Author’s Note: I do not own the characters of Hercules and Iolaus and I mean no offense to RenPics by borrowing them for a little non-profit Halloween fun. Damalis and Andries appear courtesy of Halloween fanfics past and are based on the Winchester brothers from “Supernatural”. I do not own them, either, sadly, but I wouldn’t be above renting one or both for the night. Comments are always welcome.
Iolaus had passed through the town once, a few years back. He couldn’t really remember anything about the place, which led him to believe it was unremarkable. Nothing good, nothing bad, just an average medium sized village like many others he’d passed through on his travels. They all started to blur together after awhile.
But something was different about Aspasia this time. The hunter didn’t notice it at first, but as he strolled leisurely through the main street of the town looking for something to eat his instinct started to nag at him. He turned his attentions away from the vendor stalls and began to study the villagers. They were hurrying about their business, keeping their eyes downcast and not stopping to say hello or make small talk with any of their friends and neighbors. Many were wearing the same brown hooded cloaks though the day was warm, and the few children that were present were kept close to their parents. And as he took this in, Iolaus could suddenly feel it quite plainly. The air around him was heavy with fear and oppression.
Something was going on in Aspasia, no doubt. And the naturally curious Iolaus was very eager to discover what that something was. But first he was going to have to find someone willing to talk to him, which he knew wouldn’t be easy if they weren’t even talking to each other. So he crossed the street and headed for a fruit stand, figuring that offering up a little patronage might be the thing to loosen up a tongue. Besides, he was hungry.
“Hi,” the hunter greeted the man tending the stall, trying his best to seem friendly and unthreatening. “Do you have any pomegranates?”
“No,” the man replied quickly, giving him a suspicious look.
“Really?” Iolaus craned his neck slightly, trying to see into the baskets of fruit stacked behind the stand in case there was one back there that the man had overlooked. “They’re in season now. Most places are overloaded...”
“We don’t sell pomegranates!” the vendor interrupted him sharply. “Everyone here eats figs or apples!”
“Ok,” the hunter said slowly, a bit taken aback by the man’s unexpected vehemence. “I guess I’ll take some figs then.”
He was served in record speed, as if the fruit seller couldn’t wait to be rid of him. Wisely deciding that this particular villager was not going to be a willing source of information, Iolaus took his purchase and moved on. He popped one of the figs into his mouth and chewed thoughtfully as he walked, finding it odd that pomegranates would be completely off the menu. But as he traversed the street, glancing at the other vendor stalls, it started to become less odd. All the booths were decidedly homogenized. Collections of vases that were all the same color and style. A woman with only three different kinds of flowers for sale. Plates of fragrant bread, but no rolls or cakes to be found. A fabric seller with precious few bolts available, but plenty of brown, hooded robes in stock. And with each stall he passed, the hunter became increasingly sure that this was the key. A strict level of conformity had been mandated for Aspasia. But who had ordered it, and what was the punishment for violation?
The flame of righteous indignation had begun to burn along with his curiosity and Iolaus became even more determined to find out what was going on in the village. So he headed for the one place where answers could always be found; the town tavern. However, when he entered the establishment he found it mostly deserted. Just the man behind the bar and one lone robed figure, huddled over a glass at a corner table. With a sigh of frustration, the hunter took a seat at the bar and ordered a mug of mead.
“We don’t serve mead. Just wine and water,” the man told him curtly.
“And what happens if I want something different?” Iolaus asked, a note of challenge in his voice as he looked the bartender in the eye.
“Different will get you into trouble around here,” the man replied quietly.
“It just so happens that I like trouble.”
“You’d better like wine, too,” the bartender said, slamming a glass of it down in front of him. “On the house, friend. Now drink it, and keep your mouth shut.” And with that, he turned his back on the hunter with an air of finality.
Iolaus sipped at the strong wine as he pondered the situation. Despite the lack of welcome and encouragement, he still wanted to help these people. He knew their rudeness was only born of fear of retribution. From what, he still didn’t know. But whatever it was, it surely wasn’t anything he and Hercules hadn’t dealt with before. Be it oppressive warlord, mandate from one of the gods, or some strange monster with an aversion to variety, the hunter was confident he could handle it. All he needed was a way in, someone to trust him enough to clue him in. And that was going to take a little more time. Iolaus did a quick calculation in his head and decided he had a little to spare. So he, with some degree of difficulty, managed to get the bartender’s attention and asked if there were any rooms available to rent for the night.
He was not one to give in easily, but as late afternoon started to give way to evening Iolaus was feeling rather defeated. The previous evening had been spent in the tavern, nursing a few glasses of wine and hoping the place would grow more lively as night fell. But as the hours passed only a few people drifted in, all robed and hooded and keeping strictly to themselves. So he retired to his rented room and rose early, spending the day out in the village, trying to engage anyone he could in conversation. But all his attempts fell flat as he was brushed off, dismissed or outright ignored time and time again. No amount of charm or sweet talk or golden smiles could get him anywhere with anyone. It made him angry, for he was only trying to help and no one would give him the chance. But he also realized that whatever was hanging over these people had to be bad to make them so afraid they couldn’t even speak to him, and he redirected his anger at the mysterious oppressor of Aspasia.
But apparently the villagers weren’t afraid to speak about him. They began huddling up in the streets, staring and whispering when they thought he wasn’t looking. Iolaus was reasonably sure that was a bad sign, but at least he’d gotten them talking to each other again. For a moment he contemplated buying one of the brown robes, thinking that maybe in disguise he could move among them and get the answers he sought. Then he rejected the idea on principle and with a sign of resignation he turned and headed back for the tavern. He’d try one more time, with the one man he’d managed to get a scant amount of information from. And if the bartender wasn’t feeling chatty, then the hunter knew he’d have to move on. He didn’t want to use any of his scant dinars on another night’s room rental, and he was expected to be in Mycenae in two days. Iolaus couldn’t spend any more time on people who refused his help when there were others out there who were in dire need and more than happy to accept. It didn’t mean he couldn’t come back, and maybe Hercules would have some idea of what was going on or what to do.
The hunter slid into the chair he’d occupied the day before, noting that the bartender did not seem happy to see him.
“I’m guessing there’s still no chance of getting any mead today.”
“You know what your choices are,” he was told gruffly.
“I know what they are, I just can’t figure out why.”
“Whatever business you have in Aspasia,” the bartender advised, setting a glass of wine down in front of him, “finish it up and move on.”
“Look, I’m just trying to help,” Iolaus reasoned as he dropped a coin on the counter.
“All you’re doing is getting yourself in trouble,” the man hissed as he scooped up the payment.
“Because of being different?” the hunter asked. “That’s not a bad thing and it’s certainly not against the law.”
“It is around here,” the bartender assured him. “Look, you seem like a decent fellow. So just go. Get out of Aspasia before you...”
“Get myself into trouble?” Iolaus finished for him dryly. “You know, I appreciate your concern for my welfare. But my definition of trouble is like everything else about me. It’s different.”
“And that’s what’s going to get you killed!” the man whispered hoarsely.
“Killed? What are you talking about?” the hunter demanded.
But the bartender turned away from him as the door opened and a man entered the tavern. Iolaus fumed in impatience, but the man behind the counter only had eyes for his new customer who strode up to the bar and ordered wine.
“Well, hello there,” the stranger greeted the hunter as he looked around and noticed him perched at the counter. “I don’t believe I’ve seen you before.”
“I’m new,” Iolaus told him guardedly.
“Then welcome to Aspasia,” the man said heartily, hoisting his glass in the air. “My name is Dion.”
“Iolaus,” the hunter responded after a moment’s hesitation, raising his own glass and clinking it against the one being thrust at him.
“What brings you to our fair town, Iolaus?”
