Chapter Eight: Too Late the Hero

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.

Author’s Note: This story contains scenes of violence and rape. Although nothing is described graphically, young or sensitive readers may want to avoid this chapter.

Too late the hero, it all comes to zero,
I wish I could stop and start it again.
It's the end of my movie, the bad guys beat me easy
"Too Late the Hero" - John Entwistle

Iolaus had been waiting for Sinis’ arrival with mixed emotions. He was dreading it because he knew it meant harm for Elissa, but then again, the waiting was almost as excruciating. The hunter momentarily felt relief when the god appeared to him, but it did not last long.

“Well, Iolaus? Are you going to kill Hercules to save the girl?” A small shake of the head was all the answer Sinis received. “Come on now,” he cajoled. “You were willing to do it once for Xena, who betrayed you. You mean you’re refusing to do it now to save the love of your life?”

Iolaus silently ignored his taunts. He knew that he never really would have hurt Hercules when it came right down to it, and he also knew that he couldn’t do it now. Not even for Elissa.

Sinis saw that his verbal barbs were not going to generate any reaction from the stone faced hunter, so he decided to move things along.

“Bring in the girl,” he commanded. “Iolaus, you could have made this easy on yourself. I gave you a chance.” The hunter rose and gripped the bars of his cell as two guards brought in Elissa. She was gagged and her hands were tied behind her back. Sinis lifted a hand to gently caress a lock of her hair through his fingers before grabbing it tightly and forcing her to look at him. “Remember, my dear, that your so-called love was given the opportunity to save you and he refused. He could have spared you this.”

“Sinis, don’t you touch her!” Iolaus shouted, his emotions finally breaking down his calm exterior. The god’s words to Elissa had broken his heart, and he silently begged her with his eyes to forgive him. Sinis just smiled evilly and shoved the girl roughly to the floor.

Iolaus fought the bars like a man possessed as he suddenly realized what Sinis was preparing to do. In the back of his mind, he realized that the cell door was not forged by man, but a toy of the gods, and all the strength in the world wouldn’t be enough to break it open. But he fought them anyway, desperate to prevent the inevitable from happening. Elissa couldn’t hold back a small moan of pain as Sinis savagely took her, and the sound drained all of the fight out of the hunter. He collapsed, slumping against the bars, and buried his face in his hands. Iolaus didn’t want to see or hear what was being done to the girl that shared his soul, but he forced himself to raise his eyes to her. He remembered the time he was whipped in Epidarus. Elissa had comforted him with her eyes and allowed him to distance himself from what was being done to him. Now, he had to do the same for her.

He locked his gaze onto her bright green eyes, but to his amazement, it was the healer once again who was comforting him. Her eyes were telling him that she was all right, and not to worry. In spite of what was happening, Iolaus felt his heart swell with love and pride at her strength and he sent that out to her through his brilliant blue orbs.

Finally, Sinis finished, but his game was far from over. Very cordially, he sent out the invitation to his men to partake of the fruits that he had just enjoyed, and several of them accepted his offer. For Iolaus, watching this was a greater torture than anything Sinis could have ever done to him. It seemed to go on forever, until at last there were no more. After the last man was done with her, Sinis gleefully beat the girl into unconsciousness and ordered her taken away. With a triumphant smirk at the hunter, he vanished, leaving Iolaus alone again with his imagination to wonder what was happening to Elissa, not really caring about what was to happen to him.

Iolaus pulled himself up from the floor and began pacing around the cell restlessly, trying to get himself under control. He was sure that they would keep Elissa alive, as he knew Sinis wouldn’t kill her unless he was there to witness it. Abruptly, the hunter sat back down again and tried to concentrate. He needed to meditate and clear his mind of the torment he’d just seen, locking all of the accompanying emotions away until a time when he could deal with them. Iolaus knew Sinis wouldn’t play this game with them forever, and he needed to find a way to get them out of there now, before it was too late. He couldn’t afford to be overwhelmed with the fear, guilt, and rage that was consuming him and clouding his thinking.

