Suddenly, realizing he had been holding his breath for an undetermined amount of time, Iolaus exhaled and looked down at the sword the God of the Underworld had given to him. A weapon to kill men who were already dead, he was informed.
"The blade was forged by Hephestus," Hades told Iolaus, "and it's enchanted with a very special power."
When struck with its mighty steel, those who were dead and in wait immediately go to Tartarus. Hades explained that there were some "inventory" who couldn't always be physically controlled before meeting their fate so, at times, he was forced to brandish the sword and send them on their way instead of tossing them into the Tartarus portal.
"Look, this is all very interesting but I have to get some facts straight." The hunter spoke abruptly. In addition to Gabrielle, who was never long out of his mind, he also was faced with the accursed Prince Haleus, who was foremost on his mind at this moment. "You're telling me that Prince Haleus is dead? Murdered?" Iolaus voice held both skepticism and despair, "He was on his way home to Thesilla, guarded by ten soldiers, three ministers and the Corinth Superintendent of Law. No stick-up men in their right minds would attempt to slaughter such a heavily armored royal entourage and if they did it wouldn't have been a spur of the moment decision. No one knew Haelus was going to leave Corinth until after the wedding. No one. How can he have possibly been killed?"
Persephone placed a gentle hand on Iolaus shoulder to calm him, "Listen, Iolaus, listen." she beseeched, softly.
Hades took in a deep breath and privately admired the hunter's energy; the fact he said what was on his mind. So many who came to the Other Side always behaved as if they thought Hades was going to brandish fire and burn them into ash. But this man, as many times as he'd seen him, was brash and brave. Not always a good combination but in this case, very commendable. "First of all, I never said Haleus was *murdered*." he pointed out, "My spies tell me he committed suicide rather than face the humiliation of being exiled from his sovereignty."
Unbelieving, Iolaus sheathed his sword in a back scabbard. He then crossed arms in front of his chest, "And?"
"They say, on the way to Thesilla, Prince Haleus requested a moment at an alter of Hera to pray for forgiveness and strength. He entered a temple and the soldiers knew there was no way for him to get out without them knowing about it ... and he was still their prince. So, he had his chance to talk with Hera and she granted him the gift of dominion over The Elysian Fields if he'd take his own life."
"She made a bargain like that without even asking Hades!" Persephone exclaimed, deeply offended for her man. "Can you believe it?" She then took a calming sniff at the fragrant flowers she held in her hands.
"Yeah, that's pretty rude." Iolaus said quickly to be polite, "And she gave him the cloak to aid in the take-over, right?"
"But there's more, isn' there? Hera wouldn't give a gift like this to someone like Haleus if there wasn't anything in it for her."
Closing his eyes, reluctant to admit a disturbing truth, Hades said: "Hera and I haven't exactly been the best of friends. As a matter of fact, after the fall of the Titans she was livid with Zeus for giving the underworld to me. She felt, as Queen of the Gods, she should hold sway over the human souls that passed in Greece."
Iolaus was confused, "Hera only looks at mortals with contempt. Why would she want the underworld and the humans that populate it?"
"Power of course. This realm may not be of Earth but we're huge and, with the influence she has, Hera could easily have raised the dead and formed a kingdom of her own like no other." Hades shrugged, "Fortunately, Zeus is not stupid. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, he said. He gave the underworld to me because he knows I'm the only one who can do the job and do it well. I have a knack for figures. Plus, I have no interest in fresh air and sunshine." He glanced at Persephone and smiled, "Except for the type that loves and warms my heart."
"Oh, Hades." Persephone purred and stood close to her lover.
Rolling his eyes, Iolaus balanced his hands on his hips and worked hard for composure. "So, by controlling Haleus she rules both Elysia and Tartarus."
"Yeah, she finally has a body of her choosing on the inside. And he's got to be returned to Tartarus, never to return, or everything will fall apart. Elysia and Tartarus will become one and the innocence of one world will be no match for the warlords and assassins of the other."
"It will become one big Tartarus." Persephone summed up. "Do you see why Hades needs you, Iolaus? His own men have failed him badly. They can't even find Haleus, those worthless hunters, and you're his last hope ...' she paused, rethinking - "Well actually there is still Xena and Hercules but ..."
"Yeah, yeah ... I've heard it all before." Iolaus recalled something else, "Hades, you have powers. Why don't you go in there yourself and take Prince Haleus out?"
"I would if I could but it's been forbidden by The Fates for a god to interfere in such a circumstance. Only a mortal can battle another mortal when a godly domain is at stake. Besides, " Hades looked uncomfortable, reluctant to continue. "I have a prior engagement."
"A prior engagement?"
"Yes," Persephone smiled, "My mother, Demeter, is coming for a visit."
Hades cleared his throat loudly, "Just send Haleus and his friends back to Tartarus, get the cloak and have the girl with you when you come back through the portal."