The hunter paused, studying his companion carefully. After spending two days surrounded by fear and silence, he was naturally suspicious of anyone that was so open and friendly. But the man was very well dressed, so perhaps his apparent wealth offered him a degree of freedom from whatever persecution the other villagers endured. Or perhaps he was in on it. Regardless, Iolaus knew he couldn’t spurn the one person in the entire town who was willing to talk to him. Besides, even if he was part of the oppression, a middle aged, paunchy man wasn’t going to be any kind of a threat to the seasoned warrior.
“I’m just passing through, actually,” Iolaus answered as he came to a decision. “I’m on my way to Mycenae to meet Hercules.”
“Hercules?” Dion’s eyes lit up. “The Hercules?”
“The one and only.”
“You mean you actually know him?”
“Well, yeah, I’m his best friend,” the hunter explained, steeling himself for the disbelief and skepticism that usually came his way after such a declaration. But to his surprise, the man grew visibly excited and leaned in closer.
“Does he really do all those heroic things the bards claim?”
“We both do. I’m his partner.”
“Wow,” Dion breathed. “I’m sure you get tired of talking about it all the time, but I would love to hear about the adventures you and Hercules have had. Would you mind terribly just telling me about one?”
“No, I wouldn’t mind,” Iolaus said sincerely. For he never got tired of talking about their adventures, and he figured if he told a good tale, maybe he could get the scoop on Aspasia from his star struck admirer.
At Dion’s insistence they moved to one of the tables near the fire. The hunter regaled him with the tale of the Argonaut’s reunion, their quest for the stolen fleece, and the epic battle with the murderous bloodeyes. Dion listened raptly, then insisted on buying Iolaus a drink. He scurried up to the counter and soon returned with two glasses of wine, one of which he set reverently before the hunter as he begged for just one more story. Iolaus indulged him with a second, and then a third when it became obvious that the people who had entered the tavern in the interim were all listening, even though they tried to appear like they weren’t. He’d hoped it would inspire them to trust him, but as he was wrapping up his tale he tried to figure out how to decline another and steer the conversation toward the problems in Aspasia. As it turned out, he didn’t have to.
A heavy hand fell on his shoulder, and Iolaus turned his head to see a hulking brute standing behind him, in the company of a deceptively pleasant looking man.
“I’m going to have to ask you to come with us.”
“Come where?” the hunter demanded. “And why?” In the background, he thought he could hear the bartender muttering something about trying to warn him. “Who are you?”
“I am Pallas, the town magistrate. And you aren’t well, Stranger,” the oily man told him gently.
“What are you talking about? I feel fine.”
“You aren’t well in your mind,” the man clarified.
“It’s even worse than we thought, Pallas,” Dion chimed in as he got up and hurried to the new arrival’s side, no trace of his enthusiastic admiration remaining. “He thinks he knows Hercules. He’s been telling us all these stories about fantastic adventures they’ve had together.”
“Ah,” Pallas clucked in sympathy, looking down at the hunter with great pity. “The poor man is delusional.”
“I am NOT delusional!” Iolaus objected hotly. “I do know Hercules.”
“Come along with us now,” Pallas said soothingly. “Everything’s going to be all right.”
“I’m not going anywhere with you,” the hunter spat, knocking the meaty hand off his shoulder and jumping to his feet. And immediately wishing he hadn’t as the room started to spin. He clutched onto the table to keep himself from falling as a swell of nausea rose in his gut, realizing with a sinking feeling that his wine must have been drugged. Pallas’ muscle reached out for him and Iolaus swung wildly, connecting with the thug’s jaw with a hard crack. The brute staggered back but the hunter lost his balance and crumpled in a heap onto the floor. He tried to breathe, shaking his head to clear it, but stars were swimming around his vision and the darkness started closing in. Valiantly he fought it, but in the end the drug overcame him and he went limp. Cautiously the big man approached him, prodding him experimentally until he was sure it wasn’t a trick. Then he swung the smaller man up over his shoulder and headed toward the tavern door. Dion followed him, but Pallas turned and addressed the patrons of the tavern, ignoring the fact that they were all cowering in fear before him.
“Do not worry, my friends. I will see to it that this man gets the help he needs.” Pallas smiled benignly before he turned and swept out of the tavern door into the night, not quite able to mask the shadow of evil and greed that was glinting from his eyes.
"I'm telling you, I am not insane!" Iolaus shouted, fully realizing that ranting like a madman was probably doing little to convince them of his argument but unable to help himself.
"No, you're not insane. You're delusional. There's a difference."
The hunter whirled around in his chair, eying up the speaker who had just entered the room. He was an older man, tall, lanky and balding.
"Who are you?"
"My name is Dardanos,"he answered. "I run the hospital and oversee the treatment of the patients. I do apologize for what you've been through and I don't blame you for not thinking much of our facility, but I was told you'd become quite agitated and restraints were necesary to protect my staff. However, if you're ready to calm down, I'll release you."
Iolaus studied him for a moment and thought about his options. The man's eyes were a strange dark amber color, but they held no hint of malice and his smile seemed pleasant enough. He wasn't radiating the same oily vibe that the hunter had gotten from Pallas, but all the same something still felt off and Iolaus wasn't about to trust him. However, playing along appeared to be his only recourse for the moment so he drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly.
"All right. I'm calm."
Dardanos nodded and one of the men who'd been guarding him released him from his bonds, remaining tense and wary in case he tried anything. But Iolaus merely stretched broadly and shook out his numb arms to get the blood flowing again.
"Are you hungry?" Dardanos asked kindly. "Dinner has already been served but I can have something brought for you while we talk."
"I could eat," the hunter admitted with a shrug, never one to turn down a free meal.
Another nod, and someone slipped out the door, presumably to get the food. Dardanos dismissed the others in the room, save for the man who had freed Iolaus, and then he sat down at the table across from the hunter, spreading out a parchment and dipping a quill into an inkwell.
"Where are we?"
"The mountainside overlooking Aspasia," Dardanos replied absently as he scratched the quill against the parchment. "This used to be a prison, years ago. It closed and the building was just sitting empty, so I converted it."
"Into another jail?" Iolaus asked sarcastically.
"I'm no jailer," the man declared witheringly. "I'm a doctor."
"A doctor who locks people up against their will," the hunter accused.
"Sometimes that is necessary, yes," Dardanos admitted. "It is unfortunate, but those sick in the mind often don't realize that they are sick. Forced incarceration is sometimes the only way to treat them."
"And just how do you treat them, Doctor?" Iolaus inquired scornfully.
"The course of treatment depends on the illness. Some get better, some don't. The ones that recover are released back to their lives. And the ones who don't are kept here as humanely as possible, away from people they might hurt and prevented from hurting themselves. Either way, what I offer is asylum."
"And what about me? How long do you think it will take me to recover and be released?"
"That depends a great deal on you and how quickly you embrace your treatment."
"Yeah, well, news flash, Doc. I'm not embracing anything because there's nothing wrong with me. I'm not crazy."
"No, you're delusional. There's a..."
"A difference, I know," Iolaus interrupted. "Maybe to you, but for me the end result either way is that I'm stuck in here against my will."
"There's no shame in it," Dardanos told him, finally looking up from his parchment. "Fantasy is actually a healthy coping mechanism. We all do it, imagining our lives differently when we're stressed or bored. But some people just take things a bit too far and start believing their fantasies are real."
"Believe me, Doc," the hunter chuckled humorlessly, "if I was going to create a fantasy delusion for my life, it would be wine, women and song, not hardship and toil and being a target for the gods."
Dardanos pursed his lips and bent his head back down over his parchment, scribbling furiously.
"What, are you writing that down?" Iolaus demanded, craning his neck to see. But the paper was shielded from him and he gave up, quickly losing interest as the door to the room opened and someone brought in a tray of bread and fruit and warm broth and set it before him. Dardanos gave him a few minutes to eat, then declared he was ready to begin the interview process.
"What is your name?"
"Iolaus of Thebes."
"What is your real name?"
"Iolaus of Thebes," the hunter repeated firmly.
