Collapsing to his knees beside the cot, Hercules' choked back a sob. It was the first show of emotion he had allowed himself since Jason had brought his black news. He reached out his hand, hesitantly touching the hunter's corded neck where a pulse should beat. A second sob followed the first when he didn't find the familiar pattern.
Closing his eyes, he laid his head down next to Iolaus, and placed his hand on Iolaus' chest. Taking a deep, shuddering breath, he managed to find the strength to control the tears that sought to course down his cheeks. Whispering, he asked, "Why'd you have to run off, Iolaus?"
Looking up at the unnaturally still face, he added, "Then again, you always did try to run away from your problems didn't you?" A large, yet gentle, hand reached up and brushed a curled lock of hair away from Iolaus' forehead. "I'm sorry, you know. That you felt you had to run away."
Hercules regarded his silent comrade. "Where's your incorrigible wit when I need it, huh, buddy?" His voice was broken, and he laid his head back down.
Shock and exhaustion took their toll, and soon the tall demigod was fast asleep. When morning broke, Hercules was awake with the dawn. He stood, stretching out his protesting back. He had just started to lower his arms when his gaze fell onto Iolaus.
"How'd I manage to forget?" he asked silently.
A few minutes later Quantos hurried into the room. "Ah, you're awake. I came to check on you last night, but you were already asleep. I figured you could use the rest."
Hercules nodded. "Yes," was his only reply. Instead he added silently, "But what I really could use is my best friend." Closing his eyes against the assault of emotion, he focused himself on staying in control. Opening his eyes, he found himself being studied by Quantos.
"The stories are true, aren't they?"
Hercules blinked, surprised. "What stories?" he asked, caught off guard by the question.
Quantos smiled sadly, "About your friendship. Even here we've heard stories about Hercules and his best friend who fights alongside him."
A faint smile touched Hercules' lips, but didn't reach his eyes. "No, he wasn't my best friend." When Quantos looked at him in disbelief, Hercules sighed, "He was my brother. And the stories hardly did him justice." Quantos nodded his head, suddenly understanding, but said nothing. "I need to get started back," Hercules said.
"Of course," he nodded, and began readying Iolaus for the journey.
While the healer was busy with Iolaus, Hercules did what he could by making a litter on which to carry Iolaus home. While he was constructing the wooden platform, he was aware of the many sad faces which were directed toward him. Instead of allowing the concern to touch him, Hercules focused on the job at hand. There would be time to grieve later.
Within an hour, Hercules was pulling Iolaus away from the town where his life had seen its end, and toward the town that had seen his life. The road back to his mother's was remarkably empty during the journey, for which Hercules was relieved. He had been concerned about bandits causing problems during the trip.
Hercules pushed his semi-divine strength to the limit in the effort to reach home before nightfall. The moon was high in the sky when Hercules reached the crossroads where he and Iolaus had last split up. Shaking his head against the memories he pressed on toward Alcmene's.
Alcmene had the door open and was outside before Hercules had walked through the gate outside. She could see the almost lost look that filled Hercules' every feature. Hesitantly, she placed a hand on Hercules' arm. "Hercules?"
Tears filled Alcmene's eyes when Hercules' gaze met her own. The last time she had seen such a look of loss and desolation in his eyes was after Hera had killed Deianeira and her three grandchildren. She dropped her hand, and allowed him to continue walking toward the house, pulling his precious cargo behind him.
Jason stood hesitantly in the doorway, not wanting to intrude. When Hercules reached the door, he reached out and said, "Here, let me help you." He helped Hercules lay the litter down gently on the ground. Concern shown in Jason's eyes as Hercules picked Iolaus' blanket wrapped form up and carried it into the house.
Later that night, every candle burned bright in the mourning house. While Hercules would not leave Iolaus' side, Alcmene and Jason sat at the kitchen table, talking softly.
Absently, she wiped an errant tear from her cheek. In the hours since Jason had brought word of Iolaus' death, she had felt an array of emotion. The tears she cried were those of a mother for her son. "I'm worried about Hercules, Jason," Alcmene said, her voice low, glancing in the direction of the bedroom.
