Title: Balance

Title: Balance

Author: Smenzer

Rating: PG

Pairing: None. Young Hercules

Teaser: Response to Celest's photo challenge!

Disclaimer: The characters are not mine. They belong to Studios USA or

Whoever owns the Rights to Young Hercules. This is just for fun. No money is being made.

Hercules strolled through the forest with his friends. It was the weekend so they had escaped from the Academy and had decided to do some hiking. Hercules breathed in the clear air and admired the natural beauty of the majestic forest around him. The oaks and maples stretched high into the air and glittering gold sunbeams squeezed through the trees' shady boughs. It was great to get out of the Academy, even if it was only for a few days.

"Can we stop?" Iolaus whined as he finally caught up to Hercules. He dumped his heavy pack on the ground and pushed his tangled blonde curls out of his eyes. "I'm starving! When are we going to eat?"

"But we just ate before we left." Jason said as he glanced up at the towering trees. "This is the most beautiful forest I seen. A lot of these trees are very old."

"Yeah, yeah." Iolaus replied as he kicked a stone on the dirt trail. "But I can't eat trees and leaves! And I'm hungry!"

"But Iolaus, you're *always* hungry!" Ash teased him. Her blue eyes sparkled with mischief as she teased her friend. She cocked her head sideways and listened. She heard a faint gurgling sound. "Hey, I think I hear a river! We can catch some fish."

The four cadets headed toward the river. They descended a steep wooded hill and saw the ribbon of water rushing through the green. Tall reeds and grass surrounded its banks. As they approached the riverbank, the tall grass shivered and they heard a loud squeak.

"Whoah." Hercules held out his arms to stop his friends. "There's something in there. We don't want to startle it."

Iolaus inched forward and peered at the waist tall grass. The grass rattled harder and three more loud squeaks were heard. "I can't see what it is."

"Just leave it alone!" Ash told Iolaus. "We can go further downstream to fish. What if it's a predator in there?"

"Ha! That shows how much you know about predators!" Iolaus laughed as he turned to face his friends, his back to the tall grass. "I learned a lot about hunting from my Uncle. I know all the sounds the various animals make and predators do not squeak!"

Iolaus screamed as something launched itself from the grass and landed on his back. He was knocked to the ground. He felt the heavy creature on his back, felt its hot breath on the back of his neck. "Aaaahhh! Help! It's got me! Aaaahhhhh! Get it off!"

Hercules, Jason and Ash rushed to his side. They stared at the odd orange and black striped cat. The cat was larger than any cat they had ever seen, yet it looked like a baby. White wings grew out of its back and there was also some white on its face. The cat glanced at them with its yellow eyes and squeaked loudly.

Hercules bent down and picked the baby cat off Iolaus. He held it in his arms and its body covered him from shoulders to hips. The cat wrapped its paws around his neck and squeaked. "It's OK, Iolaus. It's just a baby...something. Some type of winged cat with stripes."

"Ooohhh, it's so *cute!* I wander what it is?" Ash reached out and rubbed the cat's big head. After a few moments, it started to purr.

Iolaus got to his feet and dusted off his clothes. "I never saw one of those before. In fact, my Uncle never mentioned any big stripped cats. If that's just a baby, think how big an adult must be." Iolaus shivered at the idea.

Artemis appeared in a flash of green light. She pointed her arm at Hercules. "That is my sacred winged tiger cub. You will put it down NOW!"

"OK! I'm not hurting it!" Hercules placed the tiger cub on the ground and it bounded over to Artemis. It rubbed its body against her shimmering, multicolored legs.

"Gee, I never saw anything like it before." Iolaus stated. "Where did you get it from?"

"It was a gift from Vishnu. Unfortunately, he only gave me one." Artemis was quite for a moment, then continued. "Since you are trespassing in my sacred forest, you will be punished."

"What? That's not fair!" Hercules protested as he stared at his shimmering half-sister. "We didn't know this was your forest! And besides, we didn't do anything!"

"Hercules is right." Jason added. "Your cat jumped on Iolaus."

"Still, you must be punished for trespassing." The Goddess pointed her hand at them and a green fog drifted out towards them. "You will find me another tiger cub like this one. It can be winged or wingless. Make sure it is a female as this one is a male. Call me when you have one and I will bring you back home."

"Wait!" Hercules yelled but it was too late. The green fog surrounded the four friends and they vanished!

They reappeared in a place that looked different from anywhere they had ever been. The first thing Hercules noticed was the *heat*. It was incredibly hot and the sweat just poured out of his skin. In moments his clothes were soaked. There was a dry field to his right and a house to his left. The house also was strange. It appeared to be made from clay and had a thatched roof. It was circular in shape, not square.

Ash wiped her wet brow as she glanced around. "Where are we? Everything looks so different."

"I don't know." Hercules replied as he stood uncertainly. "I guess this is where tigers come from. We better find one for Artemis."

"Hey." Jason said as he pointed at something. "Look at that forest. I never saw trees like those before. Look at the size of those leaves, the shapes of the trunks. Wherever we are, it's very far from Corinth."