But before he could tap into his subconscious, he became aware of a light that had begun to glow next to him. Cautiously, he opened one eye to investigate, and he had never been so glad to see anyone before in his life.

“Aphrodite!” he exclaimed, leaping to his feet.

“Shhh,” she whispered. “I can’t stay long or Sinis will realize I’m here.”

“Can you get me out of here?” The goddess of love sadly shook her head.

“Hephie made this cell. Once shut, the door can only be opened by love. It was actually my idea, but Ares thought it was stupid.”

“Well, it’s nice to see that Sinis has made good use of it,” Iolaus muttered.

“Hey, don’t look so glum, Sweetcheeks. I laid the whole scene on my big brother, and he’s on his way even as we speak.” For the first time since the ordeal had began, Iolaus felt a ray of hope.

“Thanks, Aphrodite,” he said sincerely.

“Sorry to bail on you, but I have to split. If Sinis finds me here, I’ll end up like Ares, and being mortal just isn’t my scene.”

“Wait!” The hunter stopped her as she was about to disappear. “Elissa. Is she…Ok?” he asked haltingly. She had been bleeding when they had taken her away. Iolaus shut his eyes tightly and willed the image from his mind.

“I took care of her,” the goddess reassured him. “She’s fine.” The hunter gave her his most brilliant smile, and she kissed him gently on the cheek. “Good luck, Curly.” Then she was gone.

Iolaus began pacing around the cell once more. Patience was never one of his best virtues, but now he had little choice. If they could just hang on until Hercules got there, then everything would be all right.

Hercules cursed the darkness as he poked at his fire. He had been racing to the rescue, so to speak, all day once Aphrodite had told him what Sinis had been up to. But nightfall had literally stopped him in his tracks. There was no moon and the overcast sky made the road pitch black. He couldn’t see his hand in front of his face, or even the road in front of his face after he had fallen on it twice. The steady rains had made going by torchlight an impossibility, and he’d had little choice but to take shelter in a cave he’d found and wait until dawn.

The demigod got up to pace the cave, much as his friend had been doing in his cell at Ares’ fortress. He couldn’t stand the thought of anything happening to the friends that he loved with all his heart, and he knew that Sinis was brutal and insane enough to do things to them that he hadn’t even thought possible. Aphrodite had said that they were all right so far, but there was no telling what was happening to them now. That thought and the inability to do anything about it were driving him insane.

Hercules paused in his pacing to stare out into the black, rainy night. He’d distinctly heard something out there.

“Who’s there?” he called, hearing his voice echo in the cave. There was no answer for several moments, and then a man stepped out of the shadows into the light from the fire.

“Hello, brother.”

“Ares, you are absolutely the last person I want to see right now. And I think you’d better get out of here before I do something that I probably won’t regret later.”

“Such hostility. And after I came to help.”

“What makes you think that I want or need the help of a mortal,” he growled angrily. Aphrodite had filled him in on Ares’ decision to make Sinis a god and how Sinis had overthrown him. She also had told him that Zeus had forbid the other gods to give Ares back his immortality, until he had rediscovered his humanity. Hercules had to admit it was probably the only good idea his father had ever had, even if it was the pot calling the kettle black.

Ares winced at the demigod’s words. He hated being mortal, and even more he hated that the mongrel half-brother he’d always despised was now more of a god than he was. And he hated being on the same side as Hercules, and he hated the damn hunger and thirst and cold that was continuously plaguing him. How did mortals stand it?

“Well, since you don’t want my help, I guess you don’t want to hear about the secret entrance to my fortress. Have a nice life.” The former god of war turned and began to stalk off.

Hercules sighed heavily and hoped he wasn’t about to make a huge mistake.

“Ares,” he called begrudgingly. “Come back.”