Jason nodded, "It's as bad as I'd feared. But haven't you wondered about the condition of the body?"
Alcmene looked at Jason suddenly, confused by his question. "What do you mean?"
"Something seems strange. He looks like he's sleeping." He lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper, "Alcmene, he's been dead three or four days."
Her forehead scrunched in thought. "Jason, you don't think . . ."
"I don't know what to think."
All that night, Hercules didn't budge from beside the bed he had slept in as a child. In the early morning hours, after Alcmene and Jason had finally given up the battle against sleep, he allowed himself to feel a small part of the emotions that were besieging his heart. A sob tore from his chest, and he laid his head down on the bed as he felt the warmth of tears streak down his face.
When Alcmene and Jason awoke the next morning, they found Hercules much as they had left him. Only sleep had finally laid claim to the exhausted demigod.
Careful not to disturb him, Alcmene went in to check on not only him, but Iolaus as well. Jason's comment the night before had left her wondering how it was that he remained in such a perfect condition. Anyone would notice this was far from normal.
Anyone except he who was too grief-stricken to be able to notice.
Hercules stayed next to Iolaus throughout the night, and the next day. In his mind, he knew it was time to ready the burial plot next to Anya and the baby. He just couldn't convince his heart that it was right. He ignored his mother's pleas for him to eat something, the last thing he wanted was food. In a part of his mind he noted her concern, and went back to his vigil.
Dusk settled once again on the subdued house. Alcmene stood in the bedroom doorway, silently observing her two boys. A faint smile touched her lips as she recalled an image of a miniature whirlwind who managed to help Hercules break out of his shell. The day that her son eagerly brought his new friend home would forever stand out in her mind.
Blinking her eyes against a surge of tears, she was shaken from her memories by Jason's hand on her shoulder. "Thinking?"
Alcmene nodded, "Remembering mostly. Things that happened a long time ago."
Jason smiled, understanding the look of melancholy that was on her features. "I've been doing a lot of that as well."
"Something in me says this isn't right, Jason," Alcmene said suddenly, but low enough for Hercules to not hear.
Jason risked a look into the room, seeing Hercules not moving beside Iolaus. His soft eyes looking back at Alcmene, he replied "I know."
Unaware of the concerns of the two standing in the hallway, Hercules remained motionless. He fought the urge to scream out for Zeus. To demand the king of the gods bring Iolaus back. Only he didn't want to give his more divine relations the satisfaction of seeing him beg.
So he waited. Except he wasn't sure what for, he only knew he wouldn't let Iolaus go.
Hercules was dozing lightly, late in the night, when a flash of light appeared. Jumping up quickly, suddenly wide awake, Hercules placed himself in between Iolaus' body and the visitor. Confused, Hercules looked at the intruder. "Persephone?"
The young woman nodded. Sadness filled her large eyes at seeing Hercules. "I'm sorry, Hercules."
He nodded shortly in reply. "Persephone, what are you doing here?"
"There's something you needed to know. I convinced Hades to let me leave the underworld to speak with you. It was the least I could do after all you've done for us," glancing over at Iolaus she added, "and I always liked Iolaus."
His eyes tired, Hercules asked, "Could you please get to the point?" His tone softened at the look on her face, and added, "Please?"
She smiled softly, glancing from Hercules over to where Iolaus lay. "Though his body is still, Hercules, his soul lives."
"What?" Hercules demanded, his voice rising.
Persephone held out a hand, wanting to be heard out. "Iolaus never crossed over Hercules. His death was anything but natural. That which makes him who he is still exists, in this world." She gestured around the room to emphasize her point.
"Who?" Hercules seethed, his hands clinching into fists at his sides.
Persephone shook her head, "I'm not certain. But I do know you can still save Iolaus, Hercules. You just have to know where to look."
"Then tell me," his voice was almost pleading.
"I can't, but a higher god might be able to. For now, this is all I can do." She turned, aware of Hercules' needing gaze on her back. "I do hope you find him, Hercules." With that, another flash filled the room and Hercules was again alone with the still body of his best friend.
