This story is not intended to violate any copyrights held by MCA, Universal Studios, or Renaissance Pictures concerning Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. This story is for fun and no money was made from it.
“So this is why you wanted me to come with you. You get the glory and I do all the grunt work?” The weight of the stag across Hercules’ shoulders was hardly an effort at all for someone with the strength of ten men, but he couldn’t resist teasing his companion.
“Well, you can’t expect the mighty hunter to stoop to such a lowly position,” Iolaus shot back with a grin. He was feeling rather proud of his efforts. Normally on the road, their diet consisted of fish and small game, but this time he promised venison and had delivered with nothing more than a short, makeshift spear and his knife. “Did you see the way I crept up on him?” the hunter boasted. “He never saw me coming. You see, Herc, hunting is a very complex activity. It begins in the mind. To find your prey, you have to think like your prey.” His lecture on the finer points of hunting was interrupted by a loud burst of laughter.
“I always knew you had the brains of a stag,” Hercules chuckled. Iolaus pretended to be hurt, but couldn’t control the gleam in his eye.
“Hercules, you wound me,” he said mournfully. “But maybe there’s a way you could make it up to me. I could be persuaded to forgive you if you were to, oh, volunteer to skin my magnificent catch?”
“Nice try,” the demigod told him, rolling his eyes. He did have to admit that he was impressed watching his friend hunt and kill the stag. Iolaus had always been a great hunter, but he had outdone himself this time. When he put his mind to it, there was absolutely nothing that he couldn’t do.
The partners left the forest and entered a small clearing where they had set up camp. Hercules deposited the stag next to the fire and stretched, noting that they were a member short. Iolaus had also realized this fact.
“Where’s Elissa?” he asked Salmoneus.
“Down at the lake,” the salesmen told him. He was decidedly nervous, but neither the hunter nor the demigod seemed to notice.
“Did she put you to work?” Hercules inquired, indicating the clean blankets that were spread out around the fire to dry.
“Something like that,” Salmoneus muttered, fidgeting with the hem of his toga.
“Well, I’m going to run down and brag to her about my wonderful hunting prowess, then I’ll come back and skin the stag. Unless some kind hearted person wants to do it for me?” Iolaus announced hopefully.
“I’ll come with you,” Salmoneus said quickly.
“Salmoneus, I’ll clean the stag. You don’t have to run away,” Hercules called out, but the salesman was already following Iolaus down the path to the small lake.
Elissa had been floating out in the cool water, but she began to make her way to the shore as she saw the men approaching.
“Turn around,” Iolaus said cheerfully, giving Salmoneus a gentle rap to the back of his head as the healer began to emerge from the water. The salesman obliged, only turning back around after Elissa had wrapped a blanket around herself and joined them.
“Are you all right?” the hunter asked her, a note of concern creeping into his voice as he saw how pale she looked.
“I’m fine,” Elissa told him. “Any luck hunting?”
“Do you even have to ask?” Iolaus asked, polishing his fingernails against his well worn vest in a display of ego and confidence. “I promised you venison, didn’t I? Of course, I can’t take all the credit. Hercules carried it back here.”
“And you left him to deal with it, I imagine,” she scolded lightly. “Why don’t you go back up there and help him and I’ll be up in a few minutes.”
“Ok,” he conceded. “But don’t take too long. You don’t want either of us to have to start the cooking, do you?” Iolaus glanced at the salesmen. “Coming, Sal?”
“In a minute,” he said, eyes downcast. Iolaus gave him a puzzled look, but shrugged and began loping up the path alone. Once he was out of sight, Salmoneus took Elissa’s arm and sat her down on a nearby rock.
“You’re shaking,” he told her, stating the obvious. “Why didn’t you tell him?”
“He doesn’t need to know,” she whispered. “It would only hurt him and worry him, and there’s nothing he could do about it anyway.”
“Didn’t he know you were pregnant?” Salmoneus asked gently.
“I wasn’t completely sure myself. Until a few hours ago.” Elissa fought the tears welling in her eyes. She had been crying steadily for the past hour and refused to start again.
“I still think you should tell him,” the salesman advised. “I think he’d want to know.” The healer shook her head again, brushing away a stray tear that had escaped her green eyes. Her heart was aching, and she knew her golden hunter would feel the same way if he knew. She wouldn’t cause him that kind of pain. Her mind was made up, and she stood, somewhat unsteadily.
“Are you alright?” Salmoneus demanded. “I mean really?”
“The bleeding’s stopped now,” she assured him. “I’ll be fine. I’m going to get dressed and then I’ll go back up to the camp.”
“I’ll wait,” he told her solemnly, turning his back to give her privacy. He wasn’t convinced that she was “fine” and he wanted to keep an eye on her. Salmoneus had actually met the girl a few years ago, before she had even known Hercules or Iolaus, and he had immediately attached himself to her once he discovered her abilities. Repeatedly, he pestered her with schemes designed to turn her healing talents into a profitable enterprise, alternating with his declaration of undying love. On both counts, her answer was always the same. A gentle, but firm, no.
When he had discovered her relationship with Iolaus, he had been crushed for a time, but once he saw how much she loved the hunter he had been happy for her. Iolaus was a good guy, and Salmoneus knew he’d take care of her. His infatuation had faded quickly, but the healer had always held a special place in his heart. Salmoneus had been searching out Iolaus, devastated after hearing that the young girl had been killed. Conversely, he had been just as overjoyed to discover her alive and well a few days ago. Alive and well until that afternoon.
