Author's Note: No copyright infringement intended on characters owned by Universal Studios or RenPics.
To read a summary of the previous chapters, click here
August 12, 2002
I feel the miracle of love
Lifting me up each and every day
Like a beacon in the night
Your guiding light shows me the way
Through the best and worst of times you've stood right by me
My comfort and protection in adversity
And I don't know how to thank you for these Golden days we've known
I guess I'll just have to love you more than I've ever done
While your voice rings in my ear
And out of the darkness
Suddenly your face appears
I feel the miracle of love
Lifting me up each and every day
Like a beacon in the night
Your guiding light shows me the way
And it keeps on getting better
As we walk these steps in time together
"Miracle of Love" - Roger Daltrey
“Hercules, I think that’s enough water.”
The demigod paused on his way out the door, casting a look back at the rows of buckets, bowls, and other assorted containers that he’d been filling with water. Grinning sheepishly, he set the water bucket back at its place next to the door and plopped down at the table.
“I just wanted to do something to help,” he told his friend.
“There’s nothing else we can do,” Jason replied practically, gathering up the onion pieces he’d been chopping and rising from the table to drop them into the pot hanging over the fire. “It’s all up to Elissa now.”
“I know,” Hercules sighed restlessly. “I just hate sitting here waiting with nothing to do.”
“Well, you could answer that,” the Argonaut suggested as a loud knock sounded upon the door.
The demigod obligingly went and admitted their visitor, gently using his boot to push away the puppy who was barking fiercely at the door.
“I’m sorry to bother you, but I’m looking for Hercules,” the stranger announced breathlessly. “I was told I could find him here.”
“And you have,” the demigod assured him. “What can I do for you?”
“My name is Aphareus. Please, Hercules, my people need your help,” the man began imploringly. “I come from Sardis, and we are under attack from a horrible monster.”
“What kind of monster?” Jason asked, coming forward as he overheard.
“Only one has seen it and lived,” the man told them. “A farmer saw it as it was dragging off one of his cattle. He said it was a huge creature, somewhat human in form, but covered in hair. It had giant tusks and eyes like fire. That night it was satisfied with livestock, but its been primarily taking people. Children seem to be its preference. Please, Hercules, say that you’ll come with me and kill this beast!”
The demigod turned away, running a hand through his hair. Jason shot him a questioning glance, never knowing his friend to ever hesitate when someone came asking for his help.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t come with you right now,” Hercules finally said, turning back to the man.
“But... People are dying,” Aphareus protested.
“I can’t leave just now,” the demigod insisted. “I promise you that I’ll come to Sardis as soon as I can, and I’ll do whatever I can to take care of this creature. Go back and tell your people to stay inside, and I’ll be there in a few days.”
The man looked from Hercules to Jason, trying to hide his disappointment. He’d heard so many stories about the legendary hero, and how he never refused anyone that needed his help. Aphareus hadn’t even considered the possibility that Hercules wouldn’t return with him. But the demigod had promised to come to Sardis when he could, which was better than a “no”. Aphareus just hoped that all the stories about the good-hearted son of Zeus weren’t wrong, and that he was a man of his word.
“Thank you for your time,” he said sadly, turning to leave, feeling like he had failed in his quest.
“Be safe, Aphareus,” Hercules called after him. “I’ll catch up with you in a few days.” The demigod shut the door behind him and turned to meet Jason’s gaze. “What?”
“Nothing,” the Argonaut replied, going back to the fire and stirring the contents in the pot.
“Look, I promised I’d help him and I will,” Hercules began in an annoyed tone. “But I also promised Iolaus that I’d be here for the birth of his child. And what’s more, I WANT to be here. I’ve missed out on so much with my family over the years because I’ve been off helping strangers. Well now all I have left of family are the people in this house. Something monumental is happening in their lives, and I need to be here for that. And another thing...”
“Hercules,” Jason interrupted, stopping his friend’s rant. “I agree with you. You’ve sacrificed your own life and your own happiness in order to give your help to those that have needed it ever since I’ve known you, which is a long time. I don’t think anyone, especially no one under this roof, is going to begrudge you for wanting a few days to yourself.”
“I’m sorry,” the demigod told him, instantly calming. “I know you understand. I guess I was just trying to justify it to myself. I can’t help feeling guilty, worrying that people are going to die because I’m being selfish.”
“It’s not selfishness to want to be with your family,” the argonaut chastised him. “People die every day, Hercules. It’s a fact of life. You can’t be everywhere at once, to save every person in Greece that meets with an untimely end. All you can do is just help where you can, and then know where to draw the line.” Jason moved to sit beside his old friend, looking him square in the eye. “I know what Iolaus and Elissa mean to you. Now they’re having a baby, and if you want to be here, then you need to be here. You can go and solve the problems of Sardis once you’ve welcomed the newest member of your family into the world. And from the sounds of things, I don’t think its going to be much longer.”
The healer’s pain filled cry echoed through the house, drawing uncomfortable shudders from the two men seated at the table.
“You know,” Hercules hinted. “It’s a beautiful evening.”
“Great night to eat outside,” Jason quickly agreed. He hurried to ladle their meal into two bowls as Hercules grabbed a bottle of wine and two mugs. The seasoned warriors practically flew outside into the garden, desperate to be out of earshot before the next contraction hit.
“I don’t know how Iolaus is doing it,” the demigod commented, pouring the wine and handing Jason a mug. “I was a wreck when Deianeira was in labor with all three of our kids. I pretended to be upset that my mother wouldn’t let me in the room with them, but secretly, I was relieved. I was shaking like a leaf just sitting outside the door.”
“I passed out cold when Medea was having our first,” Jason admitted with a chuckle. “After that, I wasn’t allowed in anymore.”
Both men suddenly sobered, falling quiet as they each became lost in bittersweet memories of the past. Memories of times that held great happiness, but tragic consequences. Loved ones that were taken too soon. Lives that were not meant to be.
“I think a toast is in order,” Hercules said softly with a gentle throat clearing. “To Iolaus and Elissa and the baby. May they live a long and happy life together, blessed with every joy. May they never want for anything, and may their lives always be touched with fortune.” He grinned slightly. “And may they always let their lonely warrior friends share in those lives.”
Jason grinned back, holding up his glass.
“And to us,” he added. “Two old warriors who know just where a man’s place should be.”
The demigod laughed, tapping his mug with his friend’s and taking a sip of the sweet wine. He put his glass down and took up his bowl of stew, inhaling the savory aroma before trying a bite.
“Jason, this is great. Just like Mother used to make.”
“Who do you think taught me to make it?” the Argonaut asked, diving into his own bowl.
Hercules was silent for a moment, toying with his food, before looking up at his old friend.
“Jason, what you said before, inside... Thanks. I think sometimes I tend to get caught up in my own myth, and I need the voice of wisdom to talk some sense in me.”
“You have a big heart, Hercules, and you can’t stand the thought of anyone suffering when you could do something about it,” the Argonaut reassured him. “I know you can’t help but feel guilty about not leaving for Sardis right away. But I also know you’d feel worse if you did go, leaving Iolaus and Elissa even though they would understand. You know, your mother always worried that you gave too much of yourself. That you never left yourself any time for your own happiness. It was different when we were younger and we had our whole lives ahead of us. But we’re all getting older, and with every year that passes, we become more aware that life is not infinite. That the time before us is shrinking, and that some things can’t be put off anymore. That means priorities change. The smaller things take precedence over grand adventure. And family becomes most important of all. I think that your heart is trying to tell you this now, even if your mind is still bent on saving the world. You’ve done so much in your life to help so many people, Hercules. Maybe it is time to take a break. I’m not suggesting that you stop helping those that need it, but I think you need to focus on yourself for a change. Take the time to do what you want to do. Whatever will make you happy. Because in the end, that’s really all we have.”
The demigod considered all his friend had told him, and realized that Jason was right. As a young man, he had loved the thrill of the open road, finding its call irresistible. There was nothing more exhilarating than journeying to new places, meeting new people, expanding new horizons, and tackling new challenges. He’d settled down somewhat when he’d married Deianeira, but after she and the children had died, he soon resumed his life of adventure, with Iolaus by his side. Hercules had been thinking that nothing would change that, until the hunter fell in love and began a family with his beloved healer.
Now, he realized, things were different. Hercules still loved the adventure of the road, but after he’d been gone for awhile, he began to feel the pull of home like he never had before. He missed the comfort and the familiarity, which had always been a bit stifling when he was younger. And as he grew older, watching those around him grow older too, the sense of family did become dear to him. The demigod decided that he didn’t want to wake up one day with the realization that he was an old man, and the memories of his life consisted of the welfare of strangers instead of happy memories of his loving family and friends. It was time to make changes, and to put himself above his dedication to helping mankind once and awhile.
“You’re right,” the demigod conceded, going back to his meal with a lighter heart, ignoring the puppy begging piteously at his feet. “I can’t miss seeing Iolaus become a proud father. Like you said, it won’t be much longer now. Sardis will manage for a day or two more until I get there.”
Their discussion was interrupted by the sound of a door slamming. Jason and Hercules jumped up as Iolaus came stumbling around the side of the house, heading to the garden as he caught sight of them.
“Don’t look now,” the Argonaut told his friend wryly. “But I think we may just have a new member in the ‘Men Who Know Their Place’ club.”
The hunter was pale and trembling and Jason immediately took his arm and escorted him to the bench next to the pond where he and Hercules had been dining.
“Here, sit down before you fall down.”
