The Shield of Forgetfulness

Author's Note: This story references the episode "The Sword of Veracity" where Hercules mentions a previous quest for the Shield of Forgetfulness. An unofficial challenge was issued to write the backstory for that quest, so this is my attempt, specifically addressing why Iolaus has no knowledge of that quest or Hestial virgins in general. As always, I do not intend any copyright infringement on characters not created by me, and definitely no money was made from this tale. Comments always welcome.

Excerpts from "Sword of Veracity"

Iolaus: "Oh. Wh-what's a Hestial Virgin?"
Hercules: "They watch over the toys of the gods, like the sword of veracity, and the shield of forgetfulness."


Hercules: "Well our cause is worthy so there shouldn't be any problem. You know, it's funny, when I needed the shield of forgetfulness? A Hestial Virgin led me right to it."


Hercules: "This reminds me of when I went after the shield of forgetfulness There had to be thousands of them. Trouble was, when I found the right one, I forgot why I came."
Iolaus: "Oh, yeah, that's right. So, what did you do?"
Hercules: "I had it written down on my hand."

'Cause I've had my share of good intentions
And I've made my share of mistakes
And I've learned at times it's best to bend
'Cause if you don't, well, those are the breaks
Should have listened to all the things I was told
But I was young and too proud at the time
Now I look at myself to find
I learn the hard way ev'ry time

"The Hard Way Every Time" by Jim Croce

To the casual observer, it seemed that the big man was relaxed and at ease as he reclined back in his chair at the table near the fire, giving off an unassuming, unconcerned air as he did so. But it was the curse of the warrior: the inability to ever let down his guard one hundred percent. There was always that tiny part of him that remained ever alert and vigilant, for he had learned the hard way that trouble can unexpectedly pop up in the most unlikely of places. So even as he received a bowl of hot stew from the innkeeper and thanked him with a friendly grin, he kept one eye on the cloaked figure who had just entered the tavern and was standing by the door, scanning the room. At first glance he appeared to be just another weary traveler, but Hercules knew that this man was not just stopping by for a little rest or food and drink. He was looking for someone. And as the man's gaze fell upon him and lingered, the demigod realized he was the target of the stranger's search.

It didn't surprise him, for as he'd traveled the countryside his legend had begun to grow and he found his reputation had begun to precede him. People who had heard stories about his monster killing prowess came to ask his help with their own rampaging village beasts. Or natural disaster fallouts. Or oppressive warlords. And it almost amused him to discover that a few people, desperate to prove themselves, had even come forward to challenge him. The building fame and notoriety had bothered him at first, but he had learned to accept his growing mythical status, and then even to enjoy it. After years growing up amid the looks and whispers revolving around his somewhat scandalous conception and birth, it was nice to be given courtesy and respect. And the more he traveled and answered the call for help, the more he enjoyed his good deeds. Giving hope to those who had none left. Answering the prayers that the gods ignored. Saving lives and restoring vitality to fractured communities. Doing these things because nobody else would or could. He didn't ask for payment and he didn't even really ask for thanks. Hercules did what he did because it was right, and all he wanted in return for his efforts was maybe a little food and a little shelter. Then he was off, following where the road led, to the next cry for aid or the next challenge.

And it appeared that his current bid for food and shelter was about to be interrupted by more of the same. But whether the stranger's intentions were to seek help or create trouble, Hercules couldn't tell. Although the demigod figured he was about to find out in a hurry as the man began to approach him.

"Excuse me," he said somewhat hesitantly as he came to a halt next to the table. "I'm looking for Hercules."

"You've found him," the demigod told him affably, deciding from his demeanor that the stranger wasn't there for trouble. "Please, sit down."

The man slid into the chair opposite him, nodding his thanks as he removed his cloak and draped it over the back of the chair.

"My name is Myron," he stated, not wasting any time. "From the village of Tricala. For weeks we've been plagued by a monster..."

"And you want me to come and kill it for you," Hercules concluded as he ladled up his stew.

"Your friend, Iolaus, already tried," Myron said quietly. "And I'm sorry to have to give you this news. He's dead, Hercules."

The spoon halted in midair, but after a moment it continued it's trajectory. Blue eyes focused firmly on the stranger as the demigod chewed deliberately, weighing his words.

"You're lying."

"I wish that I were." Myron reached into the pouch at his belt and pulled something from it, setting the object down in the middle of the table.

Hercules reached out with a hand that had suddenly started to shake as recognition set in. He closed his fingers around the cool stone as a violent pain stabbed him through the heart. The demigod didn't want to believe it, but the proof was there in his hand. For nothing short of death would ever separate Iolaus from his treasured medallion, the only thing that was left of his father.

Abruptly he rose with enough force to tip his chair and send it crashing to the floor. Looking lost, he stared down at the object in his hand for a moment, then his fist squeezed tightly around the stone as he turned on his heel and fled out of the inn. Myron sighed as he rose and pulled on his cloak. It had been a long walk and he'd been hoping for a little rest and something to eat, but he knew he couldn't let the shattered demigod go off alone.

The villagers whispered among themselves, finding it hard to see the hero that was becoming legend throughout Greece in the broken man slumped before the grave they'd placed outside of town. Myron frowned at them, silently warning them to keep their distance and reproaching them for lack of respect. And when they started to back off, content to take their gawking and gossiping to a less conspicuous location, he moved forward and crouched down beside the demigod.

"I just can't understand this," Hercules murmured, his voice thick with grief. "He was supposed to be at his cousin's wedding. What was he even doing here?"