Salmoneus closed his eyes and tried to drive out the memory of her miscarrying her baby. She’d been curled on the ground, crumpled in pain, crying out, and he’d been powerless to help her. And all the blood.... He had been utterly horrified, but he helped her to the lake, cleaned everything up as best he could, and promised her he wouldn’t tell Iolaus. The salesman had been terrified, and he would have faced anything, even Darphus or Graegus again, rather than see her go through that. But he had to be strong for her now, so he took her hand and they began to slowly walk back up the trail towards the camp.
“I think it’s sharp enough,” Hercules wryly commented, watching his friend methodically scrape the blade of his knife over the whetstone for the hundredth time.
“What?” Iolaus asked, lost in thought.
“I said quit stalling with that knife and get over here and help me with this beast you so heroically dispatched.” To his surprise, the hunter silently complied. “Is anything wrong, Iolaus?” Hercules asked, knowing that something was bothering his friend.
“I don’t know,” he began casually, but failing to hide the concern in his voice. “I think something’s wrong with Elissa. She says she’s fine, but she doesn’t look so good.”
“That could be any number of things,” Hercules reasoned. “And I can think of dozens of them that are no cause for alarm.”
“You’re right,” the hunter sighed. “I guess I’m just being overprotective.”
“Well, considering that you just got her back from the dead two months ago, I can imagine how you would be. But she’s the healer, and if she’s says it’s nothing, than it’s nothing.”
“Speaking of ‘nothings’,” Iolaus spat, his features suddenly turning dark. Hercules followed his friend’s hardened gaze to the figure that had appeared before them.
“Good evening, gentlemen,” Sinis oozed. “Did you miss me?”
“Yeah,” Iolaus snarled. “We’ve been out searching the rat holes all day.” Hercules put a hand on his friend’s shoulder to remind him to stay in control.
“Is there something we can help you with?” the demigod asked calmly, the ice in his eyes betraying his anger.
“I was just wondering where that sweet little girl of yours had disappeared to.”
“Bastard!” Iolaus shouted. “If you touch her again I will kill you!” He tried to lunge toward the maniacal god, but found that he was rooted to the spot. Literally. Tendrils had emerged from the ground to wrap around his legs, pulling him into the ground. As he stared in horror, he felt himself begin to change. Pain coursed through him as he felt his muscles and bones stretch and shift. Frantically, he looked to Hercules for help, but his own terror was reflected back to him in the demigod’s eyes as he realized the same thing was happening to him. Desperately, he fought to free himself, but it was no use. His body was not obeying him any longer. Waves of pain shot through him as his body continued it’s gross metamorphosis, until finally he succumbed to oblivion.
Salmoneus held the sobbing girl tightly in his arms and did his best to comfort her. It wasn’t hard to figure out what had happened. When they had returned to the campsite, Iolaus and Hercules were gone. In their place, next to the fire, stood a slender willow tree and a mighty oak, and Elissa was sure that she heard a faint echo of Sinis’ laughter in the wind.
“There must be something we can do,” she gulped, sitting up and wiping away her tears. Salmoneus just looked at her helplessly. The healer rose and went to the willow tree, placing her hand on it’s trunk. “They’re alive in here, I know they are,” she whispered. “But how do we get them out?” The willow leaves rustled gently as she stroked the trunk and turned back to Salmoneus.
“Maybe one of the other gods could help them,” he suggested. “Like Zeus. Or what about Aphrodite?”
“I’m afraid Aphrodite can’t help anyone now.” They spun around to greet the form behind them, each thinking it was Sinis coming back to finish them off.
“Hephaestus?” Elissa asked, assuming the scarred form before her could be no other. A slight nod of the head was her answer.
“What happened to Aphrodite?” Salmoneus questioned, making it obvious that he was trying not to stare at the rough flesh of the god’s otherwise handsome face.
“Sinis,” he said wearily. “He stole her godhood and tortured her. She won’t talk about it, but I can only imagine the things he did to her.” Elissa shivered at his words. She did not need to imagine the cruelty that Sinis had inflicted on the goddess, as she had lived it herself.
“Is she all right?”
“When I found her I restored her immortality, but she’s still terrified. She’s hiding deep in my forge, refusing to come out for anything. I was just coming to ask Hercules for help.” Hephaestus glanced at the silent trees standing side by side. “But I guess I’m too late.”
“Can’t you do anything to help them?” Elissa pleaded.
“I’m sorry,” the god told her, limping over to get a better look. “Whatever spell he has on them, I cannot undo.”
“I can’t just leave them like this,” she protested. “There has to be some way of reversing this.”
“There is someone that may know,” Hephaestus said thoughtfully. “Go to the temple of Aesculapius. If anyone knows of an antidote, it would be the god of healing. Here.” The god waved his hand and a small object materialized. “If you should run into trouble along the way, this will help you out.” He pressed the object into Elissa’s hand and then vanished.
“What did he give you?” Salmoneus asked curiously. She displayed a tiny knife, no bigger than her little finger. “Some help that would be,” he scoffed, but the healer was not so quick to dismiss the gift, tucking it safely into her satchel.
“The temple is less than a day from here,” she said. “If I walk through the night, I could be there by morning.”
“Why don’t you rest tonight and start off in the morning?” Salmoneus suggested, knowing that she was already weakened from her earlier trauma. But, she just gave him a don’t-be-stupid look and went back to the trees.
“Hang in there, guys. I’ll get you out of this mess yet.” She leaned closer to the willow, resting her head against the smooth bark. “After all, I didn‘t come back from the underworld just to lose you like this.” Hating to leave, but anxious to go and find the cure, Elissa turned and started for the main road.