The demigod shared his fire and his rabbit with Ares, finding this new relationship between them a tad too cozy for his liking. He had never trusted Ares, and he wasn’t about to start now. Hercules listened as Ares told him about the tricks and traps of his fortress, but took all his words with a grain of salt. He spent the remainder of the night after his half-brother had fallen asleep thinking about all that he had told him and working out a plan of attack in his mind. If nothing else, at least Ares had done him the favor of giving him something to occupy his thoughts with and spared him the torment of worrying about his friends.

When dawn finally broke, Hercules rose, gathered himself together, and set off down the road again. If all went well, he figured that he would be able to reach the fortress by dusk and that he and Iolaus and Elissa would be laughing around the campfire by nightfall. He could not envision any other alternative. Before long, he heard pounding footsteps behind him and he turned to see Ares running toward him.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m going with you,” Ares gasped as he struggled to catch his breath. Another bad thing about being mortal. You had to travel everywhere. It took forever and was so tiring. Sinis would be paying big time for this.

“No, you’re not. I appreciate the tips, but…”

“Look, Hercules. You know you could use my help. I may not be a god anymore, but I can still fight. And it is my fortress, after all. I know my way around it. And I owe Sinis one.” I owe Elissa one, too, he thought, but did not vocalize that to the demigod.

“Fine, I don’t have time to argue. Just try to keep up.” Ares flashed a rude gesture, but Hercules was already sprinting down the road and didn’t see it.

Sinis was watching Elissa intently. She was sleeping, and she looked even more innocent and pure than when she was awake. He had planned to kill her after the previous night‘s fun, but at the last minute he decided to wait. Disappointingly, she hadn’t even come close to breaking, and he wanted to remedy that. What he had done to her was mild compared to what his sick mind had dreamt up in the past. As he carefully chose his next method of torture, he was completely certain that she would eventually succumb. She was, after all, only human and there were limits to what mortals could endure.

He smiled cruelly as he pictured her weeping and cowering in fear, begging for the relief of death. She had turned into a challenge, and he really did enjoy it. Sinis also had enjoyed watching Iolaus as he had taken the girl. The hunter’s reaction had been far stronger than the god had ever hoped for, and he savored the memory while he anticipated the next one. He had no doubts that Iolaus would have been driven to madness by the time his turn had come to die. This was working out even better than he’d planned.

Sinis decided to let the girl sleep for now. He wanted her to be strong and alert for the evening’s festivities. She would last longer that way, and they had plenty of time, so he thought.

Hercules and Ares crouched in the bushes outside of the fortress and tried to determine what they were up against. They had made good time in reaching their destination, even though Ares had complained loudly for the duration of the journey. Aphrodite had even shown up to warn them of hidden sentries that were posted as lookouts along the way, and they were able to either sneak by or punch out the guards with little trouble.

The demigod glanced at his companion. Ares was sulking, and he was beginning to think it was a bad idea to let him come along. The former god had begged Aphrodite to give him back his immortality, and this moment of weakness on his part had put him in a foul mood, which worsened after the goddess’ refusal. Hercules knew firsthand what a temper his half-brother had, and now he was worried that Ares’ anger and desire for revenge would cause him to do something rash, jeopardizing Iolaus and Elissa.

“Dusk is falling. Let’s go,” Ares stated abruptly. He tried to get to his feet, but Hercules pulled him back down. “My patience has limits, Hercules. Just because I’ve tolerated this little partnership so far doesn’t mean I won’t kill you now and take care of Sinis myself,” he threatened in a harsh whisper.

“First of all, we are not partners,” Hercules hissed. “My partner is inside that fortress, and if you keep acting like an idiot you’re going to get him killed.” He tightened his grip on the mortal Ares to drive his point home. “If we do this, we do it by the rules. We are getting them out, and then we deal with Sinis. Just for once, forget about being the god of war and use your brain. This battle will be won by stealth and strategy, not suicidal attacks to the front. I’m trusting you not to go ballistic in there, Ares, and you’d better not disappoint me.” The demigod let him go and stood up. “Now, let’s go.”

Ares sat for a moment, glaring at his half-brother’s retreating back.