"Shortcut," Myron supplied. "He told us he was on his way to meet you, but when he heard about our problem he offered to help." He sighed, arranging himself in a more comfortable position on the ground. "The beast lives up in the hills but it comes down to the village to feed. It started with the livestock and we just assumed we had a rogue wolf on our hands. Then one day a few people saw it skulking the streets. Nobody believed their stories of a huge, hairy creature with long claws and fangs. But then more people began to see it, and it began to hunger for something more than pigs and goats. It started taking people, and when folks began locking themselves inside at night, it started breaking down doors to get what it wanted. Iolaus promised us he would stop it and we were skeptical at first, but he was so confident that we started to believe him. He might have done it, too, if..."

"If what?"

"Iolaus faced off with the creature that night when it came to hunt. And he was starting to get the better of it when the thing just... It disappeared and then reappeared directly behind him. He never saw it coming."

"Did he...?" Hercules took a deep breath and closed his eyes. "Was it a quick death?"

"He held on for a while," Myron confessed. "Longer than our healer ever thought he would. But we all knew he was dying and Iolaus knew it too, even though he kept making jokes about round two with the creature. At the end, he asked us to find you and to tell you what happened. And then he was gone." Myron reached out and put a consoling hand on the demigod's shoulder. "I'm so sorry, Hercules."

The demigod nodded as the man rose and left him alone. It wasn't right, none of it. Iolaus had been a young man, full of energy and passion and ready for adventure after quite a long absence from the road. They had stuck together for awhile after graduation from the Academy, but strangely enough it was familial duty that had pulled them apart. Iolaus had decided to settle down, temporarily, in order to look after his aged, ailing Uncle Flatus. He'd owed the man who'd treated him like a son that much, he'd argued. Hercules had continued on his own path of cultivating his burgeoning legend until finally the old hunter was laid to rest and properly mourned and Iolaus announced he was ready to rejoin his friend. They'd been separated much longer than either had anticipated at the start, but they quickly fell into pattern like they'd never been apart.

But then Iolaus had been called away again to his cousin's wedding. Hercules had seen him off only a few days prior, never doubting his friend as he promised to catch up with him in a few days. But the Fates, it seemed, had other plans. And the demigod literally quaked as he relived his best friend's last moments. Ambushed by a deadly monster with no one watching his back. Mortally wounded and suffering, not having anyone who loved him by his side when he slipped away. Buried in a strange town with no marker by people who didn't even know him. Iolaus deserved so much more than that. But it was too late to change events now. All that was left was justice and revenge, and as Hercules dashed the tears from his eyes with the back of his hand he vowed to get it. He got to his feet, ramming down all his grief and anger and guilt and the other nagging feeling he couldn't quite identify and stored all his emotion away in a tight container deep in his soul. All that was left was a cold numbness that would allow him to do the job before him and take his revenge without fear or passion or any measure of self preservation. With one last look at the simple grave, Hercules turned and began heading out of the village toward the hills. He couldn't wait for the creature to come to him. So he was going to it, to confront it in its own lair and get justice for all the lives it had stolen.

It didn't take Hercules long to track the beast down. The rolling hills were dotted with rocks and scrubby brush, but there wasn't much shelter to be found, apart from one large cave that was near a cold spring. As he approached, the demigod got further confirmation by the way the area was littered with bones. Rabbit and bird, he noted as he kicked at some of them with the toe of his boot. Nothing human. But he was sure he was in the right place and strode brazenly up to the entrance. He called out, letting the creature know he was there and challenging it to come out and face him. There was no response, but the demigod knew it was in there. He could feel it. But since it wasn't coming out, that left only one option. He was going in.

He improvised a torch using one of the cast off bones, a strip of fabric from his shirt, and a strike of his gauntlets to make a spark. It wouldn't last long, but neither would the battle as far as he was concerned. Hercules entered the cave anticipating an attack, but it never came. In fact, he almost passed the creature before he saw it, cowering up against the cave wall in the shadows.

It had a human shape, but it was as large as he was and covered in stringy, matted fur. Long claws protruded from its hands, and as he advanced on it, it snarled a warning, baring a mouth full of razor fangs. Hercules reached for the creature and it tried to bolt, but he caught it and dragged it back toward him. It went on the offensive and they struggled mightily. The creature was fighting for its life, but it had taken the demigod's best friend from him, the man he loved like a brother, and he was not about to let it live while Iolaus was lying cold in the ground. Myron had given him Iolaus' sword and the sheathed blade bumped against his leg where he'd attached it to his belt, but Hercules did not reach for it. This was personal, and something he needed to do with his own two hands. And as the flame from the makeshift torch began to sputter and die, the panting demigod rose and began heading for the cave entrance, leaving the creature on the stone floor in a heap behind him.

As he stepped out of the cave, Hercules raised a hand to shield his eyes from the sudden brightness of the sun. But Apollo's golden orb dulled in comparison to the white light that suddenly exploded before him. The demigod was momentarily blinded, but when the spots dancing before his eyes began to fade he focused in on the figure of his father, glaring at him in disapproval.

"Zeus," he acknowledged in surprise. "What are you doing here?"

"I was going to ask you the same question."

"I had to... take care of something," Hercules muttered, glancing back toward the cave. When he turned back to his father, he saw the scowl fading, replaced by a look of sadness and regret.

"You don't know what you've done," the king of the gods told him quietly. "I'm sorry, son."

Zeus extended a hand and bolt of energy shot from his palm. It hit Hercules square in the chest and he fell to his knees, agony coursing through his body before a welcome darkness enveloped him and carried him to oblivion.

The sensations gradually began to come back to Hercules. A chill in the air, the musty scent of a cave. Fire warming his back. Something soft underneath him. And a series of thunderbolts exploding inside his skull. With a loud groan he pushed himself up until he was sitting more or less upright on the thick bearskin. Holding his head in his hands, the demigod glared at his father over the leaping flames of the fire.

"You want to tell me why that was necessary?"

"Drink this," Zeus commanded, holding out a steaming mug and ignoring his question. Hercules was definitely in a petulant mood and wanted to refuse, but he had a feeling the strange brew would mute the thudding in his skull so he grudgingly accepted it. The drink was warm and sweet and by the time he'd finished the mug his headache had dulled to a minor nuisance, for which he was grateful.

