Young Hercules

Walking the World Alone

"Come on, Herc! Let me drive!" Iolaus tried to cajole his friend into giving up the chariot reins. The two boys were returning to Cheiron's Academy from a trip to Corinth to see their friend, Prince Jason. Jason's home was a fun place to visit with the wide corridors in the palace and the many ponds to fish in. The visit had lasted four days and now Hercules and Iolaus were returning to school.

"Leave off, Iolaus. It's my turn to drive. We're gonna be late as it is and I don't want to end up plowed into the side of the hill." Hercules brushed back his blond hair from his high forehead and grinned. He was a head taller than his friend and liked to tease Iolaus even though he was the younger of the two. "Just hang on. We'll be back at the Academy by lunch time."

"I still wish we could have gotten Jase to come back with us. It's gotten tame without him there." Iolaus pushed more of his blond hair out of his mouth. "I need help keeping you out of trouble." His grin threatened to overwhelm his face.

"Keep me out of trouble? It takes the both of us to keep you out of trouble!" Herc spared a glance at his buddy.

"See, that's why Jason should have come with us. Just the three of us against the world."

"I know, but he has that meeting with that king about some trading issues. He has to go. Something to do with setting up a new temple for Apollo." Hercules negotiated th chariot around a sharp turn.

"Did he say anything about that temple to Ares? Is he still thinking about having it moved out to the countryside?"

"I think so. Seems that Jason has had his fill of my half-brother."

"He's not the only one. You have some annoying relatives. Now not all of them are annoying, just Ares and his crew." Iolaus tried to backtrack when saw his friend's frown. "I mean I know what Zeus saw in Alcemene, but what could she have seen in Zeus?" Iolaus let his laughter ring as Hercules began shaking his head slowly.

"Had his fill of me!" Ares sat up straight in his stone throne and glowered at the cistern of water in the middle of the room. "Strife!"

Strife appeared in the middle of the room, his black leather outfit sending back slivers of light from the torches set in the walls. "Yes, Uncle. You bellowed?" Strife's simpering tone set Ares teeth on edge.

"I need you to do a little job for me. My dear brother and his friends are tired of me. I want you to remind them that I am still thinking of them." The smile that crossed Ares' handsome face was anything but pleasant.

"Annoying are we? Let's just see how annoying we can get."

The chariot was just passing by the pond that led to the school when Strife made his appearance by the roadside. Unseen by Iolaus, the demi-god hailed Hercules. "Hi! Remember me?"

"Strife." Herc's voice was full of loathing as he stopped the horses. "What do you want?"

"Just passing along your dear brother's greetings!" Strife preened himself. "Just to prove that your family really isn't all that annoying!"

"Get out of here, Strife!" Hercules shouted.

"Go find someone else to play games with." Iolaus put in.

"Maybe we can't take out Hercules, but nothing says that you and I can't play! Watch this, Hercules! Your little friend here wants to play!" With that pronouncement, Strife sent a bolt of blue fire that splintered the chariot, sending both boys hurtling through the air and causing the horses to bolt off, dragging what was left of the chariot behind them. He laughed and giggled when he saw Hercules land heavily on the bank of the pond and lay unmoving. He could see Iolaus floating face down in the water and laughed even louder. "Hey Unc! Looks like Herc's little friend doesn't like my games." Without waiting for an answer, Strife disappeared in a flash of yellow light.

Seconds later, Hercules moved and sat up. He shook his head to clear it before looking around for Strife. Once satisfied that the demi-god was gone, he started looking for Iolaus. Not finding him on the bank, Hercules searched the water and saw the ripples that indicated something or someone had gone down.

"Iolaus!" Hercules sprang up and ran to the pond's edge. He dived in, fighting down his panic so he could focus on saving his friend. He dove again and again calling out his friend's name each time he surfaced. On his fifth or sixth try he came up clinging to Iolaus' vest and dragged him to the safety of the bank. Herc rolled Iolaus to his back and shook him gently. "You okay, buddy? Iolaus?" His voice took on a more anxious tone. Shaking Iolaus harder, Hercules yelled louder. "Iolaus!"

"Hercules?" a voice sounded from over the hill to the north.

"Cheiron?" Hercules was too grateful for the help to wonder where his teacher had come from. "Cheiron! Help! He's not breathing! He's dying!"

Cheiron, a centaur with broad shoulders and long dark hair that matched his dark flanks and hooves, ran towards the boys. He knelt down to examine the unconscious teen and his face grew grave. "He needs air. You must breathe for him. Can you do that?" Following his teacher's instructions, Hercules breathed air into his friend until Iolaus began to choke up water.