"And you believe you are the Iolaus of Thebes who is rumoured to partner with Hercules?"
"I believe it because it's true."
"Yes, of course it's true," the hunter declared in exasperation. "Why is that so hard for YOU to believe?"
"Well, you are obviously in good physical condition, but you hardly look like a man who is capable of battling monsters."
"And why is that?" Iolaus challenged, thinking that if the good doctor said anything about his size, he'd show the man just what crazy really was. But Dardanos wisely kept his further opinions to himself, setting his quill aside and folding his hands on the table.
"You must learn to trust me, Iolaus," the man advised him. "Because I can't treat you with any hope of success until you do." He turned to the lone man still lingering in the shadows. "Get him settled in a room for tonight. Iolaus, go with Stelios and try to get some rest. We'll talk again in the morning."
"Can't wait," the hunter muttered under his breath as he got up from the table and followed Stelios out of the room and down a long corridor. "So," he began conversationally as he sized up his companion. "Former prison guard?"
"Maybe," the man shrugged. "But all you need to know is that I'm an orderly now."
"You can change the name but that doesn't mean the job description is any different."
"You aren't in jail, pal,” Stelios told him brusquely. "I can't say I wouldn't prefer it that way, but the Doc has his own methods and he believes you animals should be awarded certain freedoms. But make no mistake, if you act up, you get those freedoms taken away. Cause any serious trouble, and you'll be answering to me. Got it?"
"With a threat like that hanging over me I wouldn't dare step out of line," Iolaus said with mock fear.
"See that you don't." They'd arrived at a large iron door and Stelios unlocked it with a key from his belt, shutting it securely behind him after they'd passed through. The room on the other side was stocked with groups of tables and chairs and lined with cushions and the people milling about looked at them curiously as Iolaus was escorted through into another corridor. This one was lined with prison cells and Stelios stopped before one of them, giving the hunter a rough shove into it. "Enjoy your new home, Funny Guy. Lights out in half an hour. If you're smart, you'll use the time to start learning the ropes. Because you don't want to get on my bad side."
"I wonder which one's the bad side?" Iolaus couldn't help muttering as the orderly left. But he was quickly distracted by the realization that Stelios had not closed his cell door and he studied it in confusion, contemplating if it could be some sort of test or trick.
"Stelios is an idiot, but he didn't forget. They don't lock the doors here."
The hunter spun around and his gaze swept the cell, landing on a form stretched out on the top berth of the bunk beds lining the wall.
"Sorry, didn't you there," Iolaus spoke in way of greeting. "Guess we're going to be roommates, huh?" He waited for the man to make the next move, wondering if it would be friendly or hostile. The guy sat up a little straighter and leaned forward into the light coming in from the corridor, revealing a head of black hair that hung to his shoulders and a full beard that couldn't quite cover the long, jagged scar on his cheek. They looked at each other for long moments appraisingly, and then the man relaxed back against the wall.
"Iolaus," the hunter introduced himself.
"So what did you do, Iolaus?"
"I'm not sure what you mean."
"Well, you look pretty sane to me," Aggelos drawled. "So you must have worn the wrong color tunic or scratched your butt with the wrong hand or forgotten to turn around three times before crossing the street... Some sort of grevious crime like that to get hauled in here."
"No, I didn't really," Iolaus grinned. "I just told the truth. Not even embelished that much."
"Yep, that'll do it."
"What did you do?"
"I suppose you could say it was a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Long story."
"So what do I need to know about this place?" the hunter asked, leaning a shoulder against the frame of the cell and looking off down the corridor.
"It's pretty basic," Aggelos explained. "They want everyone to stay in their rooms after lights outs, but as long as you tow the line you get free access to the common room every day. Perimeter is sealed up tight and the orderlies keep everyone under control and occupied when they aren't having therapy sessions with Dardanos."
"Are all the orderlies as charming as Stelios?" Iolaus wanted to know as he turned and had a seat on the lower bunk, bouncing slightly to test it.
"Some I think subscribe to the doctor's philosphy of treatment and have more or less good intentions. The rest are hired thugs. Stelios is the worst and you're already on his list right out of the gate. He’s going to have it in for you."
"Well, at least the beds are soft," the hunter reasoned optimistically.
"Yeah, it's a regular palace," Stelios muttered bitterly. "Take my advice and don't get sucked in by the sweetness, pal. This place is still a prison, and a dangerous one at that."
"I didn't mean to make light of the situation," Iolaus told him. "It's just that I've been in some pretty depressing holes in my time and by comparision this place isn't so bad."
"If you say so. But even the nutjobs here will tell you that things aren't always what they seem."
"What do you mean by that?"
Just then the call came for lights out, and the people who had been out in the main room came shuffling down the corridor to their respective rooms. Stelios followed them, extinguishing most of the torches along the way and casting the rows of cells into near darkness.
"Just be careful," Aggelos advised in a whisper before he drew back out of sight. "And watch your back."
“Be careful of what? What’s the deal here, Aggelos, really? What does Dardanos want with us?”
But the upper bunk went still and silent, leaving Iolaus to wonder just what the veiled threat could be that he was supposed to watch out for. But Aggelos was apparently done talking for the night, so the hunter stretched out on his own bed as he pondered what to do next.
He was going to have to bust out, that much was obvious. His sword, satchel and money pouch had all been confiscated, which would make escape more difficult, but there was always a way. However, the hunter was greatly conflicted, still unsure as to what was really going on in Aspasia. Was his incarceration an honest mistake, an error by a well meaning but overzealous purveyor of sanity? Or was there something more sinister going on? Aggelos’ warning certainly seemed to indicate something was afoot. And his hunter's instincts seemed to agree. He very greatly doubted that the orderlies were working for free, and even if they were it would take a lot of dinars to provide food for the entire hospital. Snatching people off the street and jailing them against their will didn’t seem like it would be a profitable venture. So either the taxes of Aspasia were funding this place, or Dardanos was getting something else out of the deal. Something other than the satisfaction derived from “curing” the “sick”.
It was definitely enough to warrant investigation. So Iolaus decided to stick around the asylum for a day or two and see what was what. If he turned out to be wrong and there was nothing insidious going on, well, then at least he'd been getting a comfortable bed and a few free meals out of the deal. And if he was right, then he'd either deal with the problem or bust out and come back with Hercules.
His mind made up, Iolaus relaxed and curled up under the warm blankets, listening to the sound of the rain falling outside and, indignity of his forced incarceration aside, feeling rather glad he was inside and dry for the night.
Iolaus slept well that night. Perhaps a little too well as he had to be woken by an orderly who shouted at him to get up or he'd miss breakfast. That was more than enough motivation for the hunter and he quickly rose. Aggelos was already gone and Iolaus was the last one to join the crowd in the common room. Once he arrived the orderlies did a quick head count and opened the gate to lead everyone out to the meal room. It was huge and the man next to Iolaus in line explained to him that there were four wings to the hospital, each identical to the one they were in, which was the West Wing. For the most part they were kept separate, but they all came together twice a day for meals. The hunter digested that information as he gathered up his food and found a seat at one of the long tables, noting with a chuckle of irony that requesting a pomegranate outside the hospital would get you committed, but once inside the walls they were apparently fair game. He ate the fruit, along with a bowl of porriage that was better than it looked, and then he began talking to the other people sitting near him. Iolaus kept his questions vague, not wanting to lead anyone by asking outright if they ever felt in danger.
It didn’t take him long to realize that the man on his left probably had not been unjustly brought to the facility and that he was indeed in need of some extensive therapy. But the others around him all seemed perfectly normal, if a little bit nervous. None seemed willing to talk freely, but when the hunter broke down and asked if any of them had ever noticed anything strange, the gray haired woman with the sad eyes across from him glanced over her shoulder at the line of orderlies keeping vigil over the meal and then leaned over the table toward him.
“So you’ve seen them, too?” she whispered.