Hercules turned to look where Jason pointed. A thick green forest rose up behind the dry field. He noticed that the plants in the field were waist tall. "Maybe we better go ask someone where we are and if there are any tigers around here."

"Good idea. I have dinars in case we need them." Jason added as the young Crown Prince headed toward the circular hut.

"Yeah, well I hope there's something to eat!" Iolaus added as he hurried after his friends. "Because in case you forgot, I still didn't eat anything!"

Hercules reached the hut and circled around it searching for a door. About halfway around he discovered the doorless opening that led inside. The interior was dark but there was enough light to reveal a dirt floor. He glanced nervously at his friends and poked his head inside. "Hello? Is anyone home?"

A brown skinned man with black hair came to the door. He wore a white robe-type outfit. He grinned at them and they saw he was missing several teeth. "Hello! You come to buy from Valmik? Yes? Me have many fine vegetables! Good breadfruit, sweet honey."

"Umm, not exactly. Can you tell us where we are?" Hercules asked. He noticed the man had an odd accent and it was difficult to understand what he said. "We'll buy a meal once we know where we are. OK?"

Valmik stared at them funny. "How you not know where you are? This is the Sunderbans. Come in and me fix you meal. Me have good food, clean water."

Soon they were seated on the dirt floor with their backs against the side of the hut. Their host gave them bowls of stew that contained vegetables and some type of meat. Hercules tasted the meat but its taste was unfamiliar to the Demigod. They were also given fresh bread, honeycombs and thick slices of a large yellow cucumber-shaped object. Hercules picked up one of the slices and tried a mouthful. "What is this?"

"That be breadfruit. It grow on tree." Valmik explained grinned as he counted the dinars Jason had handed him.

"Boy, we really are far from home if pickles grow on trees around here!" Iolaus gulped down his stew and licked his lips. The meat was a bit tough but he didn't care. "What do you call this meat?"

"That be barasingha. Swamp deer. Taste good, yes?" Valmik smiled and stuck his coins into a fold in his clothing. "Big swamp just outside. Few barasingha left. Stay away from Sunderbans. Dangerous."

"Whoa, wait a minute. What's dangerous?" Hercules asked as he placed his empty stew bowl on the dirt floor. "Are you saying there's something dangerous in that forest out there?"

"Yes!" Valmik answered. He glanced fearfully toward the open door and shuddered. "Big cat. Many big cat eat people. Sometimes big cats come onto my farm. They attack, killed my son two years ago. They be man-killers."

"Are these cats orange with black stripes?" asked Ash. Her stomach jumped nervously. She was afraid she already knew the answer.

Valmik nodded his head.

"How big are the adults?" Jason asked.

"Very big! Bigger than you." Their host replied as he collected the empty bowls. "It best you city folk go back to city where safe. Or you end up in cat's belly."

"Hey! I'm not a city person. I know about wild animals and they don't attack you unless you provoke them." Iolaus said hotly. "Even wolves don't. They just have a bad reputation. So either you're provoking them or they're just defending their young."

"No, no. They be dangerous man-eaters! Me don't do them anything. They come onto my farm to eat me!" Valmik insisted.

"That doesn't make any sense." Jason stated. "Why would they want to come here? Wild animals normally stay away from humans. If they're coming here, it's for a reason."

"Well, no matter the reason we need to get a tiger cub for Artemis." Hercules reminded his friends. "Maybe we'll find out more as we search for one."

The four friends headed towards the Sunderbans and entered the a rich green world. Their boots were quickly caked with a thick layer of muck from the swampy soil. The air was damp with moisture and they breathed in the sweet scent of tropical flowers.

They walked for an hour without seeing anything. Bees buzzed and birds sang but that was it. Ash stopped and studied the soggy ground before her. "I don't get this. Where is all the wildlife? The herbivores, I mean? This place is empty."

"Yeah, I noticed the same thing." Jason said as he studied another section of ground. "And I don't see any tracks, either. Where are those deer that guy mentioned? And this place would be perfect for wild boars."

Hercules wiped his brow. He studied the area and something caught his eye. He parted the bushed and grinned. A large pool of water waited for him. "Hey! I found some water. We better fill our canteens."

The Demigod pushed his way through the greenery and knelt by the pool of water. He cupped a double handful and splashed it onto his face and hair. It dripped down his face and made a large dark spot on his yellow shirt. He gathered another handful and took a much needed drip. His blue eyes widened and Hercules spat out the water.

"What's the matter, Hercules?" Ash asked with concern. She placed a hand on his shoulder as he coughed and scrubbed at his mouth with his hand. "Is the water bad? You know how Chiron taught us how not to drink the surface water, but to gather the deeper water?"

"It's salty!" Hercules sputtered as he got to his feet.

"Salty?" asked Iolaus in surprise. The curly-haired cadet pushed his way through more bushes and discovered another pool. He tasted the water and spitted it out. "Yech! This is salty, too! No wonder there's no animals around here. How in the world did all this water get salty?"