Cheiron relaxed a fraction. "He's alive, Hercules. He's alive, but we have to get him to the Academy. Can you carry him?"

Instead of answering, Hercules picked up his friend and carefully carried him down the road to the school. Following the headmaster, Hercules carried Iolaus to the infirmary and laid him down on the thin pad covering the stone bed. He hovered, trying to stay out of the way as Cheiron gathered vials and bandages and set to work. Soon, the cuts on the young man's head and torso were bound up and his breathing had seemed to ease. Hercules never moved from his spot against the wall, afraid to move and disturb Cheiron's work and equally afraid to leave and have his best friend die alone. His fear grew and grew until he had to ask.

"Iolaus is going to die, isn't he?"

Cheiron looked at Hercules with sympathy. "I don't know. He's badly injured. Only the gods know now what will happen."

"The gods! They don't care! They're the reason he's hurt. Iolaus is nothing to them." Tears were beginning to stream down the boy's face. "He's my best friend. Help him, please."

Cheiron placed a warm hand on Hercule's shoulder. "He is young and strong. I've done what I can, it's up to him now. Stay with him, talk to him. You could make the difference." Clapping him on the shoulder again, Cheiron left the small room.

Hesitantly, Hercules approached the bed and the still figure lying there. He grasped Iolaus' hand in his as he spoke. "I'm here Iolaus. I'm sorry, this is all my fault. I didn't get to you in time. Strife was after me, not you. Please wake up now." He searched Iolaus' face for any sign that the young man had heard him, but Iolaus slept on.

For the next hour, Hercules didn't move, holding on to Iolaus hand as though to keep him grounded in the world of the living. He muttered silent prayers to his father, Zeus the King of the Gods, and his uncle, Hades, God of the Underworld. His vigilance was finally rewarded when Iolaus began to turn his head and mutter. Hercules leaned close. "Iolaus? Time to wake up now. It's time for lunch."

Iolaus' eyes opened slowly. "Hercules? What happened? Where are you? Why is it so dark?"

"Everything's gonna be okay. Just rest easy, I"ll get Cheiron." Hercules sprinted from the room, yelling for the headmaster down the length of the hall. He was stopped by the centaur's strong hands as he passed by a doorway. "You've got to come quick. Iolaus is awake, but he can't see. He can't see!"

"Easy Hercules. Let's go see." Cheiron clapped a hand on his student's shoulder and led him back to the infirmary.

Hercules watched from the doorway as Cheiron examined Iolaus again. His heart broke as he listened to Cheiron's assessment. "The injury to your head has affected your eyesight. I can't find anything wrong with your eyes themselves so the problem is inside your head."

"Will my vision come back?" Iolaus' voice was low, but calm.

Cheiron shook his head. "I don't know. I have seen it happen, but this injury was god-caused. We will have to wait and see." Cheiron picked up a length of bandage and began to wrap it around Iolaus head and eyes. "This is to protect your eyes."

Hearing the small gasp from his friend, Iolaus turned his head toward the door. "Hercules?"

Hercules stepped forward and touched Iolaus' shoulder. "I'm here. How are you feeling?"

"I'm gonna be fine. You heard Cheiron, my vision will probably come back. We'll be out getting in trouble before you know it." He yawned widely.

"Go to sleep now, Iolaus. You need to rest and heal up." Hercules put his hand on his friend's shoulder and watched as his breathing deepened and he went back to sleep. He continued to stand there, one hand resting gently on his friend, determined to protect him from further harm.

Cheiron watched for several long minutes before he approached the bed. "You must get some rest as well, Hercules. I will stay with Iolaus. He won't be alone."

"No. I have to stay. This is all my fault."

"How is it your fault? The gods attacked the chariot, you didn't do anything."

"Exactly, I didn't do anything. I couldn't help, Cheiron. I'm supposed to be so strong, but I still let my best friend nearly die. And now he's blind because of me. What good am I to anyone if they get attacked just for being with me. I'm tired of my friends getting hurt because of me." Hercules passed a hand over his face to hold back the tears that threatened to fall.

The headmaster gently grabbed Hercules by the shoulders and turned him so the two were facing. "You are strong and now Iolaus will need that strength more than ever. But you must take care of yourself so you can help him. Go now and rest while he is sleeping. I'll send for you when he wakes. Go now."

Used to following the centaur's orders, Hercules turned to go. He took only a few steps before he was back at the injured boy's side and whispering to him. "I have to go for a while. I'll be back soon. Cheiron is going to stay with you. Just rest and get well." This time Hercules did leave and made his way slowly to the dorm and his bed.