“Seen what?” Iolaus whispered back.
“Don’t listen to Leola,” the man next to her scoffed loudly.
“Alkis, you know as well as I do that this place is haunted,” she insisted firmly.
“I know no such thing,” the big man boomed. “You’re as crazy as they say you are.”
“Why do you think this place is haunted?” Iolaus interjected, both to get the info he needed and to stave off a fight.
“A lot of people died here years ago,” Leola explained, turning her attention to her willing audience and growing more animated as she did so. “This used to be a prison, and the people jailed here were treated worse than animals. The guards killed them for sport and just threw their bodies down in the dungeon. So their ghosts are doomed to haunt these corridors until their remains are laid to rest.”
“That’s just a tale children tell to scare each other,” Alkis snorted. “Everyone knows ghosts don’t exist.”
“Actually, they do,” Iolaus said thoughtfully. “I once saw a group of souls who couldn’t be at peace until their bodies were recovered.”
“Yes,” Leola said excitedly. “And most everyone here has seen or heard them. Apparitions going by in the night, and strange noises. And...”
“And, what?” the hunter prompted.
“People go missing,” she finished fearfully, her voice dropping back to a whisper. “The orderlies all say we imagine it or that patients have been released, but people disappear in the night and are never seen again. You know I’m right, Alkis.”
“No, I don’t know. The only thing I do know is that there are no such things as ghosts!”
“You told me you’ve seen them,” Leola said accusingly. “And you told me yourself that your dead wife has been talking to you.”
“I told you that in confidence!” Alkis shouted, going red in the face and standing up so quickly that his chair fell backward. “You swore you wouldn’t tell anyone, you stupid woman!”
“Alkis, come with me.”
Instantly the anger left the man and he cowered away from Stelios’ hand on his shoulder.
“No, please, not solitary,” he begged desperately. “I’ll be good, I promise. Please, Stelios, please!”
But the orderly was not in a merciful mood and waved over a few of his colleagues to help him drag the resisting man away. Iolaus stood up, wanting to go to the man’s aid but knowing he was unarmed, vastly outnumbered, and helpless to do anything besides share Alkis’ fate. Whatever that was.
“Where are they taking him?”
“Solitary,” Leola told him. “I’ve never been, but I’ve heard there are special cells down in the dungeon. They take people who act up down there and keep them until they calm down.”
“The dungeon? Where the prisoners’ remains are?” Iolaus clarified as the woman nodded. “Does anyone ever go there and not come back?”
“Sometimes,” she said faintly.
Iolaus sighed, running a hand through his curls. In his admittedly limited experience with ghosts, they hadn’t been inclined to violence. On the contrary, the ghosts of Jarton and the other fallen soldiers had helped to stop a war. But, they were honorable men who had died honorable deaths on the battlefield. The hunter supposed that murdered prisoners might not be so helpful and benign.
He wanted to know more about the alleged solitary cells in the dungeon. Alkis was plainly terrified of being sent there, but whether that was born of legend or from experience Iolaus didn’t know. He needed to find someone who could tell him about them, and he had a gut feeling that Aggelos would be the one to ask. But before he could track down his roommate, the hunter was corralled by an orderly and taken to the room he’d awoken in the night before for a therapy session with Dardanos.
They played the name game for awhile until the doctor finally realized he wasn’t going to budge from his claim to be Iolaus of Thebes. So he moved on, or tried to, but Iolaus was being rather tight lipped. For once he didn’t feel like telling stories about his life as Hercules’ partner and all the adventures they’d had. Because even though Dardanos outwardly appeared to be a benevolent doctor who just wanted to help the sick, the hunter knew there was something off with the man. Iolaus couldn’t put his finger on what it was, but he didn’t trust him and had come to the early conclusion that the less the doctor knew about him, the better. So they went round in circles for what felt like hours until Dardanos finally gave up and dismissed him for the day.
The hunter was escorted back to the West Wing. His room was empty and Aggelos was not among those in the common room, but there seemed to be several people missing. When asked, he was told that they had been taken outside for exercise and that his turn would come as they rotated in small groups throughout the day. Around midday a platter of food was brought in and left on one of the tables. An assortment of fruit and olives and a big pile of honey cakes. Iolaus was eagerly reaching for one when he hesitated as a mental alarm sounded in his brain.
“Don’t get sucked in by the sweetness.” The words of caution Aggelos had given him the night before came back to him full force. It was definitely a warning, but perhaps he had meant it literally. Iolaus gathered a drop of the gooey honey topping the pastries on his finger and tasted it. Was it his imagination, or did he detect a slight aftertaste behind the sugar that shouldn’t have been there? Maybe he was being paranoid but the hunter decided to err on the side of caution and forgo the treat, contenting himself with a more tamper resistant apple.
As promised, Iolaus did eventually get to go outside with a few others from his wing, joining three other small groups from the other wings in the yard. It really wasn’t much of a yard, triangular in shape and bordered by the asylum wall, the mountain, and a sheer drop off. But it was still nice to get out and enjoy a little sun and breathe some fresh air. The hunter spent his time wandering the perimeter, seemingly aimlessly but his mind was sharp and focused and by the time they were herded back inside he had his inevitable escape all planned.
He spent the rest of the afternoon in the common room getting acquainted with the other people. Some were forthcoming, some less so. The few that were receptive to his questions answered nervously, all giving roughly the same report that Leola had. As evening began to fall they were taken back to the meal room for a dinner of fish stew and bread, and then after that Iolaus was forced into a group therapy session with some of his fellow captives. He couldn’t see how shaping clay vessels could be therapeutic and cynically wondered if it was some sort of slave labor situation, where Dardanos was profiting from selling goods the patients created. But after viewing the decidedly unprofessional final products, Iolaus scratched that theory on principle.
Night fell and lights out was called, but Aggelos was still nowhere to be found. The hunter paced around his empty cell, deciding asking about him was worth the risk of pissing off Stelios when he came by to extinguish the torches.
“What are you babbling about?” the orderly demanded impatiently. “I set you up in an empty room. You never had a roommate.”
“Yes, I did,” Iolaus insisted. “His name was Aggelos and he was in here when you shoved me inside. You didn’t see him?”
“No,” Stelios told him, giving him a look that clearly indicated he thought the hunter was off his rocker. “And we don’t have any patients here by that name.”
“I’m telling you he was here,” Iolaus insisted, getting agitated. “I talked to him.”
“You’re mistaken,” Stelios said in a warning tone. “And you need to calm down.”
“I don’t want to calm down,” the hunter seethed. “I’m tired of everyone telling me to calm down! I just want to know what in the name of Hades is going on in this damned place!”
“That’s it,” the orderly growled, grabbing the smaller man in a head lock. “I told you to behave, but you don’t want to listen. So maybe a night in solitary will teach you a little respect.”
The hunter relaxed and didn’t fight the crushing hold, even though he could have broken the big oaf’s grip and laid him out flat with barely any effort. But he’d wanted information about the dungeon, and it seemed like the best way to obtain it was to see it up close and personal. So he let Stelios cart him off, hoping that maybe he’d find Aggelos down there waiting for him.
Iolaus kicked at the moldy hay piled in the corner of his cell with no small distaste. Whatever comforts were to be had in the asylum most definitely did not extend down to the bowels of the facility. The cell he’d been shoved into was damp and cold and bare except for the minimal bedding, and not much wider than he was tall. No windows, and only one torch outside that barely cast any light within. It wasn’t a place to promote calming, but rather it was designed to punish and break and demoralize. And judging from the tortured whispering he could barely hear, the dungeon was taking it’s toll on some poor soul.
“Alkis?” the hunter called out, straining to see through the gloom across the way. “Is that you?”
“Leave me alone,” came the strangled plea. There were a few moments of silence, and then the sound of muted sobs.
“Great,” Iolaus sighed to himself as he settled into the scratchy hay as best he could. “It’s going to be a long night.”
