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"Hey, Herc?" Iolaus moved his arm from over his eyes and looked around when all he got was a grunt.
Hercules lay on his stomach, head pillowed on his arms, eyes closed. "What, Iolaus?" he asked drowsily.
"Didnít we come home to rest?" Iolaus rolled onto his stomach and propped his chin on his arms.
"So how did we get talked into helping Alcmene expand her garden?"
"Easy. She asked." Hercules opened one eye and looked at his friend. "When was the last time you said Ďnoí to Mother?"
"Exactly." Hercules closed his eye and sighed.
The two men were lounging on the back of the river, in one of their favorite spots. They had spent all morning preparing flower beds under Alcmeneís supervision.
Iolaus turned onto his back again, thinking about the previous week. It had seemed as if they were involved in one fight after another, and Hercules had had to come to his rescue more than once.
"Whatís wrong, Iolaus?"
Iolaus looked at Hercules, to find him staring at him. "Nothing."
"Something is bothering you. I can tell. Iíve seen that look before. Now tell me."
Iolaus sighed, looked back at the sky. "I justÖwas thinking about all those fights the past few days. All I did was get in the way."
Hercules raised up on his elbows. "Youíre kidding, right?"
"Címon, Herc, you had to rescue me *three* times!"
"And how many times have you rescued me from over-whelming odds? Iím strong, Iolaus, not omniscent or omnipotent. I can be taken down by sheer numbers. And a well-placed arrow or knife or sword will make me just as dead as it would you. Iolaus, I donít trust anyone *except* you to watch my back."
"Not even Xena?"
"No, not as completely as I do you." He reached out to clasp Iolausí arm. "What brought all this on? You know how important you are to me, your friendship, our partnership."
"Yes, but do you really *need* me?"
"Yes! I do! Iolaus, youíre my brother." He cocked his head. "Iolaus, youíre a hero in your own right. Youíre one of the best warriors alive, you care about people, you try to help them, and they appreciate you. Youíre more than just my partner. Heroes arenít born, you know. Theyíre made, through hard work and a willingness to stick to your morals and principles. To do things most people wouldnít. So yes, Iolaus, I do need you." He squeezed Iolausí arm.
Iolaus grinned at him. "Thanks, Herc." He stretched. "I guess Iím just tired, thatís all."
"Well, if Mother would just stop trying to kill us, we might be able to get some rest before someone comes looking for us."
Iolaus laughed. "Maybe we should hide out, like when we were kids. Spend the days fishing and swimming."
"Weíll have to get up reeeally early to get by her."
"Hey, Iím not the one who likes to sleep in."
The two men napped by the river for a couple of hours, then had a swim before heading back to Alcmeneís. She had dinner waiting, having fixed all their favorites. After dinner, Iolaus decided to sleep in his forge, where it would be a little cooler.
Iolaus was dreaming. He just knew it was a dream, it had to be. He was standing in a cave, surrounded by high rock walls that vanished into darkness. In front of him was a clear space. Hercules lay on an alter in the center of the cavern, appearing to be asleepÖor dead. His arms were crossed over his chest and he didnít appear to be breathing.
"He is alive."
Iolaus spun as the voice sounded behind him. He stared at the woman who stood there. She was beautiful, in a cold, haughty manner that sent a shiver down his spine. He didnít say anything, merely watched her as she strode forward to stand beside him, glaring at her hated step-son. "Yes, he is alive, for now." She looked back at Iolaus. "But his fate now rests in your hands, little man."
"What are you talking about?" Iolaus asked in a low voice.
Hera laughed and waved her hand. A circle of flame sprang up around the edges of the room. "These are very special flames, little man. He has tasted them once before. I would have had him then, but Zeus intervened to save him. They kill immortality. You have until they reach him to find something for me, or he will die. Itís as simple as that."
"What do you want?" Iolaus demanded.
"A very special gem. Itís called the Bloodstone. It was formed when Chronos castrated Uranus."
"Why do you want it?" Iolaus asked suspiciously.
"None of your business, little man!"
"Why me? Why donít you get it yourself?"
"Because itís protected from the gods. Only a very special mortal can retrieve it. And that is what you are going to do, or he will die. And you will be there to watch!" she hissed.