"Maybe there's an ocean around here somewhere?" Jason asked as he rubbed his forhead. "We better start conserving our water until we find a clean supply. We can't drink salt water. This is an unsuspected problem."

Branches snapped and the tall grass rustled.

"What's that?" Ash whispered as she moved closer to Hercules and Jason. Iolaus froze where he stood a few feet away. More sounds drifted out of a nearby clump of bushes. The source of the sounds was hidden behind thick grasses and greenery.

"Something's moving in the bushes." Hercules whispered back. He searched the nearby forest until he spotted movement in one area. He pointed toward the spot. "It's over there."

The bushes parted and a young woman stepped out. She carried a weaved straw basket under one arm. Her skin was chestnut brown and long black hair cascaded freely to her waist. An orange clothe wrapped around her body to form a dress. A thick piece of string was tied around her forehead. She opened her mouth when she spotted the cadets and dropped her basket to the ground. "Oh!"

"It's OK." Ash assured her as she smiled at the young woman. She guessed the girl was the same age as the cadets. "We won't hurt you. What are you doing here? We were told that dangerous cats lived in this forest."

The girl bent down and scooped up her basket. She walked up to the cadets and smiled. "It's true. The tiger is very dangerous. It's stripes hide in the tall grass and plants. You never see it. Then when you are very close it runs out and jumps on you. They prefer to sneak up from behind you. As to what I am doing here, I'm collecting honey for my family. We sell it in the market." The girl reached into her basket and showed them a thick honeycomb.

"You parents just send you out here, unarmed?" Jason asked, shocked. "How could they do that?"

"I have my tiger mask." The girl turned around and the cadets gasped. She wore a carved wooden mask on the back of her head. The mask was painted to look like a human face, with eyes, nose and a mouth. It was tied to her head with the string. "They say a tiger won't attack if it thinks you are looking at it."

"But that isn't any protection!" Hercules said angrily. "You could be killed out here! Don't you have a sword or a dagger, anything?"

"Even the men of my village don't have swords! They use wooden spears." The girl studied the cadets with her dark brown eyes. They were heavily armed and wore expensive leathers. "My name is Sari. And I'm not the only one wandering in these swamps. You will see many people in here. Woodcutters, frond collectors, honey collectors, hunters and even fishermen pass through on their way to the bay."

"I'm Hercules." Hercules grinned widely at Sari. He was shoved out of the way by Iolaus. "Hey! Watch it, Iolaus!"

"Hello there!" Iolaus offered her his arm to grasp. "I'm Iolaus. And this is Jason and Ash. You already met Herc. So tell me, where are all the animals? We didn't even find any hoof prints or spoors."

Sari frowned. "Most of the barasingha and sambar have been caught by hunters. Lately the hunters are coming home empty handed. It's getting harder to put meat on our tables."

"Well, there's why the tigers are attacking people! You hunted and ate it's food!" Iolaus said angrily as he shook his head sadly.

"That and there's too many people crawling around in this swamp." Jason added.

"And don't forget the salty water." Ash reminded them all.

A deep growl interrupted their conversation. The cadets glanced at each other and at Sari.

The young woman paled and she clutched her basket tightly. "Shere Khan comes!"

"Everyone, up into a tree!" Jason ordered as he grasped Ash's wrist and pulled her toward a thick sundri tree. He picked her up and helped her into the upper branches. Then he leaped upward and hauled himself up. Ash climbed higher from branch to branch until she was near the top. Jason followed her.

Iolaus and Hercules shoved Sari up into a second sundri tree. The girl easily climbed the branches and needed no help from the cadets. She was used to climbing trees to collect beehives for honey. Hercules had just heaved Iolaus up into the tree when the tiger leaped out of the bushes. The big cat growled as it raced toward the Demigod who was still on the ground. It opened its large mouth and revealed broken, yellowed fangs. It leaped right at Hercules' back, its sharp claws out.

"Aaahhh!" Hercules screamed as he leaped straight up into the air. His fingers locked around a branch and he struggled to swing his body upward. The tiger didn't waste any time. It leaped upward towards the dangling Demigod. One of its curved claws snagged in Hercules' boot.

"I'm coming, Herc! Just hang on!" Iolaus jumped from the branch he was on towards his friend. He almost slipped when he landed on the other branch because of all the much on the bottom of his boots. He pin wheeled his arms and fell back against the tree's main trunk. The rested for a second to steady himself, then headed out towards Hercules.

"I'm trying!" Hercules gritted his teeth as he tried to hang on. His knuckles turned white and his arms ached. The tiger's weight pulled on him and the leg it was hanging from burned. Hercules glanced down and tried to kick the cat with his free leg. The big cat saw the other leg coming at it and swiped at it with it's other paw. Hercules just managed to jerk his leg away at the last second.

"Iolaus! Hurry up! My fingers are slipping!" Hercules yelled. His fingers slipped lower and he struggled to hang on longer.

