DISCLAIMER: I claim not ownership, but still I worship the gods that have brought yon show to mine attention. As this be the final part of mine fic, I ask you to send forth your words of wisdom, be they friendly or flame-retardent. In other words, please send me your opinions, either flames (which will be returned in kind) or flattery (in which case, send in triplicate--kidding!)!!

* * *

A lone tendril of light crept in unmolested, a rarity in that dank, dark room Hercules was forced to call his home, for however long. Hercules stared at that ray of light, aching, wishing that it would make it far enough to shine on him, even just a little. He raised his eyes and watched its point of entry - a small opening through the floor. Above him, he knew, was where Ares petitioners left their offerings before leaving to await a response from their patron god. If he knew it would make a difference, he'd yell for help, but Hercules knew that by now, many followers of Ares had heard his tortured screams. He snorted. It probably turned them on, considering half of Ares petitioners were Warlords. He sighed, wincing as the slight movement caused his throat to scream in agony, and closed his eyes. But his prayers were no longer filled with pleas for rescue - no, he prayed for death, for mercy. _Celestra_? he whispered within his mind. _Come for me. Release me. Please, before I'm too tainted to be granted access to the Elysian Fields_. No golden light answered his mental cries and he resigned himself to yet another day of pain.

His mind travelled back over what Discord and Strife did to him, hot tears of shame and embarrassment spilling down his cheeks. Discord had beaten him severely with the length of chain and he had asked...no, he had begged for it. For as long as he did, Discord promised to keep her malicious hands off of his friends. Hercules felt the bile rise in the back of his throat at the thought of asking for Discord to strike him, over and over; for her to take that chain and wrap it securely around his neck, choking him half to death before releasing him and allowing him to recover. Then she did it again. And again. Hercules lost the fight with his stomach and vomited, screaming at the pain the action caused him, the sickly-sweet smell inflaming his nostrils, making him gag. He felt the familiar cloak of darkness gather around him and he thought happily, hopefully, that this was it, that his fight was over. He strained for a glimpse of his celestial sister, come to carry him home.

Then the darkness receded a bit and Hercules bit back tears of disappointment. _Not yet_. Drifting, awash in a sea of pain, Hercules brought forth the familiar images of his friends, carefully memorizing their features, their personalities, cherishing each memory and storing them in his heart where they would be safe. Safe. That was the whole point of this, right? _Iolaus_...Thoughts of his best friend made him smile. He wouldn't have to worry about being a target - the attractor of danger was gone. As long as he stays there...

Worry suddenly pulsated through him at alarming speed and his eyes snapped open. Stay there. Since when did Iolaus ever do what Hercules told him? Hercules could count on one hand the number of times the blond hunter had left him to battle his relatives on his own, but he couldn't begin to count the scrapes he got into because he refused to let Hercules fight alone. A memory rose in his mind. It had been after the Trial, where he had proved that Discord and Strife had posed as Ares and tried to kill him, setting the God of War free. He had returned to the Academy and had been enthusiastically greeted by Jason and Iolaus who had looked a little pale at his arrival. They had thought Hercules to be dead, killed at the hands of his maniacal half-brother. That night, unable to sleep, Hercules had noticed that Iolaus's bunk was empty. Tracking his friend outside, he had seen Iolaus sitting by the well in the courtyard, tears of anguish pouring down his face. At Hercules's arrival, the blond hunter had tried to cover it up. But when Hercules refused to drop the issue (and subsequently threatened to go get the entire Academy to hold him down and force him to spill his guts), Iolaus had finally confessed his fear, and guilt. " Jason dove into the water to try and find you," he had said, referring to the moments following "Ares" attack on them before his disappearance. " I couldn't. I watched. And I thought you were dead, and that I had lost the only real friend I had." Hercules had listened and done his best to assure his friend that there was nothing he could do, that the gods were stronger then any of them and to feel guilty over something he had no control over was crazy. Iolaus had nodded slightly at that, mulling something over in his mind. Hercules remembered the determined and loyal look Iolaus had then given him.

