Testament of the Spirit - Raven

Testament of the Spirit

By Raven


"I see the world gradually turning into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us to, I can feel the suffering of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquillity will return again.

- Anne Frank

Diary of a Young Lady

PART ONE

Jason sighed, retracting his head from around the corner. "Theyíre still there," he reported mournfully, unleashing a chorus of moans that echoed off the cavernís walls. The mournful sounds of forty odd men was depressing to say the least, and Jason grimaced, wishing heíd had better news.

"Well, whatíd ya expect," remarked Iolaus, waiting impatiently for his friendís surveillance report. "Weíre prisoners, not guests here."

Jason bowed his head, kicking at the dirt between his feet. "Yeah, I know," he began. "But I can wish, canít I?"

Iolaus drew in a deep breath and turned away. "Yeah, but thatís about all we can do." He picked his way through the crowded underground cavern, sharing sympathetic glances with those he passed. Squeezing past a group of haggard men in rags, he searched for a place to sleep. It had been another long strenuous day, and everyone, even Iolaus the energetic wonder, was exhausted.

Spotting an empty place against the cavern wall, Iolaus sat himself down. He had known the guards would be out there. They were there every night, and they would be there every night hereafter. A place of servitude was rarely unguarded.

"Thereís gotta be a time when weíre not being guarded," Jason said, taking a seat next to Iolaus on the ground.

"Not likely," replied Iolaus, wiping a thick layer of grime from his face. But his efforts were futile. Under that layer of grime was another layer just waiting to be cleaned. "But what gets me is that they arenít even armed. Whatís up with that?"

Jason frowned. "Actually, thatís probably the only thing that makes sense."

"Huh?"

Shrugging, Jason leaned back against the hard earth. "Itís just a trick of the trade, Iolaus. You donít arm your guards that are working in prisoner- or slave- quarters. That way they canít steal the weapons and use Ďem against you. You donít wanna put angry prisoners near weapons. Makes for unpleasant situations if and when they try to revolt. And Ďin quartersí is where these kinds of plans are usually contrived."

Iolaus frowned. "I never thought of that."

"Youíve never had to," replied Jason, closing his eyes. "Why? Are you planning some sort of escape here?"

Iolaus didnít reply, already making himself comfortable for another sleepless night. He rubbed his back against the hard dirt of the cave wall, trying to make a snug mold. Drawing his legs up and resting his arms across his knees, he leaned his head back and closed his eyes.

Jason watched for a moment, then cast his eyes about the room. Some of the others were also finding spots in which to sleep. While others were up nervously pacing or chatting with friends. Jason found the whole scene rather surreal. If he hadnít known where they really were, he wouldíve sworn he was at some sort of weird camp-out. But knowing those guards were just outside the cavernís entrance was a sad reminder of otherwise.

He, along with every other misfortunate victim in the underground cavern, were prisoners. Jason didnít know the stories behind everyone elseís capture, but how he and Iolaus had been caught was still fresh in his mind. And it kept repeating itself over and over again. And each time he saw it playback, he searched for where he had gone wrong and how he couldíve handled it differently. With saddened eyes, he turned to his sleeping friend.

"Iíll get you out of here," he said quietly. "I promise."

Iolaus shifted and murmured something inaudible.

*** *** ***

Iolaus wasnít the first awake, he noticed, when he opened his eyes the next morning. Him and the rest of the prisoners had learned to set their internal clocks so they woke before the guards came- they had such an unpleasant way of waking a person. Banging on a large metal shield, they would kick and shout at people until they were up. One morning, a particularly evil guard, used a flaming touch to wake a late riser. He had set the poor manís clothes on fire with a smile. So, as sleep deprived as they were, they still managed to get up extra early to escape from that torture.

His body begging for more sleep, Iolaus pushed himself to his feet. As he rose he heard every bone in his body crack, sending shooting pain through each muscle. Rubbing his back, he slowly made his way to the center of the room. He looked around his dismal surroundings shaking his head. It was easy to tell how long a person had been there by the way they carried themselves. The new ones still walked proud and angry, and still believing in escape. Iolaus could see it in their eyes. That look that said there was no way they were going to spend another day here as a slave.

Iolaus remembered that look. He and Jason had worn it a long time after their capture. But now there was no point. There was no escape. Only hope of a rescue. And Iolaus would never give up on that. Especially when he looked across the cavern at the lifers. The oneís whoíd been there probably since it had all began- the oneís who kept to themselves, spoke little and hoarded everything they could get their hands on. The lifers were easy to find in a crowd. They had given up on pretense and posturing a long time ago, moving about the day with their eyes glazed over, their shoulders slumped.

Those were what haunted Iolaus the most. The eyes. He didnít want those eyes; hollow, lifeless, no glimmer of hope anywhere to be found. And their emptiness was reflected in their physiqueís as well. Emaciated and pale, lifers bore the scars of long term imprisonment and torture. Iolaus looked himself over, running a hand down his filthy, yet intact vest, with a pang of guilt. Someone had tried to steal it their first night there, but he had been able to defend himself easily as his attacker had been weak from hunger and dehydration.

Taking a deep breath, he hurried himself the rest of the way. He found Jason building a fire in the middle of the room. This was the focal point of their new underground home. Where everyone gathered to keep warm or talk when their loneliness became to unbearable. It also had a clear view of the cavernís entrance. The room was small with only one entrance, which made escape very difficult since it was always guarded by several men, menacing and angry with their position in life.

"Sleep well?" asked Jason sarcastically, adding sticks to the fire.

"Oh yeah," replied Iolaus, pulling back his hair with pained effort. "Just like a baby."

"You donít look so good," noted Jason, looking up at his friend.

"Gee thanks," retorted Iolaus, bending by the fire to keep warm. Even in the dead of summer the caves were cold, and blankets were extremely hard to come by.

Jason sat back on his heels to get a better look. "No, I mean it," he said. "You look kinda pale."

Iolaus rubbed his hands over the fire. "Iím surprised you can tell under all this dirt."

"Well you better be careful," came a voice from across the fire. Iolaus and Jason looked up to see a skinny man in ragged clothes and a grim expression. "Looks like they took another one last night."

Jason and Iolaus darted their heads about the room searching for the missing victim. It was becoming a regular occurrence lately, to wake up and find one of them missing. Usually it was the extremely sick and weak who disappeared in the night. Their captor having no use for them, would have the guards drag them away in their sleep, never to be heard of again. And each morning the survivors would wake up thankful they were still in the cave. It was an odd thing to be grateful for.

"Who was it?" asked Jason, turning back to the skinny man whose name had slipped his mind. There were over forty men being kept in this small cavern, and he had yet to learn all their names. Which he was beginning to think was a good thing, cause it made that much easier when they disappeared. There was no use making a friend that was soon going to leave... or die. Which ever the case may be.

"Calstrom," replied the man bitterly. "The one who broke his arm yesterday moving the rocks."

Iolaus swallowed hard. He had known the guy. He had been moving the rocks along side Calstrom when heíd broken his arm. And he remembered how he had continued to work despite the pain, for fear of what might happen to him. Unfortunately, the guards must have noticed. "Well, you donít have to worry about me," he said, standing up. "I may look like the walking dead, but Iím fine. Really."

"Whether you are or not," started the man across the fire, also rising. "You better keep that attitude up. Or your friend there is gonna find himself without a sleeping buddy," he finished, turning away and heading back to his little corner of the cavern.

"And you have yourself a good day too," retorted Iolaus, when the man was out of earshot.

"Heís right, ya know," conceded Jason, throwing another stick into the building fire before standing. "If youíre getting sick, you better not let them know."

"Iím fine!" stated Iolaus, slowly backing away from the fire. "Iím just tired like everyone else here." He waved his arms, indicating the other prisoners slowly moving about the cave. "Weíve been here for weeks now- some longer, and none of us has seen a decent meal, or a bath, or even a clean drink of water! Of course Iím gonna look a little ragged! We all do." Finished with his speech, Iolaus turned his back on Jason and walked away.

"Yeah," replied Jason, under his breath. "Only some of us look worse than others."

*** *** ***

The sun was just beginning to rise, but Hercules had not slept. He had made a promise to himself that he would not rest until his friends were found. And heíd already broken that promise once when he fell asleep, if only for a few minutes, the previous night. He couldnít help himself. They had been searching non-stop for days, and his body couldnít take it any longer. He had passed out from shear exhaustion while everyone in the search party had stopped for a short break.

Chieron had repeatedly told him to rest, that he would be no good to anyone if he was too weak to continue. But Hercules took no notice of his mentorís words, schooling all his strength to keep awake, and to keep searching. But now, as he knelt by the river splashing cold water on his face, he could feel his body screaming once again for relief.

Trying to keep his focus straight, he starred at his reflection in the water, rippling and rolling with the gentle waves. It gave his face a distorted image, reflecting how he was feeling. Making a fist, Hercules punched the surface of the water where his face stared back at him. "Damn you!" you cursed, punching his reflection again. "How could you let this happen to them!"

"You canít possibly be blaming yourself for this?"

Hercules spun around to see Lilith standing behind him, leaning against a tree. "Why not?" he spat, standing and turning. He brushed past her towards the encampment where the rest of the search party was gearing up for another day. He didnít even spare Lilith a glance as he passed by.

"Hercules!" called Lilith, catching up to him. "This wasnít your fault. You do know this, donít you?"

Hercules didnít answer. He marched ahead ignoring her.

Lilith ran ahead and jumped in front of him, cutting off his path. "Hey!" she pressed, jabbing a finger at his chest. But Hercules wouldnít look at her. Lilith had to grab his chin and hold it firmly in her grasp, making sure she had his undivided attention. "I said, this wasnít your fault. Now you just get that through your thick skull!"

Deciding Lilith wasnít going to leave him alone with his misery, Hercules relented. He closed his eyes briefly, letting his tongue sweep across his lips. "I just keep thinking what if. What if I had gone fishing with them? What if I hadnít gone to visit my mother that day? What if..."

"What if what if what if!" repeated Lilith, dropping her hand from his chin. "You canít live in a world of what ifs! You can only live in the present."

"I can see someone has been paying attention in my class," said Chieron, coming up behind Lilith. "Now if only Hercules would listen to you..."

Hercules shook his head, staring at the ground. "Chieron," he began, but was silenced by a hand.

"Now is not the time for this conversation," interrupted the Centaur. "The messenger from the other search party just arrived with some news."

Lilith and Hercules waited with anticipation as Chieron turned back to the camp, waving them along. "We may have a lead," he said over his shoulder. "There is a village up ahead that claims several of their young men have also gone missing recently."

"And you think they might be with Jason and Iolaus?" asked Lilith, picking up her pace to walk beside the Centaur.

"It is a possibility," replied Chiron. "We will make our way to this village and find out more."

"Well why are we moving so slow?" demanded Hercules, running past them. "If they know anything," he said, turning around as he ran. "I want to know now!"

*** *** ***

Jason shielded his eyes as he stepped into the brilliant sunlight. After so much time in the dim cave network, even a candle's flame was too intense. But he managed to retain his composure, helping the other prisoners climb the last leg of the steep incline leading from their interim lodging. The guards were rushing them along with threats and screams as each person greeted the day with fear and anxiety.

"So, what'll it be today boys?" mused Iolaus in a jocular tone, as he brought up the rear of outgoing prisoners. "Tree cutting or rock removal?"

"Don't forget construction," added Jason, giving his friend a hand up. "That is, after all, why we're here."

"And don't you forget it!" threatened an eavesdropping guard, jabbing his staff behind Jason's knees.

Recovering, Jason threw the guard a beleaguered look and followed the rest of the prisoners. He couldn't decide which he liked better, the caves or the compound. Down below they had some privacy and a little refuse from the blazing heat, but above they had fresh air. Each had their own set of pros and cons, and Jason decided in the end they were both equal. They both sucked.

He and Iolaus made their way through the crowd as their group joined with the others. Each morning the underground caves emptied, spilling hundreds of prisoners out into the compound. Once they were all accounted for, they were broken down into work groups- as far as Jason could tell by ability. One group of artisans was being kept in the cavern adjacent to theirs who worked on the stone carvings and molds. Another group, Jason could only assume was located in another cave across the compound, that was responsible for the cooking and cleaning for all the guards. There were more groups, but he had yet to figure them all out. And he was quite certain there were plenty more like the one he and Iolaus belonged to. The one reserved for the young and strong... hard labor.

Each day he and Iolaus would be assigned a new back breaking task. Either clear cutting trees, rock removal, gravel pit or the actual building of the castle itself. All of them he hated, but building the castle he hated most. It meant being in direct contact with the despot himself.

Through rumors, spreading quickly through the slaves like wildfire, they had learned of Blasius, the tyrant responsible. He wanted to rule Greece, and later, the world apparently. He was building his empire here, where ever here was- Jason had no clue, and was using slaves to do his dirty work. And he had quite an congregation so far Jason noted, rising on his toes to look around.

The compound was built into a large canyon medial to two sloping hills. One end of the canyon was cut off by a wide rushing river too dangerous to cross. The other end was protected by a thick forest, dense with brush and wild animals. And right in the middle of all this was Blasius' soon-to-be fortress, from where he planned to live out his delusions of grandeur.

If the whole thing didn't reek of evil, Jason might of thought about building a nice summer home here. Gaea had done quite a beautiful job on this remote part of Greece.

"Hey, Jas," whispered Iolaus, breaking his friend from his musings. "Let's try and get on the tree cutting team this time."

Jason furrowed his brow. "Why tree cutting?" he whispered back. "I still have splinters from two days ago."

"Yeah, but I don't think I'm up for any heavy lifting today," replied Iolaus, rubbing his shoulder. "I haven't ached like this since the last Corinthian games."

"Tree cutting it is then," Jason replied slowly, studying his friend. Everyone looked horrible, but Iolaus looked worse than he should. His eyes were a little more tired, his face more drawn out, and he had lost his usual gait.

Jason turned his attention back to the crowd and the guards doling out the daily duties. Seeing a group being led towards the forest, Jason grabbed his friend. "Come on," he said over his shoulder. "We'll join that group."

The two prisoners bolted from the crowd, heading for the thirty or so others being led to the edge of the compound. But just as they were about to join them, a burly guard, dressed in black leather and armor and brandishing a sword, stepped before them.

"Where do you two think you're going?" he asked, spitting a gob of disgusting juice at Iolaus' feet.

Thinking quick on his feet, Jason pointed back at the unassigned prisoners then at the group walking away. "We're with them," he explained. "We're just a little slow today... You know, we're kinda tired and all..."

"Well get moving!" warned the guard with a shove.

*** *** ***

"Clear!" called Iolaus, as he stood back and watched the large tree crash to the ground.

Jason eyed the axe in his hand, turning it over and casting a glance at the guards surrounding them. "You know," he began, leaning in close to Iolaus. "It would be so easy to take them. Catch them by surprise and run."

Iolaus looked at one of the guards resting against a tree, his sword hanging idle at his hip. "Yeah," he said regretfully, turning back to Jason. "But what about the rest of the prisoners?"

Jason dropped his head. "I know. That's why I'm not considering it," he said. "If we escape, that means the others are gonna be punished."

"And the odds are still against us," continued Iolaus, bending over, pretending to tie his boot lace. He needed a break, but he didn't want the guards to know. And standing around idle was a sure fire way of being noticed. "There's like twenty guards here, all armed with either swords or bows. And there's only five of us with axes."

Jason rolled his wrist, spinning the axe in a circle. "They planned it that way. They have to give us tools, but they wanna make sure we don't get any ideas," he said, heading over to yet another tree. He pointed his axe up and nodded to Iolaus. "Well, you better get back up there."

Iolaus took a deep breath and pushed himself up with great effort. It was just like that morning, every joint creaked and ached. But he refused to let that slow him down. He spit in his palms and rubbed them together vigorously, ready to begin his ascent.

"Sure you want to go up there?" asked Jason, placing a hand on his shoulder. "It might be easier chopping, rather than clearing the branches."

Iolaus shrugged the hand off. "I'm okay," he insisted, grabbing for a low branch and hoisting himself upwards. "If you wanna worry, worry about the other prisoners. I'm fine."

Jason watched as Iolaus carefully climbed the tree, taking on each new height with a deep breath. He positioned himself directly under him, moving around the tree as Iolaus did. He hated to think it, but Iolaus seemed a little unsteady and there was the possibility that he could fall. And Jason wanted to be able to soften his landing. If his friend wasn't going to take care of himself, then he was damn sure he would.

*** *** ***

Cheiron had gathered the search party around the obelisk in the center of the village. Some had news, but not enough to direct them in any particular direction. But many of the villagers had volunteered to join their party in order to find their lost relatives.

"Perhaps you should start your own party?" suggested Chieron, speaking to the head of the village, an elderly and determined man. "That would allow us to cover more ground. The Corinthian Army is also out looking, and we have been sending messengers between our two groups. You and your villagers should make up a third party."

The man agreed with the Centaur, and together they headed for a table to discuss further actions. This left Hercules and Lilith with the rest of their party. Unable to sit still, Hercules paced the small square, going over in his mind the information they had gathered.

Lilith, tired of following the demi-god with her eyes like a ping-pong, decided to join him. She fell into step beside him, crossing back and forth in front of the obelisk. "It seems like only guys are being taken," she said, as they turned back to make another crossing.

"I was thinking the same thing," replied Hercules. "And from the descriptions the families here gave, young strong men or artisans."

"How many are missing from here?" asked Lilith, her head down, trying to put the pieces together.

"Twenty-seven," answered Hercules, his tone displaying his shock. "Plus the fifty or so from the town Jason's army found, and of course..."

"Jason and Iolaus," finished Lilith with a sigh.

"Yeah, Jason and Iolaus."

"So what does this all mean?" asked Lilith, finally stopping.

Hercules turned back to her, his arms entwined across his chest. "I know exactly what this means," he responded sternly. "Cause I have a feeling there's more men missing from other villages as well."

"Well?!" pushed Lilith, her arms spread. "Wanna share it with the rest of us?"

Walking past her towards Cheiron, he spared her a fleeting glance. "Either the Gods are redecorating their halls with mortal statues," he replied. "Or someone has some really sick employment tactics."

*** *** ***

Before Jason had a chance to leave the food line with his tray, a guard grabbed him by the shoulder, spinning him around. "Hey," growled the guard, eyeing him sideways. "You look familiar."

"Possibly," replied Jason acerbically. "I've been here awhile."

The guard shook his head. "No. I mean I know you. I've seen you around before."

"Yeah well," interrupted Iolaus, leaning over Jason's shoulder to get in the guard's face. "He's the famous..."

"Poet!" blurted Jason. "I'm a famous poet. You've probably seen me reciting my stuff at your local tavern," he finished, hoping the guy bought it. Apparently he did, harrumphing, but letting them move away from the line without further discussion.

Jason and Iolaus found a semi-secluded spot near the rest of the eating prisoners. They made themselves comfortable, ready to digest their daily meal. "Why didn't you tell that guy who you were?" asked Iolaus, playing with the scrap of bread on his plate.

"Oh sure," answered Jason. "I'm sure they have real special accommodations for Prince's here.... Nice cushy ones, with extra special torture that is."

Iolaus drew in a deep breath, wincing at the pain it caused. "Good point," he replied dejectedly. Then he looked at his plate, shook his head and tossed it to the ground.

Jason maneuvered himself so they were shoulder to shoulder. "Hey, buddy," he whispered. "You gotta eat. You gotta keep your strength up, even if it does taste like..."

"Ungrateful slave!" came a booming voice from above them. Jason and Iolaus looked up to see the guard from the food line standing over them, snarling at the discarded food. "You take what we give you and you eat it!" he ordered, spitting onto the hardened roll lying in the dirt. Then he turned, marching away to join the other guards enjoying their hearty meal.

Iolaus stared at the roll. "You wanna trade, mine's got sauce?" he asked with mock excitement.

Jason made a face and shook his head. "Uh, no thanks," he replied. Then he broke off a piece of his bread, cracking it on the edge of his plate like an egg. "Here, have some of mine. I think he's gone now."

Iolaus pushed it away, clutching his stomach. "I can't," he admitted, his eyes closed. "It'll only resurface later."