"NO! Tell me what to do, just donít hurt him!" Hera began to laugh. "Tell me! Iíll do whatever you want, just donít hurt him!"
"No, donít hurt himÖdonítÖ.Donít!" Iolaus gasped and sat up. He looked around. He was in his room next to his forge. Slowly, his breathing returned to normal. He started to lay back down, when his fingers brushed something in the dark. A chill ran down his spine. He picked it up. Gleaming in the moonlight was a peacock feather.
Iolaus stared at the feather for a moment, then dropped it as if it were a poisonous snake that had bitten him. He scrambled to his feet, dressed as fast as he could, and took off for Alcmene and Jasonís house.
Iolaus pounded on the door and yelled until Jason opened it. "Iolaus! Itís the middle of the night, whatís wrong?"
"Whereís Herc? Jason, whereís Herc?!"
"Iolaus, calm down, heís upstairs asleep. Tho I donít know how with the kind of racket youíve been makingÖ." Jason watched as Iolaus ran toward the stairs and up to the second level, then started to follow. Heíd just gotten to the foot of the stairs when Iolaus appeared.
"Heís not there. Oh, gods, Jason, heís not there." Iolaus leaned on the wall, trembling.
"What is it, Iolaus?" asked Alcmene, whoíd seen the whole scene, reaching out to put a hand on his arm.
Iolaus held out his hand. There was a jeweled brooch, in the form of a peacock, in his hand. "It was laying on the pillow. Along with this." He held up a rolled parchment. "I had a dream, a terrible dream. I woke upÖthere was a peacock feather on my bedÖ." He quickly told them his dream. "I had to comeÖto make sure he was alrightÖsheís got himÖsomehow, sheís got him."
Alcmene was staring at Iolaus. She was terribly frightened, by both what Hera would do to Hercules and what she was asking of Iolaus. "Iolaus, promise me youíll be careful. IÖI couldnít stand Öto lose you bothÖ." She fled to her room, crying.
Jason looked at Iolaus. "What are you going to do?"
"Go after the gem. I have to, Jason." He saw the look in Jasonís eye and shook his head. "No. She says in the message I have to go alone."
"Alright. At least wait long enough to get some supplies."
Iolaus nodded. In no time, he had a pack readied with supplies. He would stop back at his forge on the way and get his sword and bow and arrows.
The parchment that had been left in Herculesí room was a map. The gem Hera wanted lay at the heart of a maze, inside Mt. Parnassus. But Iolaus was many days travel from the mountain, and every moment was precious. He would have to travel fast and light.
Iolaus stopped at his forge for his weapons. When he exited the forge, a sound made him turn. Standing there looking at him was a big, powerful-looking horse, the largest heíd ever seen. It was solid black and so was the gear it wore. It walked over and lowered itís head to Iolaus, nudging him gently in the chest.
"Somebody send you to me, boy? Are you to take me to the mountain?"
The horse seemed to understand what he was saying and tossed itís head up and down, as if to say yes. Iolaus secured his weapons to his person, stowed his supplies in a pack behind the saddle, then swung astride the horse, gathering the reins, but holding them loosely, so the horse could have his head. Iolaus held tightly with hands tangled in the mane and legs pressed tight to the sides as the horse began to run. The horse ran with a supernatural speed and the passing countryside was a blur.
Iolaus didnít know how much time had passed when the horse finally stopped. He dismounted, dropping to his knees as his feet touched the ground. He was stiff and sore from the long ride, not to mention covered with dirt and mud slung up by the horses hooves.
Iolaus sat still for a few minutes, catching his breath and letting the feeling come back into his legs and fingers, then struggled to his feet. Turning, he discovered the horse had vanished. His pack lay on the ground behind him. He pulled out the map and studied it, then tucked it back in his waistband, picked up his pack, and began to walk as fast as he could up the trail, finally breaking into a run.
Only Iolausí superior reflexes and agility saved him from the first trap. He felt the line across the trail catch his ankle and threw himself to the ground. The spear the line released would have gone all the way through him, instead of lodging in a tree, if he hadnít moved so fast.