“I’m coming with you,” Salmoneus announced. He had no choice. Iolaus would kill him if anything happened to the healer.
“Iolaus. Are you all right?”
“I don’t know, Herc. I have a funny feeling in my limbs. They feel kind of wooden.”
“I fail to see how this is a joking matter.”
“Well, if you’re going to get all tied up in knots, I’ll just leaf you alone.”
“Iolaus, if you don’t stop with the bad tree puns, I’ll snap you like a twig.”
“I’d like to see you try, Hercules. You know your bark is worse than your bite.”
“At least this predicament hasn’t sapped your singular wit.”
“Maybe this was a bad idea,” Salmoneus whispered to Elissa as they stared at the entrance to the foreboding temple.
“Doesn’t look very inviting, does it?” she whispered back. “I thought Aesculapius was supposed to be one of the good gods.”
“I think we should go back,” he said nervously.
“And do what? I’ve got to do this. There’s no other way. Stay here.”
“I can’t let you go in alone,” Salmoneus protested.
“I’ll be fine,” she assured him. “What could happen to me in a temple of healing?”
“So, how do we get out of this one?”
“I wish I knew, Iolaus. Can you move at all?”
“Not really. If I concentrate really hard I can wave my branches a little.”
“There has to be a way out of here. This isn’t going to satisfy Sinis for long, and I for one have no desire to end up as kindling.”
“And there’s no telling what he’s doing to Elissa and Salmoneus.”
“Or the rest of the world.”
Elissa followed the priest down the long corridor as he escorted her to a small room.
“In here,” the disciple commanded. “Kneel and pray, and if Aesculapius deems your request worthy, he will come to you.”
Elissa entered the room, growing nervous as the door was shut and locked behind her. She was not sure she could trust these people, but now she had little choice. Kneeling on a large pillow in the middle of the floor, she bowed her head to the shrine of Aesculapius and began to pray for him to help Hercules and Iolaus. A soft sound distracted her, and as she looked up she was horrified to see countless snakes pouring in through the chinks in the stone walls. She rushed to the door, pounding on it desperately and calling for help.
“This is part of the ceremony.” Elissa heard the priest’s voice muffled from behind the door. “The serpents will help guide you to Aesculapius. Have no fear, child. The god of healing will not let you come to harm.”
“You could have told me about this before I came in here,” she muttered, backing away from the advancing snakes until she was trapped in the corner. She studied the slithering forms carefully. Some were harmless, but most of them were deadly. The healer tried to keep very still to avoid provoking the serpents. They were gliding around her feet, tongues flashing out as they maneuvered around her. After several minutes, the snakes began to calm. Some coiled along the walls or in the corners, but most started vacating the room through the cracks in the floorboards. With utmost care, Elissa slowly picked her way through the remaining serpents until she was back to the door, pounding on it fiercely and demanding to be let out.
“I give you full marks for bravery, my dear,” the priest commended as he opened the door.
“Yeah, well, I’ve been up against worse snakes than that before,” she told him bitterly. “Just what was that all about, anyway?”
“Aesculapius cannot speak to you unless you enter another form of consciousness. The venom of the snakes is quite useful in assisting mortals to reach another plane of understanding.”
“Do you have any idea how insane you are?” she asked.
“You speak of blasphemy, girl. It would serve you right if our great healing god refused to help you. But that is not up to me. My job is simply to take you to him. Anyway I can.” The priest suddenly reached out and shoved Elissa hard so that she went sprawling back into the room. Once again, the door slammed and she heard the click of the lock the same time that two needle sharp fangs sunk into her hand. She lay stunned on the floor for a moment, before sitting up and looking first to the door and then to the angry snake that was beginning to slither away from her. Two tiny pinpricks were all the more she had to show for the burning sensation that was already starting to shoot up her left arm.
“This isn’t good,” she said to herself, trying not to let the fear well up inside her. They had confiscated her bag as she entered the temple, and she had absolutely no way of treating the bite, except for tearing a piece of cloth from her dress to fashion a tourniquet. The venom was very fast acting, and it wasn’t long before she was on the floor, writhing in pain and fever and struggling to breathe as the toxins shut down her muscles. Before Elissa finally succumbed to oblivion, the last thing she saw was the priest watching her from the doorway.
“So this is the life of a tree, huh?”
“I guess so.”
“Not very exciting.”
“Well, you said you wanted a vacation.”
“Yeah, to do a little fishing. Or go hunting. Or maybe get married.”
“I asked Elissa to marry me.”
“When were you going to tell me this?”
“I was just waiting for a good time.”
“And this was the opportunity you were waiting for?”
“Actually, the end of Sinis was the opportunity I was waiting for. We wanted to wait until all of this was over before we did it. You know he’d never willingly let us have a moment of joy together.”
“I just can’t believe you didn’t tell me this before. But I owe Jason ten dinars.”
“You‘re betting on my love life?”
“He bet me that you would propose to her before the winter solstice, so I had to take it.”
“Well, I’ll forgive you this time. But any more stunts like that, and I’ll have to find myself a new best man.”
“You’ve got it, buddy. But first we have to find a way out of this minor predicament.”
As Elissa awoke, it took her a minute to focus her eyes on the figure that was hovering nervously above her.
“Are you all right?” Salmoneus asked worriedly.
“I think so,” she croaked, struggling to sit up. The salesman helped her, supporting her as a wave of dizziness rushed through her, then he held a flask of water to her lips.
“Where are we?” she asked weakly, gazing at the unfamiliar surroundings and trying to ignore the fuzziness in her head.