But the demigod instinctively knew that his partner’s distress wasn’t caused by his wife’s labor pains. Something else was very wrong.
“Iolaus, what is it?” he asked, sitting next to his friend and pressing a mug of wine into his hands.
“Everything was going fine,” the hunter said hoarsely, turning fearful blue eyes to his partner. “The midwife said it all was progressing well, and Elissa was doing great. But then... Everything stopped.”
“What do you mean ‘stopped’?” Jason demanded.
“It stopped. The labor, the contractions... everything. The baby stopped coming, and the midwife said if it doesn’t start again soon, the baby will die and Elissa could too.”
Iolaus tipped back the mug, swallowing the wine in one great gulp as Hercules and Jason exchanged a horrified glance.
“I don’t know what to do,” he continued helplessly, brushing away the moisture in his eyes. “Elissa’s trying to stay calm, but she’s terrified. It would destroy her to lose another baby, and I can’t even think about what I’d do if she...”
“What can we do?” Jason asked quickly, trying to take his friend’s mind off the bleak outlook.
“Nothing,” the hunter sighed with a shake of the head. “I need to get back in there. Elissa wanted tea made from shepherd’s purse. She can’t understand what’s going on, but she’s hoping it will stimulate the labor again. I just wanted to let you guys know what was happening.”
“Come on,” the Argonaut urged, looping an arm around his friend. “You go back in with your wife and I’ll make the tea.”
Hercules watched them walk back to the house, feeling sick. His friends had been through so much, and they certainly didn’t deserve this. He had been so happy, sure that everything was going well, excited for the arrival of the child of the brother of his heart. Now, that child’s life was in peril, as was its mother’s. He couldn’t understand why the people he loved always had to suffer. Why couldn’t they just have the simple things they worked so hard for, and be happy? Looking up at the sky, awash with orange and pink streaks as the sun began to descend, he voiced his question, not expecting an answer.
“Why? Why is this happening to them?”
“Because Hera is cold and unforgiving.”
The demigod spun around to face the voice behind him, his mouth dropping as he identified the visitor.
“Hebe?” he managed to squeak out.
“Hello, Hercules.” The goddess gave him a shy smile.
The last time he had seen her, she had been an abused, fragile mortal woman. He was unprepared for what divinity had done to her. Hebe was exquisitely beautiful in mortal form, but as a goddess, that beauty had been enhanced in a glorious radiance. Gone were the limp from a shattered leg and the ugly scar on her cheek, both souvenirs of the warlord, Calais. And also gone were the emotional scars. The timidity, the shame, the fear, and the feelings of worthlessness that came from a lifetime of cruelty and abuse and violation had been replaced with self-assuredness, confidence, and grace. And the result was a goddess of undescribable beauty.
“I’m sorry for leaving you the way I did, without explaining my reasons,” Hebe said, when it became apparent to her that the demigod had been rendered utterly speechless. “You have every right to be angry with me, and I wouldn’t blame you if you never wanted to see me again. But I came to help you.”
“Help me...” Hercules repeated dumbly, hopelessly mesmerized by her brilliant violet eyes. Suddenly, he came to his senses with a head shake as he realized why she was there. “Wait, what was that you said about Hera? Are you telling me she has something to do with this?”
“That monster in Sardis is her creation,” Hebe confirmed soberly. “She flew into a rage when you refused to go confront it, and she trapped Eileithyia on Olympus. With the goddess of childbirth imprisoned, Elissa can’t deliver her baby. Nor can any other woman, for that matter.”
“So in other words,” the demigod growled in a low voice, feeling the anger boiling within him. “Because I put off facing her little pet for two days, Hera has condemned Elissa and all the other pregnant women to death?”
“That’s about the size of it,” the goddess admitted unhappily.
Hercules couldn’t control himself any longer and lashed out, shattering the stone bench next to the garden pond with one mighty blow, scaring the puppy and causing the animal to take off running through the garden. The demigod stared at the rubble, panting as he desperately tried to contain his fury.
“It may not be too late,” Hebe consoled him, laying a gentle hand on his shoulder. “I think that if you were to leave for Sardis now, Hera would release Eileithyia. Elissa may still be able to have a normal delivery.”
“Then I guess I don’t have much choice,” the demigod said tightly. He turned to go, but Hebe pulled on his arm.
“Hercules, wait! You need to be careful.”
“I’m always careful.”
The goddess’ grip on his bicep tightened significantly.
“Hera’s gone to a lot of trouble to get you to go after this creature,” she reminded him. “It must be very strong, since she obviously doesn’t think you’ll survive it. Hercules, please, just be careful!”
“Don’t worry,” the demigod sighed. “I think I know where I can get the help I need.” He started back to the house, but turned back to the goddess after a few steps. “Hebe, why are you doing this?”
“Because,” she replied, a bit surprised that he didn’t already know. “I can’t let this happen to Elissa. She saved me from Calais. You all did. I can never repay any of you for giving me back my life, or for being my friends when I desperately needed some. And for loving me when I thought no one ever could.”
The last sentence was barely a whisper as she turned her head away to avoid his gaze. Something ached in Hercules’ heart, and he knew that they needed to talk about what had happened between them if either of them were ever going to be at peace with it. But now was not the time. He had to get to Sardis. The demigod knew that Hera didn’t care about the fates of the innocents she was hurting, and he wasn’t entirely sure that she would release Eileithyia if he did as she wanted. But it was Elissa’s only hope, so he truly had no choice.
Jason looked up from pouring steaming water into a mug of herbs as Hercules entered the house. He caught the look of cold hatred on his old friend’s face, and immediately knew something was up.
“What is it?” he asked, stirring the tea. The demigod didn’t answer him, but began shoving his few belongings into a pack. “Hercules, what are you doing?”
“Going to Sardis,” the demigod responded, a hard edge in his voice.
“What? Why now?”
“Because Hera is an evil bitch!” Hercules exploded, throwing one of the bowls he’d so painstakingly filled with water across the room to smash against the wall. Literally shaking with rage, the demigod stood in the middle of the room, taking deep breaths to try and calm himself as Jason waited patiently for him to elaborate. Finally he felt like he could relate the story without choking on his anger, and he quickly filled Jason in on all that Hebe had told him as he finished gathering his supplies. The Argonaut’s face showed no expression, but his eyes began to burn and his stirring became violent, causing the tea to slosh over the sides of the mug. Realizing that he was spilling the medicine that Elissa needed, he removed the spoon from the mug and gripped the edge of the table in a white-knuckled grasp.
“So I have to leave now,” the demigod concluded. “And we can only hope that its not too late for Elissa and the baby.”
“Do you want me to go with you?” Jason asked.
“I think it might be best for you to stay here,” Hercules told him, after a moment of hesitation. “I think someone should be here to help Iolaus in case...” He trailed off, not able to finish the sentence. The hunter had lost his wife once, and it had almost been the end of him. The demigod knew his friend would need all the support he could get in case Elissa didn’t make it through. And they both would need a friend if they lost this baby.
“I’ll take care of them,” the Argonaut promised. “But Hercules, you take care of yourself. I know that monster killing is old hat for you, but for Hera to go to this much trouble to get you to Sardis, there must be something really lethal about this creature.”
Hercules smiled slightly, Jason’s words echoing Hebe’s concerns.
“I’ll be careful,” he vowed.
“Are you going to say goodbye?”
The Argonaut inclined his head down the hallway toward the closed bedroom door. Hercules followed his gaze, a look of sadness on his face.
“No,” he whispered, shaking his head. “I’ve lost enough time as it is without having to explain everything. And I know they’ll worry that I’m taking too much of a risk, or Iolaus will be torn, wanting to go with me. They don’t need to deal with that now. Just... When it’s over one way or another, tell them what happened. And make sure they understand that whatever risks I’m going up against, its all worth it if there’s even a chance of righting this mess. Tell them that they’re worth it to me.”
“I will.” Jason stretched out his hand and Hercules took it in a warrior’s shake. “Good luck, my friend.”
The demigod left the great stone house, walking up the path toward the road. He paused next to the tree that grew out of the large boulder in front of the house, reaching up to snap off a twig. Elissa always said that they were for luck. He’d never believed in her superstition, but at the moment, he needed all he could get. Tucking the twig into his belt, Hercules hefted his pack over his shoulder and began striding down the road, out of Acheron and into the darkening evening.
The innkeeper set a mug of ale down at his elbow. Without taking his eyes from the bard who was weaving an intricate tale next to the fireplace, Hercules reached down and picked up the mug, taking a long swallow.
“What do you think?” a throaty voice purred in his ear as the dark haired woman it belonged to slid into the seat beside him, nodding her head toward the bard. “Do you think this Xena could really do all those things?”
“She is a pretty good warrior,” Hercules answered noncommitally, taking another drink of his ale.
“I hear she’s a great warrior,” the woman insisted. “I’ll bet she could even beat the great Hercules himself.”
“Not in a million years,” he replied matter of factly.
“Hey,” she snapped, annoyed. “I took you out once.”
“Only because you clobbered me from behind when I wasn’t expecting it,” the demigod reminded her.
“Well, you should be ready for anything,” she pointed out, averting her eyes loftily.
“I guess I can’t argue with that,” Hercules told her, his face splitting into a wide grin. “How are you, Xena?”
“It’s good to see you, Hercules,” the warrior princess said sincerely, her face opening up into a rare smile of happiness. “What are you doing out this way?”
“Looking for you,” he sighed, the grin quickly fading. “I need your help.”