"Great. Traps." Iolaus looked around, got slowly to his feet. "Sheís not going to make this easy, Iolaus. She doesnít care about getting the jewel, she just wants Herc dead. You claim youíre the best hunter and tracker alive, nowís the time to prove it. Hercís life depends on you, man, look sharp!"
Iolaus became much more wary. If he died, so would Hercules. He wouldnít, couldnít, fail in his quest.
Iolaus stopped to study the map again. A sound caught his attention. Ahead of him on the trail, a large silver wolf stepped from the brush. It snarled at him, exposing long sharp fangs. It crouched, readying to spring if Iolaus moved.
Iolaus swallowed, holding the animalís eye. His right hand crept slowly toward his knife. He hoped he could kill this thing before it hurt him too badly.
The wolf sprang just as Iolausí hand closed on the hilt of his knife. He threw himself to one side and drew the knife, a knife Hercules had helped him forge, turning to face the animal. The wolf came back at him, knocking him to the ground. He thrust his left arm into the gaping maw. The wolf bit down, itís teeth catching in his gauntlet. He stabbed at it with his knife, but couldnít get a good enough angle to kill it. In itís frenzy, it kept trying for his throat, and he kept shoving his gauntleted arm into his mouth.
Finally, Iolaus found the right angle and plunged the knife into the wolfís side, between itís ribs, to itís heart. It collapsed on top of him, dead. He pushed it away and sat up, breathing hard. He had some deep scratches on his arms, chest, and stomach, but they werenít too serious. He ignored them. He got his left gauntlet off and examined two deep puncture wounds made when the wolfís fangs had finally pierced the stiff leather. He wrapped a piece of cloth torn from his pack around the wound and put his gauntlet back on. He had to continue on.
A short way up the trail, he stopped, listening. He could hear water. He followed the sound and found a small spring gurgling from between some rocks. He quickly drank, then washed the blood and dirt from himself, quickly washing his wounds off. He refilled his waterskin and was back on the trail in only minutes.
Iolaus finally reached the cave that was the entrance to the maze guarding the Bloodstone. Iolaus took a deep breath and went in, stopping to fashion and light a torch, only to find the way lit as he went. Torches flared to life far ahead of him. He moved forward cautiously, consulting the map every time the tunnel split, the torches lighting up both ways.
He hadnít gone far when a sound caught his attention. It sounded like a crying child. He moved forward, and rounding a corner, found himself standing over a tiny girl about six years old, with long curling black hair.
"Hey, there," he said. He wasnít sure this wasnít a trap of another kind.
The child lifted her head. She looked haggard and gaunt, there were dark circles under her larkspur blue eyes. "Did my daddy send you to find me?" she asked dazedly.
Iolaus knelt beside her, smiling. "He sure did. He was sad because his little girl was gone, and he couldnít find her." He helped her drink from his waterskin, careful not to let her drink too much. "What are you doing in here?"
"I was hunting berries and it started to rain, so I came in here. I saw a light and went to it and I got lost."
Iolaus frowned. Heíd seen signs that it had rained in the last two or three days, and the child looked as if sheís been here that long. He sighed. He didnít need this, but he couldnít leave her. He handed her an apple from his pack.
"Whatís your name? Iím Iolaus."
"Iím Tansy." She took the apple eagerly and bit into it.
Iolaus gave the girl a sharp look. Perhaps she was a sign. For her name meant Ďimmortalí.
Iolaus took a deep breath. "Tansy, this is a very dangerous place. To find a way out, we have to go on in. I need you to be very brave and do exactly what I say, alright?"
Tansy nodded. "Yes, sir."
Iolaus smiled. "Just Iolaus, Tansy. Are you still hungry, would you like some more water?"
Iolaus gave her another drink and some bread and cheese, as well as taking the chance to rest and eat himself. He was no good to anyone if he was so tired, he couldnít think.
After the short rest, Tansy loked much better. Her eyes were bright and she was smiling, holding Iolausí hand as they walked.
"Iolaus?" Tansy stopped, tugging on his hand. She pronounced his name Eye-oh-less, just as Herculesí daughter Ilea had.
"What is it?" Iolaus looked down at her.
"Why are there holes in the walls?"