" I won't let you go through that alone again. I promise." The two had sealed the deal of friendship with a warrior's handshake, even at that tender moment ever aware of the need to act masculin and uncaring, but at the same time, still needing the closeness that brothers shared, their concerns, fears and tensions of the day still fresh in their minds. Hercules gasped in horror. Iolaus knew that Ares had him. He would try and come after him, of that, the demi-god was certain. _NO_! Desperately, he sent a plea to any of his divine siblings that might have been listening. _If ANY of you, ever felt the slightest bit of friendship towards me, even the slightest, please, please, PLEASE! Keep Iolaus away from here! I can't let him risk his life when I've already given mine! I can't let him find me...see me like...like this. Please_. Exhausted, the demi-god's head drooped and he finally sank into unconsciousness, unaware of the slight mental nudge that pushed him towards the healing comfort of the dark.

* * *

Iolaus shut his eyes and waited for Apollo to charbroil him where he stood. Hearing the hum of energy and the golden god's mocking laughter, he figured this time, his luck had run out. Suddenly he heard a screech of protest as something whizzed by his head, embedding into the wall behind him with a thunk. Opening one eyes, he saw Apollo pinned to the far wall with a silver arrow. _Huh_? He swiveled his head around and saw the Huntress drawing nocking another arrow. _Whew_!

" You'll pay for that!" Apollo snarled trying to rip the divine arrow from his armor. Iolaus snorted.

" You must hang around with Ares, " he commented glibly. " You have all the same lines."

He ducked as Apollo launched another fireball at him. The flames missed him by inches, searing his feet. Again.

" Aw man! Do you realize how much it's gonna cost me to get these re-soled?" he whined as he flipped over to the Huntress, who fired off another shot. Soon Apollo was pinned down unable to move, as the arrows were divine in nature, and therefore as harmful to him as normal arrows were to humans. Iolaus couldn't believe it.

" We won?" He looked at Apollo wonderingly, the beginnings of one of his patented smiles beginning on his face. " We beat a God??"

The Huntress gave him a cold smile. " I beat a god," she remarked coolly. " And we did not do it alone. We owe our thanks to Artemis."

" Huh?" Iolaus searched the room quickly for a sign of the beautiful goddess. The Huntress sighed.

" The arrows," she said, handing him her quiver. Iolaus pulled out a silver arrow and studied it intently. Shimmering silver from point to tip, razor-sharp with brilliant red and violet feathers fanning out at the end.

" You didn't tell me you got new toys," Iolaus said petulantly. " I could have used a godly weapon too, you know." The Huntress shook her head in exasperation. Apollo grunted miserably from his confinement.

" You cheated," he said, with an expression that closely matched that of a child's pout. Iolaus glanced at him.

" Well, you broke the rules first," he pointed out. " We never would have had to use 'em - heck, we wouldn't even be here if you hadn't stolen Artemis's pet."

" Whatever," the sun god muttered. Iolaus cocked his head, eyes sparkling.

" You're not even trying to escape! You knew why we were here, didn't you? Oh man!" he chortled, rubbing his hands together. " Payback's a walk in Tartarus, isn't it?" Apollo growled warningly. The Huntress, sensing Iolaus was about to taunt the god even further, clapped her hand over his mouth, effectively silencing him.

" That is enough," she said sternly. Turning to Apollo, she glared at him. " On behalf of my mistress, I have reclaimed that which belongs to her. As penalty for stealing the golden eagle, you will remain captured here until Artemis sees fit to release you. These arrows will keep you from leaving."

" You can't do that!" Apollo spat at her, but Iolaus could see the bitter resignation seeping into his expression. The Huntress permitted a small smile to come to her face.

" You stole her property. Short of killing another god, Zeus's law states that the wronged god may mete out an appropriate punishment."

Apollo refused to look at her, preferring to turn his head and sulk. The Huntress turned to Iolaus, securing Kalik's lead onto her arm. " We leave. Now."

Iolaus hastened to obey. On his way out though, he couldn't resist one last taunt, sticking his head inside the door.

" Don't hang around too lon-mmph!"

One furred gauntlet slammed across his mouth and the other gripped his collar, hauling him out.

" I said, NOW."

" Awright, awright, yeesh! Leggo of me!"