Xena immediately knew that something serious was going on if Hercules was after her help. And since he was alone, she surmised that it wasn’t the demigod, but rather Iolaus, that needed help.
“Let me go and get Gabrielle before she launches into another story,” Xena told him. “Why don’t you go grab us a table and you can tell us everything over dinner?”
Hercules nodded as the warrior slipped through the crowd to get her friend’s attention. He knew that they would not refuse to help him, but he could only hope that they’d be in time.
“I still can’t believe it,” Gabrielle murmured for the fourth time. “Iolaus is married. I never thought he’d ever settle down. But that’s just proof that we’ve been away too long, Xena.”
The warrior princess’ eyes were fixed on the water, her body tensed and poised to strike. She gave no sign that she was listening, but the bard knew that she was.
“First to Britannia.” Gabrielle gave a little shudder, the horror of what had happened there and all that had come after it being something that she never could get over. “Then to Chin, and now most recently India. I hadn’t realized just how much of the last few years we’ve spent on boats or in other lands. I guess when you travel, you just tend to think that time has stopped back home. But even so, it’s still so hard to believe that things have changed so much.”
Xena’s hand flashed down into the water and she jerked it back out, bringing up a large, fat fish. Snapping its neck, killing it instantly, she tossed it up onto the bank for her friend to clean and dress and add to the string of others as she began wading out of the stream.
“Does it bother you?” the warrior asked, her perceptive blue eyes studying her friend intently. “That he’s married?”
“Why should it bother me?” Gabrielle shrugged.
“Well, at one time you and Iolaus seemed to be...”
“That was a long time ago,” the bard sighed. “I definitely had a crush on him, but I was so young then. And he was just so brave and handsome, and I don’t think I have to tell you about what a good kisser he was.”
Xena quickly averted her eyes from her friend’s teasing smile, although she had to admit to herself that her partner was right.
“I haven’t thought about Iolaus in that way for a long time,” Gabrielle continued. “I really care about him, but I knew there was no future together for us. I guess after the whole Prometheus thing, I just had this silly little fantasy pictured where it was me and Iolaus and you and Hercules and the four of us just traveled around having adventures together for the rest of our lives.”
“It’s not so silly,” the warrior princess murmured, a trace of wistfulness in her voice. “I think I might have liked that life.” She smile understandingly at her friend. “Come on. Let’s go eat.”
The two women made their way back to the campsite, where Hercules had everything set up and a fire blazing. He took the string of fish from Xena, admiring her catch.
“Well, unless things have changed over the years, I’m assuming you still don’t cook.”
“I’ll take care of it, Hercules.” Gabrielle took the fish from him and began putting them on skewers to hang over the flames. “The gods know I try with her, but I can’t even seem to teach her how to boil water. We dine out a lot.”
“Hey, I could cook if I wanted to,” Xena protested hotly. “But I have more important things to do. Like scouting, and securing the area.”
The bard rolled her eyes, but didn’t comment, content to let her friend live in denial. Once the fish were all roasting, she scampered off into the trees to collect a few berries and tubers to complement their meal.
“What is it?” Xena asked, taking in the troubled expression on the demigod’s face.
“I’ve been thinking,” he told her, turning to face her. “There’s something going on here and I shouldn’t have dragged you and Gabrielle into it. Hera went to a lot of trouble to lure me to Sardis. Why didn’t she just drop this creature in Acheron, if she wanted me to face it so badly? And Hebe coming to warn me like she did... The gods are most definitely at work here, and it could be dangerous. I don’t want to put you two at risk, so if you or Gabrielle want to go back, I’ll understand. In fact, I think maybe you should.”
“If the gods are plotting something, then that’s exactly why we should be here,” Xena told him. “You’re going to need help, and I think we’ve established long ago that we make a great team.”
“Yeah, that’s true,” the demigod admitted. He hesitated for a moment, then asked her in a quiet voice, “What about Gabrielle?”
“Telling her to stay put somewhere worked for a little while when we first started traveling together,” the warrior princess grinned. “Now she’d listen about as well as Iolaus would if I suggested leaving her behind.”
Hercules smiled back at her, but it was a smile that didn’t reach up to his worried eyes. Xena was not the patronizing sort, and she wouldn’t have dreamt of trying to reassure him that everything would be fine. She merely place a hand on his arm, giving it a squeeze in comfort as Gabrielle returned to the camp to finish preparing their meal.
Xena awoke at dawn, just as the sun began rising over the horizon to cast a soft glow of light over the new day. Gabrielle was curled up next to her, and Hercules was lying on the other side of the fire, or what remained of it. Instinctively, she knew that the demigod was not asleep, and she correctly assumed he hadn’t gotten much rest in the night. Rising, she stood and stretched, gently shaking her friend awake as Hercules sat up. The three didn’t speak much as they downed a quick breakfast and broke camp before resuming their journey. Gabrielle was still partly asleep, not being a morning person. The demigod had other things on his mind, and Xena had never been much for idle chitchat. But her reticence also had another cause, as she was preoccupied with watching Hercules, her eyes narrowing as she tried to assess his mindset.
They traveled throughout the morning, stopping at a small village inn at midday. Hercules was antsy and fidgety, but Xena calmly insisted that they could all use a short rest and something to eat, and Gabrielle eagerly agreed. As the women found a table and arranged for some food, the demigod began feeling claustrophobic and drifted outside. The warrior princess quickly followed, finding him pacing the street outside.
“Hercules, we’ll reach Sardis before nightfall. Why don’t you come in and have something to eat?”
“I’m not hungry,” he muttered.
“Look,” Xena began, striding up to him and taking him by the arm, forcing him to look at her. “I know that you’re worried about your friends. But you have to focus. By your own admission, this creature that we’re up against is going to be tough. You need to have your mind here on the task at hand, not back there in Acheron. You can’t let yourself be distracted.”
“You’re right, Xena,” Hercules sighed, running a hand through his hair as he slumped down on a bench outside of the inn. “It’s just that I’ve been gone for almost three days, and by now it’s all over. Either Elissa and Iolaus are discovering the joys of diaper changing and late night feedings, or my best friend is dealing with another loss. It’s driving me crazy not knowing what’s happened.”
“Whatever did happen, it’s out of your hands,” she reasoned. “You can’t do anything to help them now. All we can do is go to Sardis and help those people that are being attacked by this monster.”
“I just thought that maybe Hebe would come and tell me if everything was all right, or if...” The demigod swallowed hard. “I keep thinking that she would have come if everything was ok with the baby. That she’d want to give me the good news. And the fact that she hasn’t come just makes me think that...”
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with holding on to hope,” Xena told him. “Until you know for sure, there’s no point in grieving. Just hold a good thought, and we’ll take care of this beast and then you can go back home to your friends. Whatever happened, you can deal with it then.”
Hercules nodded, understanding what she was saying. He couldn’t go into this battle without his wits about him. If he wasn’t thinking or was too wrapped up in worry, then he was going to get hurt, or get one of his friends hurt. And he wasn’t about to compound this mess with any more tragedy or suffering.
“Come inside and eat,” Xena urged him once more.
“No, thanks,” the demigod replied with a small head shake. “You two go ahead. I’m going to sit here and clear my head.”
“All right. We won’t be long.”
She headed back inside the inn, reassured that the demigod’s anger and fear were not going to get the better of him in the heat of battle. For as much as Xena respected and cared for Hercules, she wasn’t about to put her best friend into a situation where he couldn’t be trusted to watch their backs.
The trio reached Sardis early in the evening, as the sun was beginning to descend. It didn’t take them long to find Aphareus, the man who had originally been seeking the demigod’s help. He was overjoyed to see them, having taken some ridicule from the other villagers upon coming back from his task empty handed. Proudly, he escorted them through the main street in town to the small village inn, where the innkeeper generously agreed to grant them room and board throughout their stay, and to provide accommodations for Argo. They were quickly given the best table in the establishment, next to the fire, and a meal was brought out for them as the villagers gathered around to tell them what they knew of the creature terrorizing Sardis. The only real description of the beast was sketchy, coming from the farmer that had seen it dragging off one of his cattle in the dead of night. All the other stories were tales of damage to barns and homes, slaughtered animals, and loved ones that had become casualties of the horrible monster.
“When was the last attack?” the demigod asked, having pushed his plate away after picking absently at his food.
“That was a bad one. Happened eight days ago,” the innkeeper told him with a shake of his head. “But we’ve been hearing that the thing’s been attacking the other towns that border on the swamp. Its probably been hunting in one of them over the last few days.”
“I think we should go and check out the site of the last attack,” Xena suggested. Hercules nodded in agreement.
“I can take you there,” Aphareus offered. The demigod nodded again, and they rose and followed the man as he led them out of the inn and through the village. They all knew immediately that they had reached their destination before Aphareus stopped walking. On the outside of town, where the houses were farther apart, one home in particular stood out. The door had been ripped off and flung across the yard, and half of the wall was missing, reduced to rubble.
Hercules took the lantern from Aphareus and stepped cautiously through the gaping hole into the house, with Xena and Gabrielle close behind. The interior of the house was in shambles. Everything was broken or upset, and covered with wood and mortar from the destroyed wall. And dried blood was spattered everywhere. Gabrielle turned away, closing her eyes and covering her mouth with her hand. Xena and Hercules were reactionless as the studied the grisly scene, but two sets of blue eyes burned with righteousness and a solemn promise that they would end the reign of this monster.
Aphareus had waited for them outside, and Hercules sought him out when he emerged from the house.