Jason didn't know what to do, didn't know what to say. He didn't think it was possible, but his friend actually looked worse than he had that morning. And he knew he was only going to get sicker. Under the conditions they had been living in this past while, it was no wonder he was sick. They were given food, if it could be called that, once a day and in child sized portions. What little water they were granted was usually brown, tepid, and stinking of musty wood. And the living conditions were no better. Forty men were crammed into a small underground cave where air couldn't circulate, and they breathed in each other's sweat and slept on the cruel cold ground.

But escape seemed like a myth, the guards out armed and outnumbered them at least twenty to one. And even if Jason could plan an escape, most of the prisoners were to weak or frightened to fight anyway. They would be slaughtered in minutes.

The only thing they could hope for was a rescue, or a miracle. Jason was betting on the first. And he thanked every God he could think of, even one's he didn't believe in, that he had friends like Hercules and Cheiron. It also didn't hurt that he was the Crown Prince of Corinth, with an army ready to defend him at a moment's notice. That thought reassured him greatly. For if and when they got out of there, he knew what his first order would be to his army. And no mighty fortress or autocratic dictator was gonna live to regret that day.

When eating time came to a conclusion, the guards rounded up the slaves. The prisoners assigned to kitchen duties started gathering all the plates and mess left behind, as the others were sent back to work. If Blasius was anything, he was obsessively neat- bordering on retentive. It was just another element that validated his insanity. That and the fact that he had yet to show his face amongst the prisoners.

"It just sickens me ya know," Iolaus said to Jason as they headed back to the forest with their work party. "The disregard this guy has for human beings. He's got hundreds of slaves living and dying under his control, and he doesn't give a damn about any one of them."

"I can't believe he's got followers," replied Jason, trying to keep voice low. "How can anyone support this Blasius? He's a nut case bent on world domination. I wanna just grab this guy and smack him back to reality."

"Yeah right. And after that, you can make me irresistible to woman and take your place as King of the Universe," mused Iolaus. "Face it, Blasius is so far gone there's no hope for him"

"I swear there's a village out there missing their idiot," sighed Jason, shaking his head.

"Hey! You two!" bellowed a voice behind them. Jason and Iolaus spun to see a couple of approaching guards. "You're coming with me!" ordered one of the men. "You're needed elsewhere!"

Jason struggled as a guard grabbed his vest, dragging him away from the other tree cutters. "Hey! You don't have to be so rough! I'm going, I'm going."

The guard pulled him harder, looking back to see his comrades tugging at Iolaus- also putting up a fight. "Blasius feels you two would serve him better in construction," rumbled the guard. "Think of it as a compliment. A step up in life."

"I don't care what you think!" riposted Iolaus, as he was shoved passed Jason. He turned back to the guards, his face contorted with anger and frustration. "Call it what you like, but to me it's slave labor! And your precious Blasius is a maniac! He's diluted if he thinks he's gonna get away with this!"

Jason tried to placate the situation by holding his friend back. "Hey, buddy," he said, wrapping an arm around Iolaus' torso. "Don't make it worse."

"No!," countered Iolaus, unable to control his anger any longer. He tried to escape Jason's grasp, but he had a good hold of him, so he settled on shouting at the guards over his friend's shoulder. "You can't treat people this way!" he continued. "Blasius doesn't even have the courage to show his face around here! He sits in his little tent all day surrounded by slaves and guards, too afraid to face the shit he's created around him!"

"Iolaus," pushed Jason, slowly losing his grip on his angered friend. "Let it go."

"I'd like to hear this," smiled one of the guards, crossing his arms over his chest. "Let the slave continue," he finished with a sneer.

Iolaus broke free from Jason and stepped up to the guard. "Blasius is a coward!" he spat, jabbing a finger at the guard's chest. "He doesn't even have the common decency to face his slaves! What?! Can't he stomach what he's doing?!"

The guard laughed, grabbing Iolaus by the hair and yanking his head back. His eyes reduced to mere slits, he leaned over the slave's face. "Harsh words for someone in your position," he snarled. "Fortunately you are nothing, so your words mean nothing to someone like Blasius. You should be honored to be building his empire. You should bow down each day and praise the heavens he's as good to you as he is."

When the guard finished, he released Iolaus, ordering one of his henchmen to grab him. Then he turned to Jason, ordering his capture as well. "Now I suggest you both be good little boys and do as your told," he said, as the two prisoners were carted off towards the construction area. "You may regret it otherwise."

*** *** ***

Jason could feel his skin burning. After several hours under the uncompromising sun, he wasn't sure if he was going pass out from exhaustion first, or spontaneously combust. Either way he didn't care. It would be an end to his misery, and that's all he cared about at this moment. That, and Iolaus. He was quickly degenerating working under this heat, and Jason noticed. There wasn't anything he could about it, but he kept a watchful eye on him anyway. And when Iolaus stumbled trying to lift one of the gigantic concrete slabs into place, Jason felt his own stomach lurch.

He quickly scanned the area checking if any of the guards had seen it, but it appeared they hadn't. And when Iolaus finally got the slab into place, Jason saw him bend over to recover, bracing his hands on his knees. "Iolaus," he cautioned in a restrained voice.

Iolaus looked back with a nod. Then he rose and drew in a deep breath. Jason didn't have to say anything further. Iolaus knew what he was trying to say -watch your back, cause they're watching. But the contents of his stomach could be stupid that way. They didn't care if anyone was watching. They were coming out regardless of place or time.

Jason tensed as Iolaus stumbled behind a rock, using it to support himself as he bent down. Not wanting to draw attention to his friend, Jason casually strolled over under the pretense of gathering more slabs. He caught the tail end of Iolaus' regurgitation and started coughing purposefully, trying to mask the unmistakable sounds coming from his friend. Examining the rock concealing Iolaus, Jason peered over and watched his friend spit out the last of the bile remaining in his mouth.

"You okay?" he asked.

Iolaus wiped his mouth, kicking dirt over the mess at his feet. "What do you think?" he replied, more bitterly than he had intended. "Let's just get back to work before anyone notices."

"Just try and take it easy," cautioned Jason with a nudge.

Iolaus smiled weakly. "Tell Blasius that," he replied, heading for another slab.

Jason pushed his breath out in a puff. There's gotta be something I can do? He asked himself. I can't let this continue. He looked around the compound, scoping the area for weaknesses he could use against them. Cheiron had once said, 'you will know your enemies weaknesses when you find them and take advantage of them.' The only problem Jason found with that was, he couldn't find any weaknesses in Blasius' militaristic alliance. To give credit were credit was due, Jason had to admit, as insane as the guy was, he knew what he was doing.

*** *** ***

With night came the evacuation of the compound. Slaves were herded back underground per Blasius' protocols to the intricate cave network. It was difficult to keep a watchful eye on the prisoners in the dark. They were harder to keep track of, and escape became more of a possibility. This also allowed Blasius' guards and retinue some rest time. A tyrant to his slaves he was, but to his men he was a benevolent leader. Treating them to wine and stories as they relaxed amongst the grandiose tent city erected next to the budding castle. Blasius understood the concept that a well treated follower would be a loyal follower. So each night he walked amongst them, ate with them, shared in their camaraderie and drank in their praise and worship like a gluttonous pig.

But below was a different story all together. The guards on duty for the evening were beginning roll call. Taking each cavern scattered underneath the compound in groups of six, they rounded up the slaves in orderly lines. Here they were able to inspect the physical condition of each slave, and make sure no one had gone missing during the day.

Jason pushed a few slaves into line as he heard the approaching guards. Then he quickly took his place amongst them, standing next to Iolaus on the end. "You going to be okay?" he asked, turning to his friend.

Iolaus blinked aggressively, trying to wake himself. "I can handle it," he said, trying to sound more confident than he was. "I haven't been sick in awhile."

"That's what I'm afraid of," replied Jason. "You're about due."

Iolaus made a face at his friend but didn't have a chance to reply. The guards entered the cavern expecting complete silence and co-operation, so everyone turned their attention to them.

As if their task were demeaning and redundant, the guards picked over the slaves and checked their scrolls for the correct count. It appeared none of them noticed Iolaus' sickened condition, and the count was right, so they started towards the exit. But one remained behind, holding his chin in hand and scrutinizing the line of slaves.

The guard stepped towards Iolaus and Jason flinched, snapping his head around to face his friend. Iolaus was starring back at him, his eyes apprehensive with a hint of fear. Damn. Thought Jason, closing his eyes and thinning his lips. They've noticed.

"I see we've learned to co-operate now," chided the guard, sizing up Iolaus with his eyes. This caught the attention of the other guards and they came to stand behind their apparent leader. Adding more anxiety to an already tense situation.

Iolaus furrowed his brow, trying to put meaning to the words.

"You don't remember me, do you?" asked the guard, placing his nose mere inches from the slave's.

Iolaus pulled his head back. "Um... Not really."

The guard laughed and leaned back, crossing his arms over his chest. "Oh, but you must," he replied boisterously. "We had such a lovely little chat this afternoon in the compound."

Iolaus swallowed hard, now recognizing the guard's face. "Well, you're all so ugly it's hard to tell you guys apart," he rebuked, regretting it immediately.

The guard dropped his friendly facade, balling his hands into fists. In a quick, smooth motion he lashed out with his right hand. His fist landed squarely in the middle of Jason's face. Jason staggered from the blow, landing sprawled on the ground behind the line.

"Hey!" shouted Iolaus, charging the guard. "He didn't do anything! It's me you want!" Two of the guards grabbed Iolaus, locking his arms behind his back. Iolaus tried to struggle free, but they were strong, not giving him much leeway. Then one of them wrapped a hand around his head, covering his mouth in a tight grip. Iolaus was silenced and restrained, and unable to break free.

Jason slowly picked himself off the ground, stunned, angry and checking for blood. Every part of him wanted to rush the guards and beat the pulp out of them, but that little display made him reconsider. They weren't going to play fair, so Jason took a deep breath and tried to contain himself. But there was only so much self restraint a man could have. "Bastard," he mumbled under his breath.

The head guard squared his jaw, defining the muscles in his chin. "Did I say you could speak?" he hissed between his teeth.

"You can't...!" began Jason, still wiping at his nose where blood was flowing.

"Again you speak!" shouted the guard, keeping his eyes trained on Jason, but pointing to another prisoner down the line. "Kill him," he ordered evenly.

Two guards rushed the unsuspecting prisoner being singled out and Jason jumped. He tried to stop them before they had a chance to carry out the order, but he was quickly restrained by the head guard.

"You can't do this!" Jason screamed, trying to free himself. But he was also silenced with a hand clamped over his mouth.

"You speak again," snarled the head guard, twisting Jason's arm up his back. "You will learn," he threatened, nodding his head at another innocent prisoner. "Kill him too."

Jason was forced to watch as the two prisoners were killed. Two guards, each grabbing a prisoner from behind, wrapped an arm around their victim's shoulder and the other in the opposite direction around their head and grabbing their chin. In one quick move the guards snapped the necks.

Crack.

Crack.

It was so quick the victims didn't even have a chance to scream. The guards had done it with practiced accuracy, like they had done it so many times before now.

Jason closed his eyes as the two dead bodies slumped to the ground in a heap at the guard's feet. He felt like he was about to pass out. He had seen people killed before, he had even done the killing himself, but this was different. These victims had not been killed in a war, or in self-defense, but because of him. Because he couldn't keep his mouth shut and learn to control himself. He felt himself weaken, and leaned his weight on the guard holding him. His legs couldn't support him any longer. He wanted to fall to the ground and melt into the earth. Hide forever.

He hit the ground hard when the guard finally released him. On his knees, Jason buried his head in his hands, unable to look at anyone.

"Now that you know how things work around here," started the head guard, walking back to the cavern's entrance. "We shouldn't have anymore problems."

Jason didn't respond. He kept his face and guilt hidden.

"Grab those bodies," ordered the guard. "We need to make room in here now for two more slaves... Live ones would be nice, don't ya think?" he chided, receiving a chorus of laughs from the other guards.

But Jason didn't hear him. His mind was screaming to loudly to hear any outside noise. He couldn't move. He couldn't speak. He could only remain on his knees, face buried and frozen in that moment. In that exact moment he had heard the necks snap, one after the other.

Crack.

Crack.

And Iolaus threw up. If the guards had of still been in the cavern he wouldn't have cared. He bent over bracing his hands on his knees and drained what little there was in his stomach. Then he went to his friend.

Kneeling beside Jason, he draped an arm over his back and said nothing. For nothing could be said. Nothing could be done. And the two of them remained that way for some time. The rest of the cavern's residents left them there, walking away in silence.

Jason and Iolaus had just become the most hated, and most feared, prisoners in the cave.

*** *** ***

Night could be such an oddity. It could be your best friend, displaying magnificent stars and bringing with it peaceful dreams. Or it could be your worst enemy, creating a blackened earth and too much time to think. Looking to the stars usually eased the pain inside Hercules, but on this night they only taunted him. Sparkling high above in the heavens, they reflected a sense that everything was all right with the world. They were too beautiful to reflect anything else, but Hercules couldn't find it in himself to share in their optimism. Instead, he felt more in tune with the dark matter between them- the empty, black spaces that seemed to go on forever.

He threw another pebble into the fire, watching as tiny orange and white sparks flickered and faded. He had tried to convince everyone to keep searching through the night, but most had been too tired. Some had been on his side, wanting to push ahead with the search, but reason had a way of changing one's mind. And reason was usually a wise Centaur urging everyone to get some sleep. Hercules had lost his battle, and was beginning to think he should leave the rest behind and set out after his friends alone.

"Want some company?" came a soft feminine voice across the fire.

Hercules squinted through the smoke till he recognized Lilith's pale face. "Sure. Why not," he replied, making room on the log he was sitting on.

Lilith walked around the fire carrying a blanket, and took a seat next to Hercules. She wrapped the blanket over his shoulders and gave him a nudge. "I thought you might be cold," she said with a smile.

"Thanks," mumbled Hercules, pulling the blanket tighter around his body.

Lilith stretched her legs out in front of her, letting her feet feel the heat from the fire. "You know, I'd wager my weight in dinars that I know what you're thinking right now," she said, cocking her head to face him.

"Yeah, what's that?"

"You're thinking about setting out on your own, aren't you?"

Hercules didn't respond.

"But don't worry," continued Lilith, without prompt. "Cause I'm not gonna let you."

Hercules looked at her. "What makes you think you could?" he asked. "If that was what I was contemplating, there's no way you could stop me."

Lilith laughed, giving Hercules a playful punch in the arm. "It is possible to stop the mighty Hercules, you know," she replied. "I know a few things..."

"And what would they be, Lilith?" he asked, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees.

"I know you," replied Lilith, receiving a confused look from her friend. "And I know that you'd do anything you could to find Jason and Iolaus. So when I tell you the best thing you can do for them is get some sleep, I know you'll listen to me."

Hercules shook his head, furrowing his brow. "How can sleeping help them?" he questioned. "We're just wasting time..."

Lilith cut him off before his voice grew loud enough to wake the others. "What happens to you when you don't get enough sleep?" she asked, not waiting for a response. "You become sluggish. Your alertness diminishes. You aren't very attentive. It's just the way the human body works. And if I remember correctly, you are half- mortal."

"What's you point, Lilith?"

"My point," she stated, drawing her legs in. "Is that if you don't get some sleep, give yourself time to rest, you might miss something when we are searching. You might just miss that track in the ground. You might not hear that whisper in the crowd, or that smell floating on a breeze. And these are the things we need to take notice of if we're ever going to find Jason and Iolaus."

Hercules pushed his breath out and closed his eyes. Lacing his fingers behind his neck, he bowed his head. "You're right as always, Lilith," he replied. "But just promise me one thing?"

"What's that?"

"Don't ever go anywhere without me?"

Lilith drew her head back, a puzzled look on her face. "Now that's a silly thing for me to promise," she replied.

"I know," sighed Hercules, slumping his shoulders. "But I'm feeling rather cynical, humour me."

Lilith placed a hand on his shoulder and gave it a squeeze. "You can't protect the world, Hercules."

"Maybe not," he replied, turning to face her. "But at least I can try and protect the ones I care about."

Lilith smiled and stood up. "Good-night, Hercules," she said, looking down at him. "Go get some sleep."

*** *** ***

"There's thunder all around me, and there's poison in the air.

There's a lousy smell that smacks of hell, and dust all in me hair.

And it's go boys go, they'll time your every breath.

And everyday you're in this place, you're two days nearer death.

But you go..."

-Great Big Sea

Chemical Workers Song

PART TWO

"Give it up, Iolaus. You're never gonna catch one as big as mine."

"What, as big as that minnow? Watch and learn, pal. I'll catch one big enough to feed the whole Academy."

"In your dreams," mused Jason, throwing his head back. "Give it up. Not only am I better looking than you, I'm a better fisherman."

Iolaus furrowed his brow, turned his head to the side. "Did you hear that?" he asked, ignoring Jason's ribbing.

Not turning, Jason replied, "Hear what? The sound of Greece laughing at you?"

Iolaus put his rod down. "I thought I just heard some people arguing," he said over his shoulder, as he started towards the path that ran along side the river.

"So?" replied Jason, still concentrating on his fishing.

Iolaus peeked his head around a shrub next to the path. "So... I thought this place was supposed to be a secret? You said no one ever fishes here, and that sure sounds like 'someone's' to me. We don't need any competition here."

Jason dropped his rod. "Good point." He scurried to his friend's side behind the bush. "See anyone?"

Iolaus drew his head back. "Yeah," he replied, tucking his hair behind his ears. "There's a couple of guys with a broken cart down the path."

"Do they look like fisherman?" whispered Jason.

"How should I know?" Iolaus whispered back.

"We can't take any chances," stated Jason, putting on his most authoritative voice. "We must divert them." Jason sprang from the behind the foliage, straightened his vest and marched down the path towards the two men.

Iolaus cocked an eyebrow, twisted his mouth and jumped out onto the path after him. He followed Jason until they reached the broken cart. Apparently it had lost a wheel, and the two horses towing the cart would not budge.

Mistake number one: leave well enough alone.

"Hello," greeted Jason, giving one of the horses a pat as he made his way to the rear of the cart. "Looks like you two could use a hand."

"That would be most appreciated," replied one of the men, his tone overly anxious.

Mistake number two: never judge a book by it's cover.

"A broken wheel," noted Iolaus, coming up on the other side of the cart. "We can fix that."

Mistake number three: we separated.

The other man, dressed in a heavy burlap cloak, stood beside Iolaus. "We were just on our way to Kaprinia with our wares for the market," he began, reaching into the back of the cart to adjust a blanket. "And all of a sudden our wheel just broke free. Go figure."

Iolaus payed no attention to the contents in the cart and started looking around for the missing bolts. "Did it happen here?" he asked, checking under the cart. "Maybe we can just find the bolts and re-attach them. Then you can be on your way."

The man joined Iolaus in the search for the missing bolts, while Jason started to re-attach the renegade wheel. "So, you just passing through this area?" he asked, giving the wheel a kick into place.

"Just passing through," re-iterated the other man not involved in the search.

Jason nodded and peered into the back of the cart. He was looking for fishing equipment- just to make sure- but he couldn't see anything under the large blanket. He noted the two men had an obviously large load under the cover, but as he curiously started to pull it back...

Mistake number four: expect the unexpected.

A crushing pain exploded at the base of his neck.

Jason's eyes flew open, his internal clock waking him before the morning guards arrived. It had been the same dream he'd had since their capture. It always started in the same place, and it always ended with the crushing blow. He was getting tired of seeing his mistakes play over and over again in his mind. But he was thankful it wasn't last night's incident that he had dreamt about.

Drawing in a deep breath and letting it out slowly, he turned over. He squeezed his eyes shut, thanking the Gods that Iolaus was still there. He gave him a nudge, but he didn't respond. Jason sat up and rolled Iolaus onto his back, careful to support his head. He felt limp, damp and extremely light in his arms. A few weeks ago Iolaus had been a sturdy guy, a competitor to reckon with. But now he was thin and weak. Jason looked himself over, noting that he looked no better. But at least he wasn't sick.

Some of the other prisoners were also getting up, but they were making it obvious they didn't want anything to do with them. No one would make eye contact with Jason, let alone help. And Iolaus needed help. Jason couldn't wake him and was starting to get worried.

"Come on, Iolaus," he pleaded, feeling his forehead with the palm of his hand. "How can you have a fever...?" he noted aloud. "It's freezing in here." He looked over his shoulder. "Someone get that fire started!" he ordered, to no one in particular.

"Shut up!" replied a voice in the crowd. "You don't give orders around here!"

