers of Dahak -”
“We don’t need his help, Gabrielle. There’s no sense in dragging Hercules or Iolaus into this right now.”
Gabrielle sighed in frustration and turned back once more to watch the village fade from her view. She hadn’t talked to Hercules or Iolaus in such a long time...it seemed like years since she’d heard Iolaus laugh or seen Hercules save another life...
“We’ll stop at the first tavern in Cornith,” Xena said, interrupting her friend’s thoughts, “If Hercules is around here, they’ll know. Iolaus likes to talk about him, and himself, unfortunately.”
“Word travels fast, especially with him around, Xena.”
Hercules said goodbye to Ephiny, watching the Amazon disappear in the thick forest. He felt a breeze rush over him, a comfort he had taken for granted too often before on a hot day like this. He looked up at the sky. He wasn’t used to traveling alone. He’d always had someone to share his life with, a fellow traveler, a lifelong friend. Iolaus, I know you can hear me. I’m glad you’ve finally found the jewel in your path. And perhaps, someday...we’ll be together to share that, as well.
Hercules thought about returning to stay in Cornith. He wanted to see Jason again, share thoughts and do some fishing, a break from the passed month’s maddness that they both had endured. He absent-mindedly fingered the amulet that hung from his neck - Iolaus’ amulet. Nebula had given it back to him before they’d parted. He kept it close to his heart, just like his best friend.
But there was no more anger to be felt, no more hatred towards what had seemed to be inevitable - saying goodbye to Iolaus - because his friend simply wouldn’t want him to go on to a life of lamenting and regrettedness. Instead Hercules would remember always, and those memories would be his companion for the rest of his life. He smiled again. He’d been fortunate that he had such wonderful memories to hold and to share with his friends.
To Cornith it is, he thought.
“So what do you think Iolaus has been up to?” Gabrielle asked, leaning on her staff while Xena loosened Argo’s reins.
“Fighting monsters, saving the world, flirting with women half his age...” The dark-haired warrior said with a mischievous grin.
“Come on, Xena...don’t you ever think about Hercules? You two used to be so...”
Xena glanced up at her with an arched brow and Gabrielle giggled, handing her a small pail so she could draw water for Argo.
“Now and then, I think about them both...the past, the good old days of fighting things we knew we could defeat...”
“You don’t think we can stop Dahak, do you?” Gabrielle asked, unafraid of giving the question to Xena straightforward.
“I don’t know, Gabrielle," Xena said reluctantly, "maybe we will need their help...We may need Hercules, but I don’t know if even that would do it. This god is unlike anything we’ve ever battled before. When I heard that Dahak had come to Cornith, the first person I thought of was Hercules...because of Jason and Hercules’ mother...”
“Well, we’ll find out what we can do to stop that demon, once we reach Hercules and Iolaus.” Gabrielle said, taking the empty pail to the river to draw more water for the journey.
“Well...to Cornith it is, then.” Xena said, mounting the horse.
“...And so he said he was what? Floating?” Jason asked, nearly in hysteria.
Hercules caught his breath between laughs.
“And every time I would turn around - he’d fall to the ground and I didn’t even realize that it was Evander! I thought he was crazy!”
Jason shook his head in laughter.
“He was really something, Hercules. I’m really going to miss him. If Alcmane were here, she’d be laughing harder than both of us.”
Hercules smiled, his voice laced with a hint of sadness. “If it’s one thing Iolaus taught me, it’s that all our loved ones who’ve passed on are watching.”
Jason nodded and tugged the line on his fishing rod.
“I definitely don’t have the patience he did for fishing, if anything.”
“I don’t really, either.” A voice said behind them, followed by the sound of hoofs breaking out of a trot.
Hercules turned and grinned.
“Hello, Hercules, Jason.” Xena said, nodding towards the other man. Gabrielle handed Hercules her staff and jumped lightly to the ground off of Argo.
“We know what’s happened, and we’re here to help.” Xena said, her face turning serious. Hercules’ brow creased, and then he realized suddenly what she meant.
“So the news finally reached you.”
“If we act now, we can stop Dahak before it’s too late, Hercules. Gabrielle and I, we -”
“Xena,” Hercules said, taking a deep breath, “Dahak’s been destroyed. Or so as far as we know.”
“Hercules and I, Nebula and Hercules’ foreign friend succeeded finally. With the help of an immortal that once was a follower of him. We never thought it could be done, but we did it.”
Xena shook her head and glanced at Gabrielle, who had a similar look of confusion.
“It’s only been a few days...Xena, Gabrielle, I have to talk to you. It’s about Iolaus, he -”
“Where is the troublemaker anyway?” Xena asked, glancing around and looking at Gabrielle with a comically raised eyebrow.