“How many people were in there?” he asked, knowing that there was too much blood for a solitary victim.
“Five,” the villager murmured, shuddering as he recalled the day that it had happened. “This damn creature isn’t above taking livestock, but it prefers people, when it can find somebody out at night. And especially babies. Something about a newborn just sends it into a frenzy, I guess. It apparently can sense a woman in labor. And it will stop at nothing to get to the child. I can’t even describe to you the carnage that we found here after it had left and gone back to the swamp.”
“What did you find?” Xena pressed. She was sympathetic to the horror that the man was reliving, but they needed to find out all they could about this beast, if they had any hope of defeating it.
“The family that lived there,” he continued in a whisper. “A man, his wife, two children, and a midwife. All ripped to shreds. The monster killed them, but it was really only after one thing. The woman had been in labor when it attacked. She was sliced open from her throat all the way down... And the baby was gone. No doubt devoured by that bastard creature. Please, Hercules, you’ve got to kill it!”
“We’re going to do everything we can,” the demigod reassured him.
“You don’t understand.” Aphareus took a deep breath. “My wife is pregnant, and the baby is due any day now. I know the same thing will happen to her, unless that beast is dead. After I saw what it had done here, I left immediately to come find you, hoping that you would come back with me and take care of it. Hoping that we’d be in time. I keep seeing the body of that woman in my mind, but she has my wife’s face. I’m just so afraid....”
He trailed off, hiding his face in his hands, his shoulders slumping helplessly. Hercules exchanged a look with Xena and Gabrielle, the three of them mutually deciding there was no point in telling the poor man about Hera’s capturing of Eileithyia and adding to his worries. The demigod stepped forward, placing a hand on Aphareus’ shoulder and causing him to meet his gaze.
“I promise you,” he vowed, giving the shoulder under his hand a comforting squeeze. “We are not going to let this thing get to your wife or your child. We’re going to stop it.”
Aphareus nodded and let out a big sigh, a lot of the tension he felt going with it. He was like so many other people, trusting implicitly in Hercules’ abilities. Years of stories and songs celebrating trails of dead monsters, defeated warlords, and thwarted gods in the mighty demigod’s wake had given the legendary hero the illusion of invincibility. The three warriors committed to the quest before them knew how far from true that really was. But despite the dangers and risk, they remained strong in their resolve. They would end the terror plaguing this town, or they would die trying.
“It’s hard to believe anything could be wrong on a night like this,” Gabrielle murmured, taking a deep breath of the cool night air. A gentle breeze was stirring, and the nocturnal insects were conducting their symphony. There was a sense of calm over the town. The villagers, comforted by the presence of the three who had come to save them, were sleeping peacefully for the first time since the attacks began. It was a lovely evening, but the bard could tell by the posture of the man seated next to her that he was far from being at peace.
“Hercules,” she began, laying a gentle hand on his arm to get his attention. “I want you to listen to me for a moment. I don’t know Iolaus as well as you do, but you have to believe that I know how he’s feeling. We’re the same, in a way. There aren’t many people who can understand what he and I go through. You and Xena have an idea, but you really can’t fully know unless you live it. That’s why I need you to listen to me now, and trust that what I’m telling you is the truth.”
“What are you getting at?” the demigod asked her, turning to studying her silhouetted profile next to him.
“Iolaus doesn’t blame you for this happening,” Gabrielle continued. “So you have to stop blaming yourself.”
“How can I not?” Hercules asked miserably. “There’s no denying that Hera took revenge on him to get at me. And its not the first time.”
“No, but Hera is to blame for that. You aren’t responsible for her actions, and you are doing everything you can to put things right. Iolaus knows that.”
“They don’t deserve this,” the demigod muttered. “Nobody does, but especially not Elissa and Iolaus. They’ve already been through Tartarus and back, because of me. It just tears me up inside to know that I keep causing the people I love to suffer.”
“I know it does,” the bard assured him. “Xena feels the same way. But what you both have to understand, is that it isn’t your decision. Iolaus and I have chosen to follow the same path that you have. He is your partner, Hercules. And your best friend. He loves you, and he thinks that you’re worth whatever risks he might be called on to face. He’d rather die than to let you face these dangers alone.”
“I know he would,” Hercules whispered. “That’s what eats away at me. I can’t bear to leave him, but I’m so afraid that I’m going to get him killed if I stay in his life.”
“Do you really think that Iolaus would stop helping people if you weren’t in his life?” Gabrielle questioned. “You know better than that. Iolaus is a hero. He doesn’t follow you around blindly. He fights by your side because he believes in what you are fighting for. He wants to do what he can for those that are helpless. Iolaus fights for the greater good. Don’t take that away from him.”
“I know you’re right,” the demigod sighed, running a hand through his hair. “I just...”
“Hercules, all I can tell you is what I know in my heart. I love Xena. She took me away from a life that was holding me down, and she helped me to learn to be the kind of person I want to be. And I think that in some ways, I’ve done the same for her. The simple fact is that we’re partners. I go where she goes. And I know that we’ll be facing danger, and I know there’s a chance that someone might try to get to her through me. I know there’s a chance I could be hurt, or even killed. But it doesn’t matter. If its my destiny to die today, than its ok. Because I’ve lived my life well, doing some good where I could along the way. And I’ll go to the other side thanking the fates for letting me have this time with Xena. Because she’s been the best thing in my entire life, and I wouldn’t change that for anything else in the world, no matter what it costs me. Hercules, I promise you that Iolaus feels the same way.”
The demigod ducked his head, taking in a deep breath. He still felt a measure of guilt; nothing would ever be able to take that completely away. But the bard’s words did help him feel better. She was right, and she spoke with experience. Hercules knew that he’d always blame himself for bringing suffering to the one he loved most, but Gabrielle had hit the nail on the head. Iolaus did fight for the greater good, and it was because he chose to, accepting the risks along the way. Denying that took away his heroism, and that was something Hercules adamantly refused to do.
“Thank you, Gabrielle,” he told the bard sincerely. Through the darkness, he saw her smile, and he drew her into his arms, hugging her tightly.
“There’s no sign of the creature anywhere around the perimeter of the town.”
They both jumped, startled by Xena’s voice as she emerged from the shadows. Both of them idly wondered how long she’d been listening before deciding to make her presence known.
“Everything’s quiet,” the warrior princess continued. “The villagers are sure that this thing only attacks at night?”
“That’s what they said,” Hercules replied, glancing up at the sky. The stars were beginning to fade, and a hint of light was beginning to emerge in the east. “Think we should call it a night?”
“We might as well,” Xena agreed. “Its not coming here tonight. But I think tomorrow we should stake out the swamp.”
The demigod nodded, standing and stretching. Xena began leading the way back to the inn, with Gabrielle close behind. Hercules followed them, trying not to feel frustrated. He just wanted to get this whole thing over with as quickly as possible. But he had little recourse other than to be patient. Sighing, he entered his small, but cosy room and flopped down on the bed, hoping they would have better luck hunting the following night.
“Here.” Xena tossed a plant stem at her friend. “Try this.”
Gabrielle caught the plant and tore off some of the leaves, crushing them in her fingers and rubbing them over her exposed skin, staring in dismay at the collection of welts she had already acquired.
“This monster better show itself tonight,” she grumbled. “Sitting in a swamp is not my idea of an exotic vacation locale.” The bard slapped angrily at the insects buzzing around her head.
“It’s that perfume you wear,” the warrior princess told her, stretching out languidly next to Hercules. “Mosquitoes find it irresistible.”
“I don’t wear perfume,” Gabrielle insisted. “And excuse me for liking scented soap. I prefer smelling like roses over smelling like my horse, thank you very much.”
“At least the bugs don’t bother me,” Xena said airily, exchanging a grin with the demigod and refusing to be drawn in to her friend’s sparring.
Always the gentleman, Hercules rose and went to kneel behind Gabrielle, offering to apply the fleabane to her back where she couldn’t reach. She handed him a few of the broken leaves, and he rubbed them gently over her skin, sympathizing with her plight and assuring her that the aromatic plant would help to repel the pesky insects. When he finished, he sat back, casting a thoughtful eye at the setting sun.
“I don’t get it,” he announced. “You’d think that after all the trouble Hera went through to get me here, she’d have sicced this creature on me the minute I walked into town.”
Xena shrugged noncommitally.
“If it’s here, we’ll find it.”
As the evening wore on, darkness fell, and the three discussed the merits of lighting a fire. Although they didn’t like the though of taking on a monster in the dark, they finally decided that there was enough moonlight to see by and they didn’t want to risk a fire scaring the beast away. Hour after hour passed, as they talked quietly, ate a simple supper of bread and cheese, and fell into a restless silence.
When the moon had risen to full height and the night had deepened considerably, Hercules suddenly sat upright, his muscular frame tensing. Something had changed in the peaceful night. An ominous stillness fell over the swamp as all the stirring creatures froze and silenced. Glancing over, he could tell that his two companions had sensed it, too. The scent of danger was strong in the air.
A splashing sound drew their attentions to the east. The stagnant water was churning, sending rippling waves to break up the still surface. A large shape began to rise up from the murky liquid, a terrible sight against the silvery moon. It had a human shape, but it was twice the size of Hercules. Mud and water dripped from the shaggy hair that covered its body, and a loud squelching noise resounded through the swamp as it began to move toward higher ground, the swamp muck sucking at its feet.