Hercules had only been gone for a few minutes when Lilith, a fellow cadet and the only female student in the academy, quietly entered the room. She gave a sad smile to Cheiron as she stopped by the bedside and looked down at her sleeping friend. Before she could ask, Cheiron gave her the news about the attack and Iolaus' blindness. Tears fell freely down the young woman's face as she stood by the bed and tried to absorb the news that her friend was now blind.

"I need to do something, Cheiron. I can't just stand here and feel helpless."

"There is something you can do. Hercules is going to need the strength of his friends now. I need you to go to Corinth and bring Jason back here. He needs to know that Iolaus was injured, and Hercules needs him as well." Cheiron's face was grave.

Lilith's face brightened. "I'll leave right now. If I hurry, I can be there before nightfall. It will still be morning before we get back."

"I know. I'll watch over the both of them until you return. The other cadets will help as well. Be safe on your journey and hurry." Cheiron let his pride and trust in her abilities shine on his face as she made her goodbyes to Iolaus and left.

In the dorm, Hercules lay on his bed and stared at the ceiling. Every time he closed his eyes, he could see pictures of his friends at the mercy of the gods, especially his half-brother, Ares, God of War. He remembered every time his friends had suffered because of Ares' hatred of him. Deciding that peaceful sleep was just a memory, Hercules made his way back to the infirmary. He was heartened to hear Iolaus and Cheiron in conversation. He stopped just outside the door and listened when he heard his name.

"...his fault and he couldn't do anything and everyone suffers because of him and he should leave..." Iolaus was saying.

"Enough Iolaus." came Cheiron's rumble. "Hercules has a hard path to follow. Because of his father, he will always be set apart from others. He must accept that..." whatever else Cheiron had to say was lost as Hercules fled down the corridor back to the dorm.

Cheiron stopped talking for a moment to listen. He thought he had heard a noise in the hall. Deciding he was wrong, he continued. "Hercules will need his friends now more than ever."

Iolaus answered. "I know. I just hate to think of him beating himself up. I have to talk to him, convince him that this isn't his fault. Can you go get him for me? I'm worried about him. I don't want him to do something stupid."

Cheiron smiled. "If you promise to rest more, I'll get him. I hope he is still asleep. He was injured as well and I sent him to rest. Give him a bit more time and I'll send him to you. You must rest more as well." He held up a warning finger as Iolaus started to protest. "Not another word. You must rest now. Hercules will be in to see you when you wake up."

Iolaus gave in none too gracefully, snuggled back under the light blanket and let himself fall asleep again.

Hercules stormed back into the dorm and sat heavily on his bunk. Iolaus was right. He should leave. He couldn't continue to let his friends suffer because of him. Even Cheiron thought he should leave. Making his decision, Hercules stuffed his meager belongings into a carry pouch and left, knowing that leaving was the only way to keep his friends safe. He walked out into the empty courtyard and let himself out of the gates. With all of the students busy in the afternoon classes, there was no one to see the dejected young man walk out of the life he loved.

Cheiron waited until he was sure that Iolaus was asleep before leaving the room. He walked down the hall to the student sleeping area and wasn't surprised to find that Hercules wasn't in his bed. He was disturbed when he realized that the student's personal belongings were missing. He made a quick circuit of the academy classrooms and grounds, finding no trace of the missing student. He pulled a young man out of one of the classes and sent him down to Kora's tavern to see if Hercules had gone there. The boy was back soon with the news that Hercules hadn't been to the tavern and he hadn't passed him on the road.

Cheiron went back to the infirmary with a heavy heart. Seeing that Iolaus was still asleep, he went to the main classroom where the majority of the cadets were studying. After a few more minutes, he had the answer he dreaded. No one had seen Hercules leave. Cheiron debated with himself on sending someone after the young man, but decided that Jason and Lilith would be the best ones for the job. Hercules could look out for himself for one night and maybe the time would be good for him to come to his senses and return on his own. Now he just had to decide what to tell Iolaus.

Hercules walked for the remainder of the day, determined to put as much distance between himself and the academy as he could. When night fell, he pushed through the trees that bordered the road until he found a small clearing. He built a small fire and laid out his blanket beside it. He had bought some travel rations earlier in the day and now ate a meager supper. After putting away the rest of the food, he stretched out on the ground and studied his options. He knew that going back to the school was out of the question as was going home. He would miss his mother dreadfully, but he convinced himself that she was better off with him gone. Sleep was a long time coming, but finally he drifted off into a fitful slumber.

