Author's Note: This story was (much belatedly) written for the Iolausian Library Oct 2003 Story Challenge, which was: Write a story about a place at Cheiron's Academy where the students were not allowed to go. No one on staff will speak of it. Why? No copyright infringement intended on characters owned by RenPic/Universal. Just borrowing the guys, and I can only wish I were profiting from writing about them. Comments always welcome.
And everywhere I look there's something to learn
A sliver of truth from every bridge we burn
A hatful of quarters and a naked song
Don't answer the question of where we belong
“Birds” by Elton John
“Hercules? Are you down there?” Iolaus called out, sticking his head through the trapdoor that was standing open in the headmaster’s office.
“Yeah,” the demigod shouted in answer. “Come on down.”
Bypassing the ladder, the acrobatic jester nimbly somersaulted through the hole, landing lightly on his feet.
“I’ve been looking everywhere for you,” he complained, glancing around the dusty basement storage room and wrinkling his nose slightly in distaste. “What are you doing?”
“Just checking on something,” Hercules explained with a grunt as he shoved a beam up against the far wall. “I was worried Zylus and his buddies might have cleared some of this stuff out, but it doesn’t look like they found their way down here.”
“Doesn’t look like anyone’s been down here in years,” Iolaus pointed out, stifling a sneeze. “What is all this stuff?”
“Junk, mostly. Why were you looking for me?”
“Oh. This came for you.”
The demigod glanced at the seal on the scroll his friend held out to him.
“From King Babis of Pamphylia,” he commented before breaking the wax and unrolling the parchment. “Monster lurking in the mountain pass, preventing travelers from crossing. He wants me to come and deal with it.”
“Why can’t travelers just go a different way?”
“The mountain pass is the only way into Pamphylia,” Hercules explained. “And there’s no fertile soil there so without traders coming in that means…”
“That means that we’ll be leaving in the morning, right?” Iolaus summarized.
“I hate to run out on Jason,” the demigod sighed. “There’s still so much work to be done here. But I don’t see that I have much choice.”
“He can handle it,” the jester shrugged. “You know, I don’t know him very well, but since we’ve been here he’s sort of seemed more in his element. More alive, in a way.”
“Jason’s a man of action,” Hercules theorized. “I know he loved my mother and was happy with her, but now that she’s gone he’s not the type to putter around in her flowers enjoying retirement. It doesn’t surprise me that he leapt at the chance to have a purpose again. And he always loved walking cadets through drills, even when he was one himself. So this new development, well, it’s like coming home for him in a way.”
“It didn’t seem to be that way with you,” Iolaus said softly. “Maybe it’s not my place to say it, but sometimes I’d catch you staring off in the distance and you just looked so… I guess there are a lot of memories for you here.”
“There are memories everywhere I go,” the demigod confessed. “But the ones here… They are a little harder to bear.”
“I’m not sure. Maybe because we were, well, innocent isn’t exactly the right word. But we were kids with our whole lives ahead of us and we couldn’t comprehend that there would ever be anything that we couldn’t overcome together. We were oblivious to the horrors and heartbreaks that were waiting for us in the years to come. I miss that naiveté.”
Iolaus could feel the sadness welling in his friend and he desperately looked around for something to change the subject and distract him.
“Hey,” he blurted out as his eyes became accustomed to the dim light and he realized that Hercules had not been pushing random junk against the wall to get it out of the way, but rather because he was trying to hide something. “Is that a door?”
“Yep,” the demigod replied as he settled a scarred piece of granite that was once a warrior statue on top of the beam.
“Well, what’s behind it?”
“And in the room?” Iolaus persisted in exasperation.
“Scrolls and artifacts.”
“Why are you walling up scrolls and artifacts?” the jester asked in confusion. “Shouldn’t their knowledge be studied?”
“Sometimes a little knowledge in the wrong hands can be a dangerous thing,” Hercules said absently as he rearranged his makeshift barrier. “Iolaus learned that the hard way when he went into this room.”
“I understand if you’d rather not talk about it.”
“No, I’d like to tell you the story, if you want to hear it,” Hercules offered. “It might help you a little.”