The creature didn’t see them at first, until they all rose in a tight huddle. Its head swung around to gaze at the intruders, and Gabrielle shivered slightly and moved a step behind Xena. Huge, boar like tusks framed its face, glinting strangely in the thin light. Eyes, glowing as intensely as the fires of Hephestus’ forge, bored into theirs. The beast opened its mouth, emitting a loud hiss, and it began to advance on them.
Xena’s chakram flew through the air, and despite the low light, she caught it effortlessly as it returned, a puzzled frown on her face. She had no doubt the weapon had grazed the creature, but it had apparently not even noticed. With a loud yell, she sprung into the air, flipping dizzyingly to land in front of the charging monster. Drawing her sword, she lunged and thrust into the creature, but her blade could not penetrate through the dense coat of hair. The beast slashed out at her, but Xena withdrew quickly, her sword blocking the lethal claws with a loud metallic clanging.
“It’s got brass claws,” she called out over her shoulder, meeting them again with her blade.
Hercules attacked, trying to take the pressure off of the warrior princess to allow her to retreat and reorganize herself. Ducking, he dodged the wild slashings and rammed his fist into the creature, putting all of his god given strength behind the blow. But the monster merely shook it off, and the demigod had to dive out of the way to avoid being sliced open. Xena attacked again, but was immediately driven back. Gabrielle launched herself at the beast’s back, catching it around the throat with her staff and pulling as hard as she could in an attempt to strangle it. The creature tossed her easily over its head to go sailing through the air, landing in a heap on the hard ground several feet away.
Xena and Hercules aligned themselves for a joint attack, charging the monster simultaneously. They were beaten back, but they regrouped and advanced again. Gabrielle managed to pick herself up, shaking her head to clear the cobwebs, and came to help, beating on the creature with her staff but staying out of range of those vicious claws. The battle raged for what seemed like hours, until finally the beast had had enough. With a loud roar, it slashed out at them violently, forcing them all back so it could make its escape, diving back into the swamp and disappearing below the black water to leave the three battle-weary warriors to tend to their bruises.
Hercules groaned slightly as he awoke, stretching and feeling the pull of his strained muscles. It had been a hard battle and it had left him sore. But the stiffness in his limbs was nothing compared to the mental bruising he’d received. Finally he understood why Hebe had been so adamant in her warning for him to be careful. Had he finally come across a creature that he wasn’t able to defeat?
Not wanting to think about it, the demigod rose and stretched again, trying to limber up. Glancing out the window, he was a bit surprised to see the lateness of the day. It appeared that the fearsome battle the night before had been just the cure for his recent insomnia. Hercules quickly dressed and went downstairs, finding out from the innkeeper that neither Xena or Gabrielle had made an appearance yet. The demigod decided that a hot bath was in order to ease the last of the strain out of his muscles, and he allowed himself the luxury of relaxing and soaking for a long time. He almost drifted to sleep, comforted by the warmth of the water and for a moment, forgetting about all of his problems.
When he finally made his way back to the dining area of the inn, he found his two companions waiting for him at a table, already enjoying a hot meal of roast venison, fresh bread and honey, and a variety of ripe fruits. Hercules helped himself to the feast, sliding onto the bench next to Xena.
“We were just talking about the creature,” the warrior princess told him.
“No, I was talking about it,” Gabrielle corrected her. “I was asking how we are going to be able to kill a beast that seemingly is impervious to weapons. You were just sitting there not answering me.”
“Yeah,” the demigod grinned, taking a huge bite of bread. “How are we going to kill it?”
He looked pointedly at Xena. She didn’t answer, but there was a twinkle in her eyes.
“You two are so exasperating,” the bard exclaimed. “Don’t try and tell me that you aren’t worried. We gave that thing all we had last night, and we didn’t even hurt it.”
“Oh, we hurt it,” the warrior princess said. “I think some of those blows were starting to sink in. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have run off like that. We definitely gave it something to think about.”
“The important thing is that it didn’t hurt any of us,” Hercules stated, sobering at the thought. Now that he had seen the creature firsthand and knew what they were up against, it really was an amazing thing that all three of them had escaped the battle unscathed.
“So, what’s the plan?” Gabrielle pressed. “It’s only a matter of time before that thing shows up here again. What are we going to do?”
“We have to find its weakness,” Xena told her.
“What makes you so sure it has one?” the bard asked.
“Because,” Hercules answered. “Everything does. Nothing is completely invincible. It has to be vulnerable somewhere, and that’s the key to its destruction.”
The table went quiet, with each one of them offering up a silent prayer that they hadn’t just met the first truly invincible creature.
“We should stake out the swamp again,” the demigod continued after a long drink of wine. “One of us could try and follow it for awhile. See where it goes and what it does. Maybe we can learn something that way.”
“I’ll do it,” Xena offered automatically, reaching over for the platter of meat.
“Actually, I was thinking that I would,” Hercules told her.
“You?” The warrior princess shot him a skeptical look. “No, I’ll go.”
“Wait a minute,” the demigod protested. “Why should you go?”
“Because I have more experience in tracking and sneaking around in the dark. Face it, Hercules. Your size works against you here.”
“But it can also work for me,” he argued. “If that thing catches on that its being tailed, I’d have a better chance against it than you.”
“It won’t catch on if I’m the one following it,” Xena insisted.
“Look, this is dangerous,” Hercules tried to reason with her. “I’m the one that should go. It’s my responsibility.”
“What does that mean?” the warrior princess demanded, a bit heatedly. “If you are trying to insinuate that you should take all of the risk for Iolaus, you’d better think again. He may be your best friend, but we care about him, too. And I owe him a debt which I have every intention of paying.”
Before Hercules could protest, they were interrupted by a loud voice calling his name. Aphareus was at the door of the inn, eyes scanning the crowded room for the demigod, who caught his gaze and waved him over.
“What’s wrong?” Gabrielle asked, taking in the frantic state of the man.
“It’s my wife,” he blurted out, eyes wide with terror. “She’s gone into labor. By the gods, Hercules, it will be dark in a few hours. That thing will be coming for her. You have to stop it!”
“Calm down,” the demigod reassured him, rising and placing a steady hand on his shoulder. “Go back home, Aphareus, and be with your wife. I promise you, we are not going to let this monster get to her. Trust me.”
The distraught villager nodded, stammering out his thanks before turning and fleeing out of the inn.
“Back to the swamp?” Gabrielle sighed dejectedly. She had also enjoyed a hot bath earlier that day, with plenty of the fragrant soap she loved. It would be open season on her from the mosquitoes’ point of view.
“No,” Hercules replied after exchanging a long glance with Xena. “The swamp is too big and stretches out too far. We were lucky to have seen the beast last night, but there’s no guarantee that it will surface in the same spot. And we can’t take any chances that it could slip by us and make it back to town. We have to narrow the field a bit.”
“We make our stand here,” Xena agreed.
“Well, I hate to keep bringing it up, but what, exactly, are we going to do?” the bard asked.
Xena looked at Hercules, and the two pairs of blue eyes echoed Gabrielle’s question.
“I wish I knew,” the demigod replied softly.
“How is she doing?”
The midwife looked up at the blond head peeking through the door.
“She’s coming along well. The contractions are getting stronger and closer. I don’t think it will be much longer before she’ll be ready to push.”
Gabrielle gave a smile of encouragement to the woman squirming uncomfortably on the bed, and to Aphareus who was holding her hand in silent support. Closing the door, the bard left the little house and went back out into the street to give Hercules and Xena the update.
“Are you sure we shouldn’t recruit some of the villagers to help?” Xena asked of the demigod. “Even just to act as sentries?”
“No,” Hercules said firmly. “None of these people are fighters. And that monster is just too dangerous to risk it. I’m not about to let anyone else get hurt.”
The warrior princess nodded and turned her sharp eyes back to sweep over the town. Darkness had fallen, and they all knew the creature could show up at any time. There was no peace in Sardis this night. The very air was pulsing with tension.
But the night wore on, with no hint of trouble. The waiting was wearing on the nerves of the three heroes. Gabrielle fidgeted nervously, playing with her hair and drawing symbols in the dirt with the toe of her boot while Xena paced in restless circles. Hercules sat with his arms folded across his chest, only his eyes giving away his anxiety.
“Do you think maybe its found another victim in one of the surrounding towns?” the bard finally ventured to ask.
Hercules gave a slight shrug of the shoulders. Xena stopped her pacing and turned to glare back in the direction of the house as another loud cry pierced the night.
“Somebody needs to go in there and tell her to keep it down,” she snapped.
“Xena, she can’t help it,” Gabrielle reminded her friend.
“Well, she may as well go have that baby in the swamp if she’s going to advertise.”
“I don’t think it matters,” Hercules muttered wearily. “I get the feeling this beast can sense a birth whether it hears the labor or not.”
“Well, it sounds like its nearing the end,” Gabrielle murmured, trying to be optimistic.
Xena resumed her pacing, but halted abruptly after making a few circles. Hercules had been firm in his desire that they should all stay together, but she couldn’t stand it anymore.
“I’m going to go scouting,” she announced.
“Xena, we’ve discussed this,” the demigod sighed.
“I don’t care what we’ve discussed, I’m...” The warrior princess trailed off as she heard a noise. “It’s coming.”
Gabrielle and Hercules froze as they heard the same sound. The monster was approaching, and approaching fast. Immediately, the three assumed a defensive stance, vowing to protect the house and the people inside at all costs. Within moments, the creature came barreling into sight, and with a sinking heart Hercules realized the gravity of his mistake.