"I got you buddy!" Iolaus sat on the thick branch and wrapped his legs around it. He grabbed Hercules' wrists and tried to pull him up. The problem was the tiger weighed at least 400 pounds, which was too much weight for the curly haired cadet. He strained every muscle in his body and gritted his teeth. Iolaus gasped. "I can't! It's too heavy!"

"We have to do something!" Ash said as she scrambled down the sundri tree she was in. Jason quickly followed her down. The Crown Prince of Corinth leaped to the spongy earth from the last branch and landed with a thud. Ash reached the ground a second later.

CRACK!

Iolaus and Hercules screamed as the branch they were on broke off the tree and fell through the moist air.

The tiger crashed to the ground first, the branch, Hercules and Iolaus landing on top of the big cat. Iolaus jumped to his feet and pulled Hercules away from the cat. The striped feline had let go of Hercules' boot when it had hit the ground. The tiger hissed at the two male cadets, but Ash was ready. She zapped it with a lightning bolt and the tiger passed out. Ash and Jason raced to Hercules' side.

"Are you OK, Hercules?" Ash asked her friend, worry in her voice. "It didn't maul you, did it?"

Hercules leaned against Iolaus and Jason moved quickly to help support him. Hercules groaned as he tried putting weight on his injured foot. Jason and Iolaus moved him over to a fallen log. They carefully removed his boot and Jason examined Herc's foot.

"I don't see any claw marks or blood. Guess you got lucky." Jason told the Demigod. He held up the boot and saw where the claw had gone through. "I guess only the very tip of the claw was stuck in your boot."

"Yeah, but it hurts like crazy! All that weight. Ugh!" Hercules moaned. "At least no one else got hurt. That's the important thing."

"Hey. You're important to us." Jason told him.

Ash studied the tiger. It wasn't dead but just unconscious. The cat's body was so thin that its ribs were clearly visible under its dull fur. She pried open its mouth and peered inside. A bright red line ran along the gum line and several teeth were gone. The fang tips were broken off, too. Ash closed the mouth and moved down its body. She spotted a big nasty scar on its flank, one that appeared to be from a spear. From the scar's location, Ash guessed the tiger was probably lame. "I think I know why this tiger attacked us. It's half starved, lame and has very bad teeth. It would never be able to catch anything else."

"And drinking salt water probably damaged it, too." Jason added. He stared at the tiger and shook his head. "It's a tragedy that such a beautiful creature was reduced to this state. If these people hadn't hunted the tiger's prey to almost extinction, they wouldn't be killing humans. But sick cats like this one don't have any other choice."

Sari climbed down from the tree and stared at the tiger. "I never saw one before."

"See what your people have done to this once noble animal?" Jason asked. "This tiger is sick and almost dead. He has nothing to eat. Humans have caused the tigers to be man-killers. That and the salty water."

"What can we do?" Sari asked the young Prince.

"You can set out fresh water for the animals to drink." Jason told her. "And turn this swamp into sacred land where no one can hunt. The Goddess Artemis has many such sacred spots in our homeland. There the animals are safe and can live without man interfering. In time the deer and pig population should recover, especially if you help it along."

Hercules pulled on his boot and hobbled over to look at the big cat. He bent down and touched its soft fur. He estimated this male was about eleven feet long. "A healthy tiger must be an incredible sight, one I would like to see."

The cadets left the tiger and headed further into the Sunderbans. They wanted to be far away when he woke from Ash's lightning bolt. They still had to find a cub for Artemis. They traveled through the mangroves and admired the lush palms and flowering vines. Water seeped into Hercules' boot as he hobbled along with the others. His leg still ached but he could put his weight on it now without screaming in agony.

They descended a steep overgrown hill and entered a beautiful valley. The air was filled with thick mist and the shadowy outline of a ruined building could be seen. Towers rose into the air, their tops crumbled and open to the elements. A large lake glistened, its water perfectly still. As they walked closer, they saw the stone of the ruins was covered in thick layers of vine and moss. Tropical birds sung in the trees and butterflies flapped their wings as they fluttered past.

"Aooo! Aoooo!"

"What was that?" Ash asked the other cadets and Sari. The young woman had decided to travel with them for the time being.

"I don't know." Iolaus admitted, "But I think we're about to find out. The sound came from just in front of us, in those bushes to the left."

"Aooooo! Aoooooo!"

The sound moved closer.

The cadets gasped when a tigress stepped out onto the path before them. Her orange and black striped body was only ten feet away. She stopped and raised her head. After her large nose sniffed the air, she lowered her head and gazed at them with yellow eyes. The big feline moaned again. After a few moments, three plump cubs raced out of the green shrubs. They chased each other and tripped over their own feet. The tigress licked her cubs and then turned her back on the startled cadets. She padded on velvety paws over to the ruins. She leaped onto a thick rock slab and stretched out in the warm sunlight. The cubs peered at the cadets with giant blue eyes, then hurried over to their mother in fright.

"She's so beautiful!" Ash said quietly as she watched the tigress watching them. "She doesn't appear to be afraid of us. And she's not chasing us, either."