Jason squinted in the dim light of the cavern trying to put a face with the voice. A young wiry man stepped forward, barefoot, his face dirty and scowling. The man bent beside Jason and started uniting Iolaus' boots. "And since he won't be needing these anymore," he said, as others started to gather around him.

Jason shoved him away, using the thief to knock the others back. "Touch him, and you'll have to deal with me!" he threatened, re-lacing his friend's boots. Then he stood to confront them head on. But they had already retreated. Turning their backs once again on the ones in need.

"Damn it, Iolaus," he sighed, turning back to his friend. "Just wake up."

"I am awake," replied Iolaus weakly, his eyes still closed. Then he held an arm out. "Just help me up."

Jason grabbed the hand and hoisted Iolaus to his feet. He pulled him close, their foreheads almost touching, and he could feel the heat emanating from his friend's body. "You gotta do this, pal," he said quietly. "Don't leave me now. I can't handle all these thugs on my own."

Iolaus laughed softly, pulling his head back. "Yeah," he frowned, looking over Jason's shoulder at the motley crew. "They look like a real mob to reckon with."

"We shouldn't joke," replied Jason, following Iolaus' gaze. "I mean, I can't blame them for being angry with us."

"Jas," consoled Iolaus, placing a hand on his shoulder. "It's over. We gotta let it go. There was no way you could've known what was going to happen last night."

Jason hung his head. "Maybe. But..."

"But nothing," interrupted Iolaus. "It's not your fault. Blame it all on Blasius. Without him, none of this would be happening."

"On one condition, " responded Jason with a smile. "I'll try and stop blaming myself, and you make it through this day without being sick?"

Iolaus winked. "That would be up to my stomach," he answered wryly, gripping Jason's forearm. "But we got a deal."

Jason nodded and shook his friend's arm, closing the deal.

*** *** ***

At the edge of a village Cheiron and the Academy search party re-grouped, readying to enter together. As they headed down the trail into town, a cloaked figure flew past them on a horse, kicking up a dust cloud behind him. Lilith covered her mouth, coughing as the dust entered her lungs.

"Like they couldn't see us walking here!" she choked, waving her hand to disperse the lingering dust.

"Maybe he has an agenda?" questioned Hercules, patting her on the shoulder. "Like news?"

"We don't know if anyone from this village is missing," pointed out Cheiron. Then he trotted ahead, taking the lead as the group entered the village.

The residents ceased their daily activities. Woman dropped their hampers, elderly men stowed their tools and children stopped playing their games. All eyes reverted to the large entourage, bearing weapons and stern faces, invading their town. It had been just over a month since their young men had been taken, and for all they knew these determined warriors had been the culprits. The village's men had disappeared one night, never to be seen again. There had been no clues left behind, except the empty beds and derelict stores that did not open the next morning.

Finally one of the women stepped forward, singling out the Centaur as the leader. She approached tentatively, her hands shaking. "Hello," she said, extending a hand. "Welcome to Kaprinia."

Cheiron noted the woman's apprehension and smiled warmly as he shook her hand. "Hello," he began. "It's a very nice town you have here. And rest assured, we mean you know harm." He paused, looking around at the faces starring and watching him closely. "I believe we may actually be of some service."

*** *** ***

The morning had passed without incident for the slaves, but a certain tension hung in the air not there previously. Jason couldn't put his finger on it, but somehow the guards seemed a little on edge, a little more alert and attentive to their duties. Not that they were ever dismissive about their jobs, but today they appeared to take them a bit more seriously. Standing a little closer as they worked. Brandishing their weapons a tad more ferociously. Shouting more threats than normal.

Jason sensed something was going down. Or soon would be.

He tried to stay as close to Iolaus as he could. He hadn't been sick yet, but there was another matter that concerned Jason as well. His friend could be just as pig headed as him, and Jason didn't want there to be anymore trouble. Especially after last night's demonstration.

Jason patted his leather vest, discharging puffs of white smoke into the air. The dust particles settled on his clothes and stuck to his sweaty skin. He was filthy, and covered head to toe in dry powder from the concrete slabs. And he was pretty sure he smelled bad too. Coughing, he bent down to catch his breath.

Rope.

The rope he had been using to tow the larger slabs was lying at his feet. Without moving his head, he darted his eyes about the compound Confident no one was watching, Jason seized the rope and tucked it into his vest. He made sure it was completely hidden, adjusted his vest accordingly, and stood up. Spotting Iolaus working up on the castle wall, Jason headed over.

Iolaus had learned that it was easier if he just didn't think about it. Ignore his queasy stomach, the heavy work and the sweltering heat. Just concentrate on spreading the mortar.

Scoop. Plop. Spread. Scoop. Plop. Spread.

He repeated the actions over and over again like a drill at the Academy. He was so into his routine he didn't notice Jason approaching. And when his friend called his name, Iolaus jumped, dropping his spade over the edge of the wall inside the castle.

"Sorry!" he called down, noticing the tool had just missed a guard's head by mere inches. Then he turned to Jason. "Thank-you," he said, his tone of voice artificially cheery. "Now why don't you kill me now before that guy comes up here and does it anyway."

Jason made a face and peered over the wall's edge. "Sorry," he replied sheepishly. "So, how you doing?" he asked, turning back.

Iolaus rested his elbows on the wall, careful not to lean too far over so the guards below could see. "I am so ready to get out of here," he replied, hanging his head. "We can't stay here. This is pathetic. It's unreal. We've been here for... for... I can't even remember how long we've been here. And I can't believe we haven't done anything. There's gotta be a way outta here."

Jason joined his friend on the wall. "We've gone over this," he said. "And you saw what happens when one person acts up. Can you imagine what would happen if two of us escaped? It would be a massacre. And I couldn't live with myself."

Iolaus slammed his fist on the wall, pushed himself back and started pacing. "What if we worked together? You know, rally the troops and all? You're used to leading a charge. Pretend we're your army and lead us to victory."

Jason stepped over to the other side of the wall overlooking the compound. "Oh yeah," he mused, watching the prisoners skulking about at their work. "An army any General would be proud to take into battle." He turned back to Iolaus, crossing his arms over his chest. "Most of them couldn't fight even if they were given the chance. I'd bet more than half of them have already given up any hope of getting out of here."

Stopping mid pace, Iolaus clenched his fists. "This is so frustrating!" he cried. "What if we snuck out at daybreak and made it back before evening count? The guards wouldn't even know we were gone."

"And do what?" asked Jason, spreading his arms.

"I don't know! Find someone. Tell someone what's going on here and to get help!"

"I think it's better if we wait," replied Jason.

"Wait for what?!"

"Hercules. Cheiron. The Corinthian army," stated Jason. "I know they're out there looking for us." He paused, trying to lock eyes with Iolaus. "And you know it too."

Iolaus swallowed and closed his eyes- which was a big mistake. A wave of dizziness swept over him and he wavered. Grabbing for the wall, he missed, and slumped to the ground. Dazed, Iolaus shook his head, trying to regain his senses. But his head felt heavy, it lolled to the side and he couldn't keep his eyes open. And the contents of his stomach began to reel. He clutched his stomach, tucking into the fetal position.

That was when Jason grabbed him by the shoulders and hoisted him to his feet roughly. Iolaus tried to stand on his wobbly legs, but it was a tiring job and he started to collapse again.

Jason grabbed him harder, shaking him. "Hey," he whispered in his ear. "The guards are coming. Don't let this happen now. Get a grip." He let go and watched to see if Iolaus could stand on his own again.

Iolaus snapped his eyes open using all his strength. His vision was blurry, but he could see three approaching figures coming across the wall. He knew he had to play this off. He couldn't let them see him falter or he wouldn't live to see the next sunrise. Reaching as far down as he could, Iolaus drew from all the remaining strength and willpower he had. By the time the guards were in front of him he had regained his composure. Or at least, a reasonable facsimile.

"Down into the compound!" ordered one of the guards as they walked past. "And get a move on!"

Jason watched over his shoulder as the guards headed down the wall, repeating the order to the rest of the slaves. He turned to Iolaus just as he slumped back against the wall for support. Jason grabbed him by the belt and pulled him upright. "Just make it to the compound," he said, pulling him along. "We can get lost in the crowd and then you can collapse all you want. Just stay with me till then."

*** *** ***

As if it weren't hot enough, being squished in the middle of a couple hundred sweaty slaves was down right unbearable. Iolaus, using the crowd as camouflage, squatted beside Jason. Here, there was a little shade. It wasn't much, but it was something.

"What's going on?" he asked, looking up at Jason.

Jason raised on his toes, his head poking above the throng of other heads in the crowd. "It's hard to tell," he replied, straining his neck. "There's a bunch of guards milling about up there by the castle, and... And..." his voice trailed off, unable to escape his lips. His heart began slamming in his chest.

"What?" pushed Iolaus, his eyes wide, his queasy stomach momentarily forgotten.

Jason lowered himself, running a hand through his greasy hair. When the guards had parted, he had recognized the equipment set up against the castle wall. He figured most of the other prisoners did as well, but Jason knew more. He knew that inconspicuous piece of junk had more than one purpose. "It looks like lesson time again," he said, turning to Iolaus. "It's a wheel."

At the words, Iolaus sprang up a little too quickly and staggered. He steadied himself using Jason's shoulder, and hoisted his head above the crowd. "What the...!" Blinding pain seared through his head, forcing him back. He grabbed his head, doubling over and grimacing at the pain. "Jason!" he cried, squeezing his eyes tight. "Oh Gods, make it stop..."

The crowd scuttled back, frightened to be seen with the sick slave and leaving Jason and Iolaus vulnerable to the guards. Jason stepped over his friend and wrapped his arms under Iolaus' shoulders. He hoisted him up, dragging him back into the crowd. He had to keep his friend hidden. He had to make sure the guards didn't see how sick he was. He had to ignore his friend's plea- which was difficult since Iolaus was still wincing in pain and clutching his head.

Finding a new spot amongst the crowd, Jason deposited Iolaus on the ground, lying him on his back at everyone's feet. Iolaus rolled over, curling into the fetal position.

"Just get away from me," moaned Iolaus, covering his head with his arm. "You can't do anything... I'm just your burden."

Jason dropped to his knees, grabbed Iolaus by his vest. "Don't you ever say that," he stated, clenching his jaw. "I am not leaving you."

Iolaus shook his head. "I can't... Go... Please..."

Jason found his friend's hand and wrapped it in his. "I can't tell you I'm not scared," he said, leaning over Iolaus. "But we gotta do this. Together. Where's that stubborn Iolaus we all know and love?" he asked, trying unsuccessfully to lighten his tone. "Huh? I know he's in there."

Iolaus laughed, but the effort hurt his head, so it came out sounding more like a moan. "On vacation," he replied weakly.

It was hard, but eventually Iolaus was able to push his self-pity aside. There was a part of him that just wasn't quite ready to give up yet. He knew if he looked hard enough, he could find a little fight left in him. And when he found it, the pounding in his head didn't quite feel so bad. He forced himself to get up, but what energy he did find, wasn't quite enough to get him to his feet. He contented himself, and Jason, to remaining on his knees.

Jason patted his friend on the head playfully. "There, that's a good little cadet," he mused with a smile.

"Aw, bite me," replied Iolaus, not looking up.

Jason ignored that and turned his attention to the commotion at the base of the castle. Amongst the guards now stood a figure draped in emerald green robes, trimmed with gold lace and polished armor fit for a God. Jason squinted as the sun's rays bounced off the shiny metal, reflecting back over the crowd. Oh, that must be Blasius. He thought to himself, sardonically.

A hush fell over the compound as the man stepped up onto a concrete slab, holding his head high as he looked over his subjects. The man's arrogance made Jason want to throw up. But he watched and listened anyway, for this was the first time Blasius had ever shown his face.

The man stood on his make shift podium smiling out at the crowd for several moments before addressing them. "You are my slaves!" he bellowed, holding the last word for several beats. "You are nothing! And you come from nothing!"

"Don't tell me," sighed Iolaus from his knees. "Blasius?"

Jason nodded exasperated and turned back to the psychopath and his touching speech.

"But through me you will become legend!" continued Blasius, raising his arms in a 'V' over his head. "Through your hard work, sacrifice and dedication you will build my empire!"

"Dedication, my ass," mumbled Jason.

"And I give you this privilege... I allow you to be part of something greater than this world has ever seen before, and how do you repay me?!" shouted Blasius, his face contorting in anger and resentment. "With insolence and impertinence! You show me no respect and act against my guards! You will give me my due admiration! You will praise me as your sovereign!"

The guards surrounding the crowd rushed forth, knocking the prisoners to their knees with staff weapons. "Bow before your God!" they screamed, making their way through the mob. "Kneel!"

"Where does he get off calling himself a God?" spat Iolaus.

"Must be a friend of Ares," mused Jason, whipping around to keep a watchful eye on the approaching guards.

"You will show your respect!" boomed the guard's voices, rising high above the murmurs of the frightened crowd. "On your knees, boys!"

Seeing several guards a few paces to his left, Jason dropped to his knees. "I never thought I'd bow down to anyone," he cursed with venom.

Iolaus shrugged. "Well, seeing how I'm already down here..."

Jason shot him a dry look before bowing his head. A moment later a pair of dusty black boots appeared below his face. He wasn't sure if he was supposed to look up, but his curiosity got the better of him. Raising his head slowly, his eyes traced the boots up to the legs, and then higher to the guard's face.

"So it is you," said the guard, smiling down at him. "Oh, this will be so much fun," he laughed, sheathing his sword and reaching his muscular arms for Jason and Iolaus.

*** *** ***

"Your village is not alone," explained Cheiron to the gathering villagers. "Young men have gone missing all across the countryside. Sons, fathers, brothers, merchants... Even two of my own cadets."

"It was the Gods!" shouted an old woman. "We offended them somehow, and this is our punishment!"

"No. No no no," replied Hercules, pushing his way to Cheiron. He turned to the mob, pausing briefly as he saw the fear and sadness etched on all their faces. "No, this wasn't the Gods."

"How do you know?!" the woman spat back.

"I just know," he sighed, arching his eyebrows. "This isn't their style."

"And what is their style?!"

"I don't know," replied Hercules. "But it's not this."

Cheiron wrapped his arm over his cadet's shoulder. "He's right," he said to the villagers. "This is the work of a mortal, not a God. And the cadets at my Academy, the Corinthian Army and other villagers are all out looking for our missing men."

"And we will not stop until we find them," added Hercules.

Cheiron nodded, squeezing his shoulder. "And you should do the same," he suggested to the crowd. "Join the search, and return your men to their rightful places."

"It's not that easy," stated a young woman, breaking from the crowd. She looked back at the members of her village. "Most of us are too old, too weak to stray far from our homes... And some of us have small children to care for. We can't just go rushing off on the search." She paused as a young boy ran up to her, wrapping his tiny arms around her legs. She brushed the hair off his face as he stared up at her. Then she looked back to Cheiron and Hercules. "As much as we'd like too... Because I don't want my son growing up without a father."

Cheiron stepped forward, placing a hand on the young boy's head. Looking at the woman, he said, "We will do everything we can to find them, and bring them back."

The woman smiled. "Thank-you."

"What about, Delphius?"

Cheiron looked down to the young boy who had spoken. "Who is, Delphius?" he asked, turning back to the mother.

She shook her head. "No one. Delphius thinks of no one but Delphius, and wouldn't help anyone."

This caught Hercules' attention. He leaned over Cheiron's shoulder. "Then why did the boy mention him?" he asked eagerly. "Is it possible this, Delphius, knows something?"

The woman drew in a deep breath, shaking her head again. "I doubt it, but you can ask. But I warn you, Delphius is not the most pleasing individual to deal with." She pointed to her right at a small hut on the edge of town. In the doorway was the cloaked figure who had ridden into town on the horse. "That's Delphius over there... Good luck."

*** *** ***

Jason and Iolaus were dropped at Blasius' feet, erecting a dust cloud as their bodies hit the dirt. Blasius laughed, throwing his head back. But as he bent down over them, his eyebrows knotted together.

"Unacceptable!" he howled, bounding to his feet. He stuck his right foot out, displaying his sandal to the guards. "Are you waiting for an invitation, or am I suppose to do this myself?" he said haughtily, hiking up his robe as he turned his foot over to display the damage.

"Pardon my oversight," croaked one of the guards, flustered. Then he grabbed one of the slave servants and threw him too the ground. The slave pulled out a small brush and rag from his leather pouch and began cleaning the sandal. "It will not happen again," apologized the guard, bowing his head.

"See that it doesn't," replied Blasius, pulling his foot back, satisfied with it's state of cleanliness. Then he turned to Iolaus and Jason, now on their feet. He looked them over with mock sympathy, fingering their dirty clothes with a sigh.

Iolaus drew his head back when Blasius reached for his face. A guard, a hand laced through Iolaus' hair, yanked his head back. "This is the one from yesterday," informed the guard, bowing his head.

"The one with the all the energy?" asked Blasius, running a hand down Iolaus' face, caressing his cheek and holding his chin. The guard nodded, provoking a smile from his leader. Iolaus tried to move away. "Don't," warned Blasius, shaking his head. "It's so unbecoming." Then he stepped back, roughly releasing Iolaus' chin.

"Tie him up!" ordered Blasius with a flick of his wrist. The guard obeyed, dragging Iolaus to the wheel.

"No!" cried Jason, but he stopped himself immediately. Memories from the previous night slammed into his mind. Speaking up would only make if worse for his friend. As hard as it was for Jason, he kept his mouth closed. He started biting his lip till he drew blood. Anything to keep himself from repeating last night's incident.

Iolaus was thrown against the wheel by the guard. He was unable to fight back, but he decided he didn't have to help either. Using his sickness as an allie, he let his body go limp, making it difficult for the guard to strap him to the spokes. It was a small thing, but frustrating the guy gave him a little joy. And when the guard raised his arm to tie up, Iolaus let it fall to his side. He even let his knees buckle, playing the role of the passive resistor. It finally took three guards to get Iolaus into position. Two of them tied him up, as the other held him upright.

And when the show was over, and the guard was in position- whip in hand...

Jason closed his eyes.

The slaves watched in silence from their knees.

Another guard removed Iolaus' vest.

Blasius admired his manicured nails.

Iolaus heard the crack of the whip. His muscles tensed.

Nothing.

Crack.

Nothing again.

Iolaus gritted his teeth. The guard was toying with him. "Just do it!" he cried, pressing his forehead against the rim of the wheel. He heard someone laugh, either the guard with the whip or Blasius, he couldn't be sure. And he didn't much care. He just wanted it over with. And the sooner they started, the sooner he would get his wish.

"Oh, you would like that wouldn't you?" teased Blasius, stroking the long blond hair of the slave on the wheel. And when Iolaus opened his eyes, Blasius smiled mockingly. "You're a fighter aren't you?" he asked. "I can see it in your eyes. But you won't be for very long. Claudius will make sure of that," he finished, turning to the guard with the whip.

Crack.

Iolaus squeezed his eyes shut. But again, nothing. "You're enjoying this, aren't you?" he asked, opening his eyes, staring into Blasius' face.

"Oh- oh so very much," replied Blasius. "You see, the anticipation can be so much worse than the punishment itself, don't you think?" He paused, cleared his throat. "When I'm done with you, they're gonna crown you the 'Ghost of Greece'. Through you, I will teach everyone who the Almighty is around here."

Iolaus swallowed hard and turned away. "Whether it's the Gods or you, I have to die sometime," he said, his voice low, filled with hatred. "But at least I die with dignity. You're nothing but a goon, which is fear under another name."

Blasius stepped back slowly, smoothing down his robes. "You may proceed, Claudius," he said, the words rolling off his tongue like syrup- thick with disdain and repulsion.

Crack.

Jason's eyes flew open.

*** *** ***

"You don't have to be a soldier in your private war. Let the blood you might see rain down on me.

You don't have to fight no more.

There's nothing you can say.

There's nothing you can send.

There's nothing that can change the facts...

Not all the King's men.

-Tom Cochrane

All the King's Men

PART THREE

As they approached the small hut, the cloaked figured slipped into the darkness of the abode. Hercules and Lilith shared a quick glance before picking up their pace, reaching the front door as it was slammed in their faces. Lilith rapped purposefully on the door, as Hercules turned back to Cheiron, now heading up the path. The Centaur walked casually, as if time were not of the essence, and Hercules could feel his eagerness rising as he watched his mentor taking his sweet time.