* * *

" Excellent work, my children!" Artemis stroked her pet lovingly, the golden eagle cooing in obvious rapture. The goddess looked down at Iolaus and The Huntress. " You have served me well."

" It was an honor, mistress," The Huntress said reverently, bowing before her patron. Iolaus grinned.

" So when are you gonna let Apollo go?" he asked. Artemis chuckled.

" When I feel he has learned his lesson." She then tossed her arm up, allowing Kalik to soar above her while she turned her attention to more important matters. " As I have promised, you and your Academy are now under my protection." As she spoke, the winds kicked up around them. It was short-lived however - a few scant minutes and the winds disappeared back from whence they came. Artemis smiled. " It is now official."

Iolaus nodded grimly. " And the other part of your promise?"

Artemis looked over at The Huntress. " Huntress. Kora. You are now free from my service. Should you need me again though, call on me."

" I will mistress," The Huntress said. The familiar twin beams of light suddenly appeared and enveloped her again, stripping away the divine garb of Artemis, and leaving the familiar apparel of the young innkeeper. Kora blinked as the rush of power swept out of her. " Whoa!"

Iolaus grinned at her, and Kora suddenly remembered the events past. " I'm free!" She turned to the goddess who smiled at her indulgently. " I'm free?" The goddess nodded. " I'm FREE!!"

With a whoop, she flung her arms around the hapless Iolaus, nearly crushing him in her excitement. He hugged her back.

" Congratulations!" He released her and stepped back. " Now you can do whatever you want."

The innkeeper nodded happily. Iolaus turned to Artemis.

" Take me to Hercules please?"

Artemis frowned. " I will do as I have promised, but you must know some things first."

" Like what?"

" Come." With a wave at the ecstatic Kora, the air shimmered and the ground fell away. Iolaus only had time for one thought - _not again_! - before everything was swallowed up by the light.

* * *

Iolaus stumbled again, as he landed.

" Warn me when you're gonna do that!" he said indignantly, picking himself up. Artemis ignored his complaints, staring past him at the forbidding, dark temple. Iolaus gulped, but then straightened. Squaring his shoulders, he prepared to enter when he found that his feet refused to move. Looking up, he saw Artemis giving him a weird expression.

" Um....correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't this the part where I go in and rescue my friend?"

" It is," the goddess said softly. " Be careful, young hunter. You are my half-brother's best friend, but even that bond may not be enough."

" Enough for what?" Iolaus asked, a sinking feeling coming over him.

" He has been hurt badly - mentally and physically." Her dark gaze met his. " He may not want you to rescue him."

" Artemis?" Iolaus voice shook slightly. " What...what did they do to him?"

Artemis shook her head sadly, and waved him forward. " Go, Golden one. And good luck."

She melted into a silhouette of swirling color before vanishing completely. Iolaus swallowed nervously and then turned on his heel. Face set in determination, he strode up to the temple gates, pausing to mentally thank the goddess for knocking out the two mammoth-sized sentries guarding the entrance. _Ready or not Herc, here I come_.

* * *

Ares watched his sister disappear from the main gate of his temple, noting the determination in which the annoying young blond made his way to the front door. He clenched his fist, fighting back the urge to obliterate the cadet. _This is it! This is the answer_!

If Iolaus rescued Hercules, all his problems were solved. Zeus would focus on Discord and Strife, since Ares hadn't touched the demi-god. And his followers wouldn't think him weak for not killing Hercules. He couldn't lose! Ares grinned. He still wanted to kill the demi-god of course, but he had no intentions of spending the rest of his immortal life stuck in a pit in the depths of Tartarus. He sighed as he realized that his chance to have Hercules as his slave was gone, had been gone since he let Discord and Strife at him first. _I need to think of a really cruel punishment for them_, he mused. Then a wide smile spred across his face. His chance may have been gone, but he could still have some entertainment. He remembered the condition Discord and Strife had left Hercules in. A bit of overkill, granted, but Hercules was no longer interested in being rescued. Ares chuckled. The demi-god would try to kill himself, the blond would be depressed - maybe it wasn't such a bad day after all. This was better.