"Thanks," he said as he set the mug aside, even though his father had caused the pain in the first place. "Where are we?"

"Just a little out of the way place," the king of the gods replied.

"Out of the way from what?" Hercules demanded. "Hera?" Zeus didn't answer, but he looked away guiltily. "You're going to have to tell me what's going on sooner or later, so you might as well just get it over with," he pointed out.

"You've made a grave mistake, Hercules," Zeus began bluntly, recapturing his gaze.

"Why? Because I killed a monster that was murdering people in their homes?" the demigod retorted sarcastically.

"That was no monster. He was a mortal man a week ago. Hera changed him into that creature, and now she's demanding retribution for you murdering an innocent man."

"But, the villagers..."

"Played you for a fool," Zeus told him. "He never hurt anyone. Those people were working for Hera and fed you that story. She set this whole scenario up and you walked right into her trap. Now she wants you dead. A life for a life..."

Hercules looked at his father with a mix of confusion and apprehension as he tried to wrap his head around what he was being told.

"So that's why we're hiding out here? You think you can just hide me away from her forever? Or did you bring me here to kill me?"

"Don't be ridiculous," Zeus sad impatiently. "You know I wouldn't allow that. And a life for a life doesn't apply here since there are extenuating circumstances and you were misled. You acted with good intentions, Hercules, but the fact is that you did take the life of an innocent and I cannot overlook that. Hera had claim to that mortal, and since you took him away from her, your punishment is to have something taken away from you."

"Like what?"

"Iolaus isn't dead," the king of the gods explained. "He's back in Tricala. The villagers drugged him and are keeping him captive, but he's unharmed. But now he's fated to be banished from Greece."

Hercules sat in stunned silence, absorbing the news. Iolaus not dead? Did he dare to hope? But for all his faults, Zeus wasn't deliberately cruel. He wouldn't lie, not about this. Which meant... Iolaus was still alive. Hope and joy soared within the demigod, but those feelings were quickly deflated as the rest of his father's words sunk in.

"Are you serious?" he yelped as he got up to pace around in the cave in agitation. "This is the most insane thing you've ever done, and that's saying a lot!"

"Watch your tone, boy," Zeus threatened him mildly.

"You can't do this." Hercules approached his father and crouched down before him, looking into his eyes with an almost pleading expression. "You can't take this out on Iolaus. It's all my fault. He did nothing wrong. Yes, it would hurt me to lose him. But you can't punish him in the process by sending him away from his home and forbidding him to return. He's innocent and you're making him pay for my crime with his life!"

"I sympathize with you, Hercules, but there are rules. And I have to follow them if I expect the other gods to."

"But they don't!" Frustration overcame him and the demigod began to pace once more. "They always find ways around your stupid rules. And you're the king of the gods. Don't tell me you don't have any leeway here."

"I can't look the other way," Zeus argued. "A formal complaint has been lodged and I have to see it through. A life was taken, and you have to answer for that."

"What about all the other people out there who murder and get away with it?" Hercules shot back. "What about when Hera or Ares takes a mortal life? You can't tell me they answer for every one. Nobody ever cares about the rules until they can be made to serve some advantage. And this isn't even about the rules or about what crime I may have committed. This is just me being a target and getting special treatment because I'm your son and the gods hate me for it."

"Yes, it is," Zeus snapped in sudden irritation. "It's the way the world works, Hercules. Life isn't fair, so just deal with it."

The demigod turned away in anger and went to the mouth of the cave, leaning against the rock as he looked down on the peaceful valley below. After a few minutes, Zeus joined him.

"On the flip side, you also get special treatment from me," he pointed out. "I know you think it's too little, too late, but trust me, son, I do what I can to protect you. And your mother. And I'm sorry that you're always a target for the other gods and I regret that, but, selfish as it may be, I don't ever regret you. Because you are my son, you make me proud, and I do love you."

"If you really mean that," Hercules said softly, "then help me."

"You've always been a force for good," Zeus told him. "You can't lose sight of that with grief. You need to learn humility, Hercules. You're not always right and you can't always assume that you are. You can't act without thinking, because contrary to what you believe, you are not infallible."

"So you think punishing Iolaus for the rest of his life will teach me humility?"

He was lashing out, but the king of the gods merely smiled and put an arm around his shoulders.

"Alcmene raised you well. She gave you a good heart and taught you right from wrong. It's one of the reasons I stayed away as much as I did when you were young, because I knew that she could show you how to be a good man better than I ever could. But there's a darkness inside you, Hercules. It's why I insisted that she send you to Cheiron, so that he could teach you how to control your rage and your strength and so that you could learn to repress your impulses and follow your instincts. You did learn these things, but you're getting so caught up in your own legend and invincibility that you're forgetting all that you learned."

"I really appreciate these life lessons, Dad," Hercules said with heavy sarcasm as he shrugged off the arm across his shoulders. "But what does any of this have to do with anything?"

"Because if you had remembered what Cheiron taught you then you wouldn't be in this mess now," Zeus replied, resisting the urge to cuff his stubborn son in the head and slap some sense into him. "You became blinded by rage and followed your impulses, and your righteous self-assuredness dumped you right into Hera's clutches."

The demigod wanted to argue, but he couldn't. Looking back, he reluctantly had to admit that his father was right. The clues had all been there, little things that hadn't added up. And his instinct had been warning him of this, but he had ignored the nagging feeling, letting it get drowned out by anger and grief and his own hunger for revenge. If he had put any time or effort into analyzing the situation, he might have seen through the lies instead of impulsively barreling off without a second thought. Hera had played him well. Knowing he'd be shattered by the death of his partner, bent on justice and completely open to manipulation. He'd walked right into her trap, and he only had himself to blame. But Iolaus was the one who would pay the price.