"He slammed the door in our face," Hercules said, pointing to the door, and hoping his words would speed his teacher along.

But they didn't. Cheiron sauntered up on his own time, his face expressing the epitome of calmness. "Well, I would too if two strangers came bounding up to my front door," replied Cheiron, crossing his arms over his chest to demonstrating his exasperation.

Hercules bit his lip, nodded. "Good point," he coughed, slightly embarrassment. He turned to Lilith still knocking on the door. "Lilith," he said, putting a hand on her shoulder and pulling her back slightly. "Maybe we should approach this differently. I mean, this Delphius probably hasn't heard the news that we mean him no harm."

"Right," nodded Lilith, resignedly stopping her door harassment. Then, cupping her hands over her mouth, she drew in a deep breath. "Delphius!" she cried, causing Hercules to cover his ears. "We know you're in there! We just want to talk to you! We mean you no harm!" She dropped her make-shift megaphone and turned to Hercules. "Was that better?"

Hercules smiled caustically, nodding his head. "Oh yeah," he replied, leaning his face close to Lilith's. "If he doesn't come out now, I don't know what will encourage him."

Cheiron, noting that both his cadets lacked the simple eloquence of tactfulness, stepped between them and rapped lightly on the door frame. "Delphius," he said, in a calm, pleasant voice. "My name is Cheiron. I apologize for the behavior of my two cadets, but they are harmless. We are harmless. We only wish to speak to you... And perhaps help."

An awkward moment later, the door pulled back slowly. Only a crack at first, but then completely, as an invitation for the three strangers to enter.

"Well, that's another way of doing it," conceded Lilith under her breath, as she stepped over the mantle.

Cheiron allowed Hercules to enter next, nodding his head for the cadet to take the lead. He followed right behind, mindful of his hind legs as he stepped through the narrow doorway. Once inside, he let his eyes adjust to the dimness of the small hut. There were a few windows scattered around the one room home, but they allowed barely any light to filter in, having been covered with thick, dark material. When his eyes adjusted, he noticed a table in the center of the room, of which Hercules and Lilith were now standing beside. A fireplace was burning to his left, heating up what might have been Delphius's meal, for Cheiron could smell the enticing aroma wafting in the air. To his right was a small bed covered in mosaic patchwork quilts and several pillows, each delicately embroidered in intricate patterns. But there was one thing missing, noted Cheiron with a frown. The cloaked figure.

He turned around, once again mindful of his extreme size in the small hut, and noticed the hooded figure standing behind the open door. Smiling, Cheiron nodded to the home owner, hoping to put them at ease. It worked, or so it seemed, because the mysterious figure finally closed the door and walked briskly across the floor to the table where they pulled out a seat and sat down.

"What do you want?!" came a deep forced voice from under the dark hood. "I have other things to do rather than entertain the likes of you."

Hercules cleared his throat and tentatively pulled out the other chair at the table. He raised his eyebrows, pointing at the chair, silently asking if he could have a seat. The figure, keeping their head bowed forward, making it difficult to see their face, shrugged. Hercules sat himself down, lacing his fingers as he rested his elbows on the table. "Delphius, right?" he asked, carefully.

Again, the only response was a shrug.

Hercules turned to Cheiron, who reciprocated with a nod to continue. "Well, we're gonna run with this as if you are Delphius," continued Hercules, turning back to the host, who was now sitting with their arms crossed defiantly over their chest. "We aren't hear to hurt you," he said, trying unsuccessfully to peek under the hood. "We're looking for friends of ours. Maybe you've seen them? They went missing awhile ago when they were fishing. We think they may have been kidnapped by the same people who kidnapped the men of your village." As the words came out, Hercules found himself becoming suspicious of the figure sitting across the table from him. He looked at Lilith, then to the bed on the other side of the room. Something did not add up.

"I am Delphius," conceded the cloaked figure, the voice still forced and overly deep. "But I don't see how I can be of any service to you."

"Look, mister!" said Lilith pointedly, leaning over to brace her hands on the table. "We don't have that much time. There's no guessing what could be happening to our friends, or any of the other missing men, right now. We don't have time to beat around the bush. And as I see it, you should be happy to help us. Cause you seem to be the most fortunate man in this village." Lilith paused, stood up straight and crossed her arms over her chest.

"Yes," she continued, her voice laced with cynicism. "I know it was you that rode past us into town earlier. And from the way you were riding that horse, I'd say you are a pretty fit man, and you should be thankful you weren't taken with the rest of the men in this village. Now... A boy out there mentioned your name. Maybe he thought you could help us, I don't know. But I don't think he would have singled you out if he didn't. So, are you gonna tell us what you know or not?"

The only response Lilith and her speech received was a muffled grunt and more shoulder shrugging. The cadet threw her arms in the air and turned away in a huff.

Cheiron, having watched the inquisition with trepidation, stepped up to the table, holding his chin in hand. "They didn't need you, did they?" he asked, carefully and with a softness he usually reserved for delicate matters.

Delphius shifted, but didn't respond.

"Was your brother or father taken?" Cheiron continued. "Or perhaps, your husband?"

Lilith and Hercules shared a confused look before starring back at their teacher. Then Hercules looked back at the bed with the scattered pillows. He hung his head, ashamed that he hadn't noticed it quicker. Delphius was female.

The four people in the small hut remained still for several moments, each letting the last question hang in the air like a sacrilegious assertion had just been made. It wasn't until Delphius pushed her chair back and stood, when noise finally broke the silence.

"What is it to you?!" Delphius spat, her voice now revealing the true nature of her gender. It was soft, slightly husky, but definitely feminine. She crossed the room, stopping at the fireplace to fiddle with the pot brewing over the fire. She started stirring it with vigor, as if the end of the world would come if she didn't mix the ingredients just so. After a moment she turned back, letting her composure relax as she let out a deep breath. "I can't help you," she said quietly. "Now would you please go and leave me alone."

Hercules rose from the table and walked over to Delphius. But when he placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder, she flinched, stepping away immediately. Hercules drew his hand back, making a mental note not to do that again. "Delphius," he said. "If you can't help us, that's fine. Well, it's not fine, but... well, you know. But if you can help, if you can tell us something that might at least set us in the right direction, we would appreciate it greatly." He looked at her with the most pleading eyes he could.

But they fell on blind eyes. Delphius still held her head down, hiding her face. And this was when Cheiron felt a woman's touch was needed. He looked to Lilith for support, hoping she would now restrain her temper and frustration.

Lilith got the hint and crossed the room to stand next to Delphius. "There's something horrible going on here," she said softly, mentally kicking herself for being so rude earlier. For all she knew, Delphius had lost a loved one through all this, and still angry at the world for tearing her life apart. Lilith choose her next words carefully. "I know what it's like to lose those close to you," she continued. "I lost my own brother and father, and I can relate to your pain. But refusing to help us cause you're angry is not the way to do this. Maybe we can help you find..."

Lilith was cut off as Delphius stamped her foot and rushed past her, making a bee-line across the room. "I didn't lose anyone!" she stated, her back to the three visitors. "Not this way anyhow. I can't help you, now would you please leave," she finished , her voice softening.

Cheiron drew in a deep breath, letting it out slowly. "Sorry to have bothered you," he replied. "We will leave." He slowly turned himself around, waving to his two cadets to follow. But he wasn't quite finished with Delphius yet. She had been adamant about not showing her face, and that left Cheiron with an uncertain feeling. There were several reasons why she would do this, but first and foremost in Cheiron's mind, was that she didn't want them to recognize her.

"Come on Hercules, Lilith," he said purposely, so that Delphius was sure not to ignore him. "We will have to find someone else to help us find Jason and Iolaus," he concluded, sure to state everyone's name loud and clear. He didn't expect anything sudden, but he suspected that he would get some sort of reaction from Delphius when she recognized the names. But surely she did not need to hear Hercules and Lilith's names in order to recognize them, they were standing right before her. It was the other two names that he hoped would elicit a response.

Nothing happened with Delphius, except a slight shift in her weight, but Hercules and Lilith took the statement as an invitation to follow their teacher outside. But not before saying good-bye to their host, who refused to acknowledge them with so much as a nod. She was too deep in reflection to notice.

Outside, the two cadets felt it was their duty to air their opinions about what had just transpired. "I know that girl knows something," stated Lilith, planting her foot firmly on the ground, indicating that she wasn't about to move any further.

Hercules stood beside her, also showing his reservations about leaving. "That boy mentioned her name for a reason," he said, looking at Cheiron. "I think if we push her a little further she might tell us something we need to know."

Cheiron crossed his arms, watching expectantly over his cadet's heads at the front door of the house. Just as he had predicted, his last words provoked a reaction. In the doorway, hooded, and now hefting a large pack over her shoulder and a bow in her right hand, was the woman. A small smile spread across the Centaur's face as he nodded at their old friend, her face now recognizable, barely, in the daylight.

Hercules and Lilith watched their mentor's facial expression carefully, and finally realizing someone was behind them, spun around.

Lilith's jaw dropped, her eyes widened in surprise.

Hercules squinted, as if the action would somehow make the sight before him more real. "Mila?" he asked, even though there was no question in his mind.

*** *** ***

With much effort, Jason hoisted the large, precisely chiseled concrete slab into place. His work partner, immensely weaker than him, grimaced outwardly, rubbing his shoulder as he rotated it behind his back. Iolaus wouldn't have had problems with that. He thought bitterly, looking at the man disdainfully. The fact that Iolaus wasn't there, made Jason hate the new guy even more. It was like he had been physically replaced. But to Jason, Iolaus was Iolaus, and could never be replaced.

It was nearly sundown, which meant they would soon be herded back underground, and, Jason hoped, he would see Iolaus again. After the beating, Blasius had left Iolaus strapped to the wheel, unconscious, bleeding and exposed to the sun's burning rays. As far as Jason knew, he was still there. When it had all been over, when Blasius and the guard Claudius had had their fill, Jason and the rest of the slaves had been sent back to work with the lesson fresh in their minds. There was nothing he could have done.

But Jason couldn't shake the images, no matter how hard he tried to drive them away by pre-occupying his mind. He worked with vigor, with energy, with a purpose. Anything to keep him from charging Blasius and his men and ripping their limbs off. But in the end, he knew that would get him no where, aside from a one way ticket on the river Styxx. And he wasn't in that much of a rush to rub Charon's bunions again. He also knew he couldn't take everyone out, which would be mandatory if he did attack. Cause sure enough, the guards would exact their revenge on the remaining innocent prisoners. And even in the after life, Jason knew he couldn't live with himself if he caused the death of another prisoner here at 'Chateau HellHole'.

So he resigned himself to work and wait until he could return to the cave. He had to believe Iolaus would be there, most likely in severe pain, but at least there. And when the guards called for the roundup of slaves, Jason was the first in line. But it seemed to take forever to gather everyone this evening, as if the other prisoners were purposely taking their time filing into their designated groups. Eventually his cave mates were all present and accountant for, and their assigned guards shuffled them towards the underground entranceway.

As much as Jason had been anticipating this moment, when it finally came, he couldn't move. The sudden realization that Iolaus may not be there, finally dawned on him. Ever since his last glimpse of Iolaus strapped to the wheel, Jason had hoped so much that he would see him again. So much in fact, that he began to believe that indeed he would. The possibility of otherwise seemed unreal, till now.

When a guard shoved him from behind, Jason finally took a step forward, falling into place with the other slaves. He was in a daze, shaking, and his mouth extremely dry. Oh please, please, for the love of Zeus, please let Iolaus be there. He prayed silently as he followed the guards on weak legs. And when they passed through the compound, traversing by the castle where the wheel was still positioned up against the wall, Jason's anxiety intensified.

The wheel was empty.

Jason didn't know if that was a good sign, but hoped it was. He thought about asking one of the guards if they knew anything, but decided against it, not sure if he was truly ready to know.

When they reached the opening to the underground cave network, Jason hesitated before stepping into the gaping maw. A cold shiver ran down his spine, and not just because the temperature had suddenly dropped. He could feel the hair on the back of his neck stand on end, and his pace slowed once more. The closer he got to his cavern, the more worried he became, his anxiety growing with each precarious step.

Oh please, Zeus, let him be there.

Slowed almost to a crawl, the other prisoners in his cave bumped and jostled him as they passed him by, eager to get to their beds. Jason didn't care. He was too deep in silent prayer to take any notice of them. Just let him be there. I'm not asking for much. You don't have to cure him, you don't have to heal him, just let him be there. Iolaus doesn't deserve to die like this. No one does. Well, maybe Blasius, but that's another story. Right now, I'm beggin you, I'm pleading with you Zeus, just let Iolaus be there.

Having said his piece, Jason closed his eyes. Running a hand along the dirt wall for direction and support, he continued towards the opening to his cavern. Suddenly, the wall disappeared under his touch. He had finally reached his destination.

He froze.

Jason didn't think he could do it, but it was now or never. And since the guards were yelling at him to get a move on, he really had no choice. Tentatively, Jason stepped up to the cave's opening, stopping short of actually entering. He could see inside, but not completely, the dirt walls comprising the entranceway hid at least sixty percent of the internal view. Trying to gather enough strength to make the last step of his journey, Jason drew in a deep breath, holding it as his right hand reached up and grabbed his vest over his heart.

The other prisoners had already entered, leaving him alone at the mantle with his hesitations. Jason tried to read their reactions, to see if they would show him any indication that his friend was in the cave. But they didn't care. For all Jason knew, the prisoners in his cave wanted Iolaus dead- and him too for that matter. They hadn't forgiven them for the other night's incident, and most likely never would. Most of them didn't even look back at Jason as they settled in for the night.

All except one. One man took the time to pause, turn around and lock eyes with Jason. And Jason starred back, begging with his eyes for any indication that Iolaus was in the cave. The man finally smiled, or sneered, Jason couldn't tell. And before he had a chance to studied it further for what it was, the man had turned away.

Jason gritted his teeth, made one more desperate plea to Zeus, and took the last step. Realizing he still didn't have the view he so needed, he took another step forward, his heart slamming against his chest. And when he saw no sign of Iolaus in front of him, he turned around quickly. For now that he was actually there, not even his own fear could hold him back from finding his friend any longer.

He spun himself around, his eyes searching every crevasse and corner of the cave. Finally stopping, Jason balled his hands into fists in front of his chest, closed his eyes and drew in a very deep breath. As he let it slowly escape his lips, he re-opened his eyes and turned them heavenward.

"Thank-you," he whispered, his whole heart behind the simple, yet most profound words.

*** *** ***

Another long strenuous day had passed, but this time, the search party had gotten somewhere. As Cheiron and the rest of the group gathered around the fire to discuss tomorrow's activities, there was a certain feeling of accomplishment amongst them. They had been searching for weeks, but it wasn't until now, this day, that they had learned something directly related to finding their men. It had been hard for Cheiron to convince his party that now, more than ever, they had to proceed carefully. Hercules, his biggest opponent, had argued about continuing ahead, but Cheiron had stood his ground. He admired his pupil's eagerness and drive, but he also knew it was clouding his judgment.

The easy part had been looking for clues as to what happened to the missing men. Over the next few days the search party would really be put to the test. Everything Cheiron had taught, or tried to teach them, would come into focus now. If they were going to successfully rescue Jason, Iolaus and the presumed rest, they would have to push ahead with extreme caution. Cheiron knew this, and he knew the rest of the search party did as well, but in their youth, they tended to want immediate action. It had taken every ounce of Cheiron's patience, which was considerable, to keep them from tying him up and taking off on their own. But eventually, he had been able to convince them the wiser way.

Delphius had been very crucial in this matter. Her constant reminding that she merely knew which direction to go, not a precise map of where they were, finally sunk into the heads of the anxious cadets. And now, they were sitting around the fire discussing how to proceed, and how they were all too excited to sleep.

Cheiron watched his group with pride. And as his thoughts and memories about his young cadets became more rampant, a smile spread across his face. But as his eyes wandered over the crowd, he noticed two people missing and his smile quickly turned into a frown. He looked around for the cadet and newcomer, and found them leaning against a tree just outside the perimeter of camp. Cheiron's smile returned. It looked like Delphius was ready to talk, after hours of refusing Hercules' insistent urging.

***

"Mila no longer exists, Hercules," sighed Delphius, drawing her knees up to her chest. "Mila was an Amazon. A warrior and pig-headed, foolish girl who couldn't see outside her own paradigm. Delphius is who I am now."

"It's a nice name," smiled Hercules, placating the girl into anger.

"Oh come on, Hercules," rebuked Delphius, leaning her head against the tree trunk. "You don't care about my name. You want to know the why's and how's of it all. So please, don't patronize me."

Hercules picked up a pebble lying at his feet, rubbed it between his fingers then threw it away. "You know me to well, Mil... I mean, Delphius," he conceded, selecting another pebble from the ground. But this time, he held it in front of his face, letting the moonlight reflect off it's smooth surface. He stared at the stone as if it were the most magical thing in the world. But only because he really didn't know what else to do. Delphius was not making this the most comfortable situation, but Hercules just had to know. After the initial shock of seeing her had worn off, the questions and assumptions had began to take over his mind. And right now, he was refusing to leave this spot until he found out everything. Otherwise, his mind would be pre-occupied and useless tomorrow- on the day when he needed it to be at it's most sharpest.

"Look," continued Delphius. "I told you I wasn't an Amazon anymore. That part of my life is over. I've moved on and made some decisions in my life. Isn't that enough?"

"No," replied Hercules. "It's not even skimming the surface."

Delphius closed her eyes. "All right," she humphed. "I was kicked out of the Amazons. Are ya happy now?"

"Happy? No. Curious? Yes," replied Hercules, nudging her arm with his shoulder.

"It's a long story," continued Delphius, adjusting her position against the tree, her eyes still closed. She reached up and tugged her hood further over her head to block the annoying moonlight from her eyes. "I found this village, Kaprinia. Then I found my father... My real father. Amazons didn't like this arrangement and kicked me out. So, I went back to the village where everyone hates me." Delphius paused and spread her arms, palms skyward. "And then you guys arrived, and here I am. The end."

Hercules cleared his throat, nudged her again.

"What?!" exclaimed Delphius, finally opening her eyes.

"Somehow, I don't think that's the whole story," answered Hercules, playing like a father trying to get the truth from his child. "And if it is, I think you need to work on your narrative skills. It's kinda lacking in certain areas."

Delphius let her head drop, her shoulders slump. "You're not gonna give up, are ya?"

Hercules laughed and rubbed his hands together. "No."

"Fine," replied Delphius, keeping her tone short and determined. "My father lived in Kaprinia, and the villagers had him killed by an Amazon tribe. I wanted to avenge his death with the help of my fellow Amazons, but they merely laughed in my face and told me to suck it up. My father meant nothing according to them. I felt differently and went searching for his murderers."

"And you're still looking for them?" asked Hercules, knowing that if he didn't ask, the information wouldn't be volunteered.

"I found them," replied Delphius matter-of-factly. "It was my tribe. And when I returned to them for some sort of vengeance..." she let the words hang, hoping that Hercules would figure out the rest on his own.

"They refused?" he prodded.

Delphius shook her head in exasperation. Apparently, Hercules didn't get the big picture. "They kicked me out," she replied, enunciating each word carefully. "There was a fight," she continued, as if speaking to a child. "I lost. They sparred my life, but told me never to show my face around them again. So, I returned to Kaprinia."

Hercules fidgeted in his spot, mentally reviewing everything Delphius had told him. Finally, after making note of the remaining holes in the story, he turned to look at her. "You returned to the village where you said everybody hates you?"

Delphius ran a hand down her face. "You're killing me here," she huffed.

Hercules smiled. "It's a gift."

"I had no where else to go," pointed out Delphius, continuing reluctantly.

"You could have come back to the Academy," offered Hercules, sympathetically.

Delphius shook her head. "I was too ashamed," she replied solemnly. "I'm a disgrace to warriors. I couldn't even avenge one man's death. I wanted to wallow in my own self-pity. And what better way than to be with those that hate you." She paused, waiting for her old friend to ask the next question, but he didn't. And now that she had started telling her story, it felt good to finally let it out. She actually continued without further prompt.