Ares really hated feeling unsure about himself - made him angry. He checked his window and saw Iolaus had made it to the chamber where the door to the dungeons were. With a wave of his hand, he sent a few warriors down there to battle him. _Can't make it too easy for him! And maybe he'll get himself killed anyway_. Either way, it would be entertaining. Ares sat down, grabbed a bowl of fruit and settled down to enjoy the show.

* * *

Iolaus brushed a strand of hair out of his eyes as he stealthily made his way through the temple. _Maybe Artemis is still protecting me_? he thought hopefully. _If she is, then I hope she keeps it up. I'll pay her the biggest tribute ever left by a non-follower_. Just as he was debating whether he should leave jewels, succulent fruit or money (_Money? who am I kidding_?), smoke billowed into the room, obscuring his vision and making him choke. Waving his hands in an attempt to clear the air, he was rewarded with the sight of two men dressed in black appearing before him. _Nuts_. He glared up at the ceiling. " You can just forget about that tribute Artemis!" he scowled, before falling into a defensive crouch. He noted one of the men had a large sword, while the other had a dagger. The one wielding the dagger was smaller. _Probably faster too_. He made up his mind. With lightning speed, he snapped his leg up, catching the man in the chin, knocking him back. Without pausing, he ripped his own dagger from his boot where he always carried it, and flung it at the other man. The swordsman managed to move out of its deadly path but Iolaus was gratified to see the dagger slice his opponents shoulder before embedding itself in the wall.

" Yay me!"

Then an arm wrapped around his neck and he was lifted off the floor by the man he'd kicked down. _Not good_. The swordsman came close, intending to inflict some damage of his own. Iolaus swung his legs up, catching the man full in the chest. He used that momentum to continue his upward arc, flipping over his assailant and landing behind him. Back on his feet, and once again facing his two opponents, Iolaus was a little more wary.

" I don't suppose you'd be willing to call this a draw, huh guys?" he asked lightly, carefully studying their movements, trying to get an idea of their next move. The men didn't even acknowledge his attempt at banter, features set in stone.

_Couple of Ares-controlled puppets_, Iolaus thought. He feinted to the right at the smaller man and then lunged at the other, slamming a hand into the man's face in a desperate attempt to drive the bone in the man's nasal passage right into the brain. His opponent grabbed his wrist at the last second and twisted his arm, before flinging him to the floor.

" Okay, that hurt," he muttered, rubbing his arm gingerly. " Y'know, I don't really have time for this!" As he spoke he rolled out of the way as a large boot crashed down where his head had been a moment before. Now between the two of them, Iolaus watched both men lunge at him at the same time. He barely missed the slash of the sword and the swipe of the dagger as he ducked and rolled. _Please, please, please_! he chanted as he felt the wind swipe his hair. Then he heard two grunts and the familiar wet sound as metal pierced flesh. He jumped to his feet as he watched the two goons slump to the ground, weapons buried between them in a grisly embrace. Blood puddled beneath them and Iolaus shuddered in revulsion. _Not an experience I want to repeat_, he decided.

Walking over to the wall, he yanked at his dagger, pulling as hard as he could before the wall reluctantly relinquished its claim on its prize. He checked the blade, finding it still sharp, His fingertips brushed it gently; he and Hercules had forged that blade in friendship a few months ago. Funny - they'd never actually gotten around to making one for Herc. He slipped the dagger back into the scabbard in his boot. _Speaking of Hercules_... He glanced around one last time, before racing through the door before him.

* * *

Ares chuckled, a rarity for him to be sure. "Okay, that was a freebie, Iolaus!" he snickered, raising a glass to his lips. Now the pest would be on his guard. _Who am I to disappoint_? He waved his hand and sent another guard.

* * *

" Go away!" Iolaus glared at the warrior who strode forth to meet him, the same bland look on his face that had been on those of his compatriots. " I'm really not in the mood for this, ya know?"

He dodged a swipe that came dangerously close to spilling his innardss over the dusty floor and he backed up. The man leaped at him and Iolaus moved again, leading the man on a deadly game of follow the leader. Puffing with exertion, Iolaus finally made a move at him, feinting to the right even as his left leg snapped up. The man went down, and Iolaus dropped to a crouch, pausing to blow the hair out of his eyes with an impatient snort.