"Well, wild animals usually don't." Iolaus told her. "This one appears to be healthy, so she's acting normal. This is how most of the tigers probably act. I hope."

"I don't know." Hercules said as he ran a hand through his blonde hair. "I wouldn't feel right taking a cub from her. Look at them play. She takes good care of them. I think we should just let her be."

"Well, we got to get one from somewhere." Jason reminded his friends. The Prince of Corinth backed away and pushed his way through the thick vines. "Come on, let's see if we can find some other cub. Maybe one who doesn't have a mother to look after it."

"That's going to be hard to do." Iolaus stated as he followed Jason. "I mean, how big is this place anyway? It must be huge! And we're just going to stumble across a motherless cub? I don't know, Jason."

"I'm not kidnapping a cub, Iolaus." Hercules insisted as he limped along behind Iolaus. He had discovered a thick branch and he used it to help him walk. Instead of getting better, Hercules had grown worse. His limp was more extreme and he winced each time he stepped on his injured leg. Pain raced up his leg from his heel. He stopped and wiped his wet brow. He pulled out his canteen to get a drink and discovered it was empty. "Great. Just great."

"Hercules, are you OK?" Ash asked as she came up from behind him. Ares' daughter had been walking behind him and had noticed he had been going slower and slower. Plus his limp had grown more pronounced. "Jason! Iolaus! I think Hercules' leg has gotten worst!"

Jason and Iolaus turned around and hurried back to their friend. Sweat poured off his brow and his blue eyes appeared dazed. Jason cast a worried glance at Herc and shook his head. "Oh, man, you don't look good. We better examine your foot again."

"I'm fine. Really." Hercules insisted as he tried to move past Jason and Iolaus. "We got to keep searching for a cub. If we don't find one, we'll never get home."

"You're more important than getting home. You hear that?" Iolaus told him. He gripped Hercules around one arm and let him over to a big boulder. He pushed on Hercules' shoulders and the Demigod collapsed onto the rock. Iolaus knelt before him and pulled off his friend's boot. Hercules screamed as it popped off.

Iolaus held Herc's foot up in the air and examined it. He frowned as he saw the raw bloody skin. "There's your problem. Your boot rubbed the skin off the back of your heel. I think the water in the boot did it."

Jason bent over to have a look. "It's already swollen, too. It's probably infected from all the gunk in this swamp. We got to clean out the wound and keep it clean, find some herbs."

"My water's gone." Hercules gasped as Iolaus touched the wound. "We have to find some fresh water."

Ash shook her canteen and frowned. Very little water sloshed inside it. She turned to Sari. The native girl had been very quite since she had seen the sick tiger that had attacked them. She just followed them without a word. "Do you know somewhere we can get fresh water? A pool, a lake, a river?"

"There is a large river but it's far from here." The native girl replied. "I doubt if he would be able to make it that far."

"Is there anything closer?" Ash asked. "Anything at all?"

"Well, there is something my people sometimes use for water. You may not want to use it though." Sari explained as she moved toward the trees. She seemed to be searching for something among the greenery, although Ash could not imagine what. Instead of looking on the ground, Sari searched the higher branches of the trees. The girl pointed at something up in a thick sundri tree. "See, that splash of red among the green? They contain water you can drink. My people call them monkey cups, because monkeys often drink from them."

"What are they?" Ash asked in confusion as she stared up at the bright red object in the tree. As she studied the forest around her, she noticed more of the red speckled objects. They seemed to grow on long vines with big leaves. "Is it a type of fruit?"

"No. It's not fruit." Sari replied as she jumped up into the sundri tree and climbed upward.

Ash examined the nearby trees and picked one that contained lots of the red objects. She grasped a low hanging branch and pulled herself up. From there, she climbed from branch to branch until she reached the nearest red object. Upon closer inspection, Ash saw it was green but covered in bright red spots. It was large, about the size of a pineapple and shaped like a pickle with a rounded bottom. It's top was bright red and open. Ash reached for the vine it dangled from and peered inside.

Ash examined the nearby trees and picked one that contained lots of the red objects. She grasped a low hanging branch and pulled herself up. From there, she climbed from branch to branch until she reached the nearest red object. Upon closer inspection, Ash saw it was green but covered in bright red spots. It was large, about the size of a pineapple and shaped like a pickle with a rounded bottom. It's top was bright red and open. Ash reached for the vine it dangled from and peered inside.

"Eeewwww!" Ash twisted her face and flung the thing away from herself. Water was inside it all right, but dead insects floated in it. Mainly she had seen ants. "There is no way I'm going to drink that!"

Ash climbed down from the tree and waited for Sari. A while later the native girl descended from the other sundri tree, fat monkey cups dangled from her arms. Sari turned around and almost walked into Ash. "Oh!"

"We can't drink that water! It's filled with bugs!" Ash told her, her voice a bit harsh. She had hoped they had discovered a supply of water only to find it was undrinkable. That made her a bit angry, because Hercules really needed some water.