“At an inn in town. You were in the temple for so long, I got worried and went in to look for you. Aesculapius’ priest took me to you, and he told me I couldn’t disturb you, but...You were so sick and it didn’t seem right, ceremony or no ceremony. I just had to get you out of there.”
“Thank you, Salmoneus.” Elissa felt weak and ill, and her arm was swollen and throbbing under the clean bandage around it, but she knew she would be all right. Wearily, she lay back down against the pillows, agreeing with her friend that it would be best for her to sleep now.
“Did you get an answer from Aesculapius?” Salmoneus asked as he pulled a blanket over her. The healer gave him a small smile as her heavy lids closed.
“Yes, I did,” she whispered.
“Ok, Herc. Try this one. I’m thinking of something...”
“Animal, vegetable, or god?”
“Elissa! Will you please sit down and rest for awhile?”
“I just had a break,” she said irritably.
“You should be in bed, not out on this crazy quest.”
“Gee, and I thought my mother was dead,” she snapped, instantly sorry as she saw his hurt expression. “I didn’t mean that, Salmoneus. It’s just that...”
“You’re tired and sick and you know I’m right.”
“That’s part of it,” the healer grinned. “The other part is that I’m going nuts without Iolaus. And I’m terrified of what Sinis will do to them if I don’t hurry.”
“I don’t mean to be such a nag,” the salesman explained. “But three days ago, I didn’t think you were going to make it.”
“I’m fine,” she protested, looking anything but. “Come on, let’s go.”
“Give it up, Iolaus.”
“No, no. I’ve got it now. I’m going to a festival and I’m going to see apples, bards, chitons, dancing girls, eighty earthen pots, Falafel, ghastly gods, horses, innkeepers, judges, kings, lovely ladies, minstrels ...”
“Hi guys. Did you miss me? Don’t worry, I’m working on getting you out. It’s going to take a little while longer, but I’ll be back with the cure. I promise.” Elissa leaned forward and touched the bark of the small willow tree. “I love you, Iolaus. I won’t let you down.” Refusing to let any more tears fall, she blinked several times and picked up the hunter’s fallen sword and scabbard, strapping it around her waist.
“Elissa, are you sure you can do this? Not to be rude, but you’re not exactly Xena, you know.”
“I’m not even Gabrielle,” she whispered, crestfallen. But then she straightened and put on a brave face. “But I have to try. Salmoneus, will you stay here with them while I’m gone?”
“I can’t let you do this alone.”
“Don’t worry. I know just where to get the help I need. But I’ll feel a lot better about leaving if I know you’re here with them.”
“Elissa, if trouble happens, I won’t be able to do anything to protect them.”
“I know. But I’d still be less worried if I knew you were here.”
“All right.” He leaned in to hug her. “Be careful.”
“You too.” With one last look at the trees standing proud and tall, side by side, she turned and left the clearing.
“Do you think she can do it, Herc?”
“I don’t know. I hope so. But Sinis won’t make it easy for her. Wherever she’s going.”
“I know. But I think she can.”
“I hope you’re right.”
Elissa quickened her step, desperately wanting this leg of her journey to be over. Normally, she enjoyed the cool evening breeze and the sounds of night, but now, she was scared. There was no moon, only darkness that pressed in on her until she felt she could barely breathe. Every twig snap made her jump, and every shadow appeared to hold something deadly lurking in it’s grasp. Fortunately, she was very close to her destination, so she sped through the quiet town to the one house that would be her safe haven.
The pounding on the door brought Jason out of the reverie he’d slipped into as he’d stared into the fire. Sighing, he struggled to his feet and slowly moved to the disruptive noise.
“Who is it?” he called gruffly, above the frantic knocking.
“It’s Elissa, Jason. Please let me in.” He’d barely begun opening the door when she pushed through, relieved to be free of the suffocating blackness outside.
“What are you doing here?” Jason asked in surprise.
“I need your help,” she pleaded, turning to face him. He was shocked by the sight of the girl. She was deathly pale, and large, dark circles framed her sunken eyes.
“By the gods, child. What’s happened to you? And where are Iolaus and Hercules?” He sat her down by the warm fire, and taking a deep breath, she told him the entire story. Jason almost didn’t believe her as she got to the part about the heroes being turned into trees, but he knew she wouldn’t make such a thing up. And he also knew that nothing short of death or imprisonment within the confines of a tree would keep Iolaus from his lady’s side. Maybe he just didn’t want to believe her.
“I need to find Proteus’ mirror,” she continued. “I remember my brother Cimon telling a story about it once. When you look into it, it reflects back your true self.”
“I’ve also heard that some men have been driven to madness from looking into it,” Jason mused. “But I don’t understand how this is supposed to undo whatever curse Sinis has cast on Hercules and Iolaus.”
“I don’t either, but Aesculapius assured me that it would work.”
“Elissa,” the former king began gently. “You were suffering from the snake venom, and you were delirious. It’s possible that you just dreamed the whole scene with Aesculapius.”
“Normally, I’d agree with you. But when I woke up, I had this in my hand.” The healer reached into her satchel and pulled out a small, corked vial.
“What is it?”
“I don’t know. But Aesculapius gave it to me and told me I’d need it, and that I’d know when the time was right to use it.”
“And you really want to do this?”
“No, I don’t want to, but what choice do I have? I need your help, Jason. I came here to ask if you would go with me.”
“Elissa, I wouldn’t be any good to you.”
“What are you talking about? You’re the leader of the Argonauts. You captured the golden fleece, twice.”