" Give me a break!" He studied the room warily, waiting for more baddies to show up. " I was afraid of THIS?"

Suddenly another man appeared. However, instead of armour, the new arrival was clad in black leather, an amused half-grin on his face. Iolaus felt his stomach become aquainted with his feet and he nervously backpeddaled. " Oh! Um...hey Ares!" Ares chuckled at the sight of the scared mortal. " Oh come on Iolaus - you can't tell me you're not having fun?"

" Fun?" Iolaus stopped walking backwards and stared at him. " You kidnapped my best friend, you've probably been torturing him, I had to battle Apollo...okay, okay, Kora helped -- a little -- and now I'm fighting YOUR warriors - who, incidently, are not very good. I expected more from the God of War." Iolaus crossed his arms impatiently. Ares snarled at him.

" I'd watch that mouth of yours boy!" Then the anger left his face and plain amusement shone through. " Besides, if I'd sent any decent warriors, you'd have been dead before you'd known they were there."

" Would not," the blond muttered. " So then, what's the deal? Why are you letting me seemingly waltz through your temple? You KNOW that I'm coming to get Hercules."

" Of course I know!" Snapped the god irritably. " I want you too - Strife and Discord took their game a little too far, and I'LL be the one who gets blamed."

" Huh?"

" This was supposed to be MY fun!" the god ranted. " I was gonna have my revenge on Hercules! It was perfect - my hated enemy willingly turning himself over to me, FOR me to humiliate him! I could have kept him as a slave, broken him down without leaving a mark - the true mark of talent!" Ares shook his head sadly at the thought of the lost opportunities. "But those two mini-gods nearly killed the punk - and Zeus is fit to be tied."

Iolaus had sucked in his breath at the mention of Hercules's condition. " I still don't get it."

" I'm not surprised. You're gonna get Hercules and get him out of my temple before Zeus decides I'm to blame."

" Why didn't you just zap him out?" Iolaus asked reasonably.

" Hey - I still have a reputation to maintain you know. If I got him out, I'd never hear the end of it. My warlords, the gods themselves would think I was showing MERCY - they'd take my War blade away from me." Ares shrugged. " So you're gonna do it for me."

" Then why did you send those warriors after me?"

Another shrug, mixed with an evil smile. " It amused me." The smile got even wider. " But it's going to amuse me more when you leave."

" Why?"

" You know, the human spirit is surprisingly strong," Ares mused aloud, seeming to ignore Iolaus's question. " But it's not infallible. In fact, I know it's not." The mirth in his eyes shook Iolaus to the core. Ares chuckled again. " And pain doesn't have to be physical to be crippling - and any source of pain is a source of entertainment for me." With those final words, Ares vanished, leaving Iolaus alone in the passageway, fear in his heart.

* * *

Hercules was in another daze. The world kept swimming in and out of focus, the pain enough to keep him conscious and uncomfortable, but not enough to knock him out. The blood had crusted on many of the cuts and lashes Discord had inflicted on him, but the sweat running down his body from the heat of the room reminded him that they were still there, the saltiness of his sweat stinging the cuts unbearably. Suddenly he heard a door slam open and he cringed, waiting for an unseen blow from his as-of-yet unknown attacker. Then he heard a gasp, a sudden intake of breath and he fought to raise his head. A blurry image presented itself: small and blond. _Can't be_, he thought wearily. He saw the figure come closer and he could see Iolaus' face staring at him. _Must be a dream_. Dream-Iolaus had shock and horror splashed all over him. Hercules closed his eyes. _Thank god it's not real_.

Iolaus couldn't believe the damage Strife and Discord had wrought. For a minute, he didn't think it was possible. This wasn't Hercules, not this blood-soaked, battered creature. He reminded himself of the importance of air, forcing a startled gasp from his lungs. He thought he saw Hercules twitch at the sound but he wasn't sure. He stepped up to his friend, almost timidly, afraid he might have been too late, that Hercules was already dead.

"...H-hercules?" he asked, reaching one hand out slowly to touch him.

" Not real," He heard Hercules mutter and the demi god's head dropped. Iolaus lifted Herc's head slowly, trying to see his eyes.