"Speak to us, Great Hera. You have called your faithful hunters to you, now what service may we render for you?" A solidly built man and his three equally robust friends were gathered around the alter of a hilltop shrine dedicated to the Queen of the Gods. The man waited patiently until a peacock feather floated down to him. Looking up into the darkening sky, he felt the familiar twinge of fearful respect when he saw the eyes of Hera looming over him.

"Hercules has left the safety of his friends. He is weak and confused. Now is the time for you to capture him. There is a cave just beyond the threshold of this hill. Inside you will find chains to bind the mortal. Those chains were forged by Hephaestus, and cannot be broken, even by the son of Zeus."

"We hear and obey, O Mighty Hera." When the eyes had faded, the leader turned to his men holding the peacock feather reverently. "Come, we will seek out the boy and use this. When we have him, we will take him to the cave and leave him. No one will ever find him and Hera can watch his torment until he dies." His evil smile was rewarded with barks of laughter from the group.

Before daybreak the next morning, the four hunters found the sleeping boy. They tried to be quiet, but their movements woke Hercules. Feigning sleep, the young man waited until the men were close before attacking them. The fight raged on for several minutes with neither side able to gain the upper hand. The lead hunter hung back letting his men attack and wear down the boy. His face showed no emotion as, one by one, the men under his command were thrown about the small clearing.

Hercules concentrated on keeping track of each of the men. He noticed that none of them carried swords or knifes. They weren't ordinary thieves then. He didn't have much time to speculate what they were after as they regrouped and rushed him. The weight of all three bore him to the ground. Before he could free himself, a sharp object pricked the back of his neck. Unexpectedly, the men released him and Hercules jumped to his feet. The four men circled him, wary and watchful. Hercules was puzzled by their behavior, until spots began to swim before his eyes and he felt the ground spinning beneath him. He spotted the leader of the group gloating at him while caressing the peacock feather in his hands. Hercules was unable to stop his fall and blacked out before he hit the ground.

Morning at the academy found Cheiron back in the infirmary with Iolaus. The young man had spent a restless night after finding out about Hercules' disappearance. Cheiron had tried to ease his fears, but knew that his words fell on deaf ears.

"Hercules is in trouble, Cheiron. I have to go look for him." Iolaus pleaded.

"You are hurt. And we don't know if your eyesight will return. I will send out Jason and Lilith to find him as soon as they return." Cheiron tried to placate the boy.

Iolaus sat up. "I am going with them. Herc is my best friend. I can't just lie here and not do something to help him." The set of his face showed his determination. Cheiron was saved from answering by the opening door.

Jason and Lilith entered looking apprehensive. A broad smile creased Jason's face when he saw Iolaus sitting up in the bed. He came forward quickly and grasped his friend's arm.

"Iolaus. How are you? Lilith told me what happened." The prince was watching the young man carefully.

"I'll be fine as soon as we find Hercules. He ran away, Jason. I don't know why, but he ran away. I just know he's in trouble. Hera will try to kill him one way or another if he's by himself."

"Take it easy, Iolaus. I'll leave right away to find him and bring him back here." Jason promised.

"I've got to come with you. He'll listen to me. I know he thinks this is all his fault, but it isn't. I was the one making fun of his family." Iolaus grasped Jason's hand harder.

"You need to rest." Jason didn't want to ask about Iolaus' eyes, but the expression on his face begged the question from Cheiron.

"Come with me, Jason and I'll tell you what we know. Rest Iolaus. Lilith, will you stay with him?" Cheiron headed for the door with Jason in tow.

"Of course I'll stay." Lilith promised.

Jason followed Cheiron out the door and down the hallway. "What is wrong with Iolaus?"

Cheiron was blunt. "He is blind. I cannot tell if it is permanent or not. I have seen men's eyesight come back with rest and healing. He could see again, but only if he rests."

"I don't know. He could be right. Hercules will listen to Iolaus if no one else." Jason rubbed his chin. "You'll have to keep someone with him night and day until we return. It might be easier if we take him with us. Even blind, he's a great fighter. And if Herc is in trouble, we'll need all the help we can get." Jason pressed his point. He knew that taking a blind man on such a journey would be very hard, but it would be easier to get through to a stubborn Hercules with Iolaus.

"Very well. You and Lilith and Iolaus. I will stay here in case Hercules returns." Cheiron gave in.

"Thank you. Do you have any idea what direction he took?"