Hercules put a hand on the warrior’s shoulder.
“Come on. We’ll cook dinner and tell you everything.”
“And so the Olympian Gods have been restored.” Zeus said, in the middle of a speech. Ares made a gagging motion with his finger down his throat and Aphrodite elbowed him in the stomach. Cupid wiped a tear from his eyes.
“This is...so beautiful...” He murmured. Ares rolled his eyes. He still couldn’t believe he had to attend this thing.
“And we owe it all to my son, Hercules.” Zeus went on.
“I say we reward my brother for this, what do you all say?” Aphrodite shouted, smiling brightly. Ares yawned. His sister was way to perky. Was he sure he was related to her?
The crowd was silent.
“Oh, come on, people! It’s not everyday that a half-god saves all of Mount Olympus! Besides, he did it for love!”
“Since when does mom care about love?” Cupid whispered to Ares. Ares laughed and was once again elbowed by his sister.
“Hercules.” She almost whispered the name.
“You all right?” He asked. She nodded, crossing her arms to fight away the coldness she felt. The emptiness inside her.
“I will be.” She said. She let herself cry, let him embrace her and he let her know he was there for her.
“I know, I know...” He said. That was all that needed to be spoken. They both shared the pain of Iolaus’ loss, but hers was different. She’d been in love with him, and Iolaus with her. Sure, Nebula and Iolaus had always had some kind of relationship, but he knew that look that Iolaus had every time he and Gabrielle found themselves with each other...that was love. They were more than that. They were soulmates.
She let go of him and turned back to view the quieted village below them.
“Do you think he knows we miss him?” She asked, looking up at the sky.
“Of course,” Hercules replied, “He knows. He’s watching, Gabrielle. And if you believe in that, than no one’s ever really gone forever.”
She smiled and wiped her eyes with the back of her palm. The words he spoke rang true in her head. She hoped her heart was listening.
After all the gods of Greece went back to their own homes and fondest realms of mortal worship, particularly their temples, Zeus contemplated how he could reward his son. This was unlike any other battle or monster Hercules had defeated. He’d literally saved the world - along with the king of the gods. He knew that Hercules’ best friend had been killed in the battle - but Iolaus was a champion of light, rewarded with far more than what the underworld and the Elysian Fields would ever have to offer, and he knew he couldn’t bring back Iolaus to Hercules.
But perhaps, he could give Hercules the chance to save Iolaus before his death. No, that would involve too much of a complexity, let alone that Iolaus had to save Hercules’ mother from Callisto when Ares sent him back in time. No, there just wasn’t a way. He knew that where Iolaus went, sometimes the eternal souls that had gone into that light would come and help those in need, like guardians watching over a brawl. Maybe Iolaus was one of those souls now, and he didn’t even have to reward his son - perhaps in a future battle, Iolaus’ spirit would guide Hercules to victory.
So many choices, yet so many things in the way of which path to choose. Zeus sighed. Sometimes being king was easy, compared to the toughest job of all.
He was trapped. Trapped between fantasy and reality, life and death, depression and joy. Caught between the landslide, you might say. The Soverign took a deep breath and stared out at the vast space of the cliffs, hoping each day that the blue vortex would spirale out of his mind and into his reality. It never happened. He was yielding to doubt, to the thing that the mortal Iolaus had called his “heart.” He had to go on. As he stepped back to stare into the blackened pool of water carved into the other side of the cliff, he heard a noise behind him. Turning and readying to draw his sword, he nearly dropped his weapon in shock at the sight of the man before him.
“Well. What do we have here?” The man asked. It was clear to the Soverign that he wasn’t mortal. No one could get here without being a god - and there was no way he would miss the sight, nor the noise that the vortex produced - who was he? Then his eyes widened as he realized...
“Ares?” He asked, almost laughing at the sight of the God Of Love in basic black. His laugh abruptly ended as Ares lifted him up off the ground by the throat.
“That’s right, and you must be the sovereign. I’m not the Ares you know.”
“I can...tell...” He said as Ares set him down. “Why are you here - and how?”
“That’s not for you to know. But you do bear a striking resemblance to my annoyingly half-mortal brother, Hercules.”
The sovereign growled and hurled his sword towards Ares. The god disappeared in a silver burst of light, leaving the warrior to nearly running off the cliff and into the abyss below. The soverign turned around and Ares reappeared, looking casual and crossing his arms.
“You’re just as bad as Hercules,” He said with a laugh, “But nevertheless, I’m here to make a deal with you.”
Lowering his sword, the warrior stood and narrowed his eyes to ask the most blindingly obvious of questions.
“Why would you want to do that?”
Ares raised an eyebrow. “Don’t you want to get out of here, or do you enjoy being trapped between my world and your own? Don’t you want revenge?”