"Gods," Hercules muttered distastefully, and hurriedly readied to leave Alcmene's house. He knew who would most likely be willing to give him answers where Iolaus was concerned. Finished packing, Hercules quickly left a note for his mother and Jason and set out into the moonlit night.
Hercules pushed on throughout the night, cutting through the woods in an attempt to make up some time. He roughly pushed a low branch away from his face, breaking it off the tree with his forgotten force. Twigs snapped underfoot, and he raced onward.
The sun was two widths into the sky when Hercules finally approached the stone temple. Walking up the shallow steps, he pushed open the heavy door and went inside.
"Aphrodite!" he yelled when he reached the center of the room. "Get down here! Now!"
A sparkle of pink showered in front of him and materialized into the barely clothed form of Aphrodite. "Yo, bro. What's with the bellow?"
"You know why I'm here, Aphrodite." He managed, barely, to control his temper. The longer he had walked through the night, the angrier he had grown at the gods for their continued interference in the lives of those he cared about.
A rare serious look formed on the beautiful goddess' face. "Yeah, Herc. I know."
"Who was it, Aphrodite?"
"Who do you think, big brother? Who else would be so mean to Sweetcheeks?" Aphrodite asked with a pout.
"Ares," Hercules seethed.
"Numero Uno there, bro."
Hercules blue eyes flashed. "What did he do? What about what Persephone said?"
Aphrodite twirled a finger and a large pink pillow appeared at her feet. Taking a seat, Aphrodite motioned for Hercules to do the same. "Sit, Herc. It's kinda a long story."
He begrudgingly gave in to her request, saying, "Okay, Aphrodite. Tell me what's happened."
Completely serious for one of the rare times in her existence, 'Dite sighed. "I don't know his whole twisted plan. Only what I overheard when Strife was babbling up on Olympus." Aphrodite risked a look at Hercules' angry face and continued. "Ares used a nerious crystal."
"Nerious?" Hercules asked, his confusion ringing in the word.
Aphrodite nodded, "I'm not surprised you haven't heard of them. They've been guarded ever since Daddy took over. Ares stole one from Athena."
"What did he do? How?" Disgust for his half-brother echoed in Hercules' tense words.
"Ares approached Iolaus in disguise as Hades. He turned Sweetcheeks' own concerns against him. You see, for the crystal to work, the life has to be given willingly."
"Iolaus wouldn't do that," Hercules interrupted.
'Dite's sad eyes met Hercules' gaze. "He did, Herc. From what I've heard through the Olympus grapevine, he was concerned about you."
"Me? Why me?"
"Ares told Iolaus that Hades and Zeus had made an agreement." She paused, not wanting her favorite big brother to take his anger out on her when she added, "If he died, Zeus would protect you. That if he was gone, you wouldn't have to worry about what happened in that fight with some bandits happening again."
Hercules' eyes widened, unable to process what his unusually solemn sister was telling him. "And he believed him?"
"He was pretty upset, bro. That fight really shook him."
"What about the crystal?" Hercules asked, his voice breaking.
Aphrodite pushed a strand of golden hair out of her face. "Ares had him use the dagger the two of you forged, and when Curly was out cold, whammo. He pulls out the stone."
"Sweetcheeks is locked inside it."
Hercules' eyes shot up. "Locked inside it?"
"He didn't know about the stone, bro. Now Curly's trapped there. You have to help him." Hercules stood, and turned to leave. "Wait, Hercules. There's one other thing."
He turned, the last thing he needed was another complication. "What is it?"
"If the crystal is cracked or broken, Iolaus is lost forever."
A thought suddenly occurred to Hercules. "Why doesn't Hades intervene?" A spark of anger flashed in his eyes. "Let me guess. Your rules."
"It has to be you, Hercules."
"Like always," he muttered under his breath. Turning to look at his half sister, he paused. "Thanks, 'Dite."
Aphrodite smiled, "Now, go save Curly." A sparkle of pink and Aphrodite was gone, and the temple was again dark.