The two put their heads together and plotted out the most likely course for a man to take who wanted to get lost. The proposed hike went north from the academy, away from the main road and away from Hercules' home. The terrain was still passable, but rarely traveled. There were a few small villages where he could purchase supplies and good woods for hunting and camping. Jason took a few minutes to pick out a few weapons from the academy gym while Cheiron went to the kitchen to put together a pack of trail food.

Jason reentered the infirmary to see Lilith sitting on the edge of the narrow bed. Iolaus was lying down and the two were talking quietly. "It's all set, we're going to find Hercules."

"I'm coming too, Jason." Iolaus said quickly.

"I know." was the simple answer. Jason helped Iolaus to sit on the side of the bed while Lilith went to the dorm to gather Iolaus' pack and boots. "I got you something." Jason gave Iolaus the quarterstaff he had gotten from the weapons room. "That should help if we get in a fight."

"Thanks, Jason." Normally a very expressive person, Iolaus was quiet and determined. The loss of his eyesight scared him, but not as much as the possibility of losing his friend. If staying blind was the price for getting Hercules back, Iolaus was determined to pay it. It only took a few more minutes for the trio to get on the road.

Jason took the lead up the trail while Iolaus and Lilith followed. Iolaus made good time using his staff to sweep the trail while he held on to Lilith's elbow. He had worked with the girl for months in the academy and trusted her to keep him out of trouble. All three had worked blindfolded in the gym and that training was serving him well now.

Conversation was kept to a minimum with each cadet wrapped up in his or her own thoughts. Iolaus kept trying to convince himself that he wasn't the cause of the problem while Lilith and Jason pondered what would happen when they did find their missing friend. Would he be willing to listen and return to the academy? Would he turn his back on his life and continue to run from his godly roots even more? More than once he had tried to make Zeus acknowledge him without success. Jason was aware of just how much Hercules resented the god who had fathered him and then left.

Coming to a small village, they found that Hercules had indeed passed that way and had gone on further north. Thanking the shopkeeper, the trio pressed on. They found a suitable place to camp for the night and went to bed early, determined to rise early and continue the search.

Hercules awoke slowly, his head spinning and a feeling of nausea threatening to overcome him. He realized that he was sitting up against the wall of a cave. When he tried to wipe his forehead, he discovered an unpleasant fact, he was chained to the rock. Shocked, Hercules tried to break the chains, and failed. He spent a few frenzied moments trying to pull the chains out of the rock before he halted and took a good look at them. The chains shone with a dull light of their own and held his hands firmly. He tried again to break his bonds but had to stop due to the pain in his wrists.

He fell back, exhausted from his brief struggle. He wished longingly for his friends for just a moment before a bright flame erupted from the floor of the cave and formed an intense half-circle of heat. Just above the brightest of the flames, an evil laugh could be heard. "So you are awake. Not that it will do you any good. Those chains are unbreakable by mortal hands, forged by Hephaestus. And the flame is fed by your own guilt. Such a good boy, running from your life, leaving your mother and your friends without help. What will become of them without you? Who will look after your mother? Her heart will break knowing that you just left. And your friends, what battles will they fight? How much can they endure knowing that you betrayed their trust?" The voice took on a mocking tone. " Enjoy your life, Hercules, may you live a long time." Hera's voice faded out.

Dropping his head to his chest, Hercules knew that Hera had told the truth. It was his fault that Iolaus was blind and now, his friends wouldn't know where to find him. He was truly trapped and alone, for the rest of his life. The young man began to sob as the flames rose up even higher and brighter.

After a quick and cold breakfast, the trio of friends were back on the road. It didn't take long for Jason to find the break in the bushes and find where Hercules had spent the night. "Hey, look at this!" he called. Iolaus and Lilith joined him.

Jason pointed out the marks of a fight to Lilith as he described the scene to Iolaus. "This is a day or two old but it looks like he was jumped by three or four men. He must have put up a good fight."

"Over here!" Lilith waved Jason over to the edge of the clearing. "These are Herc's footprints. It looks like he fell here and was picked up by whoever he was fighting. He must have been knocked out or something. But why take him, why not just take his money pouch and leave him here?" Iolaus could hear the puzzlement in her voice.

"Are you sure it was Hercules who was carried away? It couldn't be that he carried someone else away?" he asked.

"No. They carried him off." Jason assured his friend. "But who? I've never seen Hercules lose a fight, even outnumbered."

"It had to be someone working for Ares. He's the one who has it out for Herc. As long as he doesn't try to kill Herc, Zeus' protection order doesn't come into play." Iolaus said.