"You're right," he finally admitted in a calmer voice. "I did let myself get played right into her hands. And I'll accept the consequences for that. Just leave Iolaus out of it. If you have to take my life to satisfy Hera, then so be it. Just let Iolaus go, please."

Zeus looked long and hard at his favorite son. He could see the sincerity in his eyes, as well as the regret for everything that happened. And he began to wonder if maybe there was another way that Hercules could atone, and maybe learn something along the way that would allow him to grow into the hero that the king of the gods knew he could be.

"Come and sit down," Zeus urged him. "I have a proposition for you."

They returned to the fire and Hercules flopped down on the bearskin, looking at his father curiously and wondering what he had up his sleeve. He was sure it wasn't anything he was going to like, but if it got Iolaus off the hook and maybe spared his own life in the process, then he would do it without question.

"I have a task for you," the king of the gods began after several moments of silent strategic planning. "If you can complete it, it will prove to me that you've learned humility, how to think before you act instead of blindly relying on your strength, and that you know how to listen and trust your instincts. Then I'll consider all debts paid. You and Iolaus will both go free."

"What if I don't succeed?"

"Then you don't survive."

"And what happens to Iolaus?" Hercules pressed, more concerned for his friend's fate than his own.

"I'll see to it that he's released unharmed."

"All right," the demigod agreed, happy with those odds. "What do I have to do?"

"Bring me the Shield of Forgetfulness."

Hercules journeyed quickly, not stopping to eat or rest and relying on his divine blood to sustain him as he traveled. For the sooner this task was completed, the sooner Iolaus would be freed. And although he believed his father, the demigod couldn't wait to see with his own eyes that his friend was really alive and unharmed. For he had been devastated when he thought his partner was lost to him forever, and the need to put the pieces of his shattered heart back together took precedence over the need for food or sleep. The sooner he completed this mission, the sooner Iolaus would be at his side once more. And there was no doubt in his mind that he would complete it, easily.

The shield wasn't even guarded, if his father's information was to be trusted. Zeus assured him there were no traps or devices protecting the magical item, either. All he had to do was walk into the cave where it was kept, pick it up, and walk out again. Truthfully, Hercules was a little insulted. If this farce of a mission was meant to be an atonement, Zeus at least could have thrown a monster or something into the mix, to make it a challenge worthy of his skills. But then again he wasn't going to complain about quick 'n easy. That just meant he'd get to Iolaus that much faster.

Hercules should have known better.

The demigod's steps slowed as he came to the signpost alongside the road. Townspeople in the last village he'd passed had confirmed the directions his father had provided. Take the trail through the woods left at the signpost, up over the hill, and then he'd be at the valley where the shield was hidden. He'd just have to find the right cave, grab the thing, and take it back to Zeus. But as he veered off the road and began navigating the narrow, little used wooded trail, some of Hercules' previous optimism began to flag. When the gods were involved, nothing was ever easy. He decided that maybe being on guard and expecting the unexpected wouldn't be a bad idea.

"Hello, Hercules."

Well, so much for being on guard, the demigod thought wryly to himself. The voice had surprised him, but the real surprise came as the voice's owner appeared, slipping out from behind the trees like a shadowy nymph. She was a girl, just barely old enough to be called a woman. Pretty in an earthy way, with long mousy hair and big brown eyes. But she was tiny, the top of her head barely reaching his chest, and delicate looking with a rail thin frame. Forget a stiff breeze; the demigod felt like if he made the mistake of sighing in her direction the force of it would knock her down.

"Do I know you?"

"No, but I was told to expect you. My name is Greer."

"And why are you expecting me?" Hercules asked suspiciously.

"Because," she replied with a smile, "I am a Hestial Virgin."

Something clicked in the demigod's memory. Being told about the devoted women who served the goddess Hestia. Hercules had never met her, although the fact that she tended to distance herself from the rest of the Olympians as much as possible made him think she was one goddess he might actually like. Nobody had much to say about her one way or the other, although Hercules had gotten an earful about her disciples from Apollo. "Zealots" being one of the nicer terms he'd used. The demigod suspected his vehemence resulted from jealousy, for Hestia's devotees were chaste and obligated to spurn the sun god's golden charms, a terrible blow to his inflated ego. Apollo had admitted the virgins did have a useful purpose in that they watched over the toys of the gods, a fact Hercules hadn't really understood at the time. And looking down at the diminutive figure in front of him, he still didn't.

"You watch over the Shield of Forgetfulness?"

"That's right."

"And what?" The demigod raised a quizzical eyebrow at the girl. "You're here to stop me from taking it?"

"No." Greer seemed to find that idea as preposterous as he did and reacted with a girlish giggle. "On the contrary, I'm here to help you."

"Is that right?" Hercules' blue eyes raked over the tiny female. "Well, no offense, but I think I can handle this one on my own."

"Are you sure?" she demurred. "There might be one or two things you don't know about the shield." Something started to bother the demigod. The girl had taken on a look of smug satisfaction and looked exactly like the cat who'd eaten the canary. It irked him, as did the fact that anyone might think that he, the mighty Hercules, needed help for a simple mission, especially from a tiny slip of a girl and one working for the gods, no less.

"Look," he told her coldly. "The only thing I need to know is that the shield is what's going to get me off the hook and save my best friend. So if you'll just get out of my way, I can go get it. Do you mind?"

Greer stepped lightly off the path and motioned him onward.

"If you change your mind, you know where to find me," she called out to his broad back as he stomped off.

"Yeah, I'll keep that in mind," Hercules muttered to himself as he pushed his way through the underbrush.