The beast was speeding toward them with an almighty fury. It had indeed sensed that a woman was in labor, and the prospect of devouring the newborn had sent it into a frenzy. They had been hard pressed to deal with it the previous night as it emerged from the swamp. Now, in its maddened state, it was going to be impossible to stop.
But they tried. Working together, they did their best to subdue the creature. Hercules managed to lasso it with a length of chain, but it cut the thick links effortless with its metal claws, freeing itself instantly. The same with the net with which Gabrielle tried to snare it. Xena attacked, slashing her sword for all she was worth, trying in vain to find a vulnerable spot that her blade could penetrate. But for all their efforts, they hardly managed to slow the beast down.
The creature made it to the house, smashing through the door with a violent crash. Aphareus went white and his poor wife screamed in terror at the sight of the rampaging monster bearing down on them. The midwife didn’t let herself look up, but focused on the top of the tiny head that she held in her hands, and prayed with all her might for a miracle.
Hercules threw himself at the beast, desperation lending him added strength, and he managed to knock the creature off its feet, the two of them slamming to the floor with a force that made the whole house shake. The demigod untangled himself and rolled away quickly, as Xena leapt in to take his place, lashing out at the monster with a series of rapid fire kicks and punches. Taking advantage of its momentary surprise, she jabbed two fingers into its neck. But obviously, despite the beast’s human shape, its anatomy was not the same. With a roar, it lashed back, knocking the warrior princess down and pinning her to the floor with one massive hand, the lethal claws resting on either side of her throat.
Gabrielle cried out and attacked the creature, beating on the back of its head with her small fists, knowing she was completely ineffectual. But as the creature reached its free hand back to slash at the bard, its grip loosened enough for Xena to reach out into the fireplace next to her and scoop up a handful of ashes, flinging them into the monster’s face. It roared in a rage, but released her. Jumping up, she grabbed Gabrielle and pulled her back out of the beast’s range.
“Look at its eyes,” the bard whispered in her friend’s ear.
The soot from the fireplace had done something to the creature. Its previously flaming eyes had gone dull, vacant. In fact, Xena could have sworn they were smoldering.
“I think you blinded it,” Gabrielle deducted, a note of hope creeping into her voice.
But even blinding could not divert the monster from its purpose. It raged for a moment, lashing out all around it in fury. But then it stopped, sniffing the air, its head swiveling in the direction of the terrified mother to be. With a low growl, it began to charge her.
“That’s it,” Hercules shouted fiercely, rising from the corner. “This ends now!” He grabbed a long poker from the fireplace and went after the monster, ignoring the blood that was streaming down his arm.
Aphareus had put himself in front of his wife, visibly shaking, but wanting to protect her. The creature snarled at the obstacle in its way and raised a hand, poised to slash the villager to ribbons. But a strong fist closed around its wrist and spun it around.
“I don’t think so,” the demigod told it.
“Hercules, be careful,” Gabrielle called out.
He ducked the wildly flailing claws, and his grip tightened on the poker.
“All right, you bastard,” he snarled through gritted teeth. “If I can’t get you from the outside, I’ll get you from the inside.”
As the creature roared again, Hercules heaved the poker into its open mouth, driving it forcefully down into the gullet of the beast. The monster fell, rolling and thrashing, but within moments it was dead. A tiny cry broke the hushed silence that followed, and all eyes turned to the midwife.
“It’s a boy.”
Hercules watched as Gabrielle cuddled the infant across the room, the proud parents looking on happily. He smiled at the sight, but the smile quickly became a grimace as Xena placed another stitch.
“What’s the verdict?”
“It’s a deep cut,” she replied. “But it’s clean. Could have been a lot worse.” It had taken her longer than she liked to stop the bleeding, and it was a long gash. With anyone else she might have been concerned, but she knew that the demigod healed quickly, much more so than ordinary mortals. She finished sewing up the wound and bit off the thread. After dabbing on some salve to prevent infection, she bandaged his arm securely and sat up next to him. Her gaze followed his to where her friend was cooing over the baby. “Well, at least we know that Eileithyia is free.”
“I just hope it was in time for Elissa,” the demigod murmured.
“Me too,” the warrior princess said gently. “I know it couldn’t have been easy for Iolaus to give up his life with you to be with her. She must be someone very special.”
“She is,” Hercules confirmed. “And Iolaus loves her so much. I’m not sure it was hard at all for him to decide it was time to settle down.”
“Oh, I’m sure it was harder for him than you realize. But I also know that its hard on you, too.”
“He tried to make it easier for me,” the demigod sighed, rubbing a tired hand over his forehead. “A lot easier than I ever made it for him. When I wanted to marry Serena, I just up and did it with no thoughts whatsoever to how it would affect Iolaus. Like a fool, I told him that nothing would change. Maybe it was because of how I behaved then that he took such care to include me when he married Elissa. We did a lot of talking, and he really went out of his way to assure me that I still held a vital role in his life, even if he couldn’t be with me all the time.”
“He’s a good man,” Xena said quietly, but firmly. “And that’s why Gabrielle and I were happy to be able to do this to help him, and you. There’s so much of my life that sickens me to look back on. I did so many horrible things and hurt so many innocent people that I’ll never be able to wash the blood from my hands. But what I tried to do to Iolaus haunts me just as much, or more, than anything else in my whole dark past. Once I got to know him, and I saw just how truly noble and brave and good he is... Well, I hate myself for what I tried to do to him. I can’t ever make it up to him, but I’ll try my best to do whatever I can for him, whenever he needs me. I only hope he can forgive me.”
“He forgave you long ago, Xena,” Hercules told her. “He knows you’re not the same person that you were then, and he’s proud to call you friend. As am I.”
The warrior princess nodded, fixing her blue eyes on the image of her best friend. Taking a deep breath, she plunged into what she had resolved to tell the demigod.
“I heard what you and Gabrielle were talking about the other night.”
Hercules nodded, encouraging her to go on.
“Well, it reminded me of... I don’t know if you ever heard about her and Perdicus?”
“She told me,” the demigod related sadly. “Callisto murdered him on their wedding night.”
“When she accepted his proposal, I felt the same way that you did,” Xena continued. “I felt like everything was changing. That he was stealing her away from me, and I didn’t want her to go. But, I wanted her to be happy, so I wished her the best. Then when Callisto struck... I blamed myself. She had done this horrible thing to get back at me.”
“But that wasn’t your fault,” Hercules protested.
“Not any more than its your fault when the gods go after Iolaus.” The warrior princess shot him a grin, then sobered. “But I had another reason to feel guilty. I’ve never told anyone this before, but deep down inside I was glad that Perdicus was dead.”
She saw that she had struck a nerve. Hercules stiffened, and turned away.
“I don’t really mean that I was glad he had been murdered,” she clarified. “But the selfish part of me was happy that Gabrielle wasn’t leaving me. And that guilt from that, that I could take pleasure in my best friend’s pain, ate at me more than anything else. Does that sound familiar?”
“I would never wish harm on Elissa,” the demigod whispered. “I really do love her, and I’d never want Iolaus to go through that grief of losing her again. But sometimes I do wish that it could be just the two of us again. I miss having him with me. I guess I never quite realized just how much I relied on him until he wasn’t there.”
“You know, when I was using him to get to you, I never had any doubts that my plan would work. I was counting on your friendship, and counting on being able to turn you against one another. For the longest time, I couldn’t understand what had gone wrong.” Xena cast a gentle glance across the room. Gabrielle happened to look up, and gave her friend a warm smile as she caught her eye. “I didn’t know what it was like to love another person with all of your heart and to need them with all of your soul. Nothing can come between that for long. I understand that now.”
“Gabrielle thinks she and Iolaus are the same in some regards,” Hercules told her. “Well, I think that you and I are, too.”
“I think you’re right,” Xena agreed, giving him a fond smile.
The demigod stood up, moving to look out of the hole where the door to the house used to be.
“It’s nearing dawn,” he announced. “I guess I’ll be heading back to Acheron.” He turned back to face the warrior princess. “Will you and Gabrielle come back with me? I know Iolaus would love to see you.”
Xena hesitated a moment before answering.
“Why don’t you go on ahead? We can stay here and help Aphareus repair his house. We’ll follow you in a few days.”
Hercules read between the lines of her words. She didn’t want to appear unannounced as two strangers if Elissa was dealing with a tragedy. Instead, she was giving the demigod the opportunity to go back and take care of the situation, if the outcome had been less than happy.
“Maybe I should stay and help fix this,” the demigod pondered, looking once more at the damage the monster had left.
“Nahh, we’ve got it covered,” Xena assured him. “You just go back and tell Iolaus that two babysitters are on their way.”
As Hercules reached the outskirts of Acheron, he began to slow his pace. He’d been running the whole way from Sardis, anxious to find out the fate of his friends. But now, as he neared, fear began to get the better of him. He didn’t think he could handle walking into the great stone house and having his hopes shattered as he saw the grief on his best friend’s face. As long as he didn’t know, he could at least hold on to the hope that everything had turned out all right. The demigod’s steps began to falter, and finally he stopped.
He looked at the small cottage in front of him. It seemed like so long ago that he had been here, full of excitement and optimism as he summoned the midwife. Then Hera had served to renew his cynicism. Hercules sighed, one hand on the gate as he wrestled over whether or not he should go and knock on the door. The midwife would be able to tell him what had happened. He’d still have to go and face it, but at least he’d be prepared for tragedy and not walking in with blind hope.
Before he could make his mind up to go up to the house, the door opened and the little old woman came out. She tottered down the path to the gate, giving him a wave in greeting.