Iolaus knelt beside her. "Where, Tansy?"
"There." She picked up a rock and threw it at one of the holes.
Iolaus grabbed her and stumbled back as a hail of arrows shot from both sides of the wall. Tansy clung tightly to Iolaus, her arms around his neck. He held her tight. He could feel her trembling with fear. He kissed her cheek. "Thank you, Tansy. Your sharp eyes saw that trap before mine did."
"That was scary, Iolaus," she said in a quavering voice.
"I know, but itís alright now."
She looked at him. "Was it a trap for the dragon?"
Iolaus blinked. "What dragon?"
"Thereís a story that thereís a great red dragon sleeping under the mountain, and anyone who goes all the way to the heart gets eaten if they wake him up. Heís guarding a treasure and even the gods canít get around him, because his father is Chaos and his mother is Night, so heís older even than the gods."
Iolaus smiled. "Iím sure itís just a story, Tansy. Probably, a long, long time ago, bandits set these traps to protect their treasure."
"Are we going to find a treasure, Iolaus?" she asked eagerly.
Iolaus laughed. "Maybe. I came looking for something, something very important. I have to have it to save my best friendís life."
"You mean like a quest?"
"Yeah, like a quest." He looked around, picked up another rock, and threw it. Nothing happened. "Ok, now, Tansy, you tell me if you see anything, anything at all, that doesnít look right to you, ok?"
"I will, Iolaus."
"Ok, letís go." He took her hand and they continued on.
Iolaus was astonished as Tansy found and tripped several more traps before they could walk into them. One would have opened a pit under their feet. Another would have caught them between swinging blades, while a third would have brought a forest of spikes out of the floor.
At first, Iolaus wondered if she was some supernatural helper sent to guide him, then he figured out that it was because she was so small. Whoever had set the traps hadnít taken into account that their work could be seen by someone whoís head barely reached Iolausí hip.
Iolaus looked at the pit with dismay. It was too wide to jump across. Maybe he could swing across it on a rope.
Tansy looked up at Iolaus. "How are we going to get across, Iolaus?" she asked in her sweet, perplexed childs voice.
"I donít know yet, Tansy. Iíll have to think about this one."
Tansy watched Iolaus as he crouched on the side of the pit. They couldnít see the bottom; for all they knew, it was bottomless.
Tansy looked around. She searched the walls, running her hands over it as high as she could reach. She looked at Iolaus, who was looking around, trying to find a beam or something to throw a rope onto. When she looked back, she saw it: a lever, cleverly made to blend into the rock wall.
"Iolaus!" Iolaus turned and walked over. "Look! Thereís a lever!" She pointed. "You canít see it from there, come over here!"
Iolaus crouched behind the girl and then he saw it. He reached up. "Ok, Tansy, get ready to run if this is the wrong thing to do." He pulled the lever.
For a moment, nothing happened. Then they heard hinges begin to creak and they stared as a bridge was lowered over the pit.
Iolaus hugged Tansy. "Tansy, youíre wonderful!" He picked her up and they started carefully across the bridge. Upon reaching the other side, they watched as it was drawn back up, fading into the surrounding wall.
They stopped to rest again, and Iolaus carefully undid his gauntlet and the bandages from his injured left arm. He frowned. The arm was swollen and the wounds were inflamed. Iolaus knew he could be in real danger of losing his arm or his life, but he had nothing to treat the injury with. He could only wash it off a little, with Tansy insisting on helping, and rebandage it. He couldnít get his gauntlet back on, so he put it into his pack.
Iolaus stopped. Tansy was exhausted, he could tell. He chided himself on not noticing sooner. "Tansy, why donít we stop for a while and get some rest?" He wasnít feeling so good himself.
"Iím alright, Iolaus."
Iolaus smiled. "I know you are, but Iím pretty tired. Weíll get some sleep and then go find your dragon treasure, ok?"
Tansy nodded. "Ok."
As they ate again, Tansy told Iolaus about her father, her favorite uncles, Pol and Dioni, her grandfather, and a cousin she called Toad, tho with great affection.
Tansy looked at Iolaus. "You didnít know I was in here, did you? You came looking for the treasure to help your friend."