Iolaus stared at the god, coming to his own conclusions, and watched him shrug. Typical, Iolaus nearly smiled and turned, making a move to enter into the portal. He stopped - "One more item ..." Something still wasn't adding up. "Even with all of this - the power Hera's granted Haleus - I still can't see him falling on his sword. The Prince was a sadistic bastard but also a weakling. She must have given him some other incentive. Something really attractive for his sick sense of ..." Then, without warning, it struck Iolaus. He was speechless for a moment and appeared ill.
"Iolaus, what is it?" Persephone urged, concerned.
"She's giving him Gabrielle."
"You better hurry." Hades suggested.
It wasn't dark yet but twilight was only an hour away.
Fish roasted gently in their fire as they sat together in the glade.
Xena poked at their dinner occasionally with disinterest but said nothing.
Hercules continued to stare at the lake. Every once in awhile he'd reach up and touch Iolaus amulet, just to be certain it was still hanging around his neck, but made no mention of it otherwise.
"I'm sorry, Hercules." Xena suddenly said.
He looked over at her, across the fire, as she sat on the ground and stared into the fire.
"I was so angry and grieved so hard for Gabrielle that I said some horrible things to Iolaus that were misleading. I wanted to kill him and might have done it if you hadn't stopped me ... It's because of me that he's down there right now."
The demigod stared at her for a few moments. He wanted to tell Xena what she was saying was untrue - that Iolaus would have run off and did this even if she hadn't blamed him for the girl's death - but right at this moment, he couldn't. As hard as he tried to have an opened mind, Hercules did blame her, even if only in part, for Iolaus brash action.
Unexpectedly, he stood. "I'm going for a walk." he said.
"I'll go with you." Xena started to stand.
"No." Hercules was firm, "Someone should be here, just in case Iolaus or Gabrielle show up. I won't be long." He attempted to make the last of his words sound friendly but failed.
Xena settled herself again and didn't bother to make further suggestions. She understood perfectly what Hercules was saying and feeling. He wanted to be anywhere where she wasn't.
Xena felt miserable.
When he walked through the portal, Iolaus wasn't really sure what would greet him. As many times as he visited Hades he never actually crossed over. Even when he had been sent to the underworld, as a result of his fight with the She-Demon, he spoke with Dienerra and the children before they crossed into the Elysian Fields but never followed.
He knew it would be beautiful. But the hunter never expected the gorgeousness that surrounded him. It wasn't just the visual perfection of mountains, trees and wildlife - he'd seen all of those in his lifetime - but a feeling of rhapsody from the visions that surrounded him. Splendor was in the air he was breathing. He saw people - men, women and children - all dressed in light colored clothes, frolicking out in the open. Some were fishing. Others picnicking, playing games and strumming on musical instruments. In all, an atmosphere of total contentment.
No one, not given the information Iolaus was privileged to, would know that Elysia was in dire danger.
Gazing into the horizon, Iolaus saw a small house in the distance and figured this was as good a place as any to start. Hades wouldn't have dropped him here if he wasn't close to either Gabrielle or the nefarious Haleus. When he reached the home, Iolaus knocked gently then watched as, a moment later, the door opened.
An older woman with long, silver hair and a pink unlined face answered and smiled sweetly at him, "May I help you?" she asked. She then looked down at his clothes, the leather pants and tattered vest and nodded, "Oh, I see ...' she interrupted before he could speak, "You're new here and need a change. I can help you with that, young man."
"Well, no. That's not exactly why I'm here." Iolaus said and walked into the home when she indicated, with a hand wave, he should. "I'm trying to find someone."
"Who's that?" The woman asked, moving to a closet.
Iolaus looked about the house and smiled gently. Clean and cozy. What else? "Her name is Gabrielle."
Quietly astonished, the woman turned and looked at him. "That would be my granddaughter."
"Then you're ..."
"My name is Alicita." Slight worry twisted her expression, "Gabrielle hasn't been here long. Only a couple of days. I didn't think any of us, except a few close friends, even knew she'd arrived."
"I need to find her, quickly."
"She's on a picnic with her husband. She hasn't been eating and he's trying to convince her it's time. If anyone can persuade Gabrielle she's hungry it's Perdicus ...."
"Where are they?" Iolaus stepped forward and spoke urgently.
"Not far. Just down the stream a bit. There's a clearing there with a hanging chair and ..."
Iolaus was out of the door in seconds.
*Food*. Gabrielle couldn't eat or she'd be lost to him, to those who still lived, forever.
Alicita looked out of her opened door and watched Iolaus as he ran down the path that led to the lake. Perhaps this was the gentleman Gabrielle had mentioned to her when she first arrived. The brave and handsome warrior that had, for a time, made her forget about her grief for Perdicus. Now that he had arrived, he might also stop her woe over having to leave Xena as well. Perdicus, despite his earnest effort, just didn't seem to be doing the job.
"It's an apple, Gabrielle. Please, eat it. For me."