Hercules stood in silence, watching the merry fire as it flickered between the trees. He was cold, hungry, tired and frustrated and that fire looked mighty inviting. And he had a feeling he'd be welcome to it, but that would first mean admitting he was wrong. The demigod let out a long breath, realizing he was going to have to suck it up. He'd spent hours searching caves and had come up with nothing. The stubborn side of him knew that if he kept searching, eventually he'd have to come across the right one. But the practical side knew there was an easier way, if he'd just humble himself to accept it.

"This is the humility part of the lesson, isn't it?" he muttered to no one in particular. Then squaring his shoulders, he started toward the fire, stumbling a bit in the dark woods.

"No shield?" Greer asked innocently as the demigod entered the ring of light emanating from the warm fire.

"No," Hercules confessed, shaking his head slightly. "I didn't know there were hundreds of caves down there." He took a deep breath and met the girl's gaze. "Ok, you were right. I could use your help."

"Sit down," she invited him, waving a hand at the other side of the fire. "Have something to eat. In the morning, when it's light, I'll take you to the cave."

The demigod sat a bit warily, having expected her to rub his failure in his face a little more. But whatever delight she was taking in having him come crawling back, she kept to herself, apparently satisfied that he'd learned his lesson.

"Don't take this the wrong way," he began, "but why are you helping me?"

"Hestia told me to," Greer answered, tossing a small cloth bundle to him over the leaping flames.

"That's it?" Hercules asked skeptically, unwrapping the cloth to find a generous portion of bread and cheese.

"That's all I need to know," the girl confirmed. "I serve Hestia and act according to her wishes. I don't question them. She said you were going to come in search of the shield and that I was to point you in the right direction."

"The right direction?"

"I can take you to the right cave, Hercules, but I can't take you to the shield. You're going to have to find the right one yourself."

"Out of how many?"

"Well..." she hesitated.

"Never mind," the demigod told her. "I don't think I really want to know." He took a bite of the bread and chewed thoughtfully. "Just out of curiosity, what do you do when someone comes after the shield and Hestia doesn't want that person to find it?"

"Then I stop him," Greer answered matter of factly.

Hercules wanted to laugh at that statement, but he didn't. For some reason, he began to get the feeling that he shouldn't underestimate this girl. Physically, she was no match for anything bigger than a mosquito. But Iolaus had proven time and again that size wasn't everything, and the demigod began to suspect that Greer might have had a few other tricks up her sleeve. She was entrusted with the care of a powerful object and she wouldn't have been given that task if she couldn't protect it. One way or another.

"Tell me about the shield," Hercules requested as he finished his meal and stretched out comfortably next to the fire. "Please."

"What would you like to know?"

"What is it used for?"

"Well, it was originally created by Hephaestus on Ares' request. He wanted it for his soldiers, to make them forget their pain and fear going into battle. But it worked too well and they forgot their anger and passion as well. It made them useless for fighting. Ares thought maybe he could give the shields to the opposing side, render them less effective. But he decided it was too much of an unfair advantage."

"Ares considered something unfair?" Hercules interrupted incredulously.

"It basically set them up to be lambs in the slaughter," Greer explained. "There was no sport to the war, and no honor in killing those that couldn't fight back. Ares can be bloodthirsty, but he does have a certain integrity."

"I think we'll have to agree to disagree on that point," the demigod told her wryly. "But go on."

"Well, the shield was written off as a failed experiment. No more were created beyond the prototype and it was given to Hestia to hide away."

"Why bother with that?" Hercules wanted to know. "If it wasn't good for anything, why not just destroy it?"

"Hephaestus doesn't really specialize in destructible materials," Greer reminded him with a grin. "Besides, it's not totally useless. A need for the shield crops up every now and then. You're here, aren't you?"

"I suppose." Hercules was quiet for a few minutes, thinking things over and wondering exactly why he WAS there. His father had sent him on this quest, deeming it difficult enough to absolve him of his crimes. But there were no monsters or Herculean tasks in store, so what was the catch? Besides an elaborate game of hide and seek? "Tell me, Greer, how exactly does the shield work? What am I in for?"

"It makes you forget," she said slowly, as if weighing her words. Then she sighed, looking him in the eyes across the dancing flames. "As soon as you touch it, your immediate memories will be gone. And the longer you hold on to it, the more you forget. Eventually you'll forget basic functions, like how to walk and talk. And if you hold on for too long, you'll forget to breathe and the shield will kill you."

"So I guess that's where the danger part of this quest comes in," the demigod concluded. "How long is 'too long'?"

"I'm not sure," Greer replied. "It's different for different people. Maybe a day. Maybe more. What are you planning?"

"I'm not really much of a planner," Hercules confessed. "I like to just roll with the flow, if you know what I mean."

"I do, and I have to tell you I think that's a really bad idea in this case," the girl told him bluntly. "I know you have divine blood, Hercules, and that will probably help you, but you can't go in there depending on your strength to save you. If the shield is stronger than you are..."

Her words had an echo of familiarity. Zeus had lectured him on that point, warning him that he needed to use his head and not just act without thinking. It was hard for Hercules to take the threat seriously. His divine side always shielded him from mortal discomforts. He never seemed to feel anything nearly as acutely as Iolaus or Jason or any other mortal did. And it was easy for him to assume that his godly blood would help protect him from the shield's debilitating power. But Greer's warning rattled around his mind, working it's way down to plant a seed of doubt in his gut. "If the shield is stronger than you are..." Hercules started to realize how he had been getting caught up in his own myth, believing he was indestructible. But just because he was undefeated didn't mean he was invincible. How many times had Cheiron tried to drill that into him, emphasizing over and over again, to all the cadets, that their brains were the most important weapon they had in battle? And he was right, Hercules knew. Just like Zeus and Greer. He couldn't walk into that cave with nothing but his pride and his semi-divinity. Too much was at stake. Iolaus' life was on the line. Hercules wanted to believe that his father had spoken the truth and that he really would be fair and deem Hera's grievance satisfied by his death and let Iolaus go. But Zeus wasn't always known for keeping his promises. That thought worried him a little, but then he decided it didn't matter because failure just wasn't an option. Not because he was cocky and full of himself and overly self-assured, but rather because he was going to be prepared and strong in body and mind. And by the time Hercules drifted off to sleep, he had his plan well in place.