The hunter nodded off, awaking a short time later with pins and needles in his arm from the way he was lying on it. He got up, shaking the limb absently and noting that things were quiet. Alkis must have finally gotten hold of himself, he rationalized as he stood up and stretched, glancing over at the cell facing him. It was still dark, but something was reflecting a tiny flicker of torch light. And the cloying scent of blood reached Iolaus just as he realized the reflection was coming from a pool of dark liquid that was forming on the floor outside of Alkis’ cell.
Iolaus was seething as he made his way through the line for breakfast, but he was careful to keep his anger internal. Venting it when the orderlies had assured him that he’d been mistaken about something happening to Alkis had done nothing but land him extra days in solitary. The hunter had stubbornly accepted his punishment, for unlike many of his fellow patients he was no farmer or craftsman or inexperienced villager. It was going to take a lot more than a few days in a dungeon cell to make him crack and each time he was questioned he vehemently recounted what he’d seen and heard that first night. Until that morning, when Dardanos had come to see him, talking kindly of how the stress had been playing tricks on his mind and he needed to realize that and renounce his story so that his treatment could continue. And although it went against every fiber of his being, Iolaus finally admitted that he’d been mistaken and nothing unusual had happened in the dungeon. He hated to do it, but he wasn’t learning anything useful trapped in a cell and he needed the freedom to be able to continue investigating and to try and find out what had happened to Alkis and Aggelos. For there was no longer any doubt about it in his mind, something sinister was going on within the hospital walls. And becoming a martyr for his principles wasn’t the way he was going to end it.
Once he had recanted, Dardanos had let him out with a proud smile. It was all Iolaus could do not to take a swing at him, but he restrained himself and allowed the doctor to lead him out of the dungeon. After quickly cleaning up, the hunter had joined everyone else in the meal room with a degree of eagerness, for though he had been fed in the dungeon the food was of a much lesser quality that what he’d grown accustomed to in his brief stay. As he found a seat and started to eat, some of the anger left him as a familiar face sat down across from him.
“I always knew someday you’d end up in a place like this.”
“Oh, you’re a riot,” Iolaus scoffed as he dropped a few berries into his porridge. “Let me guess. You’re here because you’re suffering delusions.”
“Yeah. Apparently I think I’m Hercules.”
“Guess it won’t do me any good to have you vouch for me then.” The hunter quickly took a few bites of his meal and then looked his old friend in the eye. “What are you really doing here, Herc? They never could have got you in here unless you let them.”
“I surrendered yesterday,” the demigod told him. “And came willingly. When you didn’t show up in Mycenae I started this way and figured out your trail ended here in Aspasia. Then when Pallas came after me I figured going along with him would be the best way to find you. But what are you still doing here? I would have thought you would have busted out of here days ago.”
“There’s something going on here, Herc,” Iolaus explained as he pushed his empty bowl away. “I’m not quite sure what it is yet, but it’s bad.”
“Tell me about it.”
The hunter quickly caught his friend up on everything that he’d seen and heard since he’d come to the hospital.
“I’ve heard of this Dardanos,” the demigod mused. “Asclepius mentioned him. Said it was about time someone started treating the mentally ill as sick people in need of medical help as opposed to just locking them up like animals.”
“Yeah, that’s all real noble,” Iolaus muttered darkly. “Until you realize that most of the people brought here aren’t mentally ill in the first place. And that they have a habit of mysteriously disappearing.”
“We’ll get to the bottom of it,” Hercules promised, glancing around the room. “Stelios is coming this way. He’s probably coming for me. I’m supposed to have a therapy session with the doctor after breakfast.”
“You have fun with that,” the hunter drawled as he rose from the table, wanting to make himself scarce before the thug orderly got to them. “What wing did they put you in?”
“I’m in West. So I guess I’ll meet you back here for dinner and we can compare notes. And Herc? Stay away from the honey cakes.”
Iolaus spent the day trying to find out what had happened to Alkis and Aggelos, with little success. None of the other patients had seen them and his investigation was somewhat hindered by the fact that he was under surveillance.
“We need a distraction,” he told Hercules that evening at dinner, glancing around the room thoughtfully.
“I want to sneak into the kitchen and have a look around.”
“What’s in the kitchen?” the demigod wanted to know.
“I’m not sure yet,” Iolaus confessed.
“Does this have anything to do with why you told me to stay away from the honey cakes?”
“It’s just a hunch,” the hunter told him. “But yes, I think they’re spiking the food.”
“All right,” Hercules sighed. “Get the attention of the orderlies and I’ll go check it out.”
“No way!” Iolaus protested. “It’s my idea. You don’t even know what you’re looking for.”
“Neither do you.”
“All right, but I’m still not doing it. I’m tired of always being the one to be the distraction.”
“Fine, I’ll do it,” the demigod said in exasperation.
“No, you make a terrible distraction.”
“I do not,” Hercules argued woundedly.
“Yes, you do,” Iolaus informed him. “You are way too straight and narrow to convincingly sell crazy. Besides, I need you to act as lookout.”
“Well, I may be in the nuthouse but I can still count to three, and I’m only seeing two of us here right now,” the demigod pointed out.
“Just leave that to me,” the hunter said slowly, his gaze sweeping the crowded room. “I have a plan.”
“The scariest words in the Grecian language,” Hercules muttered under his breath as he got up and reluctantly followed his partner. Iolaus casually sauntered up to another patient who was finishing off his bowl of stew and whispered something into his ear. Immediately the man jumped to his feet and threw his nearly empty bowl away, then started running the lengths of the tables, knocking other bowls to the ground and screaming wildly. Chaos erupted, with a few of the patients likewise becoming hysterical and the rest starting to scramble to get out of the way as the orderlies moved in to try and regain control.
“Now,” Iolaus hissed to his friend as he started easing his way to the door that led to the kitchen.
“What in the name of Zeus did you say to him?”
“I told him the cooks put daisies in the stew.” At his partner’s look, the hunter merely shrugged. “He’s got a thing about daisies.”
“Daisies?” Hercules whispered to himself, shaking his head in disbelief as Iolaus left him standing guard and slipped back into the kitchen.
He looked around quickly, not seeing anything amiss as he searched through the food stores. The noise outside was starting to die down as he turned to a shelf filled with clay pots, cursing himself that he was taking too long. Spices, seasonings, honey... and one pot full of white powder. Iolaus licked his finger and took up a little of the substance, tasting it experimentally. It was slightly bitter and was definitely not salt or any other type of seasoning with which he was familiar. A loud whistle sounded from outside and he knew Hercules was signaling him, so he hurriedly shoved the pot back on the shelf and shoved a pomegranate under his vest. Peeking his head out the kitchen door, he saw Hercules engaging two of the orderlies in conversation. He tried to sneak out while their backs were turned, but unfortunately Stelios saw him from across the room.
“Hey!” the orderly shouted, sprinting over to him. “What were you doing in there?”
“Just getting a snack,” Iolaus replied innocently, displaying the fruit he had taken. “These are hard to come by on the outside, you know.”
“You just ate,” Stelios reminded him suspiciously.
“Well, yeah, but this is for later,” the hunter explained. “I get hungry around midnight.” He tried to give the orderly his most charming smile, but the man knocked the fruit from his hand and grabbed him by the vest.
“Not even out for a day and already you miss it so much you’re ready to go back,” Stelios sneered as he started hauling the smaller man through the meal room. “Maybe this time I’ll just leave you down in solitary. How would you like that?”
“Well, I wouldn’t,” Iolaus told him. “If it means I’d miss out on moments like this with you, Stelios.”
“Keep making jokes,” the orderly warned. “And keep laughing, Funny Guy. You’ll need that sense of humor if you want to make it through the night til morning.”