“Wait until this is over,” he muttered under his breath before getting up to follow.

The two made their way into the secret entrance of the fortress.

“It’s not guarded,” Ares whispered. “Do you think that means he doesn’t know it’s here?”

“Could be. Or else he’s just not expecting us yet. Or, he knows we’re here and he has some other trap waiting for us,” Hercules replied. He wasn’t too excited about that last option, and hoped it wasn’t the case.

Ares deftly led Hercules through the tunnel, silently pointing out where all the triggers were that set off the deadly traps. Although he didn’t like to admit it, the demigod was actually glad that he had the help. Once they reached the end of the tunnel, Ares worked the combination of latches that slid the door open. They quietly slipped into the fortress, and the former god led the way to the north staircase. Aphrodite had told them where Elissa and Iolaus were being held, and also about the dungeon door that only love could open. Ares had known exactly what she had meant, and he led Hercules directly to Elissa’s room. There was a guard sleeping in a chair outside of the door, and it was no effort at all to dispatch him and take the keys. Hercules unlocked the door and opened it, half-afraid of what he’d find.

“Hercules!” Elissa cried out. He was almost knocked over as she flew into his arms, but he didn’t mind. The demigod hugged her tightly to him, overjoyed that she was alive and unhurt.

“I knew you’d come,” she told him, giving him a bright smile that melted his heart.

“Was there ever a doubt?” he teased her. “But actually, I owe some of the credit to…” Hercules stopped in midsentence. He had been about to give Ares his due, when he suddenly realized that the former god was gone. “Damn him!” he swore, taking Elissa by the hand. “Come on, we have to get to Iolaus.”

“What is it?” the healer asked as they moved swiftly down the hallway to the stairs.

“Ares,” Hercules told her with a scowl of fury. “He helped me get in here, and now he’s gone to do something incredibly stupid.”

“He’s gone after Sinis?”

“Yes. We have to find Iolaus and get out of here before he gives us away.” Ares had told him where the dungeon was located, and they found it with little trouble. Hercules took care of the guards along way, and as he fought the men stationed outside of Iolaus’s cell, Elissa went to the hunter. As she reached through the bars and took his hands, the door vanished and he was free.

“I’m so sorry,” Iolaus whispered in her ear as he pulled her into his arms.

“You don’t have anything to be sorry for,” she told him, pushing herself out of his warm embrace. “Go help Hercules. We can continue this later.”

“It’s a promise,” he said fondly, kissing her softly before running off to leap into the fray. Or what was left of the fray. Hercules had most of the men down, and the hunter didn’t have much to do. Once all the guards were subdued, the partners formally greeted each other with a warrior’s handshake.

“What took you so long?” Iolaus complained jokingly.

“That’s a story for another time,” Hercules replied. “Right now, we have to get out of here.”

“Easier said than done,” came the oily voice from the doorway. They whirled around to see Sinis blocking their exit, holding a scowling Ares by the scruff of the neck. At his signal, soldiers began pouring into the room. Iolaus quickly pulled Elissa behind him and moved to a defensive stance beside Hercules. Sinis laughed sinisterly, and disappeared as the fighting began.

Hercules and Iolaus began taking out the soldiers, but for every one they dropped, two more entered the room. Ares, finding himself free, sprang up and began wildly punching out men, many of whom had formerly been under his command. He let the rage build up in him until it was exploding out of his fists with every swing. Elissa couldn’t find anything to defend herself with, so she retreated into a corner to at least protect her back. Fortunately, the line that Hercules, Iolaus and Ares made in front of her was impenetrable, and she felt safe.

Sinis was rather annoyed as he surveyed the melee. His perfect plan had just been shattered, and although he had numbers in his favor, the three warriors had the advantage against his soldiers. It was turning out to be a losing battle, which would soon be over. But then again, he had always been adaptable and he knew how to work with what he had. Maybe the plan could still be salvaged, if he just modified it a bit. He’d complete step one now, and worry about the rest at a better time.