"You're awful quiet today," Greer noted as she doused the fire and stirred the smoldering embers to make sure the flames were completely out. "You're not having second thoughts, are you?"

She had been joking, but Hercules gazed at her with serious blue eyes.

"In a way I am," he admitted quietly. "I have to do this to save Iolaus, but I'm not so sure I should be let off the hook. I mean, I killed an innocent man."

"Did you mean to?" the girl asked, not seeing the man before her as the homicidal type.

"No. Well, yes, I meant to kill him, but I thought I was killing a murderous monster that was plaguing a village."

"Then it's not..."

"Don't tell me it's not my fault," Hercules snapped at her. "Ok, I was misled. Yes, I thought I was helping those people. But the signs were there. Their stories didn't add up to the evidence I saw with my own eyes. But I was bent on revenge and didn't care. If I had stopped for a minute to think..."

"You made a mistake, Hercules," Greer rationalized. "That's part of being human. Or half human, as the case may be. You were tricked, but you did not act with evil intentions. And you can't go back and change what happened. You just need to learn from this mistake, so next time you won't repeat it."

"I just feel like I should atone somehow."

"Isn't that what you're doing here?" the girl asked pointedly. "Risking your life and that of your friend?"

The demigod didn't answer, just shook his head with a small sigh. Her words had the ring of truth about them, and echoed the wisdom of Cheiron. But he couldn't help feeling guilty for what he'd done, even if, as Greer had said, he hadn't meant to harm an innocent. However, she was also right in the fact that he couldn't go back and change what happened. He'd pay his penance with this quest for the shield and go on with his life, helping those that he could, and keeping the incident always in his mind so he would never be too quick to deal out lethal judgement again. Not without first thinking things over and trusting in his instincts.

"Forget it," Hercules sighed again. "Let's just get going."

"I'm waiting on you," she said smugly, slinging her small satchel over her back and waving to indicate she was already on the trail and he was still sitting next to the remnants of the fire. "Oh, and try to keep up."

While the demigod did not have a hard time keeping up with the small sprite of a girl, he was silently impressed with her navigational abilities. She led him unerringly through the woods with a light, sure step and down over the hill, avoiding loose rocks and unstable patches of shale. They passed several caves without a second glance, climbing up a level in the rock face and coming to a stop outside a deep, dark entrance.

"This is it," Greer told him confidently. "And this is as far as I can go. You're on your own from here."

"Thank you," Hercules said sincerely. "I couldn't have done it without you."

They both knew that wasn't true, for eventually he would have stumbled into the right cave. But the Hestial Virgin had certainly made his task much easier and shortened the process, as well as provided some valuable information, and the demigod was willing to give her full credit for that.

"Good luck, Hercules," she said with a smile, touching him lightly on the arm. "I hope you succeed."

"You and me, both," he agreed.

"And if we see each other again," Greer added with a mischievous wink, "and you've forgotten my name, I promise not to hold it against you."

"Shield or no shield, I don't think I'll ever forget you," Hercules told her warmly, stooping down to give her a small kiss on the cheek. "Be safe."

"You know I will."

The girl watched as her new friend entered the yawning cave, soon swallowed up by the gloomy darkness despite the torch he carried. Her part was done and Hercules would have to manage the rest on his own. She had faith in him, but all the same she offered up a prayer to Hestia to watch over him, just in case there was anything the goddess of the hearth could do.

"You've got to be kidding me!" Hercules exclaimed in annoyance. He'd followed the winding cave to the point where he was starting to think he'd been led on a wild goose chase, until he finally emerged in a cavernous room that was piled with glittering shields. Thousands of them. The demigod kicked the closest one in annoyance, wincing as the metal scraped against the rock and the sound echoed loudly through the chamber. But then he took a deep breath, realizing it wasn't going to help to get mad. He was just going to have to dive in. "Well, Iolaus," he muttered, picking up a heavy shield and tossing it behind him as he deemed it the wrong one, "I hope wherever you are that you're comfortable. This might take longer than I thought."

He didn't know how long he'd been standing there. He didn't even know where "there" was. In fact, Hercules was moderately dismayed to realize he didn't know much of anything. His short term memory was a blank slate. The demigod had a nagging feeling there was something he was supposed to be doing. Something important. But racking his brain proved to be an effort in futility. Nothing was coming to him. In fact, more seemed to be slipping away. It should have been cause for concern, but he only felt mildly worried about it. Something would come back to him, eventually. In the meantime, he'd just sit and wait.

Hercules carefully arranged himself on the floor, the large shield in his possession making that task difficult. He stared dumbly at the cumbersome object on his arm and thought about removing it, but it was built onto a gauntlet that was firmly strapped onto his wrist. Gently he tugged on one of the straps, unclear over how to undo the simple mechanism. Giving up on that, the demigod squirmed into a slightly more comfortable position and lifted his free hand to brush the hair out of his eyes. And it was then that he saw it. Words across the back of his hand, glittering golden green in the dim torchlight.

"Follow the ashes out. Take shield to Zeus."

Hercules slowly read the words, frowning as he tried to make sense of them. He had no memory of boiling barberry root that morning to make dye, nor of inking the reminder on his body. Likewise, he couldn't remember scooping ashes from the campfire into a bag and leaving a trail behind him as he navigated the cave. And he had only the barest memory of Zeus. Some old guy...

The demigod scooped up his discarded torch, holding it aloft to get a better look at the lettering and to check and see if he was sporting any other messages. But as he raised the flame, he caught sight of something on the ground. A small pile of charred wood. And further investigation uncovered another mound of ashes a few feet away.