"You see, my father wasn't the most precious man in the world. But he was my father, and I felt a certain loyalty to him. He did things. Nasty things. He was a thief and con-artist, and been terrorizing this village for months before they they finally did away with him. The people of Kaprinia knew I was his daughter, but refused to believe that the apple can fall far from the tree. But I stayed anyway, just to spite them. I was feeling hateful, vengeful and petty. And the only thing that made me happy, was making other people angry. Which was why I never said anything when I saw their men taken that night." Delphius drew in a deep breath and leaned forward to wrap her arms around her legs. "I felt they were getting what they deserved."

"And now?" asked Hercules, carefully.

"And now... I don't. I haven't for awhile, but as each day passed, it became harder and harder to confess what I'd seen and what I knew. And of course, the longer I put it off, the worse the consequences would have been for me when I did tell them. I finally reserved to set out and find them on my own. You know, bring them back and show these villagers that I'm not a bad person." She let her voice trail off as she leaned back against the tree. "And maybe convince them to accept me. Truth be told, I kinda like it there. And I'd like to be part of a family again. Maybe even live a normal life."

Hercules leaned back against the tree so they were shoulder to shoulder. "You could come back to the Academy," he stated again.

But Delphius shook her head. "No. I'm no longer Mila. I'm not a warrior anymore. I'm Delphius, a simple villager who wants to live the rest of her life in peace."

"Warrior or no warrior," stated Hercules, leaning his face close to hers. "You are far from simple."

Delphius smiled and pushed him away playfully. "Now," she said, changing the direction of the conversation. "We know which direction to go in tomorrow, but we still have to figure out what we're gonna do when and if we actually find them."

"There's no if," replied Hercules, his voice taking on a very serious tone. "We will find them."

Delphius noticed the sudden change in Hercules. How his muscles stiffened, and how determined and promiseful his statement was. She also remembered how close he was to Iolaus. She hadn't met Jason, but she had heard him and Iolaus talk about him. He too, was a good friend. "I'm sure we will find them," she said, patting his arm. "With me helping now, there's no stopping us."

Hercules let the attempt at humour roll over him, and drew in a deep breath. He stared at the hooded face before him, letting his tongue sweep back and forth across his bottom lip as he contemplated his next question. "What made you suddenly change your mind about helping us?" he inquired curiously. "I mean, you must have known who we were before Cheiron said anything. Why didn't you just say something?"

This was the question Delphius had been trying to avoid. And it was obvious to Hercules when she quickly pushed off from the tree and stood. With her hands braced on her hips, she stared at him a few moments before turning and walking away.

Hercules was left empty handed, and feeling rather rejected. But as much as he was dying to know the answer to his question, he knew Delphius's little display was an answer in it's self. No comment.

*** *** ***

He saw him on the ground, lying on his back with his arms spread above his head haphazardly, like he had been discarded like a piece of trash. His leather vest had been returned, which Jason could only imagine caused a severe chaffing to Iolaus's already burning skin.

But he was there. Iolaus was there.

But was he alive? Jason couldn't tell as he still stood in the middle of cavern. He couldn't see the rhythmic rising and falling of his friend's chest that usually pronounced breathing, and life. His heart in his throat, Jason ran for his friend. But in his haste, when dropped to the ground, he collided with his friend's prone body, his knees making contact with Iolaus's side. Jason winced. Iolaus moaned.

Jason took that as a good sign and let out a deep breath. "Iolaus?" he asked, as his hands clumsily tried to undo the leather straps holding his friend's vest together. He wanted to remove it, let his skin feel air as opposed to the harsh reality of coarse leather. But in Jason's frantic want to relive his friend, his hands were like big giant mitts and he couldn't undo the fasteners fast enough. He fumbled, his adrenaline and anxiety growing, and making his task that much more difficult.

Finally, and after several damnable curses, Jason ripped the vest open to reveal Iolaus's bare chest. In the dim light Jason couldn't see any damage. No bruises or dried blood. But it was Iolaus's back that would show those. Not wanting to further aggravate his friend, but not really having a choice, Jason carefully rolled Iolaus over. This caused further moans to escape his friend's lips, but he still didn't open his eyes. And Jason cringed, apologizing as he caused further pain to his friend. But he knew in the end Iolaus would be thankful. And that thought allowed Jason to continue. He turned Iolaus onto his stomach, positioning his head so he was facing the side, and slowly lowered his hands to his sides.

This was when Jason saw the full extend of Blasius' madness. Not enough time had passed for the open wounds to heal themselves closed, protecting Iolaus's internal systems from infection and aggravation, and Jason had to turn his head away. There was so much blood. Too much blood. He couldn't even see where the whip had made contact, only their devastation and cruel effects.

The whole time Iolaus had been strapped to that wheel, experiencing the excruciating pain of the whip, Jason had kept his eyes open. As a friend, he felt he had no right to close them. He had to watch. He had to share in his friend's pain. If not directly, vicariously. And he had not blinked. Not even when Iolaus's cries had ceased. Not when blood had actually been dripping from the whip's end and thrown back on the watching audience, splattering on his face. As far as Jason was concerned, he owed it to Iolaus to feel just as much pain. And standing there, with no way of stopping it, and watching, was Jason's way of feeling that pain.

But now as he looked over the extend of Iolaus's injuries, he knew that forcing himself to watch was in no way equal to what his friend had experienced. And Iolaus would have to live with this pain the rest of his life, scars and all. Carried on his back as a constant reminder. At least Jason could hide his. Put on a friendly face, and hide his inner pain. But Iolaus's would be there for everyone to see, and ask questions about. Never letting him forget.

Jason gritted his teeth, turning back to his friend, unconconcious and still before him. And he didn't know what to do. It was one thing to bandage a scrape, or splint a broken arm, but this was way out of his league. And even if he did know what to do, there was nothing to do it with. No water. No clean cloths. No herbs for a poultice. Nothing. Nothing to do but sit there on his knees, his head clasped between his hands and stare at his friend, willing him to get better. But of course, mind control wasn't part of his repertoire, so he was betting that that wouldn't work either.

"Did I win?"

Jason nearly jumped out of his skin. Iolaus had spoken.

"Did I win?" he repeated, his voice gravely and weak.

Jason placed a hand on the back of Iolaus's head, the only spot he could think of that wouldn't cause him any pain. "Yeah, Iolaus," he said quietly. "You won."

His eyes straining to stay open, Iolaus shifted, trying to make himself more comfortable, but the movement only caused him to groan. So, he remained still. "What does the other guy look like?" he forced himself to ask with a pained smile.

"Just lie still," proscribed Jason, astounded by his friend's ability to retain a sense of humour through all this. "Just lay still, and it'll be all better."

"Yeah," mumbled Iolaus. "All better..." he repeated, as Jason watched his eyelids flutter, and then close.

Jason braced his hands on his knees and pushed himself up with determination. He looked about the cavern, and noticing no one seemed to be heeding them any attention, Jason knew he would have to look elsewhere for help. And even though he knew it was a long shot, longer than Ares joining a self-help group for the overly aggressive, he had to try. Jason spun on his heel and marched to the cavern opening.

The moment he stepped into the cave hallway, he was grabbed by a guard and thrown against the wall forcefully. "Where do you think you're going?!" hissed the guard, using his massive body to keep Jason pressed against the wall.

"My friend needs help," stated Jason, trying not to show the guard how uncomfortable he was. The rough stone of the cave's wall was digging into his back.

"And that should concern me how?" asked the guard, without any pity or remorse what so ever.

Jason swallowed hard. Honestly, he couldn't think of a reason why it should be this guard's concern. Other than the fact that Iolaus was a fellow human being, and didn't' deserve to die. But somehow, Jason didn't think that approach would get him very far. So, he looked over the guard's shoulder, trying to think of something... anything... to help this situation. Then he noticed it.

The guard was alone.

Maybe appealing to his sense of dignity might work? There was no one here he had to impress, except maybe him. But Jason already had thoughts about that. "You don't look like the type of guy who likes extra work," started Jason, placidly stroking the shoulders of the over-developed guard. "And breaking in a new prisoner sure sounds like work to me."

The guard leaned back slightly, releasing some of the tension between the two bodies. Eyeing him sideways, he replied, "What are you talking about, boy?"

Jason cleared his throat. "Well, as I see it," he started, licking his lips nervously. Please let this guy be a lazy son-of-a-bitch! He thought, before opening his mouth again. "If my friend in there dies, that means Blasius is gonna be one man short in the slave labor department. Which means..." Jason paused, hoping the guard would pick up on the implications. But he didn't respond. Only stared back him, waiting for him to continue.

Dumb fool. He thought, shaking his head. "You're gonna have to go out there and find more prisoners," continued Jason, matter-of-factly.

The guard scrunched his face, stepping back further. "Go on," he said, finally releasing his grip on Jason.

Jason straightened his vest, tugging at the bottom seams to align it just right. Then he leaned forward, just enough to get in the guard's face, but not enough to send the guard's shackles on edge. "You seem to have it quiet nice here, am I right?" he asked sagaciously.

The guard looked around him and nodded. "Yeah, pretty good. Blasius feeds us well, and keeps a roof over our heads."

Jason smiled, nodding his head enthusiastically. He couldn't believe he was making polite small talk with this despot, but he had to do it. "Face it," he continued, spreading his arms in a grand gesture. "You got it made here at 'Palace Blasius'."

The guard blushed like a school girl, kicking absently at the graveled ground. "Yeah," he grinned, sheepishly. "It is pretty cool."

Jason nodded his head mischievously with a smile, pointing a finger at the guard to force his point home. "Yeah, it's a pretty nice set up you've got going. But... And I do stress this part, so listen up. What's it like out there when you're hunting for more prisoners...?" Jason nodded his head, as he saw the light forming behind the guard's eyes. "Yeah, yeah... Not too nice is it?" he continued, playfully punching the guard in the arm.

"Bad food," mumbled the guard. "Sleeping in the rain..."

"And I'm pretty sure those prisoners don't come along easily either," added Jason.

"No, they don't," agreed the guard. "One of them actually bit me!" he stated, pointing to the teeth marks on his right forearm.

Jason shook his head, showing his disgust, but really thinking, Yeah! way to go! Why didn't I think of that? But the guard didn't allow Jason too much time in his reveries, grabbing him by the vest and pulling him close.

"But what does this have to do with me?" snarled the guard, quickly losing his friendly demeanor.

Jason squirmed under the grasp, but managed to keep his cool. "If you help me, possibly get me some water and some cloth, I may be able to keep my friend alive. Then you wouldn't have to go out and find a replacement." Jason paused, but wasn't receiving any sort of response from the guard. "No one has to know!" he rushed, trying to further his position. "It'll be our little secret."

The guard contemplated this for a moment. Jason watched him closely, noticing the reflection of many ideas floating through his mind. He saw a flash of anger cross his face, followed by an enlightened look, then confused. Finally, the guard released his grip, tossing Jason towards the cavern's entrance.

"I'll see what I can do," he replied with a grunt.

Jason didn't want to press the issue any further. 'I'll see what I can do,' was better than nothing. So, with nothing but hope he had gotten through, he rushed back into the cavern, and took up his vigil beside Iolaus once again.

His friend hadn't moved since he had left, but he was still breathing, and that became Jason's security blanket. As long as Iolaus was breathing, Jason believed he would be all right. It was all he had to hold onto.

It was quite some time before the guard entered the cave. Everyone else in the cavern had already gone to sleep. Iolaus had woken up a few times, but only briefly enough to mumble incoherently then fall back asleep. Jason was still wide awake, waiting eagerly for the guard's possible return. And when he did, he felt a huge weight released from his shoulders.

The guard approached him apprehensively, carrying a bucket of water. He placed it beside Jason, and then proceeded to pull a slightly dirty cloth from inside his shirt. "I had to hide this," explained the guard, handing the cloth to Jason.

Jason nodded and took the cloth gingerly, keeping a careful eye on the guard. It was a weird situation, having one of the evil minions helping the help, and Jason was just waiting for something to go wrong. But since nothing had so far, he smiled and thanked the guard. Then he dipped the cloth into the water, wrang it out, and carefully unraveled it. Gently, he placed the cool, wet cloth on Iolaus's back.

The body winced, then settled as the cooling effects of the cloth sunk into the skin and wounds. Jason proceeded with this as the guard, squatting next to him, watched quietly. At one point, Jason had even forgotten he was there. So when the guard nudged him in the arm, Jason jumped.

"So, how is he?" asked the guard, quietly but with determination.

So, there is human decency in you after all. Thought Jason, as he smiled back at the guard. "I don't know," he replied, re-dipping the cloth and looking at the guard. "But this will definitely help."

"Good," answered the guard, then quickly cleared his throat and jumped to his feet. He reached for the bucket and carried it towards the fire burning in the center of the cavern.

Jason, caught off guard by the action, spun on his knees to confront the guard. "Hey, what are you doing?" he asked, his adrenaline surging through his veins. Was this what he had been anticipating earlier? The true motives behind the guard's actions? What was he up to?

But the guard showed no threatening nature as he turned back to Jason. "I can't exactly leave here with a bucket of water," started the guard, indicating the fire. "There had to be a legitimate reason for me to bring it in here. There are other guards out there now... And this was our little secret, remember?"

Jason let the words roll around in his head. Then he looked to Iolaus. He was still in need of medical attention, but the guard had a point. All his help would be for naught, if the other guards knew what was going on and came in here and killed everyone anyway. So Jason nodded, watching as his precious bucket of water was emptied onto the burning fire. And when the guard had finished vanquishing the embers, he strutted out of the cavern, pausing only to nod in Jason's general direction.

And as Jason turned back to his friend, he could here a faint voice in the cave hallway saying, "The fire was getting to intense. I had to put it out. Don't want them getting to soft in there."

Jason smiled, and sat back on the ground, leaning up against the cavern wall. There was still a long night ahead for him, for both of them, for all of them, and he wanted to stay awake to keep an eye on his friend. But he knew that was impossible. The stress and physical exertion of the day was beginning to take it's toll, and he could feel his eyelids getting heavy. He forced them open, remembering a little something he had so carefully hid on his possession earlier that day.

Reaching into his vest, Jason slowly pulled out the coil of rope. "My little buddy," he said, kissing the rope with earnest. Then he positioned himself over Iolaus's body, the rope in hand. "If anyone tries to take you tonight," he said under his breath as he wrapped one end of the rope around Iolaus's torso, just low enough not to interfere with the wounds. "I'll protect you."

And with that, Jason tied the rope off, and the other end to his own torso, carefully concealing it under his vest. Then he settled himself down next to his friend, covering the exposed rope between them with the dirt from the cave's floor. If anyone tried to move his friend's body, Jason would be instantly alerted. It wasn't much, and he didn't know how he would be able to fight anyone off, or even it he would be killed in the process, but it was something. And it would make sleep that much easier on this particular night.

Jason grasped his friend's hand, giving it a gentle squeeze before releasing it and closing his eyes. "I don't break my promises," he said, taking in a deep breath. "I will get you out of here." Then he let himself drift off into the land of nod.

*** *** ***

The Corinthian Army arrived at the break of dawn, having traveled though the night to reach the other search party. They were greeted by Cheiron and the cadets with mixed feelings. Some were anxious and ready to continue forth, but others were beginning to realize the true implications of the breaking day. And Hercules was one of the latter. It was one thing to search, it was another to rescue. And he still didn't know what would be waiting when they found the missing men. Would they be hostages? Would they be alive? Would they even be there? Where ever there was, they still weren't accurate on that. And these questions stemmed most of the conversations that morning as the search parties gathered and geared up to set out.

"I only followed a short distance," Delphius was saying to General Thorsius of the Corinthian Army, as Hercules listened. "So really, I only know the general direction in which they started out."

"And they could have altered from that course at any time," added Hercules, slowly letting his breath out.

"Exactly," stated Delphius, with an affirmative nod.

"We were able to gather a little information ourselves," offered General Thorsius, pulling a crumpled scroll from a pouch fastened on his belt. "We've seen and heard several reports of massive supply trains traveling through the country side."

"Which just supports my theory of slave labor," noted Hercules, feeling himself getting more excited. "Do you have any idea where they were going?"

The General scratched his head thoughtfully, causing his helmet to tilt askew on his head. "Vague directions," he replied, fixing his headdress with a frown. "But from what Delphius here tells us, it looks like the two positions collide... Just off this river here," he said, pointing to the map section of his scroll.

Hercules and Delphius studied the map, their minds trying desperately to recognize any part of it. And at the same time, trying to memorize it. They were in unfamiliar territory now. They had traveled outside the usual boundaries Hercules had previously traveled. Delphius, on the other hand, knew these parts relatively well, although not expertly.

"So, you think we should follow this route?" asked Hercules, tracing his finger along the river, due north of their position marked on the map.

The General nodded. "The river is in the same direction as Delphius speaks of," he replied, pulling the map from Hercules' grasp. He tucked it back into his pouch, closing the clasp carefully. This scroll was his lifeline to the future King of Corinth. The man General Thorsius would dedicate his life and soul to. And he would be damned if he let losing a map come between saving the prince and losing him forever. "I must speak with Cheiron now," he said, nodding and spinning on his heel to leave.

Hercules watched him make his way through the crowd, gathering his troops as he approached Cheiron. Then he noticed a familiar face break away from the crowd. "Hey, Lilith," he greeted, when she stepped up to him and Delphius.

Lilith smiled at her friend, and nodded a curt greeting to Delphius, who reciprocated with the same. Hercules noticed a slight tension between the two, but didn't understand it, so he kept his mouth closed. If he had learned anything about women, it was not to interfere... No matter what the case may be. It was safer that way. "So, are we ready to go?" he asked, almost rushing the words in his haste to end the awkward silence.

"I'm ready," replied Lilith, bracing her hands on her hips and giving her head a nod. "Everyone else is pretty much too."

"I'll just go grab my bag," murmured Delphius, before brushing past Lilith towards the center of activity.

Lilith watched her walk away, then spun her head back to Hercules. "What's her story?" she asked, pretending to pull a hood over her head in a mocking gesture. "I mean, what's with the cloak and dagger? I don't think she's even taken it off yet."

"Let it be," warned Hercules, grabbing Lilith by the shoulders and turning her around. He pushed her forward, following behind as he guided her back to the group. "She got kicked out of the Amazons," he continued, whispering in ear. "And she's feeling a little vulnerable. Just leave it alone."

Lilith shrugged her shoulders, as if the mere idea meant nothing to her. But inside, a certain feeling began to manifest in her stomach. She couldn't describe it, but it wasn't pleasant. She quickly shook her head and tried to ignore it, pushing it away as thoughts of the impending rescue took over her mind. She didn't want to let herself get excited. She didn't want to be let down in the end, but she couldn't help herself.

They were finally getting somewhere. And by the end of the day, quite possibly, she would see Jason and Iolaus again. Never in her life had she been so anxious to see those two fools again. A smile spread across her face as she remembered all the adventures and misadventures, they had had together. Then she stopped herself. There was no thinking in the past, only in the future. She had to think of the adventures to come, not the ones past. She reached back and patted Hercules' hand still resting on her shoulder and looked up at him. "Today is the day," she said, with a smile. "I can feel it."

Hercules smiled back at her, giving her shoulders a tight squeeze. "Me too, Lilith. Me too."

*** *** ***

 

"Just passing through," re-iterated the other man not involved in the search.

Jason nodded and peered into the back of the cart. He was looking for fishing equipment- just to make sure- but he couldn't see anything under the large blanket. He noted the two men had an obviously large load under the cover, but as he curiously started to pull it back...

Mistake number four: expect the unexpected.

A crushing pain exploded at the base of his neck. Jason woke with a start. His body shot upwards into the sitting position, his skin dripping with sweat and his heart pounding in his chest. It had been the same dream. The one where he was forced to watch his mistakes over and over again. And each time he woke from it, his mouth was dry and tasting like he had just licked the soles of a thousand pairs of boots. He licked his lips, tried to scrape the thick fuzz that had accumulated on his tongue with his teeth. Then he felt a cold shiver run through his body.

The cave was still dark, but he could see forms moving about like ghosts. Silent and slow. He leaned around his arm holding him upright and checked on Iolaus. He was still there, but Jason could see him shivering. Quickly, Jason rolled onto his knees to examine his friend better. But it was difficult to see anything other than the outline of the body. Reaching tentatively, Jason felt the back of Iolaus's neck. It was cold. And now that he was touching him, he could feel the full extent of Iolaus's shivers. He was down right convulsing.