Iolaus nodded. "Youíre right. But donít worry, I wonít let anything happen to you. Iíll get you back to your father, I promise."
Tansy hugged him and kissed his cheek. "I know you will, Iolaus. I trust you." She yawned and laid down.
Iolaus smiled as Tansy curled up next to him and fell asleep. He slipped his pack under her head for a pillow, then curling himself around her to keep her warm, he fell into a light doze himself, tho his senses were alert for the slightest danger.
Iolaus looked around. He didnít know where he was. There was mist all around, and nothing else. "Herc?" he queried.
Hercules appeared in front of him. "Iolaus, donít do this. Please, go back. If you give that stone to Hera, sheíll kill us both anyway."
"What is that stone?"
"When Chronos castrated Uranus, the stone was formed from the first drop of blood shed. It holds great power. Even the Titans were afraid of it, and Chronos hid it in the maze. Itís said that whoever possesses it will have the power to destroy the world, to remake it however they want it. You canít give it to her, Iolaus!"
Iolaus studied the man in front of him. He sensed that this really was his friend. He slowly shook his head. "Iím sorry, Herc. I have to do this."
Hercules sighed, shaking his head. "Be careful, Iolaus." He faded from view.
"Herc!" Iolaus sat up. He looked around. Tansy was looking at him. He sighed, running a hand over his face. He managed to smile at her. "Ready to go?"
She nodded. "Yes, Iolaus." She took Iolausí hand and they continued on.
Iolaus froze. He had stepped on something that shifted under his foot. He looked around. Tansy was looking at him with wide eyes, having heard the click. Nothing happened. Iolaus took a chance and moved forward a step.
Instantly, he knew it was a mistake. He grabbed Tansy and ran, leaping and rolling just before a large slab of rock came down to block their path. It slammed into the floor behind them, sealing the passageway.
Iolaus looked at Tansy. "Are you alright?"
Tansy nodded. "Yes, Iolaus. Iím alright."
Iolaus hugged her and kissed the top of her head, looking at the stone barring their way. He knew they had been very lucky so far, and wondered how long that luck would hold. He prayed that one of the kinder gods would have mercy on Tansy, and rescue her if he failed in his mission.
Iolaus stopped, leaned on the wall. He undid the bandages around his arm. The bites were an angry red now, with red streaks radiating out from them. He knew what this meant. He could already feel the beginnings of fever in him. His arm hurt with a fiery pain and every step seemed to jar the injury, sending shooting pains up his arm. But he couldnít quit. Herc would die if he failed. He had to succeed. There was no other option.
Tansy tugged on Iolausí vest. He looked at her. She had a worried look on her face. "Are you alright, Iolaus?"
Iolaus nodded. "Yes. I was just resting a moment." He re-bandaged his arm and reached for her hand. "Letís go."
They walked on, careful of traps, and rounding a curve, suddenly found themselves in an enormous cavern. In the center was a stand on which lay, on a cushion of black velvet, a large tear-drop shaped red jewel. It was about the size of Herculesí fist and seemed to glow and pulse with a life of itís own.
"Iolaus? What is that?" Tansy whispered.
"Itís called the Bloodstone. Itís a rare gem."
"Not that. That!" Tansy pointed at something beyond the gem.
Iolaus focused on the wall beyond the stand. Only it wasnít a wall. His eyes widened and he gasped, grabbing Tansy and stepping back into the shadows. Tansy wrapped her arms around his waist, pressing her cheek to his hip. Iolaus swallowed hard.
"Gods," he whispered. Lying beyond the stand was a great red dragon. "Thatís gotta be the biggest damn lizard Iíve ever seen," he muttered.
"Itís asleep," Tansy whispered.
Iolaus took a deep breath. He looked around and saw another passageway, hopefully leading out. He knelt beside Tansy, putting his hands on her shoulders. "Tansy, I have to try to get that gem. Look, that passageway is probably the way out. I want you to run for it while I try for the gem. Wait for me. If anything happens to me, try to find the way out. Be careful of traps, just like before. Youíre a very brave, smart girl, I know youíll be alright. If you need help, call on Aphrodite and tell her Iolaus said for you to. Sheíll help you."