Sinis appeared in the chaos beside Elissa. He brandished a dagger before her eyes, and although she was scared, the light of faith and purity still burned brightly in her soul. Sinis hated to end his game with her so soon and so crudely without the pleasure of seeing her break, but some sacrifices had to be made to win the overall war. Theatrically, he raised the dagger high and plunged it into the girl’s chest, and before anyone had the chance to react, he was gone. Hercules and Ares moved closer and kept fighting, covering for Iolaus as he raced to catch the healer as she collapsed to the floor.

Iolaus crouched beside Elissa and took her into his arms.

“Tell me what to do to help you,” he whispered hoarsely, desperately trying to keep the panic out of his voice.

“There’s nothing you can do,” the healer told him softly. “This is one for the gods.” She tried to laugh at the irony, but instead coughed, bringing up blood.

“Please don’t leave me,” Iolaus begged frantically. He had removed the dagger and placed his hand over the wound, trying to stop the bleeding, but he felt her blood gush through his fingers with every pulse beat.

“My brave warrior,” she gasped, raising a cold hand to rest against his heart. “I will always be with you.” Speaking became too much of an effort for her, so everything that they still had to say to each other, they said with their eyes. It was at once an instant and an eternity as Iolaus sat helplessly and held her tightly, forced to watch her beautiful light that he loved so much fade and extinguish, along with her life.

The fighting stopped, and everyone turned to look in the corner. The sound that had come out of Iolaus was not a human sound. It was the sound of two souls being ripped apart, and Hercules instantly knew that it meant Elissa was dead. Rage surged through him, much like his half-brother, and the fight was over in seconds as he knocked out the remaining soldiers.

Iolaus was huddled in the corner, gently rocking the healer’s lifeless body. Hercules went to him and put a comforting hand on his friend’s shoulder.

“Iolaus, I’m so sorry.” The words were empty, because what he was feeling couldn’t be put into words. The demigod knew all too well the sorrow of losing loved ones, and his own heart was broken over the loss of the gentle young girl, and also for what the hunter was going through. He let him have a few minutes before he spoke again.

“Iolaus, we have to go.” The hunter looked up. His eyes were glazed over as if he wasn’t seeing anything, but he rose and gathered Elissa’s body in his arms, silently following Hercules out of the fortress. Ares had disappeared again, and the demigod was not sorry. When it came down to it, all of this was his fault, and in the state Hercules was in now, the sight of Ares could possibly drive him to a new level of violence.

“Hercules.” The demigod was slightly startled by Iolaus’ voice. “I don’t want to take her back to Acheron. There’s another place where I want to bury her. Can you help me take her there?”

“Of course,” he replied. The hunter’s voice was so monotone, devoid of emotion, that it was unsettling.

They walked in silence throughout the night, heading to the paradise that Iolaus had found. Hercules kept offering to carry Elissa for awhile, but the hunter could not bear to let her go, and refused. He didn’t feel the weight in his arms, but only in his heart. The final climb to the forest plateau was very difficult, but together the partners managed to make it, arriving at their destination in late afternoon.

“Here,” Iolaus said, indicating the area under the great tree where they had made love for what turned out to be the last time. “She wanted to stay her forever.” But without Elissa, he was now blind to the beauty and the magic of the place. Hercules began digging the grave with a shovel that he had borrowed from the last village they’d gone through. The hunter couldn’t help him, but sat cradling the healer’s body. He knew that these were the last moments he’d ever have to hold her, and he couldn’t stand to release her. When Hercules was finished, Iolaus approached the grave. Letting her go turned out to be the single hardest thing he’d ever been faced with in his life, and the pain of it was so intense he was having difficulty breathing. He held her tightly for one last moment, burying his face in her auburn hair one last time, before he gently placed her in the grave.

Iolaus blinked for a moment, and looked in the grave again. Elissa’s body was resting on a bed of rose petals, and a beautiful silk gown had replaced her bloodstained clothing. He thought that grief was causing him to hallucinate, before realizing that Aphrodite was next to him, her beautiful face marred by sorrow.