The cavern was freezing. Having had the fire extinguished the night before, the normal morning chill was down right unbearable. And now that Jason was coming down from his night sweats, he was starting to feel it too. He looked over his shoulder to where the fire pit was, and untied himself from Iolaus. He decided to get it going again. But as he approached, his heart sank. He could feel the mushy ground beneath his feet, indicating that the pit was still wet. There was no way he was going to get a fire started here. Damning everything he could think of, Jason returned to Iolaus.

He was still asleep, or at least gave the impression of one asleep, but his body shook violently as the cold penetrated his bones. Jason chewed on his lower lip, looking around the cavern for something to burn. His hands braced on his hips, he tapped on his waist absently trying to figure something out. Then it occurred to him. And it was right at his finger tips. Quickly, Jason undid his belt. Then he ripped his vest open and proceeded to undo the belt on his pants. He held both belts out in front of him, grasping them with earnest. "Yes!" he cheered, gritting his teeth.

He ran to the fire pit, searching for two long sticks that had not succumbed to the previous fire. When he found two, he began to prepare them. He wrapped his pant belt around one end of a stick and carried it over to the other side of the cave where he plunged it into the ground. Then he broke off a small twig from the stick and placed it on a nearby rock. Swiftly, and with practiced accuracy, Jason banged his wrist guard on the twigs tip, igniting it immediately. Carefully, and with steady hands, Jason moved the inflamed twig towards his makeshift torch. The leather ignited, and he smiled. It didn't give off much light, but it did emanate heat, which was the more important of the two.

As he turned to head back to the pit to gather the makings of his other torch, he felt a hand grasp him gently on the arm. His head swiveled to face a young man leaning close to the torch.

"Thank you," said the man, before releasing his grip and falling back into the darkness. Jason closed his eyes, and let the words move through him. It was amazing what two little words could mean to someone. And right now, they meant the world to Jason.

With renewed energy, he jumped up and nearly ran back to the fire pit. He quickly gathered his impromptu tools and headed to Iolaus. As he knelt down beside him, Jason noticed that Iolaus had moved. He was now facing him, his right hand lying peacefully beside his face, but his eyes were still closed. "Iolaus?" asked Jason, not sure if he would get a response. And there wasn't. So, Jason proceeded to fashion the next torch.

***

He wasn't sure when he had crossed over from the world of the unconscious to the conscious, but Iolaus could definitely feel the difference. In sleep he was at peace; no pain, no reminders of where he was, no cold. No fear. But awake, all those things bombarded him, encompassing him in their relentless tentacles and invading every part of his body. But Iolaus didn't have the energy to push them back, to fight them off. He wanted sleep. He wanted to slip away quietly into the darkness and safety of oblivion. But a noise caught his attention.

A soft scuffling of boots on gravel, and the unmistakable sounds of breathing. Then he felt something cold on the back of his neck. Iolaus couldn't distinguish what it was, his back was too numb to feel anything but the stinging welts from the whip. All he knew was that the touch was reassuring. He liked it, and he felt his heart drop when the touch eventually removed itself. Taking several deeps breathes, which caused considerable pain since the action required the expansion and contraction of his back, Iolaus slowly lifted his head, turning to face the other direction. He forced his eyes open, and stared out at the dark expanse of the cavern.

As he lay there, trying to make sense of the figure moving about the cavern, a single lock of hair fell over his face. He tried to blow it away, but his efforts were futile. And the more he tried, the more the arrogant lock bothered him. It tickled his cheek, and he wasn't sure how much longer he could stand having it rest there. Drawing on his remaining strength, Iolaus slowly drew his arm up the side of his body, wincing inwardly at the pain, but eventually it reached it's destination. His hand lying aside his face, he flicked his wrist, throwing the lock off his face.

Iolaus experienced a moment's pleasure before reality sank back in. The pain and coldness became evidently clear once again. He could see his own hand trembling before his eyes as he lay there staring at it. It was mesmerizing, and he remained that way for quiet some time, just watching his own hand, dirty and shaking. It wasn't until he saw a small spark across the cavern that his eyes flickered. Then he heard soft muffled voices in the distance. Moments later he saw, and felt, Jason kneel beside him. Iolaus closed his eyes, letting the security of knowing his friend was right beside him lull him into a peaceful quiet. He heard his name, but didn't have the energy to respond. And by the time he finally opened his eyes, Jason was no longer paying him any attention.

Iolaus wasn't sure what Jason was doing. He saw him drive a large stick into the ground, but he had no idea why. Then he watched as Jason studied something in his hands. It was long and dark, with a silver clasp attached to one end. Iolaus tried to identify the object, and when Jason held it up to his mouth, letting his eyes close as he gently kissed the silver clasp, Iolaus recognized it. It was the belt his father had given him. But what was he doing with it now? Why had he removed it?

And what shocked Iolaus more, was when he saw Jason remove the clasp, and bury it in the ground by his knees. Iolaus kept his eyes trained on the spot where his friend had buried his treasure. For the life of him, he couldn't imagine why Jason had just done that. But a few moments later, he had a reasonable idea. Jason had used his belt as a torch. And Iolaus could feel it's heat licking at his body. It felt good. It felt warm. And Iolaus momentarily forgot what Jason had just sacrificed to keep him, Iolaus the-never-ending-burden, warm. He closed his eyes and let the warmth envelope him.

***

Jason, satisfied with the second torch, stood up and surveyed the room. Several more people were up now, instinctively migrating to the heat stick across the room. But as cold as it was, and as little heat as the torches gave off, no one ventured over to the one before Jason. He and Iolaus were still the most feared men in the cavern. And nobody wanted to be seen near them, and they knew it was almost time for the morning guards to arrive.

For some reason, this didn't bother Jason as much as it might have. For if they had gathered around Iolaus's torch, they may have taken away from the heat in which his friend so dearly needed. Jason sighed and turned back to his friend. Remembering the rope still tied around his torso, Jason dropped to his knees and began uniting it. He paused for several beats, trying decide what to do with the rope, than realizing there was nothing holding his pants up any longer, Jason laced the rope through his pant loops and fashioned himself one ugly belt. But he was satisfied. Now it would serve a purpose both day and night.

If there was another night.

The thought came slamming into Jason's mind like a Titan tackling him. What was to become of Iolaus now that day had broke? His eyes wide, his hand quickly rising to smack against his forehead, Jason turned to Iolaus. "Holy shit," he breathed, unimaginable thoughts screaming through his mind. "How on earth are you going to make it through the day?"

*** *** ***

The map, in conjunction with Delphius' directions, had proved fruitful. The search party had finally found salvation. And as the scouting party stood, crested on the top of a large hilltop looking down into the valley, each member felt in their own way, the full implications of what they were up against.

Below, encompassed by two sloping hills, a forest and a rushing river, was a site that left them all feeling small. Nothing in life had prepared any of the cadets for what they were witnessing. And even some of the soldiers found themselves gaping and covering their mouths as they took in all that was below in the valley.

They had found Blasius and all his massive power, despotism and inhumanity. They just hadn't had the pleasure of meeting him yet, or knowing his name. Or even understanding what they were looking at. They just knew the men they were looking for were down there. Prisoners in some madman's evil scheme.

Hercules turned away clutching his stomach, and stumbled a few steps down the hill. Moments later, the rest of the scouting party did the same. Removing themselves from direct eyesight of the soldiers below. Hercules felt a hand on his shoulder, and he looked up to see his teacher standing above him. He closed his eyes, sucking his lower lip into his mouth as he tried to fight back the urge to throw up.

"Hercules," began Cheiron, tightening his grip on the cadet's shoulder. "Now, more than ever, we have to pull together. We must be strong... For their sake."

Hercules nodded from his bent position, and drew in a deep breath. When he finally stood, he realized he hadn't been the only one so strongly affected. Several others were bent over, clutching their stomachs. And others were standing rod straight, their faces white and expressionless. Hercules clenched his jaw and nodded. "I can do this," he whispered. "I will do this... For Jason and Iolaus," he finished, locking eyes with the centaur.

"Good," replied Cheiron. "Because if the General's plan is going to be effective, we need you in top form. We all must keep strong, and do this right. There is no room for mistakes. No room for questions. And no place for insecurities."

Hercules nodded, unable to voice his agreement due to the incredibly large lump in his throat. Solemnly, he turned his head, looking back over his shoulder, and closed his eyes. Iolaus and Jason were down there. He just knew it. He could feel it, stronger than anything he had ever felt before. And he wished to Zeus he could turn back time, go back to that day his friends had gone fishing without him, and do it all over again. For what he had just seen, what he had just witnessed in the valley below, was enough to break even the strongest man. In the short time he had stood on that perch, on top of the hill looking down into the valley, Hercules had seen the most horrific, desperate and heartless scene he could imagine. There was nothing in the world worse than a bonded spirit. And that's what slave labor was. And his friends were in the heart of it all enduring it first hand.

"We're coming," Hercules whispered into the air, hoping somehow it would be carried in the breeze to the ears it was intended for. "We're coming. Just hold on."

*** *** ***

"The temperature is rising, the fever white hot.

Mister I ain't got nothing, but it's more than you've got.

These chains no longer bind me, nor the shackles at my feet.

Outside are the prisoners, inside the free...

Set them free."

-U2

Silver and Gold

PART FOUR

He stepped out of the tent into the early morning mist of the valley. It was a rare moment to find Blasius alone, unattended by slaves and servants and his precious guards, but he liked to keep this time of day to himself. With the rising sun, came a new day. A new chance to accomplish his dreams. And Blasius so loved his dreams. Dreams of grandeur. Dreams of domination and power. Without them, he knew, he would be nothing. For it was his conception, or so he thought in all his arrogance, that his desire to rule the world separated him from the layman. He believed only a great man could have such dreams. And only a greater man could be capable of executing them with as much precision as he.

He smiled wickedly as he closed his eyes and breathed in the rancid early dawn air. It was cold and familiar. A smell he was greeted with each morning. And this morning it was even sweeter. For last night, the guards had been very busy. Blasius opened his eyes and stared out at the panorama before him. Pride coursed through his veins.

Part of the compounds floor had been excavated the day before by the work parties, unbeknownst to them the true purpose of the gaping hole they dug at the edge of the perimeter. Only a few knew its purpose. And as Blasius regarded them, a special few. In actuality, many people knew, only, he didn't care about them- they were dead. They had come from nothing, been nothing- until they had served their purpose with him. And in the end, Blasius had returned them to nothing. He took a certain pride in that. Like he was both the creator and destroyer of mortals. And what he was doing now, what his men were doing per his orders, was destroying evidence. Wiping the discarded bodies from his hands.

Bodies; dead, desecrated and burned were being randomly dumped into the large gapping pit. It was a mass funeral, and no one was invited.

Especially the lone figure standing on the horizon watching from afar. His four legs planted firmly on the ground, his arms crossed over his chest, the Centaur could not turn his eyes away. A grey mist, slow and dense, hovered over the valley floor like ghosts not ready to ascend into eternity. And Cheiron prayed for them, wishing them a peaceful journey.

Never in his life had he seen such an atrocity. It was coordinated evil. The guards were rolling, kicking and dumping the bodies into the pit. Some were even tossing them in like a game, cheering when they achieved nice distance and accuracy. Cheiron was appalled, and felt his anger rising. His muscles began to tense. His eyes narrowed and his jaw clenched. It took all his self control not to lean his head back and release it. Scream until the earth shattered.

"The things we are capable of..." started a voice behind Cheiron, quietly trailing off as the person approached.

Cheiron turned to see General Thorsius standing next to him- his eyes wide and filled with hatred. For several moments he let the General stand and watch in silence. Cheiron could feel his need for vengeance, and he shared in the sentiment. "I get more confused by what life reveals to me each day," he said, returning his gaze to the valley.

His eyes fell upon an area to the side of the pit, where the bodies were piled high, waiting to be forsaken. Animals from the surrounding forest had approached, and were wandering around the compound. Some had even found their way to the burial ground. It was a memorable site- pigs eating charred humans. Cheiron shook his head turning back to the General. "One day in life there shouldn't be any pain," he continued, placing a hand on his friend's shoulder.

The General nodded. "If anything happens to Prince Jason, someone will live to regret it," he seethed, not tearing his gaze from the valley. Then, with venom, Thorsius unsheathed his sword and held if before his face. He turned to Cheiron. "Anything!" he repeated.

"I think it's time," replied Cheiron, staring past the sword into the eyes of the General. "Get the men ready."

*** *** ***

The guards were coming.

Each morning the sound of boots clomping through gravel, and the grumbling of many unhappy men, usually sent a siren rushing through Jason's brain: GET UP! GET MOVING! But this morning, they were screaming something slightly different: WHAT THE FREAK AM I GONNA DO?!

Jason grasped his head, as if the act of pulling one's hair out would change the situation, and turned to Iolaus lying on the cave floor. His friend was still out cold. And Jason wasn't sure if he'd be able to wake him. Never mind the fact that Iolaus probably shouldn't get up in his weakened condition.

But being left with few options, Jason dropped to his knees. "Iolaus," he whispered determinedly. "Come on, buddy, you can wake up... You gotta wake up." He stopped shaking him long enough to check for a reaction, any reaction.

Iolaus mumbled and coughed violently, sending his body into convulsions. Jason rolled him onto his side, making it easier for Iolaus's body to absorb the pain, and placed a hand behind his head for support. "You okay?" he asked.

"Yeah," replied the strained and gravely voice of his friend. "Now that my face isn't buried in the ground anymore."

Jason grimaced. "Sorry, but I thought you'd be more comfortable that way."

Iolaus closed his eyes, nodded. "But ya know what?" he said, painfully pulling away from Jason. "This is much worse. Your knees are digging into MY BACK!" he screamed, throwing himself forward onto his stomach again.

Someone was entering the cavern, so Jason negated his apology, spinning around to see the guard from last night rushing towards him.

"Get him up," urged the guard, in a low harsh voice meant only for Jason. "Get him up now. I won't be alone for very long. More guards are coming."

Jason grabbed Iolaus by the belt, despite constant groans and repudiations, and hoisted him to his feet. After a moment, Iolaus was finally able to stand on his own, but he looked somewhat strange. Iolaus stood rod straight, trying desperately not to make any motions that might cause movement to his skin or back. His eyes were glazed over with tears he didn't want to let fall. It was a look of desperation, of fear. Jason had only seen that look once before, which was why he was able to recognize it now. It was the same look Iolaus had given the day before.

When Iolaus had asked him to leave him alone in the compound and save himself.

But Jason hadn't abandoned him them, and he wouldn't abandon him now. The only thing that could make Jason leave his friend would be death itself. No matter how hard it was to look into his friend's face and tell him he had no answers, no relief... And barely any hope left.

"We're okay," acknowledged Jason, nodding to the guard. Trying his hardest to believe the words himself as his heart filled with impending doom.

The guard jabbed a finger in Iolaus's direction. "If he wants to keep living, he better keep that act up. There's nothing more I can do," he warned, staring at Jason.

Jason nodded. "And thanks," he replied.

The guard held his stare with Jason a beat longer to acknowledge the gratitude, then turned to join the rest of the guards now entering the cave. Jason bit his lip, and slowly led Iolaus to the line of other prisoners setting themselves up ready to leave.

By early afternoon, Iolaus had found a nice shady place in which to lie down. Nice being the relative word. Nothing was nice in Blasius' compound, but as far as Iolaus was concerned, out of sight was the total embodiment of the word. He and Jason had been sent to the gravel pit to break up rocks, which meant, there were plenty of places one could bury themselves, and keep hidden from surveying eyes. And it also helped that Jason was nearby, and would warn him if anyone came close or started asking questions.

But at the moment, Jason was preoccupied. He wasn't paying attention to Iolaus's safety, but rather, to the guard that had just walked past. He had smiled. The guard had actually smiled. Nothing menacing or cynical, but a down to earth, friendly grin. Jason even thought, if only for a brief moment, that he had actually recognized the guard, and he had smiled back. But then reality stepped in, and brought Jason back to the cruelty of Blasius' compound.

But for that brief moment, the moment the guard had flashed his pleasant smile, Jason was back in his castle in Corinth. Back in his old familiar halls, casually strolling towards the throne room and greeting the palace guards upon passing. It was a pleasant memory, and one that Jason was beginning to think he would never experience again. So thinking about it now only hurt him deeply. He decided to think about something else. And since there was a large rock before him, he decided to concentrate on that.

 

He lifted his heavy sledge hammer high over his head, poised to crack the head of the rock when he paused- his arms still raised, and the hammer full of kinetic energy. Slowly, he turned to find the smiling guard and lowered the hammer.

He was gone. And so were several other guards that had been in the immediate area.

"Get back to work!"

Jason heard the warning and quickly raised his hammer, forgetting about the missing guards, and set back to work. He didn't bother looking around for who had shouted the order. All he needed to know was that they were close. So he kept his eyes trained on the giant rock before him. Then, he remembered something. Or more to the point, someone. Someone who was sleeping behind a nearby rock.

"Uh oh," he said, letting the hammer fall from his hands behind his back

He set his jaw, his eyes darted back and forth. He didn't want to seem obvious, but he had to check on Iolaus. The voice, the one that had ordered him back to work, was close. Too close. He bolted for the large rock hiding his friend, forgetting who might be watching. But when he suddenly remembered his circumstances, he slowed his pace.

Rolling his neck, trying to get the kinks out as well as use it as an excuse to covertly glanced about, he searched for prying eyes. A few guards were gathered off to his left, but they had their backs to him. And in the distance, perched on top of several larger rocks, were more guards, but they didn't seem to be paying any attention to the workers either. Thinking it was safe, for now, Jason took the risk. He quickened his pace once again, and upon reaching his friend's hiding place, he leaned over and looked down at the shaded area.

Empty.

Iolaus was gone.

"Uh oh."

*** *** ***

Iolaus shifted and turned, trying to find a position that would leave him in the least amount of pain. Unfortunately, when your back feels like it's on fire, no position is comfortable. But Iolaus kept trying anyway, even though it only caused him further misery and aggravation. Eventually, and after banging his head on the rock he was using as cover, he decided to stay put. He quit trying to do the impossible.

Quit.

The word reverberated round his brain, bouncing off memories and images and bringing them back to life- vivid and real in his mind. That word's gonna be tattooed on my grave. He thought, rubbing his forehead on the loose stones of the gravel pit's floor.

Iolaus was on his stomach. Lying on his back, although his preferred sleeping position, was the most painful. Even the extra layer of protection- the cloth Jason had left on his back over night, wasn't really helping. In fact, it was itching beyond belief. But Jason had not been able to remove it that morning. Over the course of the evening the cloth had dried to his back, his blood clotting and fusing with the makeshift bandage.

Iolaus had wanted Jason to remove it, to stop the itching. But in the end, Jason thought it wiser to leave it where it was. The cloth would act as a barrier between his skin and his leather vest. But right now, as Iolaus lay there behind the rock in the pit with nothing else to think about except his own misery, he was beginning to think the leather would be a nice contrast. It couldn't be any worse. He thought, slowly reaching a hand behind his back in an attempt to peel away a corner of the bandage under his vest.

But the effort was too much. He dropped his hand beside his face and gave up, again. I just can't do anything right. He accursed himself, not for the first time in the last few weeks. Iolaus the quitter. The one who can't do anything right. Yeah. That's definitely gonna be tattooed on my grave.

Feeling sorry for himself, Iolaus decided enough was enough. He wasn't going to be anyone's burden any longer. He knew Jason would have a better chance of escape if he didn't have to think about him. Jason was a brave man. A man destined to do great things, and lead Corinth to great victories. And Hercules, well, he was the son of a God, with the heart and determination of a hero. And what am I? He asked himself, letting his eyes open. The only thing he could see was the dark grey outline of the rock before him. It was a bleak view, which suited Iolaus just fine. He felt like him and that rock shared some sort of connection.

The rock was nothing. It wasn't the son of some great bolder, or destined to rule the gravel pit. It was just a rock. Grey. Bleak. Boring. And not about to become anything without the help of others. The rock would not be part of something bigger in life unless someone came along and did something to it- broke it down, smoothed it out, and turned it into a statue or brick. The thought was sobering for Iolaus. I'm a rock. I'm nothing without my friends. Just an ex-thief who people pitied and took into their lives. And what good has that done them? None. I can't even take care of himself, let along anyone else.

But he decided it was time that he did. He readied himself, bracing his hands beside his shoulders, and pushed himself up with a grunt. But when he was standing, a certain memory flashed into his mind. It was Hercules- on the day he and Jason were making plans to go after the Golden Fleece. Hercules had taken Jason by the shoulder and led him away saying, 'We don't need him.' And by him, Hercules had meant Iolaus.