Hercules overhead the threat as he watched with no small concern as his partner was dragged out of the room. But he was helpless to do anything but try and console himself that Iolaus was skilled and capable of handling himself, no matter how ominous. Still, he would feel better if he were there to watch his back, and he knew it was going to be a long night ahead. For both of them.
“You ok?” the demigod asked as his friend slammed his bowl down on the table across from him.
“Fantastic,” Iolaus grumbled with heavy sarcasm. “That cell is starting to feel just like home.”
“Well, you made it to morning,” Hercules pointed out, trying to be optimistic. “I guess Stelios’ threat wasn’t much of one, huh?”
“Wasn’t much of anything,” the hunter shrugged as he dug into his breakfast. “Aside from a few rats, I didn’t hear or see anything at all down there.”
“You think he was just trying to scare you?”
“I don’t know.” Iolaus paused, taking a good look at his friend. “But what’s going on with you?”
“What do you mean?” Hercules asked, trying and failing to appear casual.
“You look like the one who spent the night in the dungeon, Herc,” the hunter told him. “Did something happen last night?”
“Yeah,” the demigod sighed, pushing his bowl away.
“You going to tell me what it was?” Iolaus prodded after a minute of silence.
“You’re going to think I’m crazy.”
“Well, we are in the appropriate setting,” the hunter joked.
“All right. Last night.... I heard Deianeira.”
“What do you mean, you heard her?” Iolaus demanded, growing serious.
“I heard her voice,” Hercules confided. “Talking to me.”
“What did she say?”
“That she loved me. And she missed me. That she wanted us to be together. She wanted to be a family again.”
“Herc., how is that possible?”
“I don’t know but it was her, Iolaus,” Hercules insisted strongly. “I know my own wife’s voice!”
“Ok, I believe you,” the hunter placated his friend.
“Yeah, your word is good enough for me. But even if it wasn’t, I know that Alkis was hearing his wife, too. His dead wife.”
“Do you think it could be possible that this place really is haunted?” Hercules asked, having heard the same stories from the other patients that his partner had.
“No, I don’t,” Iolaus replied with a shake of his head. “I think someone’s going to a lot of trouble to make it appear haunted.”
“Start the story going around, then rig up a few noises in the middle of the night and people start believing it. I found something in the kitchen yesterday, too. I don’t know what it was, but what if it’s some kind of drug? Something mild that makes people think they see things, or even just makes them susceptible to believing they saw something. Then have the good doctor play a few mind games with them, and before you know it everyone’s seeing ghosts, or else believing they really are crazy.”
“What I heard last night was no mind game,” Hercules argued. “And I ate the same food you did so if it was drugged, you should have been hearing things as well.”
“Maybe they only dose a few random bowls at a time,” Iolaus speculated.
“It didn’t feel like any sort of hallucination,” the demigod told him. “It was too real.”
“But the legend here is that it’s a bunch of murdered prisoners haunting this place,” the hunter rationalized. “So why would Deianeira be here, now?”
“I don’t know. But on the other hand, why would Dardanos want to make everyone think this place was haunted?”
“That’s what we need to find out,” Iolaus murmured distractedly, his gaze fixed across the room. “Uh oh.”
“Uh oh?” Hercules turned around and focused on the new man who had just entered the room, realizing that he looked rather familiar. “Uh oh.”
They both stood up, and the man caught sight of them and wormed his way through the crowded tables to join them.
“Well, fancy meeting you two here,” he greeted them cheerfully as he sat down beside Iolaus. “Are you just visiting or did you get here honestly?”
“We could ask you the same question, Andries,” the hunter shot back at him.
“My brother had me committed,” the young man told them as he dove into his breakfast. “Wasn’t too hard to convince Dardanos. Apparently I have a complex that puts Narcissus to shame.”
“I can believe that,” Iolaus muttered.
“Andries, what are you really doing here?” Hercules asked.
“Same thing you guys are, I would guess,” he replied. “Damalis and I got a message from a girl in Aspasia who said that her father was brought here and now they won’t let her see him and keep giving her the brush off and she’s afraid something’s happened to him. Her father and our dad were friends, so we told her we’d check it out. The ghost rumors just made it all the more appealing.”
“As much as we appreciate your enthusiasm, I think Iolaus and I can handle this one,” the demigod told him with a hint of amusement.
“Yeah, just like you handled that Mara, right?” Andries pointed out. “Look, big guy, no offense, but this just isn’t your kind of gig, all right?”
“And just what is our kind of gig?” Iolaus asked dryly.
“Oh, you know, hydras, She-Demons, sea monsters,” the young man said loftily. “The kind of stuff that requires more brawn than brains.”
“What are you trying to say?” Hercules demanded with a flash of anger.
“Just like I told you before. Monsters of the gods are your thing. Monsters of the Netherworld are ours. Just let Damalis and I handle this one. It’s what we do.”
“I don’t care what you do,” the demigod snarled, his voice rising as he pounded a fist on the table. “Because what Iolaus and I do is go where we’re needed and help how we can. We don’t need you here and we don’t want you here! We can handle it, and you’re just going to get in the way! We’ve got this one, so just back off and let us work or I’ll make you sorry you ever heard of Aspasia!”
It took four orderlies to wrestle and subdue the irate demigod, who was still yelling and cursing as they dragged him out of the meal room. Andries had been shocked into silence and when he finally found his voice he turned to the man beside him, who had continued to eat his breakfast without batting an eye.
“Wow. Are you sure the big guy is here voluntarily?”
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” Iolaus reassured him calmly. “He was just trying to prove me wrong.”
“In what way?” Andries inquired a bit warily.
“I told him he was too goody two sandals to pull off a convincing crazy routine.”
“Yeah, I think you were wrong,” the young man agreed, shaking his head. “I tell you, I hope I never see him seriously pissed off. He’s pretty scary when he’s just faking it.”
“Well, he needed to land himself in solitary. That’s what they call the cells down in the dungeon. Whatever is happening to these people, it’s happening down there. I’ve spent more than enough time there and nothing’s come after me, so maybe Herc will have better luck.”
“Look, I’m not really what you’d call a team player,” Andries offered, “but we’re all here now and we did pretty good teaming up against that Mara. So what do you say we work together?”
“All right,” the hunter agreed guardedly. “But that means we work together, right? Full disclosure on both sides. Not I tell you what I know and you run off to do your own thing.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” the young man promised, giving a charming grin that rivaled Iolaus’ best.
It was almost against his better judgement, but Iolaus knew that under all the narcissism and wise ass exterior, Andries was one of the good guys and he did seem to have experience and knowledge with the weird and the strange. So he told him everything, including his and Hercules’ conflicting theories.
“So, in your professional opinion,” the hunter summarized with a touch of sarcasm, “what do you think?”
“I think you’re both morons,” Andries concluded bluntly. “There might be some parlor tricks going on for distraction, but there is definitely something here. Something evil. And it’s definitely not a ghost.”
“Then what is it?”
“I don’t know,” he answered, shaking his head. “It’s going to take a little time to investigate. But whatever it is, it sounds like that dungeon is its playground for tormenting and killing people.”
“Which means that whatever it is,” Iolaus realized as a sudden chill ran up his spine, “Hercules is going to be trapped down there with it for the night.”
“Will you stop that?”
“Stop looking over your shoulder,” Andries chastised his companion. “He’ll be here. And I’m sure he’ll be just fine. We are talking about Hercules, after all.”
“I know,” Iolaus said, a bit sheepishly. “You probably think it’s stupid to worry about a demigod, but Herc and I grew up looking out after each other, you know? It’s a hard habit to break.”
“Yeah, I do know,” Andries told him quietly.
“I guess you would,” the hunter agreed, remembering how protective the man had been of his younger brother. “And you’re right. I’m sure Herc is fine.”
“You know him better than I do,” the younger man said, nodding across the meal room. “Is that fine? Or is that freaked out? It looks a little more like freaked out to me.”
“No, that’s definitely freaked out,” Iolaus murmured, watching as his friend bypassed the line and approached their table without bothering to get himself any breakfast.