Tansyís lip trembled and tears filled her eyes. "I donít want to go without you, Iolaus. Iím scared."
Iolaus hugged her, rubbing her back. "I know, sweetheart. But youíll be fine, youíll see. I have faith in you." He wiped her tears away. "Ok?" She nodded, trying to be brave. "OkÖgo!" Iolaus took off for the stand and Tansy ran for the passageway as fast as her little legs would carry her.
Iolaus was still a good ten feet from the gem when the dragon opened itís eyes and raised itís head. It rose up on itís hind legs, its wings opening, its jaws gnashing togther, and lunged at Iolaus, who dove to one side. But the fever and poison in his body slowed him down. The dragon snapped a wing out, knocking Iolaus into the wall. He was dazed and sure he was about to die as he got to his knees. The dragon lunged at him.
"NO!" Tansy screamed.
The dragon swung itís head around. Tansy froze. The dragon lowered itís head toward her, until the tip of his snout was inches from her face.
*YOU BROUGHT A >CHILD< WITH YOU TO STEAL THE BLOODSTONE?*
Iolaus, whoíd gotten to his feet, was driven to his knees by the voice in his head. He groaned, his hands going to his head, and every thought fled.
The voice was bearable this time, tho still loud. Iolaus looked up, to find one jewel-toned eye looking at him. "IÖI found herÖin the cavern. She was lost. IÖI couldnítÖleave her. PleaseÖsheís only a babyÖplease donít hurt her. Kill..kill me, butÖdonít hurt her."
The eye moved, and Iolaus sensed the dragon was looking him over. *Do You Know Who I Am, Human?*
*I Am The Eldest Of Dragons. I Was Here Before Humans Were Even Dreamed Of. Before Gods Were Thought Of. All Dragons Are My Children. Now. Tell Me Why You Want The Gem.*
Iolaus got no further, as the dragon swung his head around until his nose was only inches from Iolausí face. *You Work For That Devil-Spawned Bitch?*
Iolaus swallowed. "N.n.noÖshe has my friend, the brother of my heart, Hercules. She said sheíll kill him. Said to bring her the gem, and sheíd release him."
*And You Trust Her?*
The dragon sat back. Iolaus collapsed to his knees, his world graying around edges. He struggled not to pass out as Tansy ran to him, throwing her arms around him. *You Are Not A Thief. You Did Not Come Here Out Of Greed, But Out Of Love. There Is No Deceit In You, A Rare Thing In A Human. I Cannot See Into Your Thoughts, But I Can Read Your Heart. You Are A Good Man. Hera Thought She Had Set An Impossible Task Before You. But She Is In For A Surprise.* The dragon grasped the Bloodstone, then reached out. Iolaus heard Tansy gasp, and darkness fell.
Iolaus opened his eyes. He was lying on soft green grass, staring up at a blue sky. Curled up beside him was Tansy. Iolaus raised up, gently shook her. "Tansy?"
Tansy sighed and opened her eyes. She sat up and looked around, bewildered. "Where are we? Howíd we get away from the dragon?" She looked at Iolaus. "Are we dead? Did he eat us, and now weíre in the Underworld?"
Iolaus laughed and hugged her. "No, little one, I donít think so." Iolaus opened a leather pouch slung over his shoulders. Reaching inside, he lifted out the Bloodstone. It gleamed dully in the light, like old blood. He put it back in the pouch and stood, holding out a hand to Tansy. "Címon. Weíve got to get you home, then Iíve got a delivery to make." She took his hand and he pulled her to her feet.
But at that moment, Hera summoned him, sensing that he had the gem she wanted. Tansy was brought along, as well.
Iolaus gasped as he saw how close the ring of fire was to Hercules. Tears sprang to his eyes as he saw that Hercules was tossing his head and moaning. "Herc," he whispered. He spun to face Hera as she appeared in the cavern. "Let him go!"
"Give me the Bloodstone!"
Iolaus held out the pouch. Hera snatched it and took the gem from it. Triumph lit her eyes. "Yes," she hissed. "Now, the power of all creation is mine!"
"Let him go, Hera!" Iolaus demanded, almost frantic now.