“Those things are in the past. I’m an old man now,” he protested. “I haven’t got the strength anymore, or the ability.”
“I think you have those things,” she said quietly. “I think the only thing you’re lacking these days is your confidence.”
“I can’t do it. I’m sorry.”
“Jason, please. I need you. If you don’t help me, I don’t know what I’m going to do. Please.” He looked into her lost eyes and knew he couldn’t refuse her.
“Where is this mirror supposed to be again?”
“The island of Pharos.”
“We’ll go to Corinth in the morning,” Jason said resignedly. “Iphicles and most of his men are in Tiryns, negotiating with King Aristides, but we’ll be able to get you a horse and some other supplies there.”
“Thank you, Jason,” Elissa said, giving him the brightest smile she could manage, but it was still only a shadow of her normal self.
“Doesn’t he ever shut up? He’s been talking to himself all day long, and now I think he’s talking in his sleep.”
“Yeah. Salmoneus is the only guy I know who can talk more than you can.”
“It’s getting dark,” Jason said, stating the obvious. “Why don’t we stop for the night in that clearing up ahead?” Elissa wanted to keep going, but she knew she had to yield to common sense. It would be difficult to travel in the dark, and she realized that the horses needed to rest.
Jason carefully watched the girl out of the corner of his eye as they dismounted and set up camp, trying not to let his worry for her show through. He had planned on a late start that morning, figuring that he’d give her time to sleep, but when he’d risen at dawn she was up and ready. When they had reached Corinth, he tried to persuade her to stop for the day so they could start fresh tomorrow, but she had refused. They were at the castle only long enough to pick up supplies and a horse, and then the healer was anxious to begin their journey. She had also been reluctant to stop and rest along the way, and they had ridden hard all day until the onslaught of night had forced them to camp. Elissa had not allowed herself any time to heal from the snakebite, and now she looked ready to keel over at any second. She was still going on sheer willpower alone, and Jason didn’t know how much more she could take.
“I’ll take the first watch,” she said abruptly, almost causing the Argonaut to fall into the fire he’d been building.
“Elissa, you’re exhausted. Go lie down and rest, and don’t worry about keeping watch.” His voice was gruff, masking his underlying concern.
“I’m fine,” she insisted, annoyed that she had to repeat it for the hundredth time.
“You’re not fine,” Jason retorted, fighting off the urge to shake some sense into her. “When was the last time you’ve slept? If you don’t start taking care of yourself, you won’t make it to see Proteus’ mirror!”
“Jason, believe me, I’m ok.”
“Right,” he muttered, putting a small pot of water over the fire to boil. “I guess Iolaus isn’t the only stubborn one in the family.”
“Hercules? I’ve been wondering about something. Why did you bet against Elissa and I getting married?”
“I don‘t know, maybe it was wishful thinking.”
“What are you saying? You don’t want me to marry her?”
“No, that‘s not what I mean. You know I’m crazy about Elissa. It’s just that... you’ll be more tied down to home, and... I think now I’m starting to understand how you felt when I married Serena.”
“Herc, my getting married isn’t going to change anything between us. You know that if you ever need me for anything, you can count on me. And you’re always welcome in our home, anytime.”
“I know. And I’m glad you’ve found someone that makes you happy. It just won’t be the same without you there.”
“Hey, I’ll be there. Maybe not every day, but you and what we do are as much a part of my life as Elissa is, and I can’t give that up. Besides, someone has to be around to bail you out of all that trouble you get yourself into.”
“The trouble I get into?”
Elissa looked at the mug that had slid out of her hand to roll across the ground. She had trouble focusing on the object, and her thoughts were becoming cloudy and muddled. Shaking her head did nothing to clear away the thick blanket that was descending upon her, and with her last bit of energy she looked up at the Argonaut standing over her.
“Jason, you drugged me?” she asked disbelievingly.
“I’m sorry, Elissa,” he replied gently. “It was for your own good. You need to sleep.”
“You don’t know what you’ve just done,” she whispered frantically, before the blackness claimed her.
“Sinis. What is this place?”
“It’s a dreamscape I’ve created for you. Very drab, I must admit, but I’m saving up my creativity for another project just now.”
“How did I get here?”
“Courtesy of my new powers, so recently relieved of the god Morpheus. This stealing of godhoods is turning out to be ridiculously easy. I can’t believe no one has tried it before.”
“Well, enjoy it while you can, because you’re on your way out.”
“Ah, Iolaus. You have turned out to be quite entertaining. I do so look forward to our little encounters.”
“What do you want, Sinis?”
“From you, nothing. I just thought you might like an update on how our little healer is faring.”
“Sinis, if you touch her...”
“No need. I’ve already had that pleasure, remember? Now I just like to visit her in her dreams. She’s been fighting me for days, but it seems that tonight she has little choice but to accept my presence. I hate to cut our little rendezvous short, but as a gentleman, I don’t want to keep her waiting. I’ll be sure to give her your regards.”
“Sinis, I swear I’m going to kill you if it’s the last thing I do!”
“Gods have tried and failed, little mortal. But don’t let me discourage you from trying. I have a feeling that it would be most amusing.”
Jason sighed with relief when the girl finally opened her eyes in the early dawn. He had spent a sleepless night watching her restless movements and listening to her soft whimpers, cursing himself as she tossed in fitful slumber. Obviously, she had been afraid to sleep, and it did not take much imagination to realize that Sinis was most likely the reason for her fear. As she gradually awoke, he saw that she did not look rested, but instead even more worn out, and his heart sank at the defeated look in her eyes.