Iolaus the burden.

"Not any more," remarked Iolaus, leaning on the large rock for support as he tried to step around it. But he was dizzy, and ended up stumbling and sprawled on top of the rock instead of on the other side of it. It's just like Jason said, I'm 'Iolaus of nothing.' Another memory was brought to life. That day in Kora's, the day Hercules had found the mysterious eye, came screaming into his mind. He and Jason had been trying to flirt with girls across the Inn, and Jason had referred to him as, 'Iolaus of nothing.'

Maybe Blasius and Jason are right, he told himself, trying once more to make his way around the rock. I am nothing. And I'll most likely become nothing... I couldn't even make it as a thief. I got caught. And a thief isn't much of a step up from nothing.

Well, I'm not going to be anyone's burden any longer. He declared to himself. Slowly, Iolaus made his way around the rock. He glanced around the pit, surveying for guards. When he saw a group gathered off to his right, he turned himself around and pushed off the rock. His intent; to free himself from Jason and give him a chance to survive. Iolaus was going to sacrifice himself to Blasius, so Jason wouldn't have to worry about him any longer.

"Here goes nothing," he said, stumbling towards the guards, his back screaming for mercy, his vision somewhat blurry. But he pushed ahead anyway. This was one time he wasn't going to quit. Like the time he had suddenly changed his mind about going after the Golden Fleece as soon as Hercules had mentioned there might be danger. No. Iolaus wasn't going to quit again. It was his time to be someone. His last act as a living breathing mortal, would be to help someone. He would help his friend Jason.

The thought made his last journey, the journey to his death across the pit, almost bearable. And when he collapsed into the unsuspecting arms of one of the guards, there was a smile, plain and evident on his face.

*** *** ***

"Where'd he go?" queried Jason, spinning around to find his friend.

He spotted a man stumbling towards a group of guards. "Iolaus."

Quickly, Jason sprinted after his friend. He wanted to catch him before he got himself killed. "What does he think he's doing?" he asked himself, as he ran, heart in throat.

But he was too late.

Jason was still several feet away when his friend collapsed into the arms of one of the guards. But Jason didn't hesitate. He only quickened his pace, reaching Iolaus just in time to stop the guards from pummeling his friend into oblivion.

"He's sorry!" pleaded Jason, pulling Iolaus from the guard's grip. "It must be this heat. It won't happen again." Jason held his friend upright, trying to protect him by standing between him and the guards. But Iolaus was being difficult.

"No," he murmured, trying to step around Jason. "No. This is right... Just let me die."

Jason swallowed hard, then flashed an exaggerated grin at the guards, trying to diffuse the situation. "He didn't mean that," Jason said, still trying to keep himself between Iolaus and the guards. "Please, just ignore him."

"Just take care of him," replied the guard, the one who had caught Iolaus in his arms.

Jason blinked, momentarily forgetting his charge behind his back. Iolaus stumbled and fell to the ground. But Jason only sparred him a fleeting glance, as he was too intrigued by the guard before him. "Huh?" he said, starring at the man who had issued the strange and uncharacteristic words.

The guard leaned forward to help Iolaus to his feet. "It won't be long, Jason," he said, passing the fallen slave to the Crown Prince of Corinth. "Just take care of him, till it's time."

"What? What's going on? Who are you?" asked Jason, finding it difficult to form words with his mouth as dry as sand. His adrenaline was pumping hard, making his limbs shake. He couldn't understand. He couldn't make sense of the guard's words.

Then it struck him.

"Collisto?" he asked, leaning forward to get a better look at the man. Collisto was a guard at his palace. And a very good guard at that. It had taken a moment, but now Jason was able to recognize the man dressed in one of Blasius' guards uniforms. Jason was stunned, to say the least.

"Yes, it is I, Prince Jason," replied Collisto, raising a finger to his mouth to indicate the secrecy of the matter. "We're everywhere."

Once again, all Jason could do was blink. Then he shook his head, and looked to the other guards in the group. Helinophese. Gregarous. Tobias. Two cadets from the Academy and another guard from his palace. What is going on here? He asked himself, as the words died on his lips when he had tried to speak them aloud.

Collisto patted Jason on the shoulder, and looked into his eyes. "Your friend needs your help," he said, nodding towards Iolaus, now leaning heavily on Jason's shoulder. "He doesn't look good."

Jason nodded, wrapped an arm around Iolaus's waist for support. He was beginning to loose consciousness again, and had stopped his efforts to charge the guards. Jason was grateful for that fact, as he looked back to Collisto. "What...?"

Collisto smiled. "In good time, Prince Jason. In good time. Just go about your day as if you hadn't seen us."

*** *** ***

Cheiron stood behind the thick tree trunk on the edge of the forest. He was well concealed, despite his large girth and stature. The rest of the more discriminate members of the search parties were lined up along the perimeter of the compound, each using the forest and hills as camouflage. It was late afternoon now, the sun was high in the sky making the day clear and bright. They were preparing, and waiting, for the final step of the rescue.

Early that morning cadets, villagers and soldiers from Jason's army had infiltrated the compound. Taking out the guards one by one till they had enough uniforms, they had replaced them and filtered back into the compound. It had been a very time consuming task, and very difficult. But men with a purpose could do any job if their minds were set. And the minds of these great warriors, friends and relatives were more than just set. They were hungry. Hungry for action. Hungry for retaliation. Hungry to see their loved ones returned and safe.

Cheiron was proud. Not only of his cadets and how they had risen to the challenge, but to each and every one of the search party members who was willing to put themselves in mortal danger to save the prisoners. He only hoped they would be rewarded with happy reunions. No one knew for sure who was still alive. From their positions far back from the compound, no one was able to recognize any particular prisoner. And there were plenty of prisoners to look through. But they were easily distinguished from the guards. They moved slow, staggered in the heat, dressed in rags or covered in filth. The guards, on the other hand, bore weapons and dressed in black leather armor.

Cheiron noted those weapons with concern. The prisoners would be caught in the middle of this, defenseless and weak. While all the time, the battle- which he was sure would ensue- would rage around them. He prayed silently for their safety. To die now, right before their freedom, would be the greatest sadness of all.

"Cheiron."

The Centaur heard his name, turned to the tree a few paces away to his right. "Yes, Delphius," he replied, his voice low and controlled.

"Do you think this will work?" asked the young woman, peeking her head around her tree.

"We must believe that is will, or what is the point in following through?" replied Cheiron cryptically.

Delphius shrugged and turned her attention back to the compound. They were waiting for the signal from Hercules- one of the first cadets to infiltrate the camp that morning, and she didn't want to miss it.

"Delphius," continued Cheiron, breaking her sentinel with the compound. "You should remove that cloak of yours. It will be difficult enough to distinguish between our men dressed as guards from the real ones. And your cloak is black. It would be easier for everyone if you removed it."

"Um, no," replied Delphius, awkwardly. "I'd rather not."

But Cheiron was not one to give up so easily. "Why is that?" he asked, scrutinizing the hooded figure behind the tree. He watched Delphius hesitate for a moment, then she raised a tentative hand up to slowly retract the hood. Cheiron bowed his head. He had not seen the scare before. Delphius had hidden it so well under her hood.

"This is why," she explained, running a finger down the right side of her face, tracing the long, purple scar that stretched from her hairline down her cheek and coming to a point off to the side of her chin. "A gift," she continued, tilting her head in mock gratitude. "From the Amazons. And I'm not sure I'm ready to share it with the world quite yet."

"Why do you cover it?" pushed Cheiron, crossing his arms over his chest.

"I'm ashamed of it!" spat Delphius, before putting herself in check and lowering her voice. "Every time someone sees this, I have to explain, and re-live the humiliation of being kicked out of the Amazons. The group that I had cherished and devoted my life too for years." She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. She had already told him too much. She had just opened a doorway for the Centaur to walk right in, and ask questions. Regret consumed her as she bit her lower lip and looked down at the ground. "And besides..." she finished, her voice barely above a whisper. "It's ugly."

Cheiron had a sharp sense of sound and had heard the last remark. But for once in his life, he couldn't thing of anything to say. He had no words of wisdom to share that would make her feel differently. Cheiron had learned long ago that beauty came from within. It was not something that could be found on the surface. But telling a young woman, a young impressionable woman that, would serve no purpose. Self respect had to be found on one's own, not given to you by someone else.

"I am sorry, Delphius," he said, after a moment. He didn't want her to feel even more self-conscious by having him stare at her. And Hercules had also told him the story of how she had ended up at Kaprinia, and he didn't think now was the proper time to push that subject either. So he turned back to the compound. But he did notice that Delphius was beginning to shed to cloak, so he smiled, returning to his sentry duties with more confidence in the woman.

It was a short time later when they received the signal. Delphius had noticed it first. And using her strong voice, she let out a loud trill that echoed throughout the valley- announcing to the other search party members that the time had come. It was now or never. And for the sake of those prisoners in the compound, now was the preferred option.

Delphius tightened her grip on her sword and unsheathed it with vigor. Then, on Cheiron's command, she charged forth- straight into the heart of the lion's preverbal den.

The rest of the team was close behind.

*** *** ***

It only seemed like moments ago that Jason and Iolaus had been sitting and eating their poor excuse for a meal. Well, Jason had been eating, Iolaus had just stared at his plate, hoping by some miracle that the stale bread would jump up and swallow him whole. He had tried to tell Jason to leave him alone. To go away and save himself. But, like he had expected, Jason had refused, and Iolaus had just felt guiltier. And now, now that everything was in an uproar, Iolaus felt even worse. Now was the perfect time for Jason to make a break for it, to run for the hills and save himself. But he wasn't. He was dragging him through the compound, through the clashing steel and hardened terrain, and trying to save him as well.

Truth be told, Iolaus had no idea what was going on around him. But it was clear to him that this would be Jason's only opportunity to save himself. "Just go!" he cried, trying to struggle free from Jason's persistent grip, but only finding himself more entangled in his friend's arms. "Leave me!"

"No!" cursed Jason, throwing his semi-incapacitated friend over his shoulder. "I'm not leaving you! Now shut up!"

Iolaus tried to argue further, but the pain coursing through his body prevented him. And it didn't help that Jason's shoulder was wedged into his stomach, making him feel more and more nauseous with each jolt. Finally, Iolaus' inner defense system shut down his senses, and he passed over to the world of unconsciousness.

Jason continued on unaware. He could feel Iolaus heavy on his shoulder, and that was all he needed to know, cause there was too much going on around him to spare any more attention to his friend. They were lost and consumed in a raging battle.

Jason swatted a falling guard with his free hand as he made his way through the compound. The wrath of battle was all around him, and he couldn't distinguish the good guys from the bad. The only ones easily detectable were the other prisoners. They were either running about like chickens with their heads cut off, or standing in the middle of it all without a clue what to do. Jason felt sorry for them, but he had made a choice. He knew he couldn't save them all- that he would leave to good guys. But he could save Iolaus. And he would save Iolaus. Even if that meant carrying him through this battle on his own.

So the battle ensued around him. Steel clashing against steel. Human flesh against human flesh. Bodies fell at his feet as he tried to maneuver around them. And even more bodies collided with him as they fought to keep their ground in their personal wars. But Jason pressed on, not sure where he was heading. It was total chaos in the compound. Jason couldn't tell which way to go, which way to run. And Iolaus was really starting to get heavy.

Jason put him down next to a concrete slab, careful to lie him on his stomach. There was so much activity going on around him, Jason had to keep ducking to escape swinging swords and people fighting. And he didn't even want to think about the arrows piercing the air.

Then he had no choice.

A searing pain in his left upper arm made the arrows presence hard to ignore. Jason grabbed his arm, careful not to push the projectile deeper into his flesh. Clenching his teeth, he bit back the urge to cry out. Not that it would of mattered, there was so much noise one couldn't hear one's self think.

Blood oozed from the wound, spilling over his fingers. His left arm was limp, useless, and his fingers were tingling as the blood slowed to reach them. Jason looked at the wound and grimaced. "Why now?!" he cursed, slowly wrapping the fingers of his right hand around the shaft of the arrow. He gave it a slight pull, shooting sharp pain up his arm and across his shoulder. The pain ran up his neck, ending in an explosion behind his eyes.

It was a loosely fastened arrowhead, Jason could tell. And if he tugged on it again, the shaft would most likely come out, leaving the arrow head embedded in his arm.

So, Jason knew what he had to do. He glanced at Iolaus unconscious beside him, then closed his eyes. His thumb placed lower on the shaft, Jason snapped the wood as he pulled his fingers in the opposite direction as he was forcing his thumb. It was a clean, smooth break, and the arrow didn't move too much under his skin.

But the worse was still to come.

Several deep breathes later, Jason pressed the palm of his hand on the ragged end of the shaft. With gritted teeth, eyes squeezed tight, he held his breath.

Please don't let this hit bone. He prayed silently. Then, in one forceful quick move, Jason thrust the arrow the rest of the way through his arm. He cried out as the stone arrow pierced through his muscle and skin to come out the other side of his limb.

Shaking, he reached behind his arm, grabbed the arrow head and pulled it the rest of the way out. "Oh, that's gonna leave a mark," he hissed, dropping the bloodied arrow to the ground.

But now he was bleeding more than before. He would have to cover the wound. Dragging himself with his good arm over Iolaus' legs, Jason reached for the guard lying dead beside his friend. Fortunately, for Jason, the guard's clothes had been shredded by fierce fighting, and it was easy for him to tear off a strip with one hand.

"Sorry," he apologized. "But I think I need this more than you right now." He was just about to turn over when he inadvertently looked into the dead man's eyes.

"Damn it," he cursed, recognized the face of the guard that had helped him with Iolaus the other day. But he didn't have time to mourn.

Rolling onto his back, resting on Iolaus' thighs, Jason tied the dirty cloth around his wound. He made sure to knot it directly on top of the wound, using his teeth as a replacement for his other hand. Then, he let his head fall back. He was too weak to hold it upright any longer. His vision began to blur, making the clouds overhead distort and fade together in grotesque images.

Jason could feel the blood rushing from his head, adding dizziness to his accumulating symptoms. His arm was numb, like the rest of his body now. The sounds of the ensuing battle around him began to fade. A clash of steel here, a muffled scream there. Eventually it all sounded like music to Jason. And from the corner of his eye, he could see the fighters moving swiftly, in slow motion, across his field of vision. Dancing to the music they were creating. It was like a deadly ballet, choreographed by their strategic maneuvers, and their will to win and survive.

Jason let his head fall to the side so he could see Iolaus' face. But it was buried by his arm, lying haphazardly over his head. Jason watched his friend's back, looking for the rhythmic signs of respiration. His security blanket. He wasn't sure, but he thought he saw the muscles expand as Iolaus drew in a breath.

"I'm sorry," murmured Jason, the last of his strength draining from him. "I'm so sorry I failed you."

And just before his eyes closed tight, a smile wearily spread across his lips. Above him, hovering precariously over his face, was his father, King Aeson. "Father..." he whispered, before blackness finally won it's battle.

*** *** ***

Hercules raised the torch. He held it high above his head, then began to wave it back and forth. From his perch atop one of the castle walls, he was easily visible to his friends hiding in the surrounding forest. Then, throwing his stolen helmet to the ground to reveal his true identity, Hercules readied himself for the descent.

He jumped free of the wall, tucked into a somersault, and landed on the ground with both feet. It only took a moment for the others of his assault team to jump into action as well. Enough of them had infiltrated the camp to make an immense dent in Blasius's defense. Although none of them knew exactly who Blasius was, or even his name, they knew someone had to be in charge of this atrocity. And each member of the team wanted to be the one to bring him down.

Hercules the most.

But he concentrated on the guard nearest him first. That was the plan. Sneak into the compound undetected, take over the positions as guards, then make the assault. They would take them by surprise, and be careful not to harm any of the innocents in the meanwhile. And there were plenty of innocents around. The guard Hercules had decided to take out first happened to be accompanied by several slaves. So Hercules had to be careful.

He stepped up behind him and tapped him on the shoulder. The guard didn't even have time to completely turn around before he was rewarded with a fist to his face. He dropped to the ground in a heap. And Hercules waved mockingly, then turned to find his next target.

Elsewhere in the compound, the other members of the assault team were doing the same. Picking their way through the guards and taking them down one by one. But some fights were not so clean. Swords were brought to clash, arrows were sent piercing through the sky- some finding their marks, some finding other not so admirable marks. It was total chaos. People were running everywhere, trying to find the enemy. But with both sides wearing the same clothes, the task was arduous and tedious. And several fights ensued where the same sides were battling each other- that is of course until they realized their mistakes and moved on.

But through all this turmoil and discord, Hercules noticed one thing. One very odd, unsettling thing. No one seemed to be helping anyone. The guards fought to save themselves. The prisoners scrambled about, thinking only of their own safety. Hercules noted this with disgust as he fought his way through the flailing arms and clashing steel.

Don't they care about anyone but themselves? He asked himself, throwing a well aimed punch at an attacking guard.

He pushed on, his eyes searching for the familiar blonde hair of his best friend, and strong sturdy body of Jason. But he couldn't see them anywhere amongst the mess. He tried calling their names as he ducked, thwarting the efforts of a guard swinging his sword in an attempt to decapitate him. Hercules paused, took the time to place a well planted foot on the guys chest and send him flying across the compound. Then he continued in his search.

"Jason! Iolaus!"

*** *** ***

From the massive entanglement of arms and weapons, came a young women carrying a sword. She crawled through the mess of legs, and stepped away from the affray she had just caused. Brushing her hands boastfully on her chest, Delphius smiled and headed for the next group of guards who had the displeasure of being in close proximity to her.

*** *** ***

Cheiron shouted orders over his shoulder as he fended off the persistent, and somewhat surprised, guard before him. The Centaur sent his men off in different directions. Both to search for the despot responsible for all this, and to find his two missing cadets. It had been too long for his liking, since this battle had began, and still there was no sign of either Jason or Iolaus.

He didn't really have the time to contemplate it, but he was beginning to worry. It wasn't until he noticed two men shuffling through the battle that his heart lightened. It had to be Jason and Iolaus. As he had noted earlier, aside from those fighting along side him, no one else seemed to be fighting for anything other than themselves. But the two men making their way across the compound, one carrying the other, obviously had more important things on their minds besides themselves.

And he knew Jason and Iolaus well enough to know, that no matter what was going on, they'd always look out for each other.

Cheiron thrust his sword into the belly of his opponent, ending the battle quickly. Then he turned to find General Thorsius amongst the crowd. Spotting him, Cheiron waved his arms over his head to get his attention. "Thorsius!" he called, cupping his hands over his mouth. "Over there! Over there!" He pointed with his sword to a giant slab of concrete where the two men had just fallen, and prayed that the good General would get there in time.

*** *** ***

General Thorsius ducked and weaved his way through the flailing arms, fending off opposers as he went. Finally he reached his mark and bent over his fallen sovereign with deep concern. Jason's eyes were already half closed, and Thorsius wasn't certain, but he could have sworn there was a faint smile playing on his lips.

"Father..." murmured Jason, as Thorsius watched his eyes close.

"You ain't going to the Elysian Fields just yet, Prince Jason," stated Thorsius, as he pulled his leader to his feet. He hoisted him over his shoulder, then turned to look for help.

Coming up behind him, fighting his way through the onslaught, was Cheiron. But Thorsius didn't need to explain what was going on. The Centaur rushed past him and scooped Iolaus up in his arms.

"Let's go," ordered Cheiron, already making his way back through the deadly compound.

General Thorsius followed, his charge securely over his shoulder.

*** *** ***

He had lost complete track of what had been going on around him. And when the battle had ended, he had felt drained. He had felt forlorn. Hercules had not been able to find Jason nor Iolaus. And he hadn't even had the pleasure of finding the despot in charge either. But he had heard rumors. Reliable and glorious rumors about his friends.

And now he was heading to a nearby village to verify their validity. Hercules had heard, after reuniting with several of the Corinthian soldier's, that Cheiron and Thorsius had been seen leaving the compound with two of the prisoners. Well, they once were prisoners. Now they were free.

In the end, the cadets, the soldiers and villagers were able to defeat the guards, and send them packing. And as Hercules ran through the forest towards the village, the rest of Jason's soldiers were gathering what was left of the guards, and preparing them for their due punishment. Hercules hadn't wanted to stick around to watch. He had seen the venom in their eyes as they had rounded them up- demanding of each of them the whereabouts of their leader.