The sovereign walked a few paces towards him. He looked over Ares’ shoulder towards the cliffs and back at the pool of water that had been his only window to existence for so long.
“Of course I do,” he replied, “But in my world, the god of war doesn’t make a deal with someone out of kindness.”
“And in my world no one would refuse an offer to escape being trapped in a place like this.” Ares shot back, looking around the small area. “I’m offering the chance to do that, and for revenge.”
The soverign’s eyes widened at the prospect. He smiled this time and stood at eyelevel to the other world’s God Of War.
“My favorite word.”
Ares lifted a finger and placed it on the other warrior’s chest.
“There’s only one catch, my friend. You are going to have to murder someone at a very inconvenient time. You see, Zeus is contemplating bringing Iolaus back to life. And I so enjoy seeing my half-god brother writhing in pain.”
“So do I, Ares,” He said to the dark-haired god, “This pool of water is a window to your world. I can see everything that goes on where in that realm. But if I kill your brother, I’ll die, too.”
Ares nodded. “That would be the ultimate sacrifice that would please me greatly, my friend, but that’s not what I’m asking you to do.”
The sovereign turned around in confusion.
“Who is it, then?”
Ares put his hand on the other man’s shoulder.
“I want you to pose as Hercules....and murder the king of the gods.”
He was fishing. Something that he was born to do. If this was what being a Champion Of The Light was all about, Iolaus didn’t mind a bit. It was so tranquil, so wonderful. Yet at times, he felt oddly empty, despite the wonderful rewards he had yet to discover. Somehow it wasn’t like the Elysian Fields. The journey that you had to get there sometimes ended up practically as worse as all the abyss that Hades could offer the most evil of souls. This world was one that he had been sent straight to, with no toll to pay, no river to cross, no boat to ride through the fog in.
He felt a tug on the line. He moved backwards slowly, softly, with all the skills of a hunter in him. With an aggressive pull, he swung the rod over to the shore, to reveal probably the biggest trout he’d ever caught in his life. Hmm, could he still use expressions like that in his thoughts? He smiled to himself as he drew back the strands of blonde hair out of his eyes.
Yep, he was fishing. He looked around. The birds were quietly humming their song, and everything seemed so ordinary, so like the way things were before he was taken...before Dahak took advantage of him. Before he had to say good-bye to his best friend. He took a deep breath to try to clear away those thoughts. This was his afterlife, wherever - and whatever it was - and he had to start enjoying it.
He felt a breeze stronger than normal and turned to see Zarathustra appear in that familiar blue-white light, offering the hunter a smile.
“Iolaus. How are you?” He glanced at the fish. “Catch of the day?”
“I guess. Listen, Zarathustra, I want to learn more about what I’m doing here and why I wasn’t sent of the Elysian Fields...I mean, my soul - me - I wasn’t released until I was back in Greece. I don’t understand - -”
“All in good time, Iolaus. Right now, I’ve come as a messenger. The others have been informed and have learned of you, and your great sacrifice. They feel that you deserve a second chance.”
Iolaus whirled around from tending to his trout, his blue eyes wide.
“You’re going to send me back?”
Zarathustra smiled and shook his head.
“I’m afraid not, Iolaus. But it is a great honor, what they’ve decided you should do as a Champion Of Light for eternity.”
Iolaus scratched his head frustratedly and put his hands on his hips.
“You know, ever since I came - wherever this is - I haven’t understood much of anything. Who’s decided? What’s this about a great honor?”
Zarathustra gestured towards the path he’d arrived on as Iolaus wrapped up the fish to preserve it.
“Walk with me, Iolaus. When I took you to this place, it was not without good reason. Come, let me tell you everything about what they’ve offered to you.”
“Killthe King of the Gods?” The Sovereign asked. Even for him, this was a little bit of a shock.
“It should be a small assignment for someone of your...status.” Ares smiled again, ready to try some of that reverse psychology his sister was so fond of. “Or are you not...man enough for the job?”
The warrior drew his sword, apparently not concerned that he was challenging a god.
“Nobody EVER talks to me like that. God or not.”
Ares pushed the sword aside slowly and looked directly into the Sovereign’s eyes.
“Don’t start with me. I came here, in hopes to set you free, and all you have to do is one tiny favor for me. And this is the thanks I get?”
“He’ll never believe I’m his son. He’s a god, Ares, he’ll know I’m not Hercules as soon as he sees me.”
Ares shook his head.
“That’s where you’re wrong, my friend. Leave everything to me, and I assure you, you’ll never be trapped in a place like this again. But cross me, and I’ll make sure you meet a very untimely end.”