In the back of his mind, Hercules noted Aphrodite's almost over concern towards Iolaus. Then again, she had always been soft of him. Shaking away the thought, he quickly left the temple and began to the trek to Ares temple.
His half brother had a lot to answer for.
Hercules’ journey to Ares’ temple was much the same as his hurried trek to find Aphrodite. He paid little attention to the various wildlife that fled from being trampled under Hercules’ unseeing step.
In his mind, he replayed the conversation with Aphrodite. The idea that Iolaus would give himself over voluntarily horrified him. Hercules could think of nothing, not even his own safety, that would be worth such a high cost. He paused, and took a moment to get his bearings. A small sigh escaped his lips and he pushed on toward Ares’ closest temple.
It was late in the day when the dark stone structure came into view. A disgusted look crossed Hercules’ face when he hurried forward. He had no doubt that Ares would be waiting for him, anxious to gloat in his victory.
Throwing the oaken door off of its hinges, Hercules stalked into the dark building. “ARES!” His voice rang out, causing dirt to rain down from the ceiling and a hidden bell to ring.
A hollow laugh echoed off the damp walls, and a flash announced the arrival of the leather clad god. Ares stood there, stroking his moustache for a moment simply observing his younger half brother. “You barked?”
Hercules stalked toward Ares. Enraged by the mere sight of the god of war, Hercules struck out at him. The arrogant look never left Ares face, until he found himself flying across the shadowed interior. Recovering quickly, Ares launched himself at the demigod, landing a leaping kick to Hercules’ chest.
Hercules staggered, but by sheer will remained standing. “Give him back, Ares,” he seethed through clenched teeth. His words were followed by a right fist to Ares’ face. “Now.”
Ares took a step back, and wiped the corner of his mouth. “I don’t want to, you half god.”
“You don’t have a choice,” Hercules said. Suddenly he reached forward and picked the taunting god up over his head. Driven by a strength born of desperation, he threw the god across the building and into a far wall. The building shook with the force of the impact.
Not giving Ares time to recover, Hercules ran over to where he was pulling himself to his feet. “I’m not going to ask twice,” he said while reaching for Ares.
With a flash, Ares disappeared and reappeared behind Hercules. He grabbed the demigod by the collar and held him up off the ground. “And I already told you no, little brother.” Tossing Hercules back across the building, he soon followed. “Besides,” he commented, a blue crystal appearing in his hand with a flash, “I think I rather like my little trinket too much to give it up so soon.”
Hercules attention snapped from Ares to the glowing stone that he held in his hand. Apprehension filled his heart as he recalled Aphrodite’s warning. ‘If the crystal is cracked or broken, Iolaus is lost forever.’
Hercules stood, and walked toward Ares. “Now, now, Hercules. We wouldn’t want little Blondie here to have an accident would we?” His attention torn between Ares and the blue stone, Hercules tore his gaze from the stone and back to Ares. Ares smiled evilly, and a bright flash later, the crystal was gone from his hand. To Hercules’ stricken look, he replied, “Don’t worry, brother. It’s just a little insurance.”
Ares’ eyes lit with laughter as he again approached Hercules. Spurned on by an urgent burst of energy, Hercules again attacked the tall god. Ares managed to block the first few blows, taunting the worried demigod with his laughter. He stopped laughing when Hercules landed a kidney shot, knocking the wind from the god.
During Ares’ distraction, Hercules placed a booted kick to Ares’ face. Pulling him up by his leather vest, he threw Ares back across the temple. “This dance is getting old, Ares,” Hercules nearly growled.
Ares flashed Hercules a broken grin from his position on the floor. “Actually, brother, it is just beginning.” With a flash, the god disappeared, leaving Hercules alone in the darkness.
His call went unanswered, and he stretched his arms above his head and let out a scream of frustration.
Hercules dropped his arms and looked around. He knew of only one way to attract Ares’ attention well enough to draw him back. Picking up a large block of stone, he threw it against an alter that stood along the back wall. Next, he turned his attention to a tall statue of the formidable god of war. Wrapping his arms around the cold, dark marble, he pulled it apart from its base and smashed it against a nearby table.