“Because Iolaus was once adrift and trying to find where he belonged, just like you are now. He had a hard time adjusting to Academy life,” the demigod began. “He was a good fighter and street smart, but book smarts had no application to life as far as he was concerned. Then the other cadets all had fathers who were great warriors or athletes or scholars, and he felt out of place among them.”
“His father wasn’t any of those things?”
“Skorous was a general,” Hercules acknowledged. “But he didn’t have the best relationship with his son. They didn’t really have any relationship at all. Iolaus was lost, in a sense, and really struggled to find his way. And made a whole lot of mistakes in the process.”
“But he was just a kid,” the jester argued. “Don’t all kids struggle to find their way?”
“Sure. And I’m not saying that we never made mistakes. Jason was dealing with the burden of the crown weighing on him and I did a lot of stupid things while trying to get Zeus’ attention. But Iolaus… After he left home he started running with a gang and stealing. Sometimes to survive, sometimes just for the fun of it. He finally got caught and that’s how he ended up at the Academy. It was his probation, and if he didn’t stay and tow the line to Cheiron’s satisfaction he was going to jail. He felt looked down on because of that, and honestly I guess a few cadets did. So he overcompensated by being cocky and arrogant and foolish, which didn’t help endear him any to his classmates. Jason and I were the only ones at first who saw him for who he really was, and even then it was hard sometimes to overlook his faults. We loved him, but by the gods he could be trying.”
“So, what changed?” Iolaus wanted to know.
“A lot of things,” Hercules told him. “He grew up, matured. Started letting his heart rule instead of his mouth. But most importantly, he stopped trying to prove himself and just was himself.”
“And what happened in this room was a stepping stone to that?”
“One of many,” the demigod went on. “You see, nobody even knew this room was here. The only reason the three of us found out was because some support beams needed to be replaced. Obviously Cheiron wasn’t able to come down the ladder so he put Feducious in charge of the operation. I was the strongest so we were the natural choices to help him. We brought down the timber and we could see that he was nervous about something and was trying to hurry us along. I thought maybe he was just claustrophobic or something, but Iolaus eventually found the door and asked him about it. Feducious freaked out, told us the room was forbidden to us and we were not to even speak of it again, not to him or to Cheiron or to any of the cadets. So we replaced the beams and he rushed us out of there as fast as he could.”
“And Iolaus couldn’t keep it a secret?” the jester asked.
“There was a cadet called Nicanor,” Hercules continued. “His father was very wealthy and had given a large donation to the Academy. Because of that, he felt he had certain privileges. Cheiron kept him in line but Feducious practically fawned on him and let him get away with a lot. A fact Nicanor never forgot to rub in everyone’s face, especially Iolaus’. So the next time he started in, Iolaus couldn’t resist letting him know that he was privy to something Nicanor was not. And as soon as Nicanor learned about the door he started goading Iolaus to break in.”
“He didn’t fall for that, did he?”
“At first he resisted, but Nicanor taunted him and challenged him and Iolaus’ pride won out over good judgement. It was like a sickness with him. If anyone ever dared him and said he couldn’t do something he immediately lost sight of everything except proving that person wrong. Add that in to his insatiable curiosity, and it was inevitable that one evening Iolaus, Nicanor, and his lackey, Petros, snuck into Cheiron’s office and went down into the storage room below.”
“What’s wrong, hotshot?” the dark haired cadet sneered. “I thought you said there wasn’t a lock forged that could keep you out?”
“There isn’t if I can have a minute to think, so do us both a favor and just shut up and let me work in peace, Nicanor,” Iolaus said testily. He went back to his examination of the strange lock that was dangling from the heavy metal arm barring the door, pushing the hair behind his ears and frowning in concentration as he studied the object. Several minutes went by, during which he ignored the restless shuffling of Petros behind him and the impatient mutterings of Nicanor. Then finally he produced a small, delicate looking metal wire and inserted it into the lock. A few turns and clicks and the lock popped open with a snap.
“Wow, how did you do that?” Petros asked with sincere admiration.
“I’m gifted,” Iolaus replied with no hint of hubris as he pocketed his pick.