While the Sovereign considered his offer, Ares smiled to himself. He liked that little speech, how it rhymed. Maybe he should start writing this stuff down...
“All right.” The other man said.
Ares swiftly turned back to him.
“You won’t regret it. After Zeus is dead, I’ll send you back to your world. I’ve heard it’s pretty screwed up since you left. I hope you can still sort it out.”
“Enough, Ares. Just get me out of here.”
With that, the two disappeared in a silvery flash that was distinctly Ares’.
“She’s going to be all right.” She said to Hercules. He looked up at her.
“I know, Xena.” Hercules said. Xena glanced down at the town below, the people milling around in the late evening, the sound of the men singing in the taverns... She could still smile. With fondness as it were.
“You traveled together practically your whole lives. I know all this...was hard. I don’t know what I’d do if anything happened to Gabrielle...or to you.”
“Neither do I, Xena,” Hercules said, turning to her, “I’ve lost so many people I love in this life. I don’t plan on losing any more.”
“None of us plan on it, Hercules. What happened was not your fault. I realize that having to tell us what happened made it seem like you’re grieving all over again - but Iolaus - the Iolaus we all knew - wouldn’t want you to.”
He rested his hands on her shoulders, and Xena embraced him.
“Of all things, I’m trying to make myself realize that.” Hercules said over her shoulder.
Gabrielle watched them from a distance, thinking about their past, the present...the future. She smiled sadly. Some bard. Now I’m using clichés. What would Xena say?
“Hercules, I know this is not really the best time, but I have to talk to you,” Xena said, not letting him realize she’d been crying, for she’d already wiped her tears away, “If those weren’t soldiers of Dahak, then whose were they?”
Hercules shook his head and looked over Xena’s shoulder to gesture Gabrielle to come to them.
“What’s going on?” She asked, looking up at them.
“The soldiers attacking villages around Cornith, Gabrielle, we have to find out who they are.” Xena replied.
Gabrielle didn’t say it out loud, but an adventure would do them good. A mission as Xena called it, would all distract them and help things to perhaps heal faster.
“Look no further, Xena.” A voice said as Ares appeared before them, as usual giving away his presence to his eago.
“Ares, go away.” Xena said in annoyance. “Or is that your army? Why would you be taking strongholds in Cornith?”
Ares crossed his arms in his usual arrogant manner. “Xena, after Dahak almost killed me, a god, I realized that hind’s blood is not the only thing Olympus has to worry about anymore.”
Hercules shook his head and Xena almost felt like laughing. How many times had they done this? It almost seemed choreographed at times.
“Ares, unless you’ve been under a rock somewhere cowering like you did when Nebula and Morrigan came to protect you from Dahak - ” Hercules said, stepping forward to his brother, “and then betraying them - then you’d know that Dahak is destroyed.”
Ares narrowed his eyes and challenged the steps Hercules had taken towards him.
“And if you were a full god, you’d know that Mount Olympus is still paranoid about his return, and any other god that feels like rising to power. If I can make sure that there’s enough mortals that worship the God Of War, then I’ll have nothing to worry about when that time comes.”
“Since when do you care about mortals?” Gabrielle asked, unafraid to walk up to him and look him in the eyes.
Ares laughed, shaking his head.
“Ah, poor Gabrielle, you just don’t get it, do you? After Zeus, I’ll be king of the gods. I have to start preparing sometime.”
“You’re lying, Ares,” Xena said, her piercing blue eyes narrowing, “You wouldn’t spend that much time on convincing mortals to worship you unless something else was in it for you. Zeus will find out what you’re up to eventually, anyway.”
“Maybe...maybe not.” Ares said matter-of-factly. As soon as he’d disappeared in his typical fashion, Xena swiftly turned around and looked at the other two warriors with a set jaw.
“What’s going on?” She asked them frustratedly.
“Whatever it is, he’s definitely got a second motive.” Gabrielle told her.
Xena looked around the hills and the village below. Gabrielle squinted at the loudness of her whistle, her call to Argo.
“Hercules, I’m going down to Cornith to see exactly what Ares is doing down there. Gabrielle, I want you to stay here and rest.”
“Stay and rest? Why?” Gabrielle objected. Argo was just about to reach them, slowing down to a trot. Xena mounted quickly and adjusted the reins.
“Don’t ask questions, Gabrielle. We’ll be back before sunset.”
“I don’t need to rest, Xena, I’m fine, come on!”
Her protests were lost in the sound of Argo’s gallop as Hercules and her best friend rode down to the towns below. She plunked herself back down on a nearby rock and sighed. This only left her more time to think about the day and all she’d learned. It was late in the evening now...could she fall asleep and forget it all? She wanted to be distracted from her thoughts of Hercules’ best friend, and with Xena leaving her behind, she found herself thinking of all there’d be to miss. She picked up her staff. She was coming, whether they liked it or not.