“Elissa, are you all right?” She nodded, stretching, then cut him off as he began to apologize.
“It’s ok, Jason. I know you were just trying to help me. I should have told you about him before.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“I don’t know,” she replied with a tiny smile that didn’t quite make it to her eyes.
“Well, why don’t we have something to eat and pack up the camp? We still have a long way to go.” The healer didn’t move. “Is something wrong?”
“I think we should go back,” she said softly.
“Go back? What are you talking about?”
“Sinis is never going to let me get the mirror,” she burst out. “This whole trip is pointless. I’m not doing anything besides putting you in danger, too. We might as well just turn around and go home.” Jason stood in shock, staring at the young girl who had become like a daughter to him. He had always been proud of her strength and spirit, and it now broke his heart to see her so beaten. Whatever Sinis had said or done to her during the night, it had been enough to overwhelm her. He again cursed himself for putting her into that position as he carefully chose his words.
“You can go back if you want to,” he said coolly. “I’m going on to Pharos.”
“But you didn’t even want to do this in the first place,” the healer protested.
“I know, but you were right. I lost my confidence. I didn’t think I was up for this kind of thing anymore. But I’m an Argonaut, and Argonauts never give up.”
“I’m not an Argonaut. I’m not a warrior, and I’m not a hero. I don’t know why I thought I could do this.”
“Elissa, being a hero isn’t about performing heroics in your spare time. It’s about putting your fears aside and doing the job when nobody else can. Our chances of pulling off this quest may not be the best, but we have to try. We owe that much to Hercules and Iolaus.” Jason saw he was getting through to the girl. “Forget whatever poison Sinis has been filling your head with. Iolaus needs you now. You’re not going to let him down, are you?”
The healer closed her eyes, all of Sinis’ lies whirling through her mind. She had known they were lies, designed to crush her, but she was so overcome both physically and emotionally that his psychological torture had begun to eat at her. Desperately, she tried to block his words from her thoughts and instead concentrated on Iolaus. Her golden hunter with the smile that melted her heart. No, she couldn’t let him down.
“Let’s go,” she said, jumping up from the ground and grabbing her satchel.
“Hercules, we have to stop him!”
“I know, Iolaus, but there’s nothing we can do now. We have to wait for Elissa and hope she can get us out of this mess.”
“She’ll do it.”
“Iolaus, I like to think positively, too, but you have to realize that Sinis is most likely going to go to a lot of trouble to make sure she doesn’t succeed.”
“Don’t worry about Elissa, Herc. She can take care of herself.”
“Well, there it is.” Elissa followed Jason’s gaze out across the water to the small island.
“How do we get there?” The Argonaut looked up and down the deserted beach.
“Go on to the next town, I guess, and see if we can find a boat for rent.”
“I think it would be faster to build a raft out of driftwood,” she answered glumly, only half-joking.
“We didn’t come this far to turn back now,” Jason said confidently. “We’ll find a way to get there.” He was still basking in the glow of his earlier victory over the six thugs that had jumped them. The former king may have been getting older, but he had not lost any of his ability with a sword. Of course, Elissa had helped, taking out two of the men while Jason battled the other four.
“Can I see that weapon of yours again?” he asked, as they began walking down the beach towards town, leading the horses behind them. She fished out the small bag from her satchel and handed it to him. The Argonaut held it by the string and experimentally swung it in a few wide circles, before catching the bag and squeezing it gently. He looked at the liquid oozing through his fingers and smiled as he thought of the two men, temporarily blinded and rolling on the ground howling in pain.
“You’re really good with this thing,” he told her, handing it back. “I bet you’d be a natural with a whip.” Elissa considered this as she tucked the bag back into its pouch and stuffed it into her satchel. She couldn’t see herself using a whip, but maybe it was something to consider.
“Elissa,” Jason said suddenly. “Stay close to me.” She was about to ask him what was wrong, when she saw the ominous dark clouds that were beginning to form. The wind began picking up, sending her auburn hair flying wildly about her face, and she took the Argonauts arm as her panicked horse broke away from her and began streaking down the beach.
“We’re open targets out here,” she shouted above the roar of the wind. Jason opened his mouth to tell her to head for the tree line behind them, but the wind pushed down his throat, stealing his voice and his breath. Sand from the beach became caught up in the swirling gusts, stinging their skin as it pelted them. The Argonaut held the healer’s arm tightly and tried to steer her back towards the safety of the trees, but the wind shoved back against him so fiercely that he could barely take a step.
Then the stinging of the sand changed to sharp pain. It was no longer grains of sand that plagued them, but small, razor sharp particles. Hundreds of tiny scratches appeared on their exposed flesh, but the particles wouldn’t give up their ceaseless attack, cutting deeper and deeper until blood began flowing. Jason had given up trying to escape, and was holding on tightly to the healer, trying to shield her from as much as he could. Both of them had their eyes covered, trying to protect them, so neither saw the giant wave heading toward them until it had crashed over them, sweeping them out to sea.
“Hello, Hercules. Welcome to your dreamscape.”
“What do you want, Sinis?”
“I’ve been having so much fun with your little friends lately, I didn’t want you to think I’d forgotten about you.”
“As you should be. I’m going to go down in history as the most powerful god who ever lived.”
“You’ve certainly got the ego of a god, I‘ll give you that.”
“And I’m also going to go down in history as the killer of the mighty Hercules.”
“You can have me. Just let Iolaus go.”
“Nice try. You don’t get off that easily. But I wouldn’t worry, if I were you. Our little healer is on the right track, and I expect she’ll make it back here sooner or later with the cure for your little predicament.”