“Ares! Get back here, or there won’t be anything left to come back to!” His call echoed around the room, but no reply came. Taking his non response as a no, Hercules continued in his mission to destroy, appropriately enough, the temple of destruction.
An alter was the next to be uprooted from it’s position on the floor. Holding it above his head, Hercules threw it with every bit of strength he could manage. A second later it crashed into the eastern wall, and broke through the weakened structure. When the dust settled, Hercules was able to see the moonlit forest outside through the large, gaping hole in the wall.
He had just began to push on a support beam when the familiar flash announced the gods return. “Stop!” Ares’ voice bellowed.
Hercules took a deep breath, turning to face his godly brother. “Give me a reason.”
“How about one particular nerious stone?” Ares sneered.
Hercules walked toward Ares, a scowl on his handsome features. “Like I should believe you.”
Ares laughed, “Like you have any choice.”
He regarded the god, knowing it was true. There was no other way to get the crystal. “Give it to me then,” Hercules said.
Ares tilted his head to the side for a moment. “Okay,” he replied simply. With a flash, the stone materialized five feet behind Hercules. Hercules turned his back to Ares to see the brightly glowing stone laying on the dusty floor. Just as Hercules began to reach for it, Ares added, “Just one last thing to do here.”
Hercules barely had time to glance toward the malicious god when a bolt of lightning snaked out of Ares hand. With in a heartbeat, the weakened support beam gave way and the ceiling began to topple downward in large pieces. In one last desperate move, Hercules dove to cover the stone before it could be crushed to dust.
The last thing he heard was Ares laughter ringing hollow in his ears.
Consciousness came slowly back upon Hercules. It had been several hours since Ares had caused the ceiling to rain down upon Hercules and the fragile stone, and the dust had long settled. Coughing roughly, Hercules pushed himself up onto his knees and looked around the rubble that had once been Ares’ temple.
At first, he didn’t notice the change in the crystal, he was so overjoyed that it remained in one piece. However, after picking it up off the litter-covered floor, he realized that the steady glow that had been there earlier was gone.
Holding his breath, he gently turned the stone over in his hand, checking for damage. A cry breaks from his lips when he sees the long crack that had formed along one side of the stone. For a moment, Hercules felt his heart stop. In an instant it had sunk in that this time, he had truly lost Iolaus. The hope that had buoyed his heart crumbled upon seeing the slender fracture in the surface of the stone.
He ran a single finger down the length of the break, his eyes revealing the depths of his shock. Tears brimmed in his bright blue eyes, and he blinked them quickly away. Rubbing a hand over his face, he stood. Clutching the stone close to his chest, he left the ruin of the temple behind him with a few long steps.
He had walked several leagues, and the sun was dawning on the horizon when Hercules collapsed onto his knees beside a small stream. Holding the small stone gently in his large hands, he felt a long fought sob rip from his chest. “NOOOOO!” his voice rang out in the still night, startling several nearby birds into flight.
Resting his arms on his thighs, he let his chin fall forward on his chest, suddenly spent. Silent tears coursed down his cheeks as memories of a lost lifetime filled his sight. Hours later, he dropped into an exhausted slumber.
Dawn arrived early, as Helios’ chariot began to journey across the sky. For an instant after the light woke Hercules, he forgot the events of the day before. He had barely sat up when the memories rushed back. A quick glance confirmed the stone was still lying beside him, its glow conspicuously absent.
Reaching, he gingerly picked up the nerious stone. Standing, he pushed on toward home. His only concern lay in giving Iolaus the proper burial he deserved. He had once asked the demigod to make sure he wouldn’t fall to the jaws of Ares’ pet dog. It was up to Hercules to ensure that didn’t happen.
By the time Hercules was within sight of Alcmene’s welcoming home, the vast resources of energy from which he had drawn had begun to run out. Trudging across the remaining distance to the cottage, he dreaded having to tell his mother and Jason that he had failed in his last attempt to return Iolaus to them.
Alcmene met Hercules at the gate, her bright smile fading when she saw the stricken look etched onto Hercules’ face.
“Hercules?” she asked quietly.