"Who else would it be? Ares is the only one who directly attacks Herc." Jason answered.

"Not the only one guys." The tone of Lilith's voice brought both boys over to where she was standing. "Look at this." She laid a peacock feather in Iolaus' hand. She watched his face go even paler as he stroked the feather and identified it.

"Hera." The one word answer gave them all the information they needed.

After a hasty conference, they realized the only thing to do was to follow the footprints and find where Hercules had been taken. Lilith knew of a shrine to Hera that was in the hills to the east of the abandoned campsite. The footprints led in that direction as well so the group set off.

"What would Hera want with Hercules? She just ignores him, doesn't she?" Lilith asked.

Jason cast a long measured look at Iolaus before answering. "Hera wants Hercules dead even more than Ares does. Hercules told me that no god is permitted to harm or interfere with one of Zeus' women, but that order doesn't apply to his mortal children. Hercules is the only one with a protection order as far as we know. Zeus may have really felt something for Alcemene to have arranged for the protection of her and their son. If Hercules is alone, she may have a chance to have some of her followers attack him."

Iolaus put in his thoughts. "But that also means that Herc is still alive. She can't kill him, and I don't think that any one working for her can either. We just have to find him." He let go of Lilith's arm and walked ahead of the small group, using the quarterstaff to feel his way along the path. Jason and Lilith joined him, flanking him on both sides but allowing him to walk unassisted.

Iolaus could feel their solid support and was grateful for it. This trip was just as much for him as it was to find his friend. If he was going to be blind for the rest of his life, he had to know if he could cope and make a life for himself. He had trained to fight, but a blind man wouldn't be any good trying to earn his living as a fighter for any army. His only chance at any kind of a life lay with joining Hercules in his dream to "do good things" and help anyone who needed it.

His introspection was interrupted by a voice hailing them. "What are you doing here? These woods are sacred to Hera, Queen of the Gods."

"We don't mean to intrude, but we are looking for a friend of ours. He may have been attacked and brought here." Lilith answered as Jason and Iolaus tried to find who had spoken.

A man made his way down the slight slope to them. He was big and hairy with a fresh bruise spreading across his cheek. Jason had the feeling that this man knew what had happened to Hercules. The man stopped in front of them and regarded them with open contempt. "What friend? You are nothing but children, blind ones at that. Go play elsewhere."

Iolaus felt Jason stiffen up and stepped forward before Jason could explode. "Please sir. Our friend is young, but he is important to us. His name is Hercules. Tall, blond hair, handles himself well in a fight?"

Lilith looked at Iolaus in amazement. She had never heard the young man speak with such humility before. She watched wordlessly as the blind boy stepped closer to the voice. When she saw him rubbing the smooth wood of the quarterstaff, she had a clear idea of what he was planning. She placed her hands on her hips and tried to catch Jason's eye. Jason too saw what Iolaus was planning and stepped closer to his friend and the stranger.

The stranger eyed the blind young man with contempt. "No one passed by here."

Iolaus went on. "Are you sure? He was traveling alone. We found signs that he may have been attacked. No one came to you for help?"

"This is the shrine of Hera not some...ugh!" The quarterstaff hit him in the midsection and bowled him over. Changing directions, Iolaus brought the staff up and over and hit the man over the back, sending him to the ground. Lilith and Jason were there to grab the man and force him upright. Iolaus stepped close to the man and felt for his throat. Squeezing it, he spoke again, this time in a voice full of hate and promise.

"Where is Hercules?"

The man remained silent. Iolaus used both hands to slowly squeeze his captive's neck until Jason put a restraining hand out. "You'll kill him!"

"I don't care. He knows where Herc is and he's gonna tell us or die."

Jason had never heard Iolaus sound so angry and desperate. Their captive searched the faces of the three and made a decision. "He is there. The caves." he gasped out.

Iolaus relaxed his grip. "Is he okay?"

Some of the bravado came back into the man's voice. "He is alive, but held by his own guilt. Hera has made him see the error of his ways. He will never be free to you again."

"We'll see about that." With that simple statement, Jason sent the man hurtling down the hillside. Lilith grabbed for Iolaus' hand and the three made their up the hillside. It took nearly an hour to find the caves. Jason investigated three different openings while Iolaus and Lilith stood guard outside.

"It's this one guys. It goes in for quite a ways, but I can hear something inside. We'll have to be careful. We can't tell what guards Hera has in there. Whatever they are, it has to be something bad if Hercules can't handle it." Jason looked intently at Iolaus. "Are you sure you're up to going in there? Maybe you should wait here for us. We'll bring Hercules out to you."