“I can’t bring her back. I’d give anything if I could.” The effervescent goddess had never before seemed so solemn.

“I know,” the hunter whispered.

“I’m so sorry, Iolaus.” He couldn’t remember her ever calling him by name before, but he wasn’t really thinking all that clearly.

“Thank you, Aphrodite.” She nodded, and left the men alone. “Herc, I can’t stand this. Could you finish it?” Iolaus walked toward the river until the grave was out of sight and the rushing water drowned out the sounds of the shovel hitting the dirt. He was hanging on by a thread, and the vision of Elissa being covered in soil for all eternity was too much for him to bear.

Hercules finished burying the girl and stood over her grave. He wanted to say a few words in memorial, but he couldn’t think of a way to sum up the healer that had been so much to him and to his best friend.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t protect you, Elissa. I’ll miss you.” Hot tears flooded from his eyes, and he brushed them away impatiently. He had to take care of Iolaus now.

The hunter had a fire started when Hercules joined him.

“Sinis will pay for this, I promise you,” the demigod told his partner. He expected a heated response, but to his surprise, Iolaus merely shook his head sadly.

“What’s the point? Nothing we can do will bring her back. If we go after him, next time it will be you or me. Even if we do stop him, then it will be Ares, or some warlord, or gods knows what else. What’s the point of doing this, Hercules? After all these years, we’re still having the same battles and all we have to show for it are the graves of everyone we love.”

“Iolaus, we have made a difference. All the people we’ve helped, and all the suffering we’ve prevented. In your heart you know I’m right. You’re just not…”

“Oh wake up, Herc!” Iolaus snapped angrily. “How many more wives do you have to lose before it sinks in?” He was instantly apologetic. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that.”

“I know,” his friend said softly.

“It’s just… I can’t help feeling that if Elissa and I had a normal life, living in Acheron and raising a family, then she’d be alive and none of this would be happening.”

“But that’s not what you wanted for yourselves,” Hercules reminded him. “You believed that a life under the control of the gods wasn’t worth living. You were working to try and make the world a better place. That’s what Elissa wanted, too. She knew the risks, and she understood that the price of freedom has high costs. You know she wouldn’t want you to go against everything you’ve ever stood for because of this.”

“You’re right,” Iolaus said. “I just don’t know what I’m going to do now.”

“Do what you’ve always done. Live well, help those that you can, and honor her memory until you’re with her again.” The hunter was silent for a few moments before he spoke again.

“Do you remember that time in Pylos, when she took the aconite and we both thought she was dead?”

“Of course.”

“I think that somehow I knew she was really alive. I didn’t really feel anything at the time, I was just kind of numb.” Iolaus closed his eyes and clutched his hands over his chest as if to stop the pain. “Now, I know she’s gone and she’s not coming back. Nothing else could hurt like this.” Hercules silently cursed Sinis. Even if Iolaus wasn’t worried about revenge, the demigod swore that he would get even.

As the two devastated warriors sat by the fire, a stealthy figure crept up to the fallen healer’s grave. Ares sat down next to it and placed his hand on the freshly turned soil. Maybe all the time he’d spent as a mortal over the last few weeks had made him more human, but he sincerely was sorry that the girl was dead. When everyone else in the world, even his own father, had turned their backs on him, she had opened her arms to him. He had been sick and terrified, and she had comforted and cared for him, wanting nothing in return. The concept was completely foreign to him, but if it weren’t for her, he’d be burning in Tartarus instead of kneeling at her grave.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered into the night. As he sat there, small pinpricks of light began to descend from the dark sky and fell upon him. Ares felt the strength and power course through him as he was given back his immortality. He stood and stretched, so elated to have the cursed mortal weakness gone from him that he almost shouted out. But this was not the time or place for celebrating, so he quietly vanished.

Hercules awoke in the middle of the night to find Iolaus gone from his place by the fire. Concerned, he rose to look for his friend. A small, flickering flame led him up to Elissa’s gravesite, and he found the hunter crouched by a small fire next to where his love now rested.