Sari held up one of the monkey cups. Ash noticed the top on this one was closed. "You only pick the sealed cups. See, these did not open yet but they are filled with clean water, fresh from the vine's roots. And yes, the open ones are filled with insects. They are, after all, pitcher plants!"

"Oh!" Ash said as she blushed. She felt silly now. But those insects in the water had really freaked her out! She realized now she should have expected it. But then again, she had never heard of a pitcher plant before. "Why do these monkey cups collect water?"

Sari walked towards the guys with the sealed containers of water. "The monkey cups eat the insects. They have a type of honey around their rims and the insects fall into the water where they drown."

"Geez! That sounds so weird!" Iolaus said as he sliced open one of the green and red speckled jugs. He peered inside and was shocked to see it was actually filled with clear water. He pressed it against Hercules' lips. "Drink the water, Herc."

Hercules snatched the monkey cup away from Iolaus and glared at him. "I can hold my own water, Iolaus! There's nothing wrong with my hands or arms. It's just my foot. OK? You don't have to baby me." Hercules drank the water until the natural jug was empty. He hadn't realized he was so thirsty.

"I better go pick more of those monkey cups. I think we're all dehydrated from this heat. None of us are used to it being this hot." Ash said as she headed back toward the sundri tree. This time she would be careful to pick only sealed monkey cups. They were lucky they had wandered across Sari in the Sunderbans. Without her knowledge of the swamp, they would be in very serious trouble. Ash leaped into the branches and pulled the dagger out of her right boot. Worry gnawed at her mind as she reached for a sealed monkey cup. Finding water had only solved part of their problem. Jason and Iolaus had said Herc's foot was infected. Ash knew that if left untreated, the infection could kill the Demigod. If they were back home, it would be a different matter. They would know what herbs to use. But here all the plants were different. Ash tried to push the worry out of her mind, but couldn't. She cared about Hercules and hated to see any of her friends hurt.

"This isn't good." Jason shook his head as he felt Hercules' foot. The skin was puffy and bright red. Most of the puffiness was centered on his heel and ankle, but Jason noticed two of his toes were swollen, too. He glanced up at Sari. "Do you have any herbs or something we can use for medicine? Something that can treat this?"

"Well, our healer uses the water and leaves from these." Sari held up another monkey cup. You boil it and put in on the wound after it cools."

Iolaus took the offered monkey cup and searched through their gear for the kettle. After getting a campfire going, he let Sari prepare the medicine. She had watched the healer do it many times, so she could do it better than any of the cadets. While the stuff cooked, Jason carefully cleaned the wound and the area around it. Once it was finished and cool enough, they applied it to Hercules' foot and lower leg. Then they wrapped his foot in a clean strip of cloth from an extra shirt Jason had brought along.

"Hey, what are we going to eat?" Iolaus asked no one in particular. His stomach rumbled loudly as it protested its cruel treatment. By this time Ash had crawled down from the sundri tree with a huge load of the green and red jugs. Iolaus snatched one off the pile and greedily tore it open. He gulped down the water and tossed the empty shell onto the forest floor. "I know we can't hunt because there's nothing to hunt, but there must be something around here to eat. But then again, if these plants have to resort to eating bugs, that doesn't sound good for us."

"What about those breadfruit things?" Jason asked Sari. "Do those grow around here?"

Sari searched the nearby swamp and managed to find some breadfruits. That combined with her honeycombs had served as their supper. She had offered them plump grubs, but they all had politely refused. The mere idea of even touching one of those had sickened all of them. Sari had just stared at them like they were nuts. To her, protein was protein and she needed it to stay strong and healthy. After eating, they had argued whether it was safe to sleep on the ground or not. They had decided finally to risk it as Hercules could never get up into a tree with his infected foot. The swelling had not gone down nor had it increased. This worried Jason to no end and he paced up and back restlessly.

Sometime later Hercules jerked awake. He wiped his tired eyes and peered around. All of his friends snored nearby, although one of them was supposed to be on watch. Hercules shook his head. He didn't think that under these conditions a watch would do any good. If a man-killing tiger happened upon them in the night, there would be no time to warn anyone. And Hercules knew that with his infected foot, he wouldn't be able to move fast enough. Heck, he could barely limp. Of course, he realized he was just lucky to be alive and in one piece. That tiger could have killed him or torn off his leg. Worst, it could have mauled him but left him alive. Then he would be forced to live the rest of his life as a cripple, depending on others for everything. He didn't think he could live under those conditions.

The Sunderbans at night was totally different. The swamp came alive with the sounds of hundreds of creatures. Hercules had no idea what kind of creatures they were, but he hoped they would leave him and his friends alone. He leaned his back against a large rock and just listened to the sounds.

Without warning, a loud scream echoed through the swamp. Hercules knew instantly it was the sound of someone in pain. He pushed himself up as he heard the sound again. He knew he had to help whoever it was. Hercules grasped his walking stick and leaned on it heavily. He spotted Jason's sword resting on a nearby flat rock and decided to borrow it. Sword in one hand and walking stick in the other, Hercules hobbled into the thick brush.