Iolaus face was hard as stone. "I'm going in. With you or without you. I'm not leaving my best friend in there alone."

Jason gave in. "Let's go then. I'll go first. Lilith you bring Iolaus. Stay close, stay quiet and"

"Stay alert." Iolaus and Lilith chorused, laughing at Cheiron's oft-repeated advice.

Jason smiled and shook his head before ducking back into the cave. Iolaus grabbed Lilith's outstretched hand and followed him in. The darkness inside made Jason pause and grab for the walls. He realized that Iolaus' injury wouldn't be a handicap in the darkness. The three friends progressed slowly toward the back of the cave. Jason called a halt when he detected a fierce glow from around the next corner. "Stay here." he commanded. The others stopped and waited. They knew that this wasn't the time for more discussion, this was the time for following orders.

Jason crept ahead to where he could see the flames dancing from the floor of the cave. Just beyond them he could see Hercules sitting on the floor leaning against the wall. Peering closer, he could see the chains that held him. His friend appeared to be sleeping. Jason made a quick check of the perimeter before he called out.

"Herc? Hercules? Wake up, it's Jason."

Hercules head jerked up and a panicked look crossed his face. "Jason? You have to get away. Leave now before she comes back. You'll just get hurt too." His voice lowered in sadness. "Everyone around me gets hurt. It's all my fault."

"It is you know." a new voice said. Jason looked around for the source of the voice and stepped back in shock at the sight of the huge peacock-colored eyes that glared at him. "Hercules is all alone now. All of his friends and family are targets around him. He brings only trouble and injury to those around him. The flames are powered by his guilt. He will live as long as the fires burn. You cannot free him. Leave now, save your own lives and leave him to his guilt." With that warning, the eyes faded and Jason was alone with Hercules again.

Jason felt a hand on the back of her jerkin. "Hera. She did this to him. Can you see Hercules?" Iolaus asked softly.

"He's chained to the rock. I've never seen anyone so despondent before. Why don't you talk to him. There's a circle of fire around him so we can't get close but he can hear us."

"I don't feel any fire, Jason. I just feel cold." Iolaus said as he stepped closer to the middle of the cave. He was aware of Lilith behind him as he started to speak.

"Hercules. Talk to me buddy. What's going on here?"

"Iolaus?? No, it can't be. I'm dreaming. Iolaus doesn't want me around any more. No one is safe with me around. I deserve to be here." Hercules didn't even open his eyes to look for his friend.

"I'm not a dream, Herc. I'm here. I'm not going away and neither are you. You're my best friend. We're supposed to do great things together. We've had it all planned. And now you're giving up on me?" His voice took on a note of scorn.

"Leave me alone, Hera! Just let me die in peace." Hercules slumped back against the rock and closed his eyes even tighter.

Repeated calls to him brought no results. Iolaus turned and felt for Jason's hand. "I have an idea. Are those flames close to Herc?"

"Pretty close. Why? We can't try to put them out. You heard Hera. If the flames go out, Herc dies. And it will be our fault so Zeus' protection order isn't violated." Lilith nodded in agreement as Jason spoke.

Iolaus leaned his staff out and felt Lilith take it. "Like I said, I have an idea. We can't talk to Hercules because he thinks it a trick from Hera. So you are going to throw me over to him. If I can get him to listen to reason, the flames will go out and we can all get out of here."

Jason looked at the distance involved and stroked his chin. "But you can't see. How are you going to judge your landing? How do we know the flames won't flare up and burn you to ashes?"

Iolaus put both hands on his friend's shoulders. "I trust you, Jason. Just get me over there."

"Right." Jason stepped up as close as he dared to the wall of flame and studied the distances involved. "Okay, when I say go, straight up, two turns and land on your feet. If I do this right, all you'll have to do is turn around and Herc will be just in front of you a few feet. Lilith will be watching from the side to guide you the rest of the way."

"Let's do this." Iolaus let Jason maneuver him into the position he wanted, then rested his hands on the prince's shoulders and placed his foot into Jason's cupped hands. "On your count."

Jason gave a small bounce with each count. "One, two, THREE!" With a grunt of effort, he lifted Iolaus up and over his head. He turned quickly to see Iolaus do two perfect somersaults in the air over the flames and land on his feet.

"Stop right there!" Lilith called. "Okay, now turn around and walk three paces."

Iolaus followed her instructions and tripped over Hercules' outstretched foot. He knelt down and felt for his friend's hand. He could feel the cold metal of the chains and slid his hands up Hercules' arms to his face. The captive's head was bent down forward and felt lax, as though he were asleep. Iolaus spoke softly to him.