“I just couldn’t leave her alone on her first night here,” Iolaus explained.

“Iolaus, you know she’s not really here anymore. She’s in the underworld now,” Hercules reasoned.

“I know, but I still couldn’t leave her. Look, I’m all right. Why don’t you go down to the camp and go back to sleep?” In response, Hercules sat down beside his partner.

“Why don’t we both sit with her?”

“Do you think Alcmene would have liked Elissa?” Iolaus asked suddenly.

“Yes, I do.”

“I just have this image in my head of the two of them sitting in the Elysian Fields together, swapping stories about us.” The thought made the demigod grin. “I think she really would’ve liked Alcmene.”

“She liked everyone,” Hercules answered. They sat in silence for a long while, and Hercules eventually drifted back to sleep.

When he awoke, dawn was breaking and Iolaus was still crouched next to the grave. The events of the previous day came flooding back to the demigod, and a sick feeling settled in his stomach. Everything had happened so fast, and he had been so concerned with keeping Iolaus from losing it, that it never really hit him that Elissa was gone. Unlike the hunter, who had suffered the severing of their souls and the immediate agony that went with it, Hercules was just now realizing that he would never see the young healer again. He'd never see her gentle smile again, or hear her soft voice, or watch the love flowing around her and Iolaus. Her laughter, her kindness, her love, and her spirit were forever stilled. The demigod began shaking, and quickly excused himself. He walked down to the river as the tears welled up in his eyes.

“Why her?” he demanded of the rippling water. “The most generous, gentle soul on earth. Hades, why did you have to take her?” The only answer her received was the rustling of reeds as a soft breeze stirred to dry the moisture slipping down his rugged cheeks. Hercules stooped to catch up a handful of the cool water, splashing it over his face as he took a few deep breaths. Moments later, he was under control as he returned to the grave where the hunter still sat.

“I think we ought to go see Jason,” the demigod suggested. “He’ll want to hear this from us, and we can stay there for a few days until you figure out what you want to do next.” Iolaus nodded slightly, and after a few moments he stood and began to follow Hercules down to the road, not looking back.

They traveled throughout the day, reaching Jason’s by nightfall. The former king was heartbroken to hear about Elissa. He’d grown to love her dearly in the short time he’d known her, and he took the news of her death very hard.

“I wish I could take her place,” he said mournfully. “I’ve had a good, full life and my time on this earth is winding down. Hers was just beginning. I can’t believe the fates would have it cut so short.” Jason saw that Hercules was not really listening to him, and correctly attributed it to worry for their friend. “How is Iolaus taking this?” The hunter had been extremely withdrawn since leaving Elissa’s grave, and he’d barely spoken five words to Jason since their arrival.

“I don’t know,” Hercules admitted. “He doesn’t want to talk about it. Emotionally, he’s shut down. I don’t think he’s really allowed himself to grieve yet, and he’ll never be able to move on until he does.”

“Well, you can’t force him. He just needs some time.”

“I keep telling myself that. But he loved her so much. I’m worried that he won’t be able to envision his life without her.”

“Surely you don’t think he’d do anything drastic?”

“I don’t know,” Hercules said sadly. “It’s like he’s not even there anymore. As if, when she died, his soul went with her and there’s only a shell left. I just don’t know if he can overcome this.”

“Of course he’s taking this hard. I wouldn’t expect him to react any other way. But he’ll come around.” Jason hoped he sounded more optimistic than he felt. Hercules nodded, ending the discussion. He wasn’t comfortable voicing these fears, as if not talking about it would prevent the worst from happening.

“I’d just feel better if he would grieve,” he said quietly as he rose to go to bed. He paused to check on the hunter, and found him sitting by the window, staring out into the night. Iolaus hadn’t even noticed that he’d entered the room. Hercules was going to chide him about getting some sleep, but after a moment’s deliberation he silently let himself out and went to his own room.