Hera laughed. "You fool! Did you really think I would just let the two of you walk out of here?" She raised a hand, which began to glow with power.
Iolaus lowered his head. His face twisted into a snarl. "No."
Hera was startled by the deep, growling voice. It was a sound from the beginning of time, and it came from Iolaus.
Iolaus raised his head, looking at Hera, and she screamed, for his eyes swirled with many colors. "The Bloodstone is not for you, Hera. You would unmake the world with itís power, and recreate it in your own image. That is forbidden." The voice issuing from his mouth was deep and rough, almost as if several voices were speaking at once.
"Who are you?" Hera hissed.
"One mightier than you." A red mist swirled around Iolaus, then away. Iolaus swayed and dropped to the floor of the cavern, unconscious, as the great dragon appeared beside him, tho less massive than in the other, larger cavern.
Hera held out the gem. "I have the Bloodstone! You must obey me!"
The dragon laughed. "You have a rock, and I obey no one."
Hera gasped as the gem in her hands turned into a black stone. She dropped it and backed up. "This isnít over!" she screamed.
"Yes, it is." The dragon thrust his head toward her, until he was almost touching her nose, and Hera was backed against the wall. "Never try for the Bloodstone again, Hera. You will never find a man worthy enough to take it again. And should Iolaus ever come to me, to tell me he has been coerced into trying for it again, I will come for you, Hera, and I will take great pleasure in tearing you into tiny pieces before I eat you."
Hera screamed in outrage, but recognised the dragon was her superior, and vanished. The flames around Hercules shot high, and he screamed. Iolaus moaned in agony, convulsing, and then the dragon gestured with a wing, and the flames were gone.
Tansy ran to Hercules. She shook him. "Hercules! Hercules, wake up! Iolaus needs you! Hercules, IOLAUS NEEDS YOU!"
Herculesí eyes flared open and he sat up. He looked at Tansy uncomprehendingly, then at the dragon, then at Iolaus. "Iolaus!" He got to his feet, but was still shaky. Tansy got his hand and put it around her small shoulders. Hercules smiled at her, took a deep breath, and walked over to his friend, keeping an eye on the dragon. He dropped to his knees beside Iolaus. Reaching out to touch his face, he was dismayed at the heat rising from his friendís body.
The dragon lowered his head to look at Hercules. "He is very ill. Taking him over as I did will have depleted him even further. I didnít want to, but there was no other option. Hera had to be stopped."
Hercules lifted Iolaus head into his lap. "Canít you help him?"
"No. Iím sorry. He must want to live in order to survive."
Iolaus moaned, stirred, and opened his eyes. He blinked as he tried to focus on who was holding him. "H..herc?"
Hercules nodded, smiling. "Iím here, Iolaus. Thanks to you. Just lie still, youíre going to be fine."
Iolaus looked at the dragon. "Thank you."
"My pleasure, Iolaus." A talon on one of the smaller front legs reached out, to barely touch the medallion that always hung around Iolausí neck, then drew back. When he looked down, he saw that it now sported a ruby eye. "Should you ever have need of me, you have only to speak my name. I will come."
Iolaus smiled. "Thank you for everything, Great One." His voice was low and hoarse with pain.
The dragon chuckled. "You are one of mine, Iolaus, if only in spirit. A heart such as yours could only belong to a dragon. Take care of your friend. Hercules is lucky to have you." He turned to look at Tansy. "Your father has missed you, child. Come. I will take you home."
Tansy knelt beside Iolaus, leaning over to kiss his cheek and smile at him. "Can I come visit you, when youíre all better?"
Iolaus nodded. "Yes. Iíd like that."
"Iím glad to have met you, Iolaus. Youíre a very brave hero." She hugged him, then walked over to the dragon, who gently picked her up. There was swirl of red mist, and they were gone.
Iolaus looked Hercules. "No oneís going to believe this," he said dazedly.
Hercules was undoing the bandages from Iolausí arm and what he found scared him. He wasnít so sure Iolaus would be alright. The wound was badly infected, and blood poisoning was setting up. Iolaus needed a healer, and fast. "We have to get you to a healer, my friend," he said. He picked Iolaus up, concerned when Iolaus made no protest, merely settling his head on Herculesí shoulder and closing his eyes. "Iolaus? Címon, Iolaus, stay with me." He headed down a tunnel, praying it led out.