“Oh, this is beautiful!” Ares said, laughing as he watched the other man stare at himself in the dim light of a window in Ares’ temple of Cornith.
“This is... sick.” The Sovereign replied. He was dressed identically to Hercules, and though he and Ares had had a fight about it, he’d reluctantly said good-bye to his beard. He looked at his reflection with a mix of horror and disgust. “Blecch.” He said simply, turning around and glaring at Ares.
“Oh,” Ares said between laughs, “This is definitely worth it, believe me. Just a few more things and you’ll be set to visit your dear father. Oh, excuse me... our dear father!” The warrior stood with his jaw set in anger, watching the god nearly fall from the chair with an uncharacteristic set of giggles he’d never heard before.
“I get the point, Ares. What else are you going to do to me?”
Ares sobered himself up and smiled.
“Well, I don’t want to be over crucial, but I think it’s important that you learn to be... nice.”
The Sovereign grimaced and hesitated. “Nice? You mean like -”
“You know, kind, loving, annoying self-sacrificing, without fault,-”
“I get the point, Ares. I have to be more like,” He felt like saying ‘belchh’ again, “Hercules, so there’s no suspicion of my intentions, right?”
Ares nodded, trying very, very hard not to start laughing again. It was moments like this that made him realize how much fun it was to be a god.
“Let me get this straight,” The hunter said, clasping his hands together, “You and whoever those people up here are - which, by the way, you haven’t told me anything about - want me to go back to my world and help stop something Ares is up to.”
“There’s just one problem with that, you see.” Iolaus said calmly.
“And what is that?”
Iolaus turned to him. “I’m dead, haven’t you noticed? How am I supposed to help anyone if you won’t send me back the way I was? I can’t do anything down there as I am now, you’ve already hinted at that!”
“Have I?” Zarathustra asked patiently.
Iolaus nodded, more to himself than to the man before him, “Yeah, when - when you told me that it was my mission as a champion of light, and you -” He finally caught notice of his friends bemused expression and threw up his hands. “Then what is it, Zarathustra? What, am I just going to fly on down there on a cloud or something and watch over my friends?”
“Something like that, Iolaus, something like that.”
“And I can only watch, I can’t intervene? What’s the point then?”
“With your strength in their presence, you’ll help them succeed. You see, Ares plans on murdering someone of great importance to the world in which you once lived. If he succeeds, the balanced achieved after Dahak was destroyed will be once again be undone.”
“Who? Who is he after?” Iolaus asked, visibly annoyed with Zarathustra.
“I can’t tell you, Iolaus, because that’s part of your mission. They want to see if you can succeed in this. Then perhaps you’ll be permitted for greater tasks.”
“I hate when this happens,” Iolaus said, his hands on his hips, “I’m sent on a mission with no information, and no idea what to do or who I’m supposed to save. I feel like I’m on a trip with Xena and Gabrielle.”
Zarathustra’s smile grew and he continued with his characteristic patience.
“I know it’s not easy for you, Iolaus, but you can do it. I’m going to come with you to help you understand your role in this a little more. You see, all of us - up ‘here’ as you’ve called it - have all done missions like this. We offer humanity hope. Hope to its mortals, its gods, everyone. We are a part of the greater good in the world, Iolaus. This is part of your eternal journey here.”
Iolaus took a deep breath and nodded.
“Okay, okay. If this means I can see Hercules again and be with Xena and Gabrielle and solve another mystery - I’ll do it.”
Zarathustra took his staff and examined the bright blue stone that was held by two gold prongs in the center of its top. Iolaus looked at it in wonder and followed it with his eyes as Zarathustra held it up towards the light of the sky, of this place Iolaus had found himself in. The light hit them both like a lightening bolt, but didn’t harm them. The warmth was overpowering. Iolaus squinted in the brightness of it all, and Zarathustra turned to him.
“Iolaus, close your eyes!” He shouted above the noise that the light penetrating the stone created. It reminded Iolaus of a hurricane. He closed his eyes tight, and a second or two later, felt Zarathustra’s hands on his shoulders.
“Huh? What?” Iolaus asked, his eyes fluttering open. He looked around and recognized his surroundings immediately. They were on the worn path to Cornith, on that he’d traveled on so much in his life.
Zarathustra released the hunter and let him walk a few paces.
“Cornith...I’m back in Greece?”
He turned to the other man, who nodded.
“Yes, Iolaus. But there’s much I have to tell you. You see, no one can see us. Or hear us. We’re silent watchers of humanity now, Iolaus. In time, you’ll grow used to it. I’ve learned much from the others, and I admit I still can’t stand it at times. But soon you’ll see it’s for the best.”