" Herc - it's me. Iolaus. I'm really here big guy." He struggled to keep his voice calm. Calm? Who was he kidding? He wanted to scream, he wanted to go hunt down the gods that did this, he wanted to do anything but be calm. But Hercules needed him to keep his cool, and so with a valiant effort, he took a deep breath. " Herc - I need to know if there's a key for these chains."

"...k-key.." Hercules eyes unfocused a moment and Iolaus waved his hand in front of his eyes. After a moment, the demi-god focused on the fingers and blinked.

" Yeah, Herc. Keys. Where are they?" he asked again, voice still even and gentle.

"..keys..on..on the wall..."

Iolaus released his friend gently and quickly searched the room. Near the door he came out of, he saw a large key ring on a peg in the wall. He dashed over and fairly yanked the peg clean out of the wall in his haste to get the keys. Rushing back, he stopped short at what he had to do. He took in the deep, blood-encrusted cuts on Hercule's wrists and shuddered.

" Herc - when I free your arms, you're gonna fall. I'll be right here to catch you but...it's gonna hurt buddy. " He couldn't lie to him. " It's gonna hurt a lot."

Hercules shook his head slowly, still not completely aware. " Leave me alone," he whispered, hot tears spilling over his cheeks. Iolaus's heart clenched at the sight. He couldn't remember the last time Hercules had cried. He hadn't even cried the day of the funeral the Academy had held for his girlfriend Eurydice who had died during his battle with the god Bacchus. For Herc to be this upset, he must be in pain.

" I'm not leaving you Herc," he said resolutely, reaching up to insert the key in the massive lock above his head. He put his weight into turning it and was rewarded with a loud click as the clasp opened and Hercules's arm fell out, nearly numb from the poor circulation he'd had to endure. But it wasn't completely numb. Hercules cried out in pain and Iolaus quickly freed the other arm before lowering his friend to the ground. Hercules had, mercifully, passed out by this time, and Iolaus took a few seconds to check him out. He noted the whip marks, the bruises and burns. He gently pressed down on Herc's rib cage and felt the familiar tell-tale lumps of broken ribs. Herc's clothes hung in tatters and in some cases, were embedded in his skin, right in the wounds, courtesy of the same whip. The demi-gods breathing was also shallow, each breath a noisy rasp as he tried to get enough air into his lungs. Iolaus sat back on his heels, thinking.

" How am I going to move you without killing you?" he murmered, running a hand through his hair in frustration. Then he felt a whisper of wind touch his back and he sprang to his feet, automatically falling into a fighting stance in front of his friend to protect him. Artemis glowed briefly in front of him. Iolaus gasped.

" Don't you EVER announce your arrivals?" he nearly yelled at her. Instead, he bit his lip to keep the retort back and gestured to Hercules.

" Can you get us out of here?"

Artemis nodded. A wave of her hand, and both cadets disappeared. Artemis, however, lingered behind briefly. Ares appeared and scowled at her.

" So leave already!"

" I am, brother. Thank you for allowing me to take them from your temple," she said gently. Ares scowled even more ferociously.

" At least they're out of my hair and I'm not in trouble with pops." Ares grunted. " Next time though, I'll be able to have my fun - Discord and Strife are going to get a personal lesson from me on the differences between kill and over-kill." With those cryptic words, the God of War vanished. Artemis frowned, and left as well.

* * *

Iolaus blinked as he landed on the ground. _At least I didn't fall over_, he thought, somewhat amused. Hercules was sprawled on the ground next to him and the smile quickly faded from his face as he rushed over to the demi-god.

" Herc?" No answer. Iolaus brushed the hair back from his face and studied his surroundings. They were close to the Academy! _But how to get help for Herc without leaving him alone_? " Artemis, ya could've dropped us off at the front door!" he shouted.

Then he leaned over and picked up his friend. Iolaus was shocked to discover how light and fragile the demi-god seemed to be. He'd only been in Discord's tender care for a few days. He remembered asking Artemis what they did to him, and felt the same question rise forth in his mind, before hurriedly shoving it back to ask later. One arm wrapped around Hercule's waist, and the other around his own shoulder and Iolaus staggered off in the direction of the Academy. He knew he was deliberately being light-hearted - if he started panicking now, Herc was done for. He could hear the breath of his best friend rasp in and out painfully, and he could smell the scent of fresh blood as some of the wounds reopened under Iolaus' non-too-gentle care. _I'm sorry Hercules, but the sooner we get to Cheiron, the better_.