Hercules was relieved to find that the cavern in which he had been imprisoned wasnít far from his motherís home, and he took Iolaus there. Jason went for the healer, but there was little to be done except keep the wounds clean and apply poultices to draw out the poison, as well as trying to get medicinal teas into Iolaus. But his fever was high and he fought them such that even Hercules had a hard time holding him down.
Iolaus drifted in an ocean of pain and fire. He occasionally heard Hercules calling to him, but he couldnít answer. He was assaulted by nightmare visions from his past, monsters he and Hercules had defeated coming back to attack him again, ripping the flesh from his bones, while war-lords and mercenaries who had died at his hand taunted him and stabbed him with their swords.
Hercules held Iolaus against him as he screamed, his arms crossed over his chest. Jason was holding him by the ankles to ensure he didnít kick anyone and he couldnít kick free. He was thrashing his head wildly, screaming incoherently. He had been ill now for three days.
Hercules was almost frantic. "Iolaus! Iolaus! Please, Iolaus, donít die! Donít leave us, Iolaus!" he cried.
Slowly Iolaus began to calm, until he was lying quietly in Herculesí arms. His breathing was ragged and he still muttered to himself, but at least he wasnít fighting them.
Jason walked over to Hercules and touched his shoulder. "Hercules, why donít you let me stay with him a while, while you get some rest and something to eat?"
Hercules shook his head. "No. Thank you, Jason, but I need to stay with him."
"Hercules, heíll be quiet for a while. Why donít you get some rest? Youíve hardly slept since you returned," Alcmene said as she sponged Iolausí neck and chest with cool water.
Hercules shook his head. "No. I have to stay with him." He brushed Iolausí hair back. "Címon, Iolaus, you have to come back to us. You have an adventure to tell us about, and I want to hear it straight from you. Please, my friend, come back to us. You saved my life, Iolaus, you fought Hera herself and beat her. Please. Donít let my life cost you yours. I couldnít live with that, Iolaus. Please." His voice broke into a sob on the last word.
Alcmene sighed. Hercules was nothing if not stubborn. But she did understand how he felt. Heíd lost so many loved ones, he was terrified of losing Iolaus, too.
Hercules finally fell asleep, leaning against the headboard, holding Iolaus. Alcmene and Jason let them rest. Iolaus finally seemed a bit cooler and to be resting easier. She and Jason went to see about fixing dinner.
Hercules was suddenly aware that someone was in the room with him. Someone not his mother or Jason. He lifted his head and found himself looking into Ares dark eyes.
Before Hercules could say anything, Ares spoke. "Iím here to help. If youíll let me."
Hercules looked at him, confused. "Why?"
"My daughter asked me to."
Hercules looked at him blankly for a moment, then asked, "The little girl in the cavern?"
Hercules shook his head. "I donít understand."
"Do you really want to sit around here talking, or do you want me to heal him?"
"And the price?"
"There isnít one."
Hercules hesitated, then nodded. Ares walked over and put one hand on Iolausí chest. Light surrounded the hunter for a moment, then was gone. He was left sleeping peacefully.
"Heíll be fine, now."
Hercules laid Iolaus down, pulling the blanket over him, then looked at Ares. "Thank you."
Ares gave him a sardonic smile. "Donít you want to know why?"
Hercules sighed and sank down in a chair. "I donít care, Ares," he said wearily. "Iím just grateful."
Ares nodded. "When heís up to it, come to my temple. I want to hear all about this adventure my daughter has been babbling about. Something about the Bloodstone and a dragon and a circle of fire?" He grinned, a genuine, friendly smile. "Sounds like quite a tale, little brother." He chuckled and vanished.
Hercules slumped down in his chair, laying his head back.
Slowly, his eyes closed as he thought, *You donít know the half of it,
brother.* He looked at Iolaus. "What do you think, Iolaus," he asked
softly. "Shall we pay Ares a social call and tell him about your
adventure?" As sleep claimed him, his last thought was, *No oneís ever
going to believe this.*