“We both know you’ll never allow that.”
“Hercules, surely you don’t think that this is how I would end it between you and I? Give me some credit. Trapping my most worthy adversary in a tree for all eternity is hardly a fitting end. No, when you and I finish this, it will be in a grand showdown.”
“Then why do this at all?”
“I had one last minor detail to take care of, and I just wanted you tucked away somewhere safe for awhile. It’s so difficult to prepare for global domination with you and your friends thwarting my every move.”
“Yeah, we’re just funny that way.”
“Well, you’re too late this time. Nothing is going to stop me now. I really do hope our little healer makes it back. I’m looking forward to our next meeting.”
“Leave her alone, Sinis.”
“Oh, I have my fun with her. But I wouldn’t severely hurt her. Yet. She’s turned into quite a delightful challenge. Her will is almost as strong as your little warrior partner‘s. It will be a great triumph for me when I finally break it.”
“Sinis, I’m warning you...”
“Just think Hercules, she’d be safe if it wasn’t for you. I’m using her, and Iolaus, to get at you. If they weren’t a part of your life, they’d be married with ten children by now. Happy. Safe. But because you love them, they are destined to die.”
“I’m not listening to this!”
“Well, that’s the unfortunate part of being a tree, I’m afraid. You have to listen. But don’t worry. I give my word that I won’t harm either of them just yet. Of course, I have been known to lie on occasion.”
Jason sat up, gasping for air and searching for Elissa. She was lying not far from him, coughing up water from her lungs. Wearily, he crawled over to her and helped her to sit up.
“Where are we?” she asked faintly, looking around the unfamiliar surroundings.
“In an underwater cavern,” came a gentle voice. “I’m sorry about the abruptness of your ride, but time was of the essence.”
“Who are you?” Jason demanded, resting his hand on his sword hilt in suspicion.
“Nereus,” replied the figure that had begun materializing before them.
“The Old Man of the Sea,” Elissa whispered.
“At your service,” the god said to her, bowing grandly. The healer and the Argonaut exchanged a glance. Both had ample cause to be wary of the gods, but Nereus was rumored to be a kind god that was incapable of lying. And he had just saved them from Sinis. Mutely, they both decided to trust them.
“Thank you for the help,” Jason told the benevolent god.
“I can help you further, if you will allow it,” Nereus offered. “It is Poseidon’s wish.”
“Poseidon?” Elissa and Jason echoed simultaneously.
“Yes. We know of your quest to find Proteus’ mirror, and you must succeed. This new god has become very dangerous, much more so than anyone anticipated. All of the Olympians are hiding in fear. They are trusting in Hercules to dispatch of this new threat, and trusting in you to free the son of Zeus. I can take you to Proteus’ cave on Pharos, and once you have the mirror I can return you to the shore. But first you must eat and rest. You’ll be safe here tonight, and tomorrow I will escort you to Pharos.”
The accommodations Nereus provided were quite comfortable, especially considering that they were miles below the ocean’s surface. But Elissa couldn’t relax. Every time she closed her eyes, Sinis was there. Taunting her. Describing all the tortures he’d planned for her, her friends, and the unsuspecting world. Telling her she was weak, inconsequential, and powerless to stop him. If he was trying to drive her mad, he was well on his way. Finally, after the endless night, Nereus returned to take them to the island of Pharos.
“Maybe you should stay here,” Jason said cautiously. “I can go and get the mirror.” He saw that the girl was just barely keeping herself upright, and her glazed eyes had a wild, feral look to them. But she shook her head and took Nereus’ arm. The Argonaut sighed in frustration and took the sea god’s other arm, and in an instant they found themselves on Pharos.
“I will wait for you here,” the god told them, sinking back below the waves. Jason took Elissa’s hand and began leading her up to the cave which, with any luck, held the key to Iolaus and Hercules’ release.
“He’s really starting to annoy me.”
“You too, huh? I thought maybe I was just being sensitive. So, what ominous threat did he leave over your head?”
“He said something about not wanting us to go out this way. That this was just a way to buy him time to prepare for something bigger.”
“Nothing more specific than that?”
“Just that he wanted a final showdown.”
“Well, he’s going to get it. In more ways than one, once Elissa gets us out of here.”
“Iolaus, I hate to even suggest this, but she’s been gone for days...”
“She’ll be back. With a way to free us.”
“I hope you’re right, my friend.”
“Come on, Herc. Where’s your faith?”
“What’s that for?” Jason asked, indicating the ball of twine that Elissa had pulled from her satchel.
“To find our way through the maze.”
“And just how do you know there’s going to be a maze?”
“Isn’t there always?”
“Well, you’re right,” Jason sighed as they entered the mouth of the cavern. “But I don’t think twine is going to help us much in this case.” They stared into the beginning of a maze of mirrors, reflecting a hundred different images and a hundred different potential passageways. “For a god that hates his reflection he sure does have a thing about mirror,” the Argonaut muttered as they stepped into the labyrinth.
“We’d better figure something out,” Elissa advised as she began feeling her way into the tunnel. “Or we’re going to end up completely lost.”
“Ok, let’s think about this,” Jason rationalized. “We can’t leave a trail, because it would just be reflected with the other images and we wouldn’t be able to tell the real thing from the reflections. We need to find something that...” He stopped midsentence and quickly drew his sword. Elissa alerted herself to danger, but to her surprise, the Argonaut used his weapon to scratch a few letters into the dirt at his feet.