Iolaus was already running down the path, shouting for Zarathustra to catch up.
“Iolaus, wait! I have to talk to you! Come back here!” He ran down the path and took in a breath of the air and was compelled to smile. “Iolaus, wait for me!”
Iolaus slowed down and Zarathustra found himself laughing with him. He had to admit, it was great being - well, practically being a live - back where they’d both once tread. He was overjoyed to see Iolaus’ eyes wide with happiness again. He’d tried to convince the others to give him a second chance at life, but he knew they of all the powers in the world would never change the rules. At least he had managed to get Iolaus his first mission in Greece. He was a guardian now, and Zarathustra knew the lessons must begin at that very moment.
“So, now that we’re here,” Iolaus said with a smile, “What’s the first lesson?”
“I’m sure they were part of one of Ares’ armies,” the man at the tavern told her, “and when I say one, I mean that I’ve seen masses of them all over the area, beyond Cornith. It’s like an epidemic. He’s forcing villages to stop worshipping their own gods and he’s taken over so many temples already. I don’t know how on earth he’ll be stopped. But I’m sure with Hercules, anything’s possible.
Gabrielle smiled and looked up from her mug of ale. She never much liked ale, but she didn’t want Xena to even suspect that she was following her. Maybe by stopping in a tavern, if Xena had already figured she was on the trail of her and Hercules, her friends would think she gave up and went back. But Xena knew her to well, and it was just the same the other way around. Oh well.
“Did Hercules and a woman dressed in black armor come in here earlier?”
He looked up at her. She wondered what he was doing working here. He was tall and good looking, and his blue eyes looked right into hers. What was with her and blue eyes, anyway? They always seemed to catch her attention somehow.
“As a matter of fact, they did. They also said not to tell a blonde girl with a staff of where they went.” He grinned. She pounded a fist once on the table. He looked up at her again. “But, since you’re one of the few sober people here tonight, I’ll tell you. I think they said they were going to Ares’ temple just before Cornith. If you start there now, you’ll make it before the sun comes up. ”
Gabrielle offered him the warmest of smiles and fished some coins out of her bag.
“Thank you.” She said, handing him the money.
“Wait, this is too much.” He said, holding it out to her. She shook her head.
“Keep the change, you deserve it for ratting on Hercules.”
He laughed and pretended to put it in his pocket. As she turned to leave, he soundlessly dropped the coin back in her bag and then watched her go.
Iolaus and Zarathustra watched in fascination.
“And I did that?”
Zarathustra explained, “With us around, thinking about Gabrielle, and that Xena needs her on their journey together tonight, things can be changed, be encouraged to happen. That was the smallest of things. With the most advanced of guardians, miracles can happen. I’ve never seen one before, but maybe someday you and I will be performing them ourselves.”
“So,” Iolaus waved his hand in front of the young man, who didn’t see a thing, “we can bring out the best in people. I thought that people did that themselves.”
“They do, Iolaus. We just influence it.”
Iolaus smiled sadly. “She looked so beautiful, Zarathustra. It makes me realize how much I’ll miss her.”
Zarathustra’s brow wrinkled with worry. “I thought she was just a friend...”
Iolaus shook his head, “Yes, but more. We believed we were soulmates. We haven’t seen each other in such a long time. I never saw her again before I died, and I’ll always regret that.”
“Some of the work you’ll do as a guardian of the light will be hard, Iolaus, but it’s worth it to see your loved ones smile like that, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, I guess it is. So what’s next? I feel like we’re in a game or something, with all this searching for answers.”
“Come, Iolaus. And remember, you have to keep the balance within yourself. Concentrate always, like I taught you. If you let your emotions overpower you, you may become visible.”
"I'm ready." The Sovereign said, turning around to glare at Ares.
Ares stopped sharpening a sword and nodded.
"Let's go visit dad." He said sarcastically.
In a chamber in Mount Olympus, Zeus sat on his throne, drowned in thoughts of how to restore the balance of power between the gods. Ares was full of an unlimited, unholy rage that Zeus definately knew didn't come from his side of the family. He wished he could talk to someone who'd understand and could help him. And Hercules - what of him, and the pain he'd suffered because of the evil god Dahak? What payment could he possibly supply for his half-god son's woes?
"Father." A voice rang throughout the room, echoing off the pillars that stood just ahead of Zeus' throne.
Zeus stood up in surprise and stared open-mouthed at the man before him.
"Hercules?" He asked, as if he hadn't seen his own son in a thousand years.
"You sound shocked." The Sovereign said, carefully imitating Hercules' demeanor.
"Not shocked, just...okay, maybe a little shocked. Is there something wrong? Do you need my help?"