"Follow the ashes," he murmured to himself. He still had no idea why, but it was a start. So dragging the bulky shield along with him, Hercules started back down the long tunnel.

"You made it."

The demigod blinked rapidly, momentarily blinded by the bright sun as he emerged from the darkness of the cave.

"Are you Zeus?" he asked doubtfully when he was able to focus on the form waiting for him.

"I am, indeed," the king of the gods replied, his smile fading as he realized how far gone his son was. Hercules was just staring at him blankly, not knowing what he was supposed to do next. It was disturbing, but Zeus reminded himself it was almost over. "You've done well, my boy," he praised the demigod. "I'm proud of you. There's just one more thing you need to do, and then this will all be over. Come with me. And hold on tight."

The force of the teleportation caught Hercules by surprise and he would have ended up face first in the dirt if his father had not kept a firm grip on him. But the shock of such a rapid trip wore off quickly as the demigod almost immediately forgot that it had happened.

"Where are we?"

"This is a jail," Zeus explained. "Do you remember what that is?"

"Yeah." Hercules scowled as he tried to find the right words. "It's the place..." He stammered for a minute and then looked up at his father helplessly.

"Criminals are housed here," the king of the gods continued. "Thieves, liars, killers... Mortals that have committed crimes against humanity and who need to be locked up to protect the rest of mankind from their evil." Zeus put an arm around his son's shoulders and began to steer him inside. "The problem is, there is an innocent in here. A good person who's done nothing wrong. You have to find that person, Hercules."

"But how will I know which one is the good one?"

"This is the last part of your lesson," Zeus told him. "You must learn to listen and to trust your instinct and not be swayed by manipulations to lead you astray." The blue eyes gazing at him held no comprehension, and the king of the gods smiled patiently at his boy. "I know you don't understand. Just go in and look. But look with your heart, not your eyes. You'll know the right person to pick."

Hercules didn't seem convinced, but obediently he entered the jail and walked down the long row of cells. Past the weeping young girl and the indignant, stately woman. Past the handsome young man and the arthritic old codger. Past the drunk sleeping one off and the hulking guy brooding in the corner. And when he reached the end of the row, he shook his head, feeling like this task was impossible. None of these people looked like they deserved to be here. And as he contemplated that, the demigod began to forget what he was supposed to do. Zeus materialized next to him to remind him, stressing that it was important. He sounded so earnest, the demigod shook his head again, to clear it this time, and struggled to focus on what was before him. For some strange reason, he really didn't want to let this old guy down.

So he slowly walked back down the row of cells again, repeating over and over to himself what he was supposed to do so he wouldn't forget. And while he examined the occupant of each cell, he used his eyes, but let his gut weigh in as well.

He couldn't have known that the pretty young girl sobbing so piteously had lost herself to jealousy and had lobbed a torch into the barn where her romantic rival was working as a milkmaid. But the undeniable evidence presented itself in the way she smelled of smoke and how her tears had traced lines in the soot staining her face.

And he couldn't have known that the richly dressed woman, who had money to spare, had shoplifted in the marketplace and then blamed her crimes on a young urchin, causing the boy to spend two days in the stocks before the truth was discovered. But as she loudly protested her imprisonment and declared her innocence, it was obvious there were more than a few holes in her story.

There was no way that Hercules could have known about the handsome young man stabbing his older brother in an attempt to collect his half of the inheritance. But the spots of blood on his hands and clothing pointed to a very serious crime.

The old man, curled painfully on his bunk, didn't seem like he could possibly be the perpetrator of anything wrong. But then again, innocent people usually had no cause to repeat the phrase "I'm sorry" over and over and over again.

The big guy that was sitting off in the corner, now he looked like he could do some damage. But just because he was muscled and built like a warrior didn't necessarily mean he was a criminal. Hercules was wondering if it was a trick, but then his gaze locked onto that of the caged man. And the demigod inadvertently shivered at the intensity of malice and evil that was radiating out of those cold, dark eyes.

Which only left the drunk, and Hercules kept coming back to stand in front of the man's cell. He was unkempt and unshaven and muttering incoherently to himself in his inebriation. But the longer the demigod watched him, the more something began to stir in his instinct. There was something about this particular man.

"Hey," the demigod whispered through the bars. "Are you good?"

The drunkard moaned out something he couldn't understand, but his swollen eyes began to slit open, showing just the barest hint of soft blue. And this small gesture was like a punch in the gut for Hercules. He didn't know how and he didn't know why, but his heart was telling him this was the person he sought.

"Him," he cried out, waving Zeus over. "He doesn't belong here."

"Good work, son," the king of the gods exhaled in relief. "You've completed your quest, and in the process you've learned humility and how to trust your instinct and how to use your head. I hereby declared your penance complete and your sentence revoked." A blank stare was all Zeus received and he chuckled as he undid the straps on the shield and slid it off his son's arm. "I'll take this now, and return it for you."

Once the magical item was gone, the memories came back to Hercules in a rush until he was almost staggered by them. After a moment of disorientation, he was able regain his focus and balance and realize that Iolaus was before him, locked in a jail cell. And before he could even demand it of his father, Zeus waved a hand and unlocked the heavy barred door. The demigod dashed inside and knelt down beside his unresponsive friend.

"What's wrong with him?"

"He's been drugged," Zeus explained. "The villagers of Tricala have been dosing him to keep him compliant. But he'll be fine once the sedatives wear off."

"Zeus..." Hercules met his father's gaze, deciding to exercise a little of his new found humility. "Thank you."

The king of the gods didn't answer, but vanished in an explosion of light, taking the Shield of Forgetfulness with him.

Hercules turned back to his friend, reassuring himself with the hunter's strong pulse and even breathing.