Iolaus jerked awake and spotted Hercules struggling in the bushes, His yellow tunic had gotten caught on a branch. Iolaus rolled over and shook the young prince awake. Once Jason was awake, he pointed at Hercules. Iolaus then jumped to his feet and hurried over to his friend. "Whoa, Herc, Where do you think you're going? You're not feverish, are you?"

"Someone needs help! I got to go help them." Hercules explained as he tried to pull his tunic free from the branch. His face twisted up when it refused to come free. He yanked as hard as he could and his yellow tunic tore. Hercules lost his balance on the uneven ground and he fell into the bushes behind himself.

"Hercules!" Jason shouted as he raced over to the bush and extracted his friend. He gripped him under one arm and led him back to his bedroll. "You can't help anyone like this! You can hardly walk. Now you stay here while me and Iolaus go see what that was. OK?"

"I hate this. I can't do anything. I can't even walk. How can I help anyone like this?" Hercules moaned to himself. He leaned back against his bedroll on the damp ground. "My bedroll is even all wet! I'll get arthritis from sleeping on the damp ground. And then a man-eating tiger will come along and eat me. Plus it'll eat you, too, because you'll try to protect me. You'll get killed and it'll be my fault because I can't walk!"

Iolaus rubbed at his face. "Herc is in one of his moods again."

"Yeah. I noticed." Jason replied. "Look. Nothing is going to happen. We'll just go see who needs help and then we'll be right back. OK? After that, we'll find a tiger cub and go home!"

"We'll never find a tiger cub." Hercules moaned as he reached under his bedroll and pulled out a stone. He tossed it angrily against the trunk of a sundri tree.

"Of course we will!" Iolaus said. "Why, I bet me and Jason will find one tonight! In fact, we won't come back until we have one. With me on the trail, how can we fail? Hey! I made a rhyme! Cool!"

Jason rolled his eyes at Iolaus. He knew Iolaus was trying to cheer Herc up, but making promises he couldn't keep wouldn't help in the long run. In fact, it just might have the opposite effect. That's what worried Jason. Then Herc could say that Iolaus lied to him. After waking up Ash to keep an eye on Herc, Jason headed out into the mangrove swamp with Iolaus. Once they were away from camp, Jason turned to his curly haired friend. "You shouldn't make promises to Hercules you can't keep. It'll just upset him more."

"Well, I intend to keep my promise!" Iolaus said smugly as he stepped in front of Jason and continued down the little used animal trail. "I'm going to find us that tiger cub! You just wait and see!"

"Yeah? And how are you going to do that?" Jason asked as he hurried after his friend.

"Easy! I'm going to follow these tracks." Iolaus pointed at the large pugmarks in the damp earth. It was obvious a large cat made them. Smaller pugmarks were along the big ones and sometimes they overlapped. "See? It'll be easy. I'm a master tracker, you know!"

"Yeah, sure you are." Jason retorted. "But we still need to find whoever Hercules heard. Don't forget about that."

The terrifying scream rang out again and Jason shivered. It was the most horrible sound he had ever heard. He picked up the pace and dashed through the tangled shrubs. Mud splashed over his fine Corinthian leather but he didn't care. Whoever it was needed help now!

The two young cadets emerged into a small clearing and gasped. A tiger was trapped in a hunter's snare. The poor creature had its back leg caught in a metal trap. The trap was attached to a tree with a long chain. The tiger screamed and swiped a huge paw at the man before him. The poacher was armed with a wooden spear and jabbed the weapon at the big cat.

"Hey! What the heck do you think you're doing?" Iolaus yelled at the man. "That tigress has cubs! You can't kill it!"

"You go away! This my tiger! My tiger skin!" The poacher yelled back. He twisted his body to face the cadets and pointed his wooden spear at them. "Me sell meat, too. You go get own tiger! This one mine!"

"The heck I am! I'm not going to let you kill this beautiful animal!" Iolaus dashed forward and kicked the spear out of the poacher's hands. The spear fell through the air and landed in some nearby shrubbery. The poacher's dark eyes widened in shock just before Iolaus landed on the man's chest. The two landed hard on the ground and the cadet socked him one in the face.

Jason stared down at the man in disgust. "These animals are sacred to Artemis and you're in major trouble. She's not going to be pleased."

The man struggled under Iolaus but the cadet wasn't letting him up. Jason tore some vines down and helped Iolaus to tie the poacher up. They had no idea what they were going to do with him, but they couldn't let him wander around free. Perhaps they could turn him in to the local authorities. Once the man was tied securely to a tree, Jason and Iolaus turned to the trapped tigress.

She glared at them with yellow eyes filled with pain and fright. A deep growl leaked out from between her black lips.

"What are we going to do?" Jason asked his friend. "How are we going to free her? If we go near her, she'll tear us apart."

Iolaus tilted his head and listened. He turned around and peered into a nearby hollow log. He stood up and frowned. "I don't know, Jason. But the cubs are in this log."