Remembering what Ares had said about Hercules' attitude towards his father and the help he could provide as a god, the warrior moved forward.
"I've never needed help from you, and I'm not going to start, father...but I thank you for caring about me. I've come to talk to you about Ares and the destruction he's causing in Corinth."
As Zeus turned his back on him to walk down the opposite side of stairs, the Sovereign readied his blade. He couldn't believe he was about to kill the King of the Gods, even if this wasn't his own world. And with so much opportunity in this one, why would he return to the place he had to call home? Had he known a whole new universe existed outside of where he'd considered a trapped life, he would've come here in a matter of seconds. The hind's blood that had hung around his neck encased in a metal amulet now was spread over the knife that he held. What - what was this? Was he trembling now?
Zarathustra glared at the Sovereign, who of course, could not see him. Iolaus closed his eyes to concentrate.
"Now, remember, Iolaus, you have to be very, very careful when you knock the knife from his hands. Don't let your emotions overshine you, or you'll be - "
"I know, I know, I'll become visible. Zarathustra, do you ever not ruin the perfect moment for revenge?" Iolaus asked and then laughed when Zarathustra shook his head in irony.
"I got my revenge when Dahak was destroyed. Remember, we're doing this for your friend, Iolaus."
Iolaus stepped habitually into a fighting stance as the Sovereign edged closer to Zeus.
"NOW!" Zarathustra shouted. Iolaus turned and with a swift kick, soundlessly knocked the weapon right out of the warrior's grip. Zeus turned when he heard the clatter of metal hitting the ground.
"Hercules! What are you doing!?" Zeus asked, staring at disbelief at his son and looking over in equal shock at the knife covered in the blood that could kill a god.
"What I should've been doing years ago, old man." The Sovereign replied bitterly. In one swift blow he knocked the King to the ground. Zeus immediately sent a power bolt at his son and the warrior flew half way across the room from the impact.
"You're not Hercules!" Zeus said, aiming a finger at .
The Sovereign was ready to charge again, and Iolaus was ready for him. Zeus watched in awe as the imposter was thrown across the room by an invisible force, certainly unlike anything he'd seen before. Surely one of his fellow gods saw that he was in danger...
"And THAT!" Zeus heard someone faintly say. Softly, an image began forming around the man he'd thought was his son, and slowly, it became clear.
Zarathustra threw his staff to the ground. Their cover had been blown.
"Iolaus, you're letting your feelings take over! Concentrate! Zeus can see you!"
"Iolaus..." Zeus whispered.
The Champion of Light turned, wide-eyed, at the sound of his name.
Zeus had had enough shock for one day.
"I - you - were in danger." Iolaus said simply. Zeus just stood there, staring at him.
"But you...you're dead."
"I know, Zeus...um, but this is part of my mission now."
"Iolaus!" Zarathustra protested loudly. He was relieved he hadn't become visible yet. Amazed, in fact, the way he felt at that moment.
"Did one of the gods release you from the underworld?" Zeus asked calmly, looking over the Sovereign, who was knocked out cold.
"No, not exactly...I wasn't sent to the Elysian Fields."
"Then there's a mistake, you're a hero, Iolaus, you belong there. I will personally see to it that - "
Iolaus waved a hand to stop Zeus' declaration speech.
"I wasn't sent there, either. There's another place, Zeus, where you just don't spend your life there, some never knowing that they're dead at all. I'm not supposed to be seen. Heck, I'm new at this, and now I don't think I'll ever be able to come again. I blew it."
Zeus could only echo Iolaus' words. "A new place? Ah - you didn't die in Greece. Iolaus, promise me something and I won't tell of your presence here."
Zarathustra stood next to Iolaus, shaking his head quickly. Iolaus glanced at him slightly and glared at him.
"Even if you don't tell anyone, they'll - " Iolaus pointed to the ceiling high above them - "they'll know, because they're watching right now, whoever they are." Iolaus was sure to glance at Zarathustra again with those words.
"Zeus, I was sent to protect people, to watch over them. What just happened, I caught at the last moment. I wasn't prepared to help you. I'm still learning how to control my emotions to stay unseen."
"Is he from that other world I've heard the gods speak about?"
Iolaus looked down at the unconcious Hercules double.
"Then as I said, promise me something."
Zarathustra again shook his head, but he knew there was nothing he could do to stop Iolaus from speaking without blowing his own cover, too.
"What?" Iolaus asked.
"Promise me you'll stop Ares, and I won't tell Hercules or any of the other gods of your presence here. That way, no one in this world will know that you're out there, helping people."
Iolaus nodded and then stepped closer to the King.
"Wait - that's too easy a promise. What's the catch?"
"I want you to return to your life, Iolaus. My son needs you."