One foot in front of the other, Iolaus alternately half-dragged/half-carried Hercules along the path.

" You owe me so big time for this Herc!" he mock-grumbled. " I mean, giving yourself to Ares, getting beat up, and forcing ME to come to the rescue!" Iolaus listened to see if the demi-god had heard him but Hercules was still unconscious. He shut up then, and focused all his remaining energy on moving faster.

* * *

Cheiron stood in front of the squad. Having adjourned to the courtyard for the cadets morning calisthenics, he noted the progress each student had made, until he came to Prince Jason. Jason looked tired and worried, his head constantly turning to look at the main gates as if waiting for someone to arrive. Cheiron sighed. Iolaus had disappeared several days ago, Hercules before that. He was worried about his cadets. Oh, he knew Iolaus was a strong fighter and the best tracker at the Academy. And Hercules was the son of Zeus, with strength and wisdom far beyond his years. But it was the two of them against the God of War, and Cheiron feared the worst.

About to call Jason over to talk, he was surprised to see the warm-up staff fall from the cadets hands and his eyes go as wide as saucers. Cheiron turned around to see two battered and beaten cadets at the gate.

" Iolaus? Hercules!" Jason rushed to the gate and stopped short of Hercules, horror dawning on his face as he took in the injuries sustained by the demi-god. He immediately took the load off Iolaus who seemed reluctant to release his hold on his friend. Cheiron found his voice.

" What happened?"

" Ares," said Iolaus hoarsely, exhausted from carrying his burden to the Academy. Then he looked at Cheiron a little funny and said, " I think I need help too." With that, Iolaus collapsed in a heap.

* * *

With a moan, Iolaus slowly opened his eyes. No irritating light touched his baby blues and he blinked twice in relief before sitting up, wincing as his sore muscles protested.

" Easy there," a voice said from behind. Iolaus spun around.

" Jason?"

" Hey buddy - you okay?" The Crown Prince reached out a hand to steady the blond warrior, but Iolaus brushed his hand aside with shake.

" 'Preciate it, but I got it." Iolaus arranged himself and then peered up at his friend.

" So where's Hercules? Is he okay?"


" Jason?"

" Cheiron's with him now," Jason said, lowering his gaze. When he looked back up, his eyes were full of sorrow. " He doesn't look good."

Iolaus swallowed the lump in his throat. " Let me see him."

Jason shook his head. " He's resting..."

" He's ALONE," corrected Iolaus. " Just like he's been left alone each night since he's been gone. I promised I wouldn't let him go through anything like that alone again."

Jason hesitated. Iolaus pleaded with him.

" Come on Jase - besides, I want to be there when he wakes up so I can yell at him!" A brief smile touched Iolaus's lips but failed to reach his eyes " I got muscles I didn't know I had, SCREAMING at me for carrying his carcass around the forest!"

Jason finally relented. " Alright. But if Cheiron is mad because you're not in bed resting, it's your fault!"

" Deal." Iolaus hopped off the bed and disappeared through the door.

* * *

Funny. He didn't look so bad when he'd been carrying him. Iolaus sat in a chair next to Hercules' bed in the infirmary. Studying the pale, unresponsive face, he mused over what Cheiron had said. Coma. A state in which the afflicted person falls into a deep, healing sleep. However, when they wake up can be anywhere from days to months. To years. Iolaus banished that thought from his head. _He'll be fine_, he thought. _All that demi-god blood in his veins - I've never seen him with a cold! This is just taking a little longer, that's all_.

Cheiron had also said that sometimes, those in a coma, could hear the voices of those around them, using the sound as an anchor to pull themselves out and awaken. With that in mind, Iolaus proceeded to regale his unconscious friends with tales of journeys past, and the dreams and goals of the future.

* * *

Finito - for now. Challenge issued, accepted, CLAIMED!!!