“So what did you see down there?” Andries asked eagerly as the demigod sat down beside his partner. “Inquiring minds want to know.”
“I didn’t see anything,” Hercules announced. Then he looked down, fiddling with his gauntlet as his voice dropped an octave. “It was what I heard.”
“Deianeira?” Iolaus asked gently.
“All night long,” the demigod muttered, not acknowledging the comforting hand his friend placed on his shoulder but appreciating it all the same.
“What was she saying?” the hunter prodded him.
“More of the same,” Hercules sighed. “How she wants to be with me again and wants our family to be reunited. But it was different this time. More demanding. I think... I think she was asking me to kill myself to be with her in the underworld.”
“Hercules, that wasn’t your wife,” Andries said suddenly.
“Yeah, Herc, Deianeira would never want that for you,” Iolaus agreed.
“No, I mean I think I know what we’re dealing with here,” the younger man mused as the pieces of the puzzle started falling into place in his mind.
“Are you going to give us a hint?” the hunter asked sarcastically when their companion lapsed into silence.
“It’s a crocotta, and yes, I know you’ve never heard of it before. They aren’t normally found in Greece.”
“So what is it?” Hercules demanded.
“Real nasty creature,” Andries explained. “Typically they stake out the woods surrounding a village and get familiar with the people living there. Then they start calling out, mimicking the voices of the villagers’ loved ones to try and lure somebody out to them.”
“And then?” Iolaus pressed.
“It’s dinner time.”
“So what would one of these... crocottas be doing here?” Hercules wanted to know.
“Are you kidding me? This place is easy pickings for something like that. Get a group of nutjobs together who nobody’s going to miss, drug the sane ones so everyone thinks they’re nutjobs, spread around some ghost rumors to take the heat off yourself, and then just roam the halls at night whispering to these poor souls until you get one to come out to you. It’s actually pretty brilliant.”
“I’m glad you’re impressed,” the demigod said dryly. “But why would this thing go to all that trouble? Why not just kill people outright?”
“It’s got to be careful,” Andries rationalized. “If it keeps what it’s doing a secret, then it can keep this meal ticket running for a long time. It can’t just walk into someone’s room and kill them without a bunch of witnesses seeing him. It’s got to lure them out alone in the dark.”
“Well, it had me all alone in the dark all night long,” Hercules argued. “Why bother with the game? Why not just attack me?”
“Because it knows you’ve got the strength of the gods,” the younger man theorized. “It didn’t want to risk attacking you and chance that you would overpower it. I think you were right the first time. It was trying to get you to do the deed yourself and then it could enjoy a free meal with little effort.”
“I’ve got one,” Iolaus piped up. “This Cro...thing went after Herc right away. And I know it killed Alkis. But I was down in that dungeon alone for days and never heard anything. Why didn’t it come after me?”
“Maybe because of that.” Andries nodded toward the stone that was resting against the hunter’s chest.
“Damalis suggested the same thing to me once,” Iolaus recalled as his hand absently gave the cool stone a light stroke. “And I’m telling you the same thing I told him. This belonged to my father, and it does not have any magical properties.”
“Whatever you say,” Andries smirked in a tone that clearly indicated he thought he was right.
“All right, so we know what this thing is now,” Hercules interjected. “How do we stop it?”
“First we have to figure out who it is,” the younger man reasoned. “It could be anyone in this place.”
“Or it could be Dardanos,” Iolaus said thoughtfully. “With all those therapy sessions he knows the life stories of everyone in this place, so he’d know just what to say to lure people out to him. And I haven’t told him anything, so that could be why he hasn’t come for me. He doesn’t know where my weak spot is yet.”
“Well, I haven’t told him anything, either,” the demigod protested.
“You didn’t have to, Herc,” the hunter reminded his partner. “Your life story is pretty legendary. Everybody knows it.”
“I like it,” Andries declared, rubbing his hands together. “That’s guy’s been giving me the creeps since I got here and I’ve been itching to take him out.”
“Wait a minute,” Hercules argued. “You can’t go attacking a man without proof. We need to make sure that he’s the crocotta.”
“That’s easy enough to test,” Iolaus said confidently. “When I go into therapy today I’ll feed him some line of b.s. about a woman I loved and lost. Then we just sit back and wait, and if I get the call from a fictional beauty then we know it’s him.”
“And then he’s mine,” the demigod growled, feeling the need to vent on the creature that had defamed his wife’s memory.
“Whoa, hold the scroll there, big guy,” Andries interrupted. “It’s not going to be quite that easy. Brute force isn’t going to kill a crocotta. And his strength is probably going to be equal to yours.”
“So how do we stop it?” the hunter asked.
“Only one way. Iron stake through the heart.”
“That’s your answer for everything,” Iolaus accused him.
“Well, what can I say? Iron is a monster hunter’s best friend.”
“You can say how we’re going to kill a monster with an iron stake when none of us have one,” Hercules pointed out.
“And that would be where my brother comes in,” Andries said smugly.
“What do you mean?” the hunter asked.
“He’s on the outside, waiting for my word.”
“And then?” the demigod pressed.
“Well, crazy runs in our family, boys,” Andries grinned. “And I have a feeling Damalis will be committed before nightfall. He’ll bring us what we need.”
As promised, when the group of crocotta hunters reconvened at dinner they were sought out and joined by Damalis.
“Did you bring it?” Andries demanded of his brother in way of greeting.
“Yes,” the younger of the two replied, in a tone that clearly indicated he thought it was the stupidest question ever.
“Good. What about you there, Melpomene? Did you turn on the waterworks for Dardanos?”
“Hello, Damalis,” the hunter pointedly greeted the new arrival. “Nice to see you again. And yes, I made up a story for Dardanos.”
“But did he believe it?”
“Yes,” Iolaus replied, mimicking Damalis’ earlier response and feeling just a bit miffed that Andries had seemingly elected himself leader of their motley group.
“Wait a second,” Hercules interjected. “How did you manage to get an iron stake in here? And how did you even get word to him in the first place?”
“Tricks of the trade, big guy,” Andries shrugged. “Now pay attention to the here and now, would you? We’re about to cement our plan and we really need you to try and keep up.”
“Excuse me?” the demigod said sharply, taking no small offense to the assault on his intelligence.
“Well, the next part of the plan is simple,” Iolaus interrupted quickly in an attempt to spare Andries a beat down. True, the cocky little punk had it coming but first things first. “I get myself thrown back into solitary and wait and see if anyone comes by for a little late night conversation. But how are you guys going to get down there? I’m not sure the crocotta will make a move in a full house.”
“He might be that ballsy, but I’m more worried about it looking suspicious if all of us land in solitary at once,” Damalis mused.
“It’s going to be a little tricky since all of us are in different wings,” Andries speculated. “But Dami and I can both slip out without too much trouble. What about you, Hercules? Think you can rip the gate off the hinges or whatever you do quietly?”
“I’ll try to keep my mindless brutism as muted as possible,” the demigod told him sarcastically.
“Ok, then,” Andries declared, satisfied. “Iolaus will go down below and bait the trap and then the cavalry will follow.”
“You do realize this plan is insane and there’s a slim to none chance of it working, right?” the hunter asked.
“You got a problem with that?”
“No, that’s my favorite kind of plan,” Iolaus grinned.
“Right on, my man,” Andries agreed, raising up a hand for a high five which the hunter gave him enthusiastically.
“So, how are you going to get yourself thrown into solitary?” Damalis wanted to know.
“Ah, that’s the easy part,” Iolaus told him as he stood up from the table. “And you don’t know how much I’m going to enjoy this.” He picked up a melon half that he had selected especially because it was overripe and dripping with juice and hefted it experimentally, gauging the weight as his blue eyes swept the meal room and signaled in on his intended target. “Oh, Stelllllllios!!”