“Hercules, I saw you from my window. Are you just getting back?”
“Yes,” he replied, his throat suddenly going dry. “I haven’t been to the house yet. I was hoping that you could tell me if everything turned out all right, or...”
He waited, heart pounding loudly, for her answer. The woman just looked at him for a long moment, her wrinkled face unreadable. But then her lips creased into a smile.
“Elissa had a girl. They’re both doing fine.”
Hercules let out a loud whoop of delight, dancing around in a circle, overcome with relief.
“Thank you,” he cried, leaning in to kiss her wrinkled cheek before tearing off down the road. He sped through the town, reaching the great stone house in record time.
“Hercules!” Elissa exclaimed as she answered his knock. The healer threw her arms around his neck, and he scooped her up in a giant bear hug. “Oh, thank the gods. We were starting to get worried.”
“I’m just so glad you’re all right,” he whispered in her ear, and he meant it with all of his heart. He let her go and pulled back, looking at her closely. She was a bit pale and looked tired, but her smile was bright and her arms had been strong around him.
“You’re hurt,” she said worriedly, reaching out to lightly touch the bandage on his arm.
“Don’t worry, it’s nothing that’s going to prevent me from holding your daughter,” he assured her.
The healer grinned broadly.
“You’ll have to pry her away from Iolaus first. I don’t think he’s let her go for more than a few minutes since she’s been born. Come on, they’re back here.”
Elissa led him down the hallway, but paused outside of the bedroom door, her face becoming serious.
“What is it?” the demigod asked.
“I just want to thank you,” she said softly. “The contractions started again right after you left, and the baby came soon after. Both Iolaus and I were overwhelmed that you would do this for us, and we can’t ever thank you enough.”
“No thanks needed,” he told her, still feeling somewhat responsible for their predicament. But that thought vanished from his mind as she led him into the room and he caught sight of his friend.
Iolaus was sitting with his back to the window, gently rocking the bundle in his arms. The late afternoon sun was streaming in, illuminating him with a golden glow. As he looked up, the light of pure, radiant joy in his eyes was almost enough to reduce Hercules to tears. For as long as he’d known the hunter, Iolaus had always had a look of restless longing in his eyes. Most of that had vanished when he’d met Elissa, but the demigod had still caught a hint of it from time to time. But now it was gone. With the birth of his daughter, the hunter was fulfilled, complete, and truly, utterly happy.
“You see,” he whispered conspiratorially to the baby. “I told you your Uncle Hercules would be coming to see you.”
The hunter rose and approached his friend, laying his child in the demigod’s arms, then moving back to embrace his wife from behind, resting his chin on her shoulder. For a brief moment, Hercules felt the sting of pain wash over him as he remembered holding his own babies. But as quickly as it had come, it vanished as he moved the blanket aside and looked down at the infant.
“She’s beautiful,” he murmured, enraptured by the sweet little face. “She looks just like her mother.”
“But she has her father’s appetite,” the healer teased affectionately.
“I’m almost afraid to ask,” Hercules said, looking up at his friends. “But what did you decide to name her?”
“Well, we call her Cale for short,” Elissa told him.
“Hello there, Cale for short,” the demigod grinned at the child. “So what is the long version?”
“Hercale.” Iolaus released his wife and moved next to his friend, putting a hand on his shoulder. “In honor of all that you’ve done for us, and for everything you mean to us.”
The demigod closed his eyes, feeling the burning as they filled with tears. He was so touched, he was unable to speak. Hercules realized that by giving the child his name, Iolaus and Elissa were doing much more than honoring him. They were sharing their baby with him, and letting him know that he was, and always would be, an important part of their family. And although situations may change, the way that Iolaus felt about him never would.
“Thank you,” Hercules whispered, not trusting himself to say anything more. He looked back down at the baby, who was gazing up at him as if she knew just who he was. The demigod was struck by something in the child’s eyes. He got the feeling that she was trying to tell him something. Trying to reassure him that she had broken the curse, and that everything was going to be all right for him and those he loved. The reign of tragedy was over, and that left only happiness to fill their lives. Or maybe he had journeyed too far on no sleep and was becoming delusional.
Jason had been in town running errands, but he returned to the great stone house shortly after Hercules had arrived, Iolaus’ puppy bounding at his heels. The Argonaut was delighted to see his friend, and over dinner, the demigod told them all the story of his adventure in Sardis.
“Xena and Gabrielle are coming here?” the hunter asked in clarification.
“They said they’d follow in a few days,” Hercules confirmed.
“Good,” Iolaus grinned, turning to his wife. “Then we can get the exciting version of the slaying of the beast from Gabrielle. No offense, Herc, but you make it about as dry as one of Jason’s royal addresses.”
“Hey,” the former king protested, looking up from the baby in his arms. “They weren’t dry. Tell him, Hercules.”
“They were fine speeches,” the demigod reassured him, eyes twinkling. “If you could get past all that legal nonsense.”
“You two have no appreciation for the complexity of politics,” the Argonaut huffed, before going back to making silly faces at the child.
Iolaus looked up, hearing footsteps approaching from the dark hallway.
“Hi,” he whispered as Hercules sat down next to him in front of the fire. “We didn’t wake you up, did we?”
“No,” the demigod replied. “I couldn’t sleep. May I?”
The hunter passed his daughter to his friend, looking over his shoulder as the demigod cradled the infant tenderly against his chest.
“Its hard to believe, isn’t it?” Iolaus asked, a note of awe in his voice. “Me with a baby. I’m actually a father. It just doesn’t seem real, somehow.”
“That does take a little getting used to,” Hercules agreed. “But I know that you’ll be a great dad. Cale is a lucky little girl.”
“Its just so amazing,” the hunter sighed, reaching out a hand to stroke his daughter’s head. “She’s so tiny. And so perfect. Gods, Herc, I just never expected that I would love her this much.”
“I’m just happy everything worked out all right,” the demigod told him.
“Of course it did,” Iolaus grinned at him. “We had faith you, buddy.”
Hercules smiled back at his friend, but it was a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. He vowed he would never let Iolaus know just how close this one had been.
“I just can’t get enough of her,” the hunter sighed contentedly. “Its funny, but before she was born, I worried so much about providing for her, and I worried that I wouldn’t be a good father to her. Then of course, there were those complications in the labor, and I was terrified that we were going to lose her. But when she was finally born, and I held her for the first time, I knew I didn’t need to worry. I loved her from the first moment I saw her, and I knew that the rest of my life would be devoted to taking care of her.”
“That’s all she needs,” the demigod murmured. “Two loving parents. The rest will all fall into place.”
“I’ve been thinking about it a lot,” Iolaus told his friend, growing serious. “Thinking how close I came to missing out on all of this. My life with Elissa over the past few years has just been beyond description. I didn’t think I could possibly love her any more than I did, but then she gave me this beautiful little girl... For a long time I didn’t think I’d ever have a life like this. Didn’t think I deserved it. A nice house, a wonderful wife... a family. When I think back on that time when Elissa and I were denying ourselves the chance to be together... It scares the Tartarus out of me to think about how close I really did come to walking away from this life that we’ve built together, just because of a few hurdles.”
“As much as I hate not having you around like before,” Hercules said quietly. “It fills my heart to see you so happy. You do deserve this life, Iolaus.”
“So do you,” the hunter emphasized. “So why don’t you go talk to her, Herc?”
“I can’t.” The demigod shook his head sadly. “I know I should, but I just can’t.”
“Hebe understands, and she respects your feelings,” Iolaus informed him. “But just think about it, ok? Don’t let a few hurdles chase you away from a chance at happiness. She’ll be there when you decide that you are ready to talk to her. I would just really hate to see you regretting missing your chance on down the road.”
Hercules nodded his agreement, but it was clear he wanted to end the discussion. Looking down, he saw that the baby had stopped fussing in his arms and had fallen asleep. Very carefully, he handed her back to her father.
“Guess I’ll go put her down and try to get some sleep myself. She’ll be up again soon, but Elissa will have to handle that one, since I’m lacking the right equipment, so to speak.” The hunter grinned and started toward his room, but turned back to his partner. “Herc, a few minutes ago when I was babbling like an idiot about how blissfully happy I was with everything... House, wife, family... I just wanted to be sure that you knew I was including you in the family part. You’ve always been, and always will be, a huge part of my life. Things might not be like they used to be, but my life would still be empty without you in it. So don’t ever feel like you are intruding, and don’t ever think that you’re wearing out your welcome. Elissa and I want you here for as long as Greece can spare you.”
“Thank you, Iolaus,” the demigod said warmly, feeling that his partner could not possibly know how much what he’d just said had been appreciated. “That means a lot to me.”
“Good night, Herc.”
The hunter made his way effortlessly down the dark hallway, slipping silently into the room he shared with Elissa. Tenderly, he kissed his baby daughter’s forehead before laying her gently in the basket at the foot of their bed. He stood for awhile looking at her, his heart aching with love for his child, the tiny miracle with which he’d been blessed. Finally he crawled into bed, shoving the protesting puppy out of the way to take his beautiful healer into his arms. She sighed in her sleep, instinctively curling up against his body. Iolaus drifted off to sleep, content and happy that his family was all together and safe, his formerly restless soul finally at peace.
Sleep did not come so easily for Hercules, whose own soul was far from at peace. He thought about what his partner had told him, turning over the conflicting thoughts and emotions in his head and his heart. Sighing, he gave up on sleep and wandered out of the house, finding himself in the garden, sitting next to the rubble of the marble bench that he’d smashed in a rage. It had only been days ago, but to the weary demigod, it seemed a lifetime.