"Herc? Time to wake up buddy. Let's get you out of here."

Hercules lifted his head slowly and opened his eyes. "Iolaus? Is it really you?"

"It's really me. What kind of a mess have you gotten yourself into this time? Haven't Jason and I told you time and time again not to go off on your own. Who's gonna keep you outta trouble?" Iolaus tried hard to put a smile in his voice.

"Go away, Iolaus." The flames behind Iolaus grew higher. "You got hurt because of me. If I'm here, then I can't get you or Jason or anyone else hurt again."

"It's not your fault. Strife just got in a lucky punch."

"Iolaus! You're blind because of me. Because of who my father is. I'm tired of people I care about getting hurt. You could have been killed!"

"So what! So I can't take care of myself? Is that what you're saying? That none of us can take care of ourselves, that Jason and Cheiron and the Amazons have to rely on you for our protection? Do you see us as that weak?" The scorn was back in Iolaus' voice.

"Of course not! But if I'm not around, the gods won't have any reason to attack you."

"So it can just be the rest of the bad guys in the world huh? But of course without the mighty Hercules around, we can't fight them off, or help anyone else." Iolaus' voice was low with suppressed anger.

"But, you're my friends. I'm supposed to..."

"Supposed to what? Wrap us up in fleece and keep us warm and safe? Hah! So just who is rescuing who here? You can't leave my sight for two days and you're already up to your neck in trouble. Seems more like Jason and I have our hands full babysitting you." The smile was creeping back into Iolaus' voice.

From the other side of the flames, Jason and Lilith couldn't hear what was being said, but they knew Iolaus was making progress. The flames were going down and they could see Hercules becoming more animated. Jason kept a lookout for more of Hera's hunters to make sure there were no more attacks.

Hercules looked into his friend's bandaged eyes. "But what about what you said to Cheiron? That I was responsible and I should leave?"

"Is that what this is all about?" Now he was exasperated. "I was telling Cheiron what you would be feeling and what you would probably do if you weren't stopped. He was agreeing with me that you would need your friends around even more. You just heard part of a conversation and took off, didn't you?" He didn't give Hercules a chance to answer. "That's just like you, you know all the answers, don't bother to ask the questions."

Now Hercules was smiling and managing to look abashed at the same time. "Okay, you win. I'm not responsible for the world and I need you to watch my back."

At these words, the flames died away completely allowing Jason and Lilith to run to the pair sitting on the floor. Hugs and handshakes were shared as well as a few tears from Lilith. Finally Jason rose to his knees and addressed the group. "So how about we get out of here and back to the Academy before Cheiron gives away our bunks."

Hercules looked down at his hands with sadness. "I can't leave. These chains were forged by Hephaestus, even I can't break them."

"You don't have to." Iolaus pulled a slender metal piece out from the lining of his wrist gauntlet. "Sometimes it pays to know a thief, especially one who knows a thing or two about locks. Give me your hand."

With an amused grin, Hercules held out his manacled wrist and watched as Iolaus expertly picked the lock. With a metallic clang, the shackle fell away and Hercules held out his other hand. Seconds later, he was free. "Thanks, Iolaus. I guess that's two I owe you."

"Don't worry, somehow I'll find a way to collect later." Iolaus clapped his shoulder and allowed Hercules to pull him up from the floor. Laughing, the quartet made their way to the cave entrance. Just as they exited the cave, the same band of hunters who had captured Hercules attacked.

A short but violent fight ensued. Without Hera's poisonous peacock feather, the hunters were unable to gain the upper hand. Hercules fought with a savage joy, knowing that his friends truly did have his back, just as he protected them. It was a good feeling. He laughed aloud at the sight of his opponent sailing down the hill and turned to watch Iolaus. He knew that even blind, Iolaus was a formidable opponent. As he watched, Iolaus grabbed his opponent, fell backwards, and kicked him over his head to roll down the hill. Instead of jumping back up though, Iolaus stayed on the ground and covered his eyes. Concerned, Hercules ran over to him and knelt down.

"Iolaus, are you hurt?"

Iolaus took his hands down and the bandage came with them. "Not hurt, just the opposite." He squinted at Hercules. "I can see you! I can see!"

Jason and Lilith heard Iolaus excited shout and ran to join their friends. Iolaus realized that his sight was still fuzzy, but knew that it would get better as he healed more. With a light heart, the four friends set off for home, knowing that they were truly a team that counted on one another in all things, good and bad.