Iolaus sighed and closed his eyes for a moment.
"You have no idea how much I wish I could, Zeus, but they won't let me, they've already made up their minds. They say I'm too valuable a guardian to be given the chance to live again. They want me up there, not down here."
Zeus shook his head.
"You don't have to change their minds, Iolaus. I'm offering you the chance to travel back in time and stop change things so you aren't killed in Sumeria."
Iolaus took a deep breath and shook his head in return.
"Dahak wouldn't be dead, Zeus. He'd still be there, ready to strike out of his realm."
Zeus held up a finger and smiled.
"That's where you're wrong. As I've found, it was that other King that Hercules traveled with that Dahak controlled. Right as you were killed, Hercules threw him back into his realm."
"Yes, but if I don't die, Nebula will."
“How could you?” Iolaus asked Zarathustra after they made their way from Zeus’ throne chamber.
“How could you?” Zarathustra asked, shaking his head, “You were the one person they thought they could count on, and you betray Him like that? You’re going to actually go along with Zeus and let Nebula die?”
Iolaus rolled his eyes to the sky and took a breath. It was all in patience...
“First of all, you should’ve warned me it was that easy to be visible to people, and what’s the point, since Zeus is a god and he’d know that someone was helping us. And I’d never go along with that plan, Nebula and are were - ”
“He didn’t know it was you until you showed yourself, Iolaus.”
“Oh, so it’s all my fault?” Iolaus asked in an uncharacteristically sarcastic tone. Zarathustra looked down at the ground in silence. Iolaus sighed. “I know...you were reluctant to let me handle this. I mean, Zeus could’ve protected himself, but no, I had to be the hero. Hercules was right when he said to Gabrielle that I’m brave of heart and hard of head -”
Iolaus smirked at the sound of his own voice, thinking about how Hercules might handle this. He could even imagine the look on his best friend’s face. He laughed out loud at the vision playing in his head and Zarathustra picked up his staff. The shimmering stone in it still shone brightly, despite the late afternoon sun sinking in the horizon ahead of them.
Turning around away from his teacher, Iolaus felt a strong wind building up to the west of them. He took a quick breath and felt the breeze quicken, gaining momentum. It began to overpower them, and Iolaus felt his heart beating wildly in his chest. He knew that feeling, that circular wind that was going to overpower them if they didn’t find shelter.
“We have to get out of here, Zarathustra! The gateway is about to open, I can feel it.” Iolaus stammered, grabbing his friend’s arm. He yanked it to start running, but Zarathustra wouldn’t budge.
“Iolaus, you’re still thinking like a mortal. That gateway is what we’ve been waiting for.”
Iolaus took a step or two and looked back at him reluctantly.
“What? I thought we were going to save the village from Ares!”
“That’s where your mission is, Iolaus.”
Iolaus shook his head in disbelief. There was no way in Hades he was going into that thing again after what happened last time.
“But I thought we just finished our mission! We saved Zeus, and he was the person of great importance we had to rescue, right?”
Zarathustra nodded. “Yes, but just because we stopped the Sovereign, doesn’t mean we stopped Ares. If he can’t murder him in your world, he’ll murder him in that universe. That village doesn’t matter to him, now that the portal has been opened.”
“So we’re on a wild goose chase to find Ares, and then what do we do with him? Oh, no, don’t tell me. It’s part of my mission to find out, right?” Iolaus laughed, sounding a little crazed to Zarathustra.
“I know it’s hard, Iolaus, but I went through this at first, too. My years as an immortal helped me gain wisdom to realize my true destiny as a guardian faster than you. I had an advantage. And you do, too.”
“And what might that be?”
Zarathustra answered as if it was obvious. “Your heart. You know what’s right, Iolaus. That’s a great gift, something mortals must achieve if they’ve done wrong before. You were once a thief, and you changed yourself. Your friend Xena was once side by side the God Of War, and now she’d risk her life to save another. People change you, and you change people. When I was an immortal, I was always set apart from all that because of it. So I guess you have the better advantage.”
Iolaus looked up at him warmly and turned toward the blasting wind again. He knew at the turn in the path that they’d see the swirling blue vortex. And he knew what had to be done. He parted his lips to speak and took a light step forward.
“What?” Xena yelled over the storm. The lightening drowned out the villager’s screams. Hercules came to her, shouting at the top of his lungs,
“I said, I think I know what’s coming, and you’re not going to like it!”
Xena’s eyes widened.
“Oh, gods, I hope you don’t mean the-”
As if on cue, the vortex so dreaded by both warriors appeared in the distance before them, its brute force blasting houses and villagers off the ground and several feet into the air.
Xena stared at it in both awe and dread - she didn’t know what to think.
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