She closed her eyes, so very tempted. It was a beautiful apple. Red and juicy and would taste like sweet nectar against her tongue, she knew. But, if she ate she'd be giving in. There would be no turning back but ... why should she want to? She was here, after all, in paradise with her husband. Wasn't this the serenity she'd always wanted?
Gabrielle opened her eyes and looked again at Perdicus. Still handsome and caring. A sweet man who she loved and planned on living a full life with, while still alive. A husband she wanted to have children with. Now that part of their life together would never happen but, he assured her, that it didn't matter in Elysia. They would be blissfully happy for always because this was what they, the both of them, truly wanted from eternity.
But now, looking at him, was it really?
Why, when she crossed over, did she go immediately to her grandmother's home and not to Perdicus? Why did she take her time while changing from her green shirt and leather skirt? Why did she fold her old clothes so carefully, placing them in a drawer provided, before dressing in the soft, white garment Alicita had given to her? Could she have made a mistake, during a vulnerable point in her life, thinking Perdicus was her destiny? Why, suddenly, was she having all of these doubts? She was dead and this was The Elysian Fields, where contentment ruled supreme. She should have no reservation. She should be happy and eat with a carefree passion.
Again, Gabrielle looked down at the apple. She took it from his hand and raised it to her lips ...
.... and everything turned black.
He ran as fast as his powerful legs could carry him, nearly gasping for air by the time he saw the white hanging chair which was attached to a long limbed tree near lakeside. Briefly, Iolaus wondered if the lake was part of the River Styx but the thought quickly vanished when he spied something he thought rather prototypical at first. Simply, a young man laying on a blanket, apparently asleep. But then he noticed a smear of red at his temple and knew something wasn't right.
"Perdicus?" he called a name as he ran to him, watching as he slowly sat up.
"Yes ..." Perdicus lifted a hand to his head as Iolaus kneeled in front of him, "We were just settling down for our picnic when some men ..." His eyes opened wide, "Gabrielle!" He looked quickly around then directly at Iolaus, noting his different attire. This guy didn't belong in Elysia but he wasn't of Tartarus either. He was a stranger but Perdicus knew, intuitively, he could trust him - "They took her! The men who attacked us!"
"Was one of them wearing a gold cloak?"
"Yes, he was their leader. He struck Gabrielle on the back of the head then told me he was going to be Sovereign of The Fields. He said Gabrielle would make for a fine house slave. Then one of his goons, a big ugly barbarian he was, clubbed me." Perdicus lifted a hand to touch his bloodied temple, "This is Elysia! Thing like this aren't supposed to happen here!"
"I know. I'll find her." Iolaus stood and looked about, using his hunter's skills. They couldn't have gone far.
Perdicus stared up at him, "Who are you?" he asked.
"My name is Iolaus."
An understanding came to Perdicus face, "She's mentioned you." followed by sadness.
Iolaus wondered what Gabrielle had said to Perdicus to make him react this way but he didn't have time to dwell on the hurt man, "Go to Alicita and have that cut taken care of."
Then Iolaus was off.
Perdicus watched the hunter as he ran. "Tell Gabrielle it was good seeing her again." he whispered, "And I'll miss her ... again."
He came to a fork in the road and hesitated. Footprints on either side could have come from anyone. He saw no horse-hoof prints and could only assume there were no horses in Elysia. Who would need them? Then, for a moment, Iolaus wondered if centaurs were also excluded for some odd reason.
Iolaus eyes took in the surrounding area. Small houses everywhere but all far enough apart so as not to be too crowding. Fruit trees were plentiful, he could hear the sounds of bird song. A beautiful place, he thought absently. It reminded him a little of Thebes, just around the area where his own home used to sit ...
With a start, Iolaus heard the call of a peacock. Automatically, he looked to the Elysian sky and saw them. A set of large, inquisitive eyes. It could only mean two things. Hera and an attempt on his life. Iolaus backed up, preparing himself for an onslaught of evil.
"Iolaus ...' he heard Hera call to him, "I am not your enemy ..."
Breathing heavily, trying hard not to panic, Iolaus called: "You don't want me to stop Haleus. He'll destroy everything ... I can't let that happen."
"Leave it alone, Iolaus, and he won't touch you and the things you hold dear ... I want you hear, really I do." Hera's voice crooned, "And I can do things for you ... Do you want the girl, Gabrielle? I can do that for you or - better yet - I can reunite you with a past you should never have lost."
Iolaus brow furrowed with puzzlement.
Then he heard her call his name from behind.
He turned quickly and saw her rushing to him, followed by a small child.
"Gods ...' Iolaus whispered in shock and quiet happiness.
She was warm in his embrace, kissing him passionately. It came back to him. the touch of her skin against his and her smell, the fragrance of the flowers in their garden.
"I've missed you so much, Darling." she whispered into his ear.
"Anya ..." Iolaus murmured then looked over her slender shoulder to the boy as he stood politely behind his mother, smiling sweetly and playing with his fingers as he watched the scene - "Myles ..."
Iolaus was together again with his wife and two year old child ....