Blasius.

Hercules knew the name now. And he hated the mere sound of it. It send shivers down his spine, and the bile in his stomach to churn. What was worse, no one had been able to find him. It appeared as if Blasius was going to get away with what he had done. And that ate Hercules up inside.

But he didn't have time to think about that. Jason and Iolaus was first and foremost on his mind. Night was coming, and Hercules was following a trail through the forest to a village where everyone expected Cheiron and Thorsius had taken them. He hadn't been able to find Lilith or Delphius after the battle either, but he'd heard they had faired well. Hercules had contemplated looking for them, but opted against it. Instead, he went in search of his friends alone.

He knew he would need the time to think. To prepare for the worst. Cheiron and Thorsius had been seen carrying off two prisoners. No one had mentioned if they were living prisoners... Just prisoners.

But Hercules could hope.

And hope carried him swiftly through that forest to the village of Lycinia where he ran into several other cadets and Delphius. He stopped dead in his tracks when he saw them. They were gathered outside a small hut with a front porch, pacing and waiting silently. Delphius was by the front door, leaning against a railing, her head low.

A lump formed in his throat. Hercules felt his knees go very weak. There was no question in his mind who was on the other side of that hut's door. Why else would everyone be waiting outside? Slowly, he started forward. Taking each step gingerly, and praying with each footfall that the news would be good.

Unfortunately, Hercules could tell by the faces on his friends, that it wasn't.

He walked past them silently, brushing off the comforting hands as he made his way to the front door. But he was unable to go any further. He placed a hand on the hard, rough wood, and rested his forehead on the door. Then Hercules forced himself to breath as he slowly pushed the door open.

*** *** ***

The healer of the village, an elderly man with kind gentle eyes, had not been prepared for his visitors. The large Centaur and his comrade had charged through his door carrying two filthy and emaciated patients, and had ordered him to help them. And help them quickly.

The Centaur had been the first to introduce himself, as he had laid his friend on a cot in a corner of the room. The other man, dressed in military armor, had deposited his friend on the other cot across the small room. Then they had both stepped back, and allowed the elderly healer to do his work.

And as the healer went about examining his patients, the two men filled him in on the details he would need to know. But the healer wished they hadn't been so descriptive. The images forming in his mind as he listened to the tale of human bondage, made him want to wretch. And he supposed wretching on his two patients was definitely not the best way to cure them.

After doing a quick assessment of both of them, the healer decided the young blonde needed him the most. The other, his arm wrapped in a filthy bandage, could wait. Or, be taken care of by his caring friends. So, as the healer set to work on Iolaus, Cheiron began mixing a poultice with the herbs on the healers shelf, for Jason. He also re-bandaged the young Prince's arm with clean cloths, and stripped him of his filthy leather. Jason was then put to rest in a fresh, yet somewhat small, set of clothes.

He would be fine. A little sleep, some good food and a long hot bath was the best curative for Jason. Iolaus, on the other hand, was another story all together.

The healer felt his forehead and discovered he had a fever. A raging fever. No doubt from an illness picked up in the slave camp, or acquired from the poor living conditions. Either way, the young man was unearthly sick. But he was regaining consciousness, which was a good thing. Or so the healer thought. He hadn't been aware of the full extent of the young blonde's injuries.

As Iolaus began to wake, he also began to stir restlessly. Tossing his head back and forth, and grimacing in pain. The healer attributed it to the sickness, and the fever, so he quickly set about to conjure up a tea with medicinal properties.

This was when the door to the hut slowly creaked open. The healer looked up from his table where he was preparing the tea, and saw a young man step across the berth and enter his home. Slightly disconcerted, the healer turned to Cheiron and Thorsius for acknowledgment of the new visitor. And when they nodded, he returned his concentration to his tea making.

But once again he was interrupted. This time from the screams emanating from the cot holding the young blonde. The healer rushed to his side, trying to keep the young man from apparently jumping out of his skin. He found he had to enlist the help of Thorsius and Hercules to hold the young man down. His patient was writhing and groaning in pain, occasionally letting a piercing, heart wrenching scream escape his lips. His eyes were open, but unfocused and clouded with tears.

Jason heard those screams from deep within his slumber. The screams shot him upright in bed, sweating and shaking. It didn't take long for him to realize where those cries were coming from. He quickly threw off his covers and stumbled across the room, pushing Cheiron out of his way as he headed for Iolaus' bed. Jason didn't really comprehend what was going on, or where he was, but he knew he had to get to Iolaus. He had to stop his pain.

But he had to fight his way through Hercules and the healer to get to his friend. They were trying to hold him back, trying to stop the young Prince from inflicting further harm to Iolaus. But Jason knew something they didn't. And he tried his hardest to tell them to turn Iolaus onto his stomach, but the words weren't coming out right. He was too anxious and scared to form proper sentences. So instead, his words came out muffled and confused.

The rest of the men in the room had no idea what was going on with Jason. Just that he seemed wild and out of control, and that he was trying to reach Iolaus.

It took a lot of self-discipline for Jason to calm himself down, but eventually he was able to. And eventually he was able to articulate a full sentence. "His back," he said, taking deep breathes as Thorsius held him at bay. "Roll him onto his stomach. It's his back."

The healer looked at him quizzically, then, not seeing why he shouldn't believe him, he proceeded to roll his patient onto his stomach. This brought the screams to a near cessation. But they were still present, only now they were merely unconscious moans.

Jason drew in a deep breath before continuing his explanation. And as he revealed what had happened to Iolaus, he kept his eyes focused on the floor. The pain inside him was already too much for him to bear. He didn't need to see it reflected in Hercules, Cheiron's, Thorsius' or the healers eyes as well.

"By the Gods," breathed the healer, looking at his patient on the cot when Jason had finished. "How could someone be so cruel."

"Can you help him?" asked Hercules, ignoring the healers dismay. "Will he be all right?"

The healer pursed his lips, and ran a hand through his thinning hair. "I will do my best," he replied, pulling a footstool up to Iolaus' bed. "That's all I can say. But I request that you leave," he continued, slowly stripping the vest from his patient's back to reveal the blood soaked bandage. "This most likely won't be pleasant, and I don't need the distraction of you in the room."

Hercules was about to protest when a strong hand on his shoulder stopped him. "You and Jason wait outside," ordered Cheiron, his voice quiet yet obstinate. "The General and I will stay with Iolaus."

"What's he gonna do?" rushed Jason, his eyes darting between Iolaus and the Centaur.

"I will have to remove the bandage," replied the healer, from his vigil beside the cot. "And it will be very painful. The blood has clotted and adhered the cloth to his skin. It will take some time, and some careful hands, but I can do it. It needs to be done in order to clean the wounds."

"Please," said Thorsius, guiding Jason towards the door. "Wait outside. Cheiron and I will take care of this."

Both Hercules and Jason wanted to argue. Especially Jason, for he felt like he was abandoning his friend once again. But they knew their efforts would be futile. So they relented and stepped outside to the sunlit porch. When the door banged closed behind them, they jumped- their hearts skipping a beat. They didn't say anything. And neither did the other cadets waiting on the porch.

A few gave Jason encouraging glances, as they were glad to see him up and relatively well, but for the most part, they left them alone to sit on the edge of the porch. They knew what they were looking at was an incomplete entity- two parts of the whole. Appetite, spirit and reason: the three things that comprised the mortal soul. When one was missing, the others couldn't function properly. Without Iolaus, neither could Jason and Hercules.

*** *** ***

The deafening screams only lasted a few moments. Screams that came from deep within and made one's skin turn cold and heart ache. They came fast and all encompassing, only to dissipate just as quickly as they had begun. And when they had finally stopped, the people on the porch let out a collective breath. At least now Iolaus wasn't suffering.

But the silence that ensued afterwards was just as bad, if not worse. The not knowing was killing them. And Jason finally decided that he couldn't take the silence any longer.

"I failed him," he murmured, starring at the ground between his feet. "I promised I'd get him outta there, and I failed him."

"He's not a prisoner anymore," replied Hercules, turning caring eyes towards his friend. "You did get him out of there."

"No. I didn't," stated Jason. "I failed him. It was Cheiron and Thorsius who got him out. But I promised Iolaus I would... "

"And how do you think we found you?" came a deep voice from behind them.

Jason turned around to find Cheiron standing above them on the porch. So deep in his own revulsion, Jason hadn't heard the Centaur come up behind him. "I failed him, Cheiron," repeated Jason, dropping his head into his hands. "If you hadn't come along, Iolaus would be dead by now. I wasn't able to get him out of there. What kind of friend am I?"

"Jason," persisted Cheiron. "How do you think we found you?" Jason's only answer was silence, so Cheiron pressed on. "We found you because you did not fail Iolaus. You stayed with him. Amongst all that chaos and degradation, I was able to see you because you were the only one trying to help someone. Everyone else was fending for themselves. But you were carrying Iolaus over your shoulder. That true testament of brotherhood captured my attention."

The words were true, but they didn't help Jason feel any better. Nothing really would for a long time to come, but as long as Iolaus would be all right, he'd be able to live with himself. He reached for his belt buckle, the one his father had given him as a child, and the one he used to gain inner strength. But it wasn't there. He remembered removing it in the cavern to light the torches. A hand gripped his heart, tightening the muscle. But it wasn't a sad pain. For he had used his father's gift to save others- to keep them warm. Jason had lost a great thing, but in return, he had gained a great feeling.

He shared a glance with Hercules, before turning to Cheiron. "And Iolaus?" he asked. "He's going to be okay?"

"Only time will reveal his recovery, but he was awake for a bit. And he asked to see the both of you," replied Cheiron, slowly stepping back to allow the two cadets passage to the door.

Jason and Hercules got to their feet, walked to the front door. Hercules put a hand on his friend's shoulder and let him enter first. Cheiron remained on the porch, wanting to let the three friends have some time alone. He spotted Delphius leaning against the porch railing, and carefully made his way over. "You proved yourself a great warrior on the fighting field, Delphius," he said, eliciting a strange look from the young woman.

"Maybe," she replied, starring down at the ground. Her face was revealed, her cloak having been forgotten long ago. But she hadn't thought about it till now. Till she was out in the open where people could see the scar, and ask questions. But even though no one had made any reference to it yet, she still felt vulnerable and self-conscious, and she kept a hand hovering precariously close to her face as she spoke to the great Centaur.

"But I think I'm done with being a warrior," she continued, pulling at stray hairs to cover the scar. "I've had enough of blood shed and death. I want a simpler life now." She paused, and let her hands fall to her side. And when she looked up to Cheiron, she was grinning cryptically. "But what a way to go out," she beamed, nodding her head with gumption. "It's nice to leave an impression when you leave something behind."

Cheiron smiled, and even let a soft laugh escape his usually placid face. "Very true," he replied. "Very true. And thank-you, for putting your problems aside to help those prisoners."

Delphius furrowed her brow.

"Hercules explained to me what happened," he said. "About your father and the Amazons. I've been dealing with Amazons for a long time, I knew there had to be an interesting story behind your being at Kaprinia. And I wasn't disappointed when I heard your tale."

"Interesting, maybe," replied Delphius. "But not one I like telling. Although, I think I'm gonna have to get used to it now, cause ya know what? That cloak is really hot to wear in the summer... I think it's time I stop hiding. Maybe start over. A new me. And a new face to commemorate it."

"Hiding from yourself can be very tiring," proclaimed Cheiron, beginning one of his well rehearsed speeches. He had learned a lot in his life, and he enjoyed sharing his wisdom with those that were willing to learn. "You must remain true to yourself above all else. Don't let other's perceptions mold your identity. Be proud of yourself. Let your life shine through all your hardships and sorrow. Show the world what you are truly made of." Cheiron reached a hand out to softly touch the scar. "Wear it proudly... Without regret. You survived horrible times in your life, but you live to tell about them. And that is what is important."

"Maybe I will," smiled Delphius, brushing her hair back from her face for the first time in a long while. "It's a true testament of the spirit, don't ya think?" she asked, proudly displaying the scar. "I may have changed my name, maybe even my purpose in life, but I'm still the same person deep down. I just hope people will accept that."

Chiron smiled. "I definitely think they will," he replied. "And I know one such person who can contest to that..." he continued, placing his hand on the woman's shoulder. "How well do you remember Iolaus?"

Delphius smiled inwardly. Better than you can possibly imagine, she thought. But that was one door she wasn't quite ready to open yet.

*** *** ***

Iolaus looked peaceful, like someone taking a long nap after a hard day. His head was resting on a clean white pillow with his hand lying beside his face, the other arm stretched out along side him. He was asleep again. And he would even have looked normal, if not for the wounds on his back.

Jason and Hercules crept across the wooden floor quietly, not wanting to disturb him. And the healer, mixing medicines across the room, had issued a hushed warning to keep the noise to a minimum. Jason and Hercules abided, tentatively pulling up two chairs to the cot.

"How is he?" asked Hercules, twisting in his seat to look at the healer.

"He has suffered a lot, but in my humble opinion, I believe he'll be all right," replied the healer, with a wink. "It's going to take a lot of rest, and a lot of support. And I'm afraid there's nothing I can do about the scars. He'll have to live with those, most likely, for the rest of his life."

Not wanting to aggravate them, the healer had left Iolaus' back exposed to the air. The blanket draped on top of him came up only to his waist. Hercules and Jason starred at the scars, clean and strikingly red against the pale of Iolaus' skin. There were so many. Some were small and deep. Others stretched across the entirety of his back. It was a mosaic of lines, criss-crossing a pattern across his skin. They were obviously painful, but they would heal. It was Iolaus' inner turmoil and memories that would be harder, and more difficult, to cure. And once again, time would be the judge of that. Time would tell if Iolaus would be able to get past this. Add it up to another adventure completed, another experience under his belt.

Jason still had to begin his journey down that long arduous path, but he would have Iolaus to travel along side him. Together, they would have to learn to forgive, but not forget. Forgiving would mean they would accept what had happened to them, and take it as a lesson learned on how cruel the world could be. They would take what they had learned with all that dying and misfortune, and carry it with them as a legacy to the living. They would take that backward glance for those that did not survive, of places they could no longer go. And in time, when they felt safe to call it all a thing of the past, they would take one moment to embrace those departed prisoners they left behind.

But forget... Never.

Jason would never forget. He would never allow this to become a mere cobweb in his mind. Instead, he would draw from it strength and courage when life became to difficult. He no longer had his father's gift, but he would have this. It wasn't as good as the belt, but it would do. And he could live with that.

"Oh, one more thing," said the healer, clearing his throat. He crossed the room, heading for the pile of clothes sitting on a chair beside the cot. Iolaus' vest was neatly folded, his gauntlets and armband lying on top. His boots were placed under the chair, standing side by side.

The healer lifted the clothes and picked up a small, silver clasp. He held it up before Jason and Hercules. "I found this in your friend's boot," he said, turning the object around in his hand to examine it better. "I'm not sure what it is, but I'm sure it was something he didn't want to lose."

Jason's mouth dropped. The object in the healer's hand was his belt buckle. The one he thought he had lost. The one he had buried in the cavern's floor. The one his father had given him.

A wave of emotion swept through Jason, making his skin flush from head to toe. His hands shook as he took the precious buckle from the healer. He had to bite hard on his lower lip to control it from trembling.

"What is it?" asked Hercules, trying to look at the silver object being careful held in his friend's hands.

Jason grasped the buckle tightly, making a fist around it. "Oh my God," he breathed, his eyes fixated on his sick friend. Something dawned on him, something he had never considered before, but made perfect sense now. He hadn't been able to figure out Iolaus' actions before, but now they were shockingly clear.

"What?" pushed Hercules, his eyes darting between them both.

Jason turned to Hercules. "All this time..." he started, finding it more difficult to hold back the tears. He remembered Iolaus trying to convince him to leave him alone. He remembered Iolaus telling the guards he wanted to die. Iolaus had been trying to sacrifice himself, and Jason hadn't realized it till now. "All this time I thought I was taking care of him..." his voice trailed off as the words caught in his throat. "He was trying to look after me."

"That's just the way he is, Jason," replied Hercules, nudging his friend gently with his shoulder. "Always looking out for others."

Jason nodded, his eyes still on the resting form on Iolaus. "Yeah," he said quietly. "Yeah, he is."

Hercules leaned forward on his chair, rested his elbows on his knees. "Do you think we tell him that enough?" he asked, furrowing his brow as he turned to Jason. "You know, how much we appreciate him and all?"

Jason thought about the question for a moment, then nodded his head. "Sure we do. He knows."

"Yeah, you're probably right," replied Hercules with smile.

Jason turned the buckle over in his hands, fingering the curves and etchings tentatively. "But I wonder..." he said thoughtfully. "Why did he take this? He must've seen me bury it, but he believed he wasn't getting out of there, so why'd he hide it in his boot? What's up with that?" he asked.

Hercules thought about that for a moment, but since he had no answer he just shrugged.

"Maybe his spirit had different plans?" suggested the healer, crossing his arms over his chest as he entered the conversation.

"His spirit?" asked Hercules apprehensively.

The healer nodded, looked at Iolaus on the bed. "When the body has reached it's limit, and the mind has already given up, there's still a part of you that thrives to continue." The healer paused and paced over to the two men in the chairs. Placing a hand on each of their shoulder, he continued. "When all hope seems to be lost, the human spirit prevails. Maybe that part of your friend Iolaus took the buckle... His spirit hadn't given up yet, even though the rest of him had."

Jason drew his head back. "That's deep."

"Yeah," breathed Hercules, also impressed by the words. "But it makes sense. The history of human suffering is proof of that."

Jason punched Hercules playfully on the arm. "Makes ya glad you're part mortal, doesn't it?" he kidded, though not completely.

Hercules nodded emphatically. "Definitely."

A soft noise from the bed caught their attention, diverting them from their self discoveries. Iolaus had stirred.

"Jason...?" he asked, his eyes fluttering open.

Jason nearly jumped off his seat as he leaned forward over the bed. "Yeah, Iolaus. It's me," he said.

"Am I dreaming?" Iolaus asked, slowly tucking a stray curl behind his ear, then letting his hand fall back on the pillow.

"No, buddy. You're not dreaming," replied Hercules, unable to contain his jubilant grin.

"Hercules...?"

"Yeah, it's me," continued Hercules. "You're safe now. Everything's gonna be all right."

Iolaus closed his eyes, took in a deep breath. "Safe... Yeah... Jason...?"

"I'm right here, buddy," answered Jason, also grinning ear to ear.

"Thank you."

Jason furrowed his brow, turned to Hercules in confusion. "For what?" he asked, cocking his head closer to Iolaus.

"For not listening to me back there," replied Iolaus softly. "For not leaving me behind."

"Just get some sleep, Iolaus," Jason ordered softly, not wanting to address that topic quite yet. He would save that debate for later. Jason was still harboring guilt, but right now there were more pressing matters. And he knew if he went forward with the conversation, he'd end up crying. And that was definitely not something a future King of Corinth would be caught doing. "You just rest," he repeated, turning his head as he wiped his eye covertly.

"Hmmm," mumbled Iolaus, letting his eyes flick open for a brief second before closing again. "Sleep... Yeah... The guards will be by soon..."

Hercules sat back in his chair, rested a hand on Jason's shoulder as he too gave Iolaus some room. "He's got a rough night ahead for himself," he said, squeezing Jason's shoulder.

Jason nodded, fingered the buckle still in his hand. "Yeah." A rough time indeed. He drew in a deep breath and watched the rhythmic rising and falling of Iolaus' back. The sign of breathing. The sign of life. Jason's security blanket. "But he's gonna be okay," he said confidently. "I really think he's gonna be okay."

"We'll ride so far, ride so hard, far away from here.

When we look back upon them, it will all become so clear.

The gates will open up for us.

We won't have no more fears."

-Tom Cochrane

All the King's Men

 

~The End~

Disclaimer: I know most of you wanted to see Blasius get his dues in the end, but well, that's how life goes. It's cruel. But, as you may have also noted, there were a few other issues that weren't quite resolved in this story. There is a reason for that. I left them open as to create an alternate universe for my stories. A time line that remembers this story, and the characters introduced. I hope you enjoyed reading it. It was definitely a draining experience to write. And... Thank you to Gywen for allowing me to use her as a not just a thesaurus, but as a bouncing board for ideas.


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