He blinked slowly, “I lost him.” His voice was hoarse from crying the night before, and his legs felt weak beneath him.
When he staggered, Alcmene took his arm. “Come inside dear.” Hercules nodded, but remained silent as he allowed his mother to lead him inside. Once there, he dropped into a chair beside the fire. “I’ll get you something to eat,” Alcmene said, walking into the kitchen.
Ever since she and Jason had found his note, Alcmene had latched onto the hope that Hercules would be able to bring Iolaus back to them. No matter the distress she felt at learning he hadn’t been able to do so, her son was her first concern. Even from a distance when he had been walking up the road to the house, she had been able to see the utter devastation written on his face.
She saw the empty look in his usually warm blue eyes and knew that Iolaus would never be coming back to them. She would mourn in her own time, but for the time being, it was Alcmene’s concern to make sure Hercules allowed himself to mourn. She knew the depth of his bond to Iolaus, she had watched it grow and thrive for years that grew into decades. It was a guilty hope she allowed herself to plead with the gods to bestow upon Hercules the strength to endure such a loss.
The tea kettle whistling brought her attention back to the task at hand, and Alcmene placed the tea on a tray next to some bread and stew. Picking up the tray, she walked back into the sitting room. When she entered the room, it was to find it empty. Taking her best guess, she walked back to the room that held Iolaus’ body. She smiled sadly when she saw that Hercules had fallen asleep next to Iolaus, who, thanks to whatever the gods had done, looked much as he had when Hercules had first brought him home.
Without making a sound, Alcmene turned and left the room. Glancing out of a window, she knew that it was too late to bury Iolaus, so there was no reason to wake Hercules from his much needed rest. After leaving the tray of food in the kitchen, Alcmene walked into the sitting room. It was then that she saw a blue crystal-like stone lying on the floor next to the chair where Hercules had been sitting.
Unsure of its purpose, but confident that it had something to do with Hercules’ quest to save Iolaus, she picked it up. Retracing her steps into Hercules’ childhood bedroom, she laid the stone down on a table next to the bed. She ran her hand over Iolaus’ soft curls, and then gently brushed a lock of hair off of Hercules’ forehead before leaving the room silently.
Just after nightfall, a burst of light flashed in the darkened bedroom. Hercules, who didn’t waken, was unaware of his two visitors.
“Look at him, sleeping there. You have to help,” the young woman said.
The tall man standing next to her replied, “I can’t.”
“No,” she argued, her voice never raising above a whisper, “you won’t. Ares impersonated you. Therefore, you have every right to intervene.”
He sighed, “Persephone, the crystal cracked. There’s nothing I can do.” Hades attempted to reason with her, but he knew full well that when his wife had her mind set on something, she would never back down. He sighed as he realized, not for the first time, how much she was like her mother in that respect.
“That’s not true and you know it. Besides, here’s your chance to give a little back to Ares. You know how he gets when he thinks he’s won.”
Hades rubbed his chin, regarding the two men before him. “You might have something there. Ares would absolutely scream.”
“Then you’ll do it?” Persephone asked expectantly, lowering her voice as Hercules stirred in his sleep.
“I’ll do it,” Hades agreed. Picking up the sapphire stone, he Passed his hand over the lifeless body on the bed. As the stone began to glow, the crack mended itself. He then laid the stone on Iolaus’ forehead, and Hades and Persephone watched as the glow spread out from the crystal to Iolaus.
Persephone’s fair features broke out into a warm smile as Iolaus body expanded with his first breath of new life. “Thank you, Hades,” she said softly.
Hades placed his arm around Persephone’s shoulders and kissed her forehead. “You really do care for him don’t you?”
“Jealous?” she asked with a giggle.
Hades laughed, “Of ‘Dite’s Sweetcheeks? Never.”
“But,” Hades said, his voice serious, “there will be consequences. His recovery will be a long one. Body and soul must begin to come together again. Going into the crystal is bad enough. Coming out of a broken one? Well, it’s never been done.”
“If anyone can do it,” Persephone replied, “Iolaus will be the one.” The pair disappeared from sight just as her last words breathed into the room.