It just seemed inevitable that sooner or later Iolaus always ended up as the distraction or the bait. He didn’t care for the role, much preferring to be in the thick of the action, causing the mayhem as opposed to drawing it out on the fringes. No, he was a warrior, a soldier, a fighter! Not an actor or a jester or a speeding target. But often times, especially where plans were involved, he was regulated to one or more of the latter. Because Hercules was Hercules, and Iolaus was... good. Good at selling a character, improvising in chaos, and dodging the line of fire. So in the wee hours of the morning, when a soft whispering woke him from the doze he’d fallen into, the hunter not only played along but gave a thoroughly convincing performance.
The fictional love he’d told Dardanos about called to him from the shadows beyond the torchlight, pleading with him to join her so they could be together again. And Iolaus first tried to dismiss the voice as a figment of his imagination, then pleaded back to it to leave him alone, and then tried to reason with it. All the while seeming to become more and more tortured, while secretly wondering what in Hades was taking the others so long to get down there. The whispering which at first was plaintive and pathetic began to grow more demanding, and the hunter had to stop and remind himself that it wasn’t real.
“What do you want me to do?” he cried out as he gripped the bars of his cell. To his surprise, the door moved in his hands and with a gentle push it swung open, despite the fact that he was quite sure Stelios had locked it.
“Come to me,” the voice whispered intently.
Well, he didn’t have a choice now, Iolaus realized. If he didn’t go out, the crocotta was bound to come to him, like it did to Alkis. There was no more time to wait for the others. And if he was going to confront this thing, then he much preferred to do it outside of the cramped confines of the cell where he’d have room to maneuver.
“All right,” he acquiesced in a weary tone of defeat. “I’m coming.”
He slowly stepped out of the cell and cautiously started toward the whispering, noting the fevered desire in its voice. Bloodlust, he thought to himself. But when the hunter reached the very edge of the darkened shadows, he suddenly lunged back and snatched the torch from the wall. Then he sprang forward, thrusting the light ahead of him into the darkness. He’d been expecting to see Dardanos waiting for him, but what he saw instead made him instantly recoil.
The thing advanced on him with a snarl and Iolaus tried to keep it back with the torch. It worked for the moment, but the hunter knew he had to come up with a plan asap. However he was having trouble concentrating, his mind struggling to comprehend the beast before him. It was as big as a mule and vaguely horse like in appearance, though the torso was more like a lion. But the mouth was like nothing he’d ever seen before; a wide, gaping slit that stretched from ear to ear and that was lined with a heavy ridge of bone instead of teeth. Even a nip from that thing was going to do some serious damage and Iolaus was trying his best not to let that happen. But the creature was fast and it was smart, unlike most of the monsters he was used to dealing with that just struck out with mindless aggression. The hunter couldn’t help thinking a little assistance would be nice as the thing reared up and struck his arm with its cloven hoofs, knocking the torch out of his grasp. Then suddenly a hand grabbed the back of his vest and yanked him backward out of the way as a shadowy blur crashed into the crocotta and sent it reeling.
“What in the name of Zeus is that thing?” Iolaus panted as Andries helped to steady him.
“The crotcotta can take the shape of a man but that’s its true form,” the younger man told him.
“Well that would have been good information to know in advance!” the hunter exclaimed. “What happened to full disclosure?”
“Slipped my mind,” Andries shrugged. “Come on.”
They formed a line with Damalis and Hercules, effectively hemming the beast in and cornering it. But the crocotta had shaken off the blow the demigod had given it and was pawing the ground and snarling at them, not seeming the least bit intimidated.
“We need a plan here, guys,” Damalis said, just a hint of worry in his voice.
Hercules and Iolaus shared a glance, a wordless communication flowing between the two old friends.
“Yeah,” the hunter sighed in resignation. “I’m on it.”
Without warning he leapt forward, jumping and spinning and flailing in front of the crocotta, essentially engaging the beast in some weird kind of dance. And for a split second Hercules was disturbed at how much his partner reminded him of the Widow Twanky, but he quickly shook that off as the giant maw of the crocotta missed the hunter by an inch. With Iolaus effectively distracting the monster, the demigod was able to get behind it, wrapping his strong arms around the creature and lifting it off the ground. The crocotta struggled mightily, but it was locked in an iron grip from behind and there was no getting loose. Iolaus and Damalis rushed forward and secured the flailing hooves as best they could and Andries strode forward with the iron stake, lining it up on the beast’s chest and driving it home through the heart with one hard thrust. The crocotta shrieked and convulsed and Hercules dropped it to the ground where it twitched a few times and then finally went limp and still.
“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again,” Andries declared proudly. “How awesome are we?!”
“There you two are,” Hercules said as he and Iolaus entered Dardanos’ private chambers and found Andries and Damalis knee deep in scrolls. “We’ve been looking for you. What are you doing?”
“Our crocotta was one hell of a record keeper,” Andries explained. “He kept a scroll on everyone that passed through here. What their perceived illness was, and then the date of their ‘release’. I guess it was to defer suspicion from himself if anyone of authority ever came nosing around here. But we thought we’d take a look and see if we could find out what happened to our dad’s friend.”
“Hey, here’s mine,” Damalis announced, scanning the parchment. “Ha. Apparently I have issues with my father.”
“Well, news flash,” Andries said sarcastically. “What’s going on out there? Did you get all the people out?”
“Yeah, and we have Stelios and a few of the other orderlies locked up for now,” Hercules replied. “We’ll let the magistrate decide what to do with them.”
“The magistrate from Mycenae,” Iolaus clarified. “Pallas doesn’t know it yet, but he’s going to soon be joining them in here.” The hunter paused, thinking things over. “So we know why everyone in Aspasia was so afraid. Any little imagined infraction and they’d be shipped off here by Pallas. But what do you suppose was in it for him?”
“Maybe Dardanos was paying him off,” the demigod speculated. “Or maybe he was collecting the victims’ possessions before he brought them here.”
“Or maybe he just gets off on being a bully,” Andries suggested. “Damn. Here it is. Says Thalis was released a few weeks ago.”
“That’s it then,” Damalis sighed, tossing away the handful of scrolls he held. “He’s dead.”
“Sorry,” Hercules offered.
“Well, at least we stopped the crocotta,” Damalis reasoned. “It’s not going to hurt anyone else and all these people are safe. But what about... you know, the people that kind of belonged here?”
“Seems like they all made a few friends,” Iolaus told him. “Some of the villagers offered to take them in and look after them. They’ll be ok.”
“So maybe something good did come of this mess after all,” Hercules mused.
“Always looking on the bright side.” The hunter punched his friend on the bicep. “Hey, I’m still waiting for you to acknowledge that I was right.”
“About what?” the demigod asked.
“I told you this place wasn’t haunted, didn’t I?”
“Yes, you did.”
“You were right, Iolaus,” Hercules intoned dutifully.
“Thank you,” the hunter said grandly. “And you two are my witnesses to that.”
Damalis grinned but Andries had continued to sort through the scrolls and hadn’t been listening.
“Iolaus,” he spoke up, his eyes focused on a piece of parchment. “What did you say that guy’s name was again? The roommate you had who went missing?”
“Aggelos,” the hunter answered. “Why? Did you find something?”
“Yeah,” Andries replied slowly. “And according to this, he was ‘released’ over three months ago.”
Iolaus snatched the scroll from him and read it himself to be sure that the younger man wasn’t messing with him. But the date was there, in Dardanos’ hand.
“Are you sure that you were right?” Hercules smirked, leaning an elbow on his friend’s shoulder.
“And you two are my witnesses to that,” the demigod chuckled. “Come on. Let’s get out of here and go find Pallas. Maybe he has your sword...”
The foursome filed out of the room and began winding their way out of the Asylum. They walked purposefully, each of them making a concentrated effort not to look over his shoulder as they left the building, and whatever else may have still been inhabiting it, behind.
Stories by Quiet Wolf
The Iolausian Library