"Come on, buddy," he whispered fondly, smoothing back Iolaus' wild curls with his hand and grinning as he noticed the words still inked on his skin as he did so. "Let's get you out of here." Scooping up the smaller man, Hercules settled him gently over his shoulder and strode out of the little cell, leaving the jail and not looking back.

The sun was warm on his shoulders and the breeze stirred his brown hair gently, but Hercules was not inclined to enjoy the beauty of the day. His attention was fixed on the patch of freshly turned earth at his feet. The grave of an innocent man, trapped in the guise of a monster.

Tricala had turned out to be much too Hera-friendly for the demigod's comfort and sense of well-being, so upon completion of his quest, Hercules had taken Iolaus and headed for a less vindictive village nearby. Once the sedating drugs wore off the hunter quickly came back to reality. He was a bit more subdued than normal, but thankfully seemed no worse for wear from his ordeal and eager as ever to hit the road and seek out new adventures. But Hercules couldn't leave. He knew he'd been tricked and manipulated and had acted in good faith, but still, his conscience wouldn't let him rest. The proper thing to do was to make restitution to the man's family, but the level of hostility toward him from the villagers made that a daunting prospect. Not that he feared for himself, but Hercules didn't want Iolaus anywhere within range of those crazies, lest they try to use him again. So the only thing left was to trek back to the hills above Tricala and bury what remained of Hera's pawn.

"I'm sorry," Hercules whispered to the earth. "If I could undo this, I would. But all I can do is swear that your death won't be in vain. I'll do everything I can to honor your memory."

Iolaus had stood aside, silently seething at Hera and not believing his friend had anything to apologize for. But he knew Hercules well and knew how hard it would be for him to come to terms with taking an innocent life, no matter what the circumstances. Out of respect he had given his partner a little space to try and make his peace, but the hunter was watching his friend closely and when he saw a little tremor run through the demigod's solid frame he approached and laid a comforting hand on his arm.

"I don't even know his name, Iolaus," Hercules murmured as he gazed at his friend.

The hunter saw the pain in those blue eyes and his own heart ached in empathy.

"Herc," he began quietly after a moment's thought. "You have to find a way past this."

"I know," the demigod agreed, "but I just feel like I should pay something for what I did."

"You are paying, Herc," Iolaus told him with a note of exasperation. "You've been paying all your life. For things you've done, and things you think you've done. You carry your weight and your family's weight and the weight of the whole damn world on your shoulders. And you have to start letting it go, Hercules. You HAVE to!"

"You don't underst...."

"I do understand," the hunter interrupted vehemently. "Hera's smarter than you give her credit for."

"What?" Hercules asked, taken aback.

"She can't kill you," Iolaus pointed out. "Not directly. Not even indirectly, as we've been showing her repeatedly over the years. So she's doing the next best thing. She's destroying you from the inside. And you have to stop her."

The demigod was silent, brooding over his friend's words and realizing he had a good point.

"You're right," he finally admitted. "I can't let her break me down. It's just hard sometimes, you know?"

"Well, that's where I come in," the hunter told him, his sunny features darkening with his intensity. "Zeus' order might protect your body, but I'll be damned if I'll let that witch kill your soul."

Hercules smiled at that and relaxed slightly as his mood lifted a little.

"You have to give yourself permission to make mistakes, Herc," Iolaus continued. "You aren't perfect. You're going to screw up once in awhile. But you can't let those mistakes overshadow all the good you've done. What happened here was tragic, but Hera was behind it. Whatever culpability you feel, you have to let it go. You have to forgive yourself. Can you do that?"

"Yeah, I can," the demigod decided after a minute of contemplation. "It may take a little time, but I'll get there."

"Good," the hunter told him satisfied. "Then I'll just be over here if you need me."

He moved off a few steps away and Hercules turned back to the grave, taking a few moments to silently try and make peace with what had happened. And while he wasn't quite there yet, he felt better as he turned and fell into step beside his friend as they headed for the road out of town.

"I'm glad you're all right, Iolaus," the demigod said warmly, looping an arm around his partner and giving him a half hug as he realized just how much he needed his friend in his life, by his side. There was no danger of Hera ever getting his soul. For it already belonged to one Iolaus of Thebes.

"Thanks to you," the hunter responded, shoving him away playfully. "But you're really serious? There were no monsters or booby traps or anything?"


"You just walked in and picked up the shield of forgetfulness and walked out?"

"For the most part," Hercules confirmed, hiding a sly smile. He wasn't sure why he hadn't told his partner about Greer. His lesson in humility, and a fact his pride wasn't too keen to share.

"Wow. What a horrible story," Iolaus lamented. "That's not going to do much to enhance your budding reputation as a hero."

"Probably not. But it doesn't matter."

"It matters to me," the hunter insisted. "As your partner, I'm a reflection of you. And it doesn't look good on me to be partners with someone whose epic quests come with zero challenges or heroic feats."

"Iolaus, my friend," Hercules drawled, slapping his buddy heavily on the back, "I don't know what the Fates have in store. But something tells me that before all is said and done, we're both going to be legendary."

"Speak for yourself, Herc," Iolaus replied absently as they entered the small village. "In some circles, I already am a legend."

"In what circles?" the demigod demanded.

"The only ones that matter." The hunter raised an arm and waved at the comely young tavern maid who was sweeping the cobbled walkway in front of the inn. She giggled and blushed, but then beckoned him forward.

"Wait a minute." Hercules grabbed his friend by the back of his vest to halt him. "We were here for one day and you were unconscious for most of it."

"So?" Iolaus prompted, pulling out of his grasp and yanking on his vest to straighten it.

"So how did this happen?"

"That, my friend," Iolaus said proudly, slapping his buddy equally heavily on the back, "is what makes me a legend."

He sauntered off to meet up with his new friend, leaving Hercules to trail behind, muttering under his breath.

"I HATE it when he does that."


Disclaimer: No autotomic nervous system functions were forgotten during the writing of this story.

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