“Hebe?” he said quietly into the night. “Are you there?”
The goddess materialized before him, smiling uncertainly, making his heart ache with her exquisite beauty.
“I’m here,” she told him, settling delicately on the ground next to him. “And I owe you a long overdue explanation.”
“Why did you do it?” Hercules asked her, the hurt showing plainly in his blue eyes. “How could you go to Olympus to work for the gods? How could you become the very thing I’ve spent my life fighting against?”
“I didn’t have a choice,” she replied sadly. “Hercules, you were the most wonderful thing to happen to me... well, ever. When Elissa took me with her out of Calais’ camp, I was terrified. That life had been a terrible existence, but it was all I knew. I didn’t know where I would go or what I would do to survive. But Elissa and Iolaus welcomed me into their home, and they showed me that misery doesn’t have to be a part of life. But you... I thought that you were a vision the first time I saw you. You were so handsome and strong and brave. I think I fell in love with you on the spot. If I didn’t, it happened soon after, as I got to know you and I saw how incredible you are in everything that you do. How much you care about people. And your eyes... They were so kind, and when you looked at me, I knew that you would never hurt me.”
“So, why did you leave?” the demigod pressed.
“Because, I was damaged inside,” she explained. “I saw Iolaus and Elissa together, so happy and comfortable in their love for each other, and I so desperately wanted to have that with you. I wanted it with all my heart and soul, but in my head I couldn’t get past what Calais had done to me. It’s so hard for me to explain, and I’m sure even harder to understand. I felt so safe in your arms, but when things started getting more physical, I would get so scared. I knew that you weren’t going to hurt me, and I wanted you to make love to me, but all I knew of it was rape and violence, and I didn’t ever want to go back to that place again. I wasn’t sure if I would ever be able to have that kind of physical relationship with you.”
“Hebe, I didn’t care about that,” Hercules insisted. “I loved you, and I was willing to be patient and wait. If we never got to that level, then I didn’t care. I was happy just being with you.”
“I know,” the goddess whispered, lowering her eyes. “But I didn’t think it was fair to deny you the love that you needed. When Hera came to me, offering to make me a goddess and take away all of my pain, I thought it was the right thing to do. Oh, I knew she was doing it to get at you. She knew that you would hate seeing me become one of them, serving at their feet as their cupbearer. But I thought that it was our only chance to have what I thought we both wanted. If I was healed, then we would be free to be together, in every respect. I knew that I might be giving up a part of myself, but it was a small price to pay for the freedom of that scared little boy. I just couldn’t let him become a slave of the gods. My life wasn’t worth sparing to damn him.”
“Hebe, believe it or not, I can understand what you’re saying. But... Why did you wait so long to tell me all of this. You didn’t even bother to say goodbye...” Hercules’ voice broke and he turned away, unable to look at the radiant goddess who cast her own illumination through the dark night.
“I’m sorry,” she sighed, running her hands through her black curls. “That’s so inadequate, I know. I didn’t come to you beforehand, because I’m a coward. I knew that you’d be angry with me, and I just couldn’t bear to face it. And I also felt guilty. I knew that I’d hurt you, and maybe thrown away a chance at real love with an amazing man, but I couldn’t help feeling happy that the weight had been lifted. When Hera made me a goddess, for the first time in my life, I felt strong. I wasn’t afraid anymore, and I didn’t feel helpless. She took away the deformity in my leg and that awful scar on my face. I felt beautiful, and confident, and secure in myself. She empowered me, and I knew that no one would ever be able to do to me again what Calais had done. I had sold out to your most hated enemy, and felt good about doing so, and I just couldn’t bear to come see you and see the hate in your eyes. I just hope that someday you are able to forgive me for all of this.”
“Hebe,” the demigod said softly, looking back at her. “I could never hate you. And there’s nothing to forgive. You did what you thought was best, and I’m glad that you are happy. It’s all I’ve ever wanted for you. This is all my fault, anyway.”
“What do you mean?”
“I promised to keep you safe, and I couldn’t even stop Calais. Maybe if I hadn’t let him get to you, if he hadn’t cut you...”
“Hercules, the wounds Calais inflicted were deep and raw and they started long before that night.” Hebe reached out, taking the demigod’s face in her soft hands and turning his head to meet her eyes. “You are the reason that I’m alive right now. You did save me from Calais, and you made me believe that a better life was possible. Don’t ever, ever, convince yourself that you failed me. I owe my life to you, and you will always be my hero. And I’ll always love you.”
“I’ll always love you, too,” the demigod whispered, tears shining in his eyes. He leaned forward, drawing the goddess into his arms, and she melted into his embrace, enjoying the warmth and strength of his hug for long moments.
“But things can never be as they were before, can they?” she finally asked.
Hercules let her go, drawing away from her and sitting up, staring blankly into the night.
“I don’t know,” he replied quietly.
“I understand,” Hebe told him. She did understand. She’d hurt him badly, betraying him to the gods. It was not something he could easily overlook. “Is this goodbye, then?”
“I don’t want it to be,” he murmured.
“So then its all right if I come around once in awhile?” She held her breath, hardly daring to hope that there might still be a chance for them.
“I think Elissa and Iolaus would like to see you,” the demigod said, looking away again. “And I would, too.”
“Then I’ll be around,” Hebe promised, unable to hold back a smile. “Hercules, I just want you to know that I’m here and that I’ll wait. I’m not trying to pressure you, but if the day comes when you decide that you want to pick up where we left off, I’ll be ready.”
The demigod nodded his understanding and acceptance, if not his promise. She picked up his hand, twining her fingers through his, giving it a squeeze, which he returned.
“So,” Hercules began, trying to sound casual. “Do you have any powers as a goddess?”
“I can’t protect them,” Hebe replied regretfully, reading what was in his heart. “I know how much you worry about them, and I’d give anything if I could help take that away from you. But I’m a very minor deity, and my powers are very limited. I’m nothing compared to the Olympians. Hera wouldn’t even permit me to come to you after the baby was born. Even after you killed her creature, she still took satisfaction in the fact that you were agonizing, not knowing whether or not everything turned out all right with the birth. The best I can do is promise that I’ll keep an eye on them. I’ll do anything I can to help them, and you.”
“I appreciate it,” he told her sincerely. For a moment, his features darkened menacingly, thinking of his hated stepmother and her petty torments. “You know, I’m surprised that Hera would even want you on Olympus. Someone as beautiful as you right under Zeus’ nose.”
“I guess her desire to punish you was greater,” Hebe shrugged.
“He hasn’t... tried anything. Has he?”
“Oh, he’s tried,” Hebe laughed. “But I’ve made it clear that there’s only one member of the family for me. Zeus is very charming, though. I can see where you get it from, Hercules.”
“All right, stop,” the demigod muttered, rolling his eyes. “I’m sorry I asked.”
“On that note, I’m going to leave,” the goddess grinned. “But I’m glad that we had this talk.”
Hebe stood up and dusted herself off, the demigod following her lead. On impulse, she leaned forward, catching his lips in a warm kiss that was loving, but not demanding or possessive.
“No,” he corrected with a shake of the head. “No goodbyes, remember?”
“Make that ‘good night’ then.” The goddess flashed him a bright smile and vanished, leaving him standing alone in the dark garden.
“Good night, Hebe,” he whispered. With a heavy sigh, the demigod made his way back into the house, creeping to bed quietly so that he wouldn’t awaken anyone. He still felt hurt that someone he loved could align with the gods that he hated. But he felt much more at peace than before they had talked. He really did understand her motives, and he’d discovered that the feelings he had for her were as strong as ever. Only time would tell where they would end up, but as he drifted off to sleep, he found himself with the odd thought that Hebe would be safe from the gods, since she was one.
The house was quiet, everyone sleeping peacefully. Not even the watchful puppy was aware that the god had materialized in their midst, stroking his dark beard thoughtfully as he studied the child lying in the basket next to her parent’s bed, unsure what to do. He’d been furious when he learned that Hera was planning on dropping her creature in Acheron to threaten Elissa and her baby, thus leading to Hercules’ destruction, and he’d fought violently with her until she finally agreed to store her lethal pet away from the newborn that he’d had his own plans for. It had been Ares, himself, who had released Eileithyia, with the full support of the other gods, when Hercules had left for Sardis. But now he was torn.
The god of war had been so positive that the baby Elissa was carrying was a boy. It was quite a shock when he learned otherwise, and he wasn’t sure now that he still wanted to go ahead with his original plans. Girls were fickle, ruled by emotion, and generally nothing but trouble. It was a lesson he’d learned the hard way. Boys were just so much easier to control.
Bending down, Ares carefully picked up the infant, holding her securely against his chest. Oh yes, she definitely had a strong warrior’s heart. As strong as he’d ever seen, rivaling that of her father. So much potential there. Maybe he could use her after all. Regardless, it didn’t hurt to stake his claim on her, and he whispered the words that would make it so.
Iolaus stirred in his sleep, making the god freeze momentarily before he remembered that the mortal wouldn’t be able to see him unless he wanted him to. All the same, he figured he’d hung around long enough. Ares gently placed the baby back into the basket, stroking one finger along her soft cheek.
“Little Cale,” he whispered. “From this moment on, you are one of mine.”
The god of war grinned, and vanished from the house in a blaze of light.
Disclaimer: A baby-eating monster was killed during the writing of this story. But hey, it was a baby-eating monster. I think we can all agree it was for the best.
The Story So Far Index