Back at the camp, Hercules struggled to his feet again.

"Hercules! Where are you going?" Ash asked as she leaped up.

"I can't just sit here and wait. I have to go help Iolaus and Jason. They might need me. I hate feeling helpless like this." Hercules grasped the branch he used for walking and limped out into the forest. Pain twisted his face into a grotesque mask each time he put weight on his injured foot. But Hercules just gritted his teeth and forced himself to take each step. Something like mere pain wasn't going to stop him now. "Iolaus and Jason might need me. If something happened to them and I wasn't there to help, I'd never forgive myself. I *have* to find them."

Ash saw the determined look in Hercules' blue eyes and knew there was no stopping him. So she walked along side her friend and helped support some of his weight. Soon they found the tracks from the other cadets and followed them. When they entered the clearing much later, Iolaus and Jason still had not figured out how to free the big cat.

Tears dripped from Hercules' eyes when he saw the proud tigress trapped. How could anyone do something so cruel to such a magnificent creature?

"Herc!" Iolaus called. "What should we do? We can't get close enough to free her without her swiping at us. And her cubs are in this log. We have to do something!"

"Artemis!" screamed into the night sky. "Get over here, now!"

The Goddess popped in and colors swirled over her body. She pointed a finger at Hercules. "I do not like the tone of your summons. It sounds too much like a command."

"Do something. Free her and heel her injured leg." Hercules said as he leaned heavily against Ash and Iolaus. Jason kept an eye on the log with the cubs.

"Did you find a cub for me?" the Goddess asked.

"Yes, but I'm not letting you split up this family." Hercules told her without fear. "Either you take the mother tiger and all of her cubs or you don't get any of them."

"Yeah. Hercules is right." Iolaus added. "The cubs need their mother. She teaches them how to hunt and everything. If you separate them, they'll never learn how to catch food. And it's bad enough in this forest the way it is."

Artimis seemed to approve of Iolaus' statements. "I see you are indeed worthy of your title. A hunter must understand the forest around him, the balance between predator and prey."

The goddess then turned to Hercules again. "I see you are also injured. I will heal one of you. You must choose, but choose wisely. Do you want me to heal you or the cat?"

"Heal the cat." Hercules told her. "Chiron can tend to my wound once we get back home."

"Very well." Artemis pointed her hand toward the tigress and a white ball of energy surrounded the big cat. The tigress growled in fright but soon realized her foot was free of the trap. She tested her limb and saw it was healed. She stared at the humans and the strange being before her that shifted colors like a rainbow. She understood that this odd creature had healed her.

The Goddess waved her hands and everyone in the clearing vanished, including the log that contained the cubs. Hercules looked around his new surroundongs and saw that they were in Artemis' sacred forest again. He breathed a sigh of relief. They were back in Greece once more.

Artemis produced the winged tiger cub and placed it in front of the tigress. The tigress sniffed at the cub and licked it a few times on the back. She sneezed when the wing feathers tickled her big orange nose. The winged cub spotted the tigress' slowing moving tail and pounced on it. The cub purred hapily as it sunk its baby teeth into the tip of the tail. The tigress glanced at the winged cub but didn't mind. She walked over to a shady spot with thick grass and flopped over onto her side.

"Aoooo! Aooooo!" The tigress called her cubs and the three bundles of fur raced out of the log over to their mother. They skidded to a halt when they saw the winged tiger cub chewing on their mother's tail. The new cub hurried over to them, her wings flapping quickly in excitement. After sniffing each other, they started to chase each other around the green glade.

"You are free to go." Artemis told the four cadets. "You have completed your mission to my satisfaction."

"Boy, I'm glad that's done!" Iolaus said as he turned to go. "I think the tigress will do nicely in Artemis' sacred forest. There's plenty of deer and pigs here. She won't have to worry about those mean poachers anymore. And the water's clean."

"Yeah." Jason agreed. "And any hunter who thinks he's going to hunt here will get a BIG surprise!"

Hercules followed his friends toward the Academy. He glanced back and saw all four cubs were still busy playing. His eyes shifted down toward his injured foot. "Hey, guys. I think Artemis healed my foot."

"Really?" Ash asked him. "That's great!"

"Why do you suppose Artemis wanted those tiger for anyway?" Jason asked.

"I think it has to do with what she said about balance." Iolaus explained. "As far as I know, she has all herbivores in her forest. After awile, they'll eat all the food and there will be too many of them. So she needed to import a few predators to keep the forest balanced."

"Yeah, I know what you mean." Jason agreed. "You have to balance things when ruling a kingdom, too."

Hercules dashed up to Iolaus and Jason. He slapped his two friends on their shoulders as he whizzed past. "And I'm going to beat the two of you on the balance beams when we get back to the Academy!" Hercules laughed as he headed towards his school.

"Hey. This is a race!" Jason shouted as he watched Ash run past him. The Crown Prince started to run after them.

Iolaus stood by himself in the forest. He blinked his eyes. "Hey! Wait for me!" The next moment he chased after his friends. Things were back to normal at last.