“You’re a genius,” the healer told him, as she realized that the mirrors would reflect the letters backwards, and they could use this trick to follow the open passageways. It was a rather painstaking process, but finally they made it through the last stretch of the maze and entered a small chamber. A small hand mirror rested on top of a pedestal in the middle of the room, surrounded by twenty men.
“You can tell Ares,” Jason growled, recognizing some of the soldiers, “that we didn’t come this far to turn back now.”
“Ares? Get with the times old man. Sinis is the new top god. Soon to be the only god. And you will bow to him. And to us.”
“That’ll be the day,” Jason sneered, readying his sword as the gang advanced. Underneath his calm exterior however, he didn’t think they had a chance in Tartarus of getting out of the cave alive. He couldn’t defeat twenty mercenaries. Who could, except for maybe Hercules. And even then he had his doubts.
Elissa pulled out Iolaus’ sword that she still carried with her and held it out, only to find herself effortlessly disarmed in a matter of seconds. Desperately, she thrust her hand into her bag, searching for her weapon, but her fingers instead closed around the tiny dagger that Hephaestus had given her. She pulled it out and tried to fend off her attacker, but he kicked up sharply and the dagger flew from her hand and shattered against the wall. To her amazement, a metal clad warrior sprang from every shard of the broken knife. Twelve of them in all. The mortal men were no match for these god crafted creatures, and the battle was over as soon as it began. As soon as the last adversary fell, the steel men also fell, lifeless once again.
“What just happened here?” Jason asked, thoroughly confused as he surveyed the bodies and piles of metal that littered the ground. But Elissa wasn’t listening. She had gone to the pedestal and gently lifted the mirror down.
“The story is that the mirror reflects your true self,” she whispered. “Men have been driven to madness by looking into this, not able to stand seeing the evil within them.”
“You’re not going to look in it, are you?”
“Have to make sure it’s the right mirror.” Slowly, Elissa raised the glass up in front of her eyes. She stared into it for several moments, and Jason was alarmed to see tears begin to form. He grabbed the mirror away from her, but she turned to him with a brilliant smile. “Jason, you have to look,” she said softly. He wasn’t sure he wanted to, but curiosity got the better of him and he glanced into the glass. Like the healer, he was transfixed by his reflection for several minutes, then he finally looked up at her and grinned.
“Let’s go save our friends.”
“Herc, what happened? Are you all right? Come on, buddy, answer me. Herc, are you there? What’s going on? Please don’t do this to me! Hercules?”
True to his word, Nereus was waiting for them as they finally made it out of Proteus’ cave. Not a moment too soon, in Jason’s mind. Despite their success, Elissa was still the worse for wear, even if she wouldn’t admit it. The kind sea god took them and their cargo back to shore, where Jason was very grateful to find their horses standing patiently. He knew that the healer wouldn’t have made it on foot, as she barely was able to climb up into the saddle. But she was anxious to get back to Iolaus and Hercules with the mirror and so refused to stop for very long. They rode long and hard all day and through the night, driving the horses to the brink of collapse, until finally they broke into the clearing where their friends had been entrapped. The sight that greeted them made Elissa cry out in despair.
The willow tree still stood, waving its branches sadly in the breeze. Next to it, the big oak tree was uprooted and lying, wilted, along the ground. Salmoneus had seen the riders approach, and now came running to Elissa.
“I couldn’t stop it,” he babbled. “A huge wind came out of nowhere and just ripped it out of the ground. I didn’t know what to do. I tried soaking blankets and covering the roots, but I think it’s dying.” The healer pushed passed him and strode up to the fallen tree. Pulling the mirror our, she held it up to the once mighty trunk. Despite her belief that the cure would work, she was nonetheless astounded when the oak began to shrink and morph back into the familiar form of Hercules. But her momentary relief quickly deflated.
“He’s not breathing,” she told the others. “Here, take care of Iolaus.” Elissa thrust the mirror at Salmoneus as Jason joined her at the demigod’s side.
“Can you help him?” the Argonaut asked.
“I don’t know,” she replied frantically, examining the still form. “I don’t have anything here that I could use right about now.” A hand on her shoulder alerted her to another presence, and she just barely registered that it was Iolaus, freed from his wooded prison. Desperately she searched her bag, hoping to find something that would help and coming up with the vial from Aesculapius.
“Is this what that’s for?” Jason inquired, nodding at the demigod.
“I don’t know, but it’s all I have,” she answered. At her instructions, the Argonaut held up Hercules’ head and Elissa poured the medicinal liquid down his throat. For several tense moments, everyone watched in silence, eyes straining for a hint of movement, until the demigod gasped and began to breathe again.
“Sinis! How dare you show yourself here?”
“Since you’ve been hiding out in here, you’ve left me little choice. Really, the king of the gods, hiding in fear of the young upstart. It seems to me that Olympus is due for a change.”
“You insolent pup. It’s high time I end this, once and for all.”
“Sorry, Zeus. It’s ending, but only for you.”
“Herc, I know we should go after Sinis but I really think I should take Elissa back home.”
“I think that’s probably a good idea,” the demigod agreed. They had both been horrified at the decimated appearance of the young girl, and also disturbed by the accounts of what she had gone through to free them. “Don’t worry about Sinis. His little self-imposed reign will be coming to an end soon enough.”
“You do have a plan, don’t you?” Hercules’ normally cheerful blue eyes narrowed dangerously.
Disclaimer: No trees, snakes, horses, metal warriors, mirrors, mercenaries, healers, Argonauts, salesmen, hunters, demigods, or full gods were harmed during the writing of this story.
Chapter Twelve: Under A Raging Moon
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The Iolausian Library