In the morning, Hercules rose to find Iolaus gone. Jason assured him that the hunter probably just needed some time alone, but the demigod couldn’t help feeling worried. He knew that Iolaus was extremely vulnerable right now, and even if he wasn’t bent on “doing something drastic”, as Jason put it, Sinis was still out there, waiting for them. So, he set out to find his friend.

It was not an easy task. Iolaus obviously did not want to be found, and had left little trail to follow. But Hercules was persistent and kept searching the surrounding area. He was beginning to think that the hunter had really taken off, when he saw what could’ve been a partial footprint. The demigod was crouched on the ground examining the mark more closely when he heard the familiar voice beside him.

“Lose something, Herc?”

“Just you. I’ve been looking all over for you,” the demigod told him.

“I know,” Iolaus replied, extending a hand to help his friend to his feet.

“Why were you covering up your trail?” Hercules brushed some stray pine needles from his knees nonchalantly, trying not to show how worried he’d been.

“Because I needed some time to myself to think, and I knew you’d never let me go off alone and that you’d come after me, just like you did.”

“I’m just concerned about you,” Hercules said softly.

“I know, and I appreciate it. But I’m fine.” He didn’t sound fine, but Hercules pretended not to notice.

“Are you ready to go back?” The hunter nodded, and the partners began walking back to Jason’s. They hadn’t gone far before Iolaus stopped abruptly. Hercules followed his gaze and saw that he was staring at a small sapling growing on top of a large rock. Iolaus approached the rock and gingerly pulled a piece of twig off the little tree.

"For luck,” he whispered, his voice breaking. As he clutched the twig, his features grew dark as something snapped inside of him. “Some luck it brought Elissa,” he said angrily. The hunter threw the twig back at the tree, and then in an instant he had scrambled up on the rock and was ripping the sapling up. Iolaus tossed the uprooted tree to the ground, but in the rage he had descended into, it was not enough. He jumped down from the rock and seized the sapling once more, taking out all his anger and grief on the little tree until there was nothing left of it but shreds of wood. After the tree was demolished, he slumped against the rock, trying to hold back his tears, but finally breaking down completely.

Hercules had been watching the whole scene with an aching heart, unable to help. Now he went to his friend and put an arm around him. Iolaus tried to pull away, but the demigod held him tighter until the hunter was sobbing against his strong chest. After a few moments, he got control of himself and sat up.

“How do you go on?” he asked his partner desperately.

“You go on because you have to,” was the reply.

“I don’t think I can take this,” Iolaus whispered. “It hurts so much, I can’t even think straight.”

“There’s nothing I can say to help you now,” Hercules said sadly. “Just please listen and believe me. It WILL get easier. You’ll never stop missing her, but in time the pain will fade.”

“Time,” Iolaus said bitterly. “What good is time when all I can do is try to make it from one minute to the next, all the time wishing for the gods to have mercy on me and strike me dead so I can be with her.” The words chilled Hercules’ soul.

“Iolaus, you will be with her again, when it is your time. For now, you have to get through this. Minute by minute, if that’s what it takes. I’ll help you however I can. I know how much you loved her, but you can’t let this destroy you.”

“No one will ever know how much I loved her,” the hunter whispered softly.

“She’s in the Elysian Fields with her family,” Hercules reminded him. “She’s safe now, and happy. And you know that she’s the last person on earth who would ever want to be the cause of your suffering.”

“My head knows that, but my heart won’t listen. When she died, a part of me died, too. It was the part of me that came to life when I met her, and it’s the part that I’ll never get back. It’s the part that made life worth living. I need her Herc. She was my life, my heart, and my soul. I can‘t do this without her.” Iolaus hid his face in his hands as heart-wrenching sobs again shook his frame.

“Just hang on, Iolaus,” Hercules said helplessly, trying and failing to comfort his friend. “I promise you, everything will be all right.” It just had to be.

Disclaimer: No sturdy saplings were harmed in the writing of this story.

Chaper 9: Forever's No Time At All
The Iolausian Library