“Come on, how did you know how to spring it?” Nicanor wheedled.
“Like I’d tell you,” the blond scoffed, removing the lock and sliding the bolt back. The three of them held their collective breath as he pulled the door open, wincing as the rusty hinges squeaked out their protest.
“Looks like just another junk room,” Petros commented as he peered over their shoulders, which was easy enough for him to do being that he towered over the other two boys.
“I can see some urns and amphoras,” Iolaus said as he took the torch from the tall boy behind him and held it up. “Some scrolls and statues. Lots of stuff in here, but I have to say it’s all pretty anti-climactic. Come on, let’s lock it back up and get out of here.”
“Are you kidding?” Nicanor asked incredulously. “After all that you don’t even want to go in?”
“There’s nothing in there,” the blond cadet argued. “It was probably just Feducious being Feducious and making a big deal out of nothing.”
“No, Cheiron wouldn’t lock this room up like this without a reason.”
“Well, that’s Cheiron’s business,” Iolaus insisted. “Come on, let’s go.”
“Run if you want but I’m going in,” Nicanor told him, grabbing the torch from his hand and stepping forward.
“I don’t think this is a good idea,” he argued as Petros pushed past him and followed his leader inside.
“We aren’t going to hurt anything,” Nicanor called back. “I just want a quick look around, that’s all.”
With a sigh, Iolaus followed them inside, getting a better look at the contents of the room. Chests and trunks were lined on the floor and all manner of curiosities were resting on shelves on the walls. Some of the objects were very old and some might have been worth a few dinars, but there was still nothing that Iolaus could see of such obvious value to warrant such security and secrecy.
“Ow!” Nicanor had been examining an antique sword that was almost eaten away by rust and time, but apparently the blade was not as dull as it appeared for it had still managed to slice through his thumb.
“Serves you right,” Iolaus chastised him. He turned with the intent to leave, but something on one of the shelves, almost hidden behind a squat vase, caught his eye. Inexplicably drawn to it, Iolaus lifted it down to get a better look. It was a square box made of copper which shone as brightly as if it had been polished that day. There was no tarnish to mar the sides which were elaborately carved with words and symbols. The box was light and sounded empty when he shook it gently, and there was no latch or lock that he could find to open it.
“What is that?” Nicanor asked, coming forward and gazing longingly at the brilliant object.
“I don’t know,” Iolaus answered. “These words here appear to be Persian but I don’t know what they mean.” He tried sounding them out, stumbling badly over the foreign letters.
“Let me see it,” Nicanor interrupted him.
“No, I’m looking at it.”
“Looking to steal it, maybe,” the dark haired boy accused with heavy suspicion. “Once a thief, always a thief. There’s treasure inside, isn’t there? And you want it for yourself!”
He made a grab for the box but Iolaus ducked away from him. Undaunted, Nicanor went for it again, managing to get a hold. The two boys wrestled and grappled over the box as Petros tried to pull them apart, but suddenly they both dropped the object as the metal became scorching hot. It clattered to the ground and the lid blew off, revealing a bright light shining from within as curls of smoke and steam began to rise.
“Not good,” Iolaus whispered to himself, barely having time to wrap his arms around his head as a blinding explosion sent him flying backward.
Iolaus struggled back to consciousness, and then rather wished that he hadn’t. He let out a decidedly non-warrior like moan before realizing he was not alone. Opening his eyes, the worried faces of his friends swam into view, although that worry mostly abated when they saw he was still in possession of his faculties.
“Cheiron wanted to know when you were awake,” Jason told him quietly. “I’ll go get him.”
As the prince left, Hercules helped Iolaus sit up and handed him a mug of water. The blond sipped it, looking around and realizing they were in the infirmary. He took stock of his aches and pains, and despite a killer headache, burning lungs and a blistered left arm he decided he was ok.
“What happened, Herc?”
“I was hoping you could tell me,” the demigod said evenly. “We all heard, and felt, some massive explosion and then we found the forbidden room on fire and you unconscious in the middle of it.”
“What about Petros and Nicanor? Are they all right?”
“Nicanor is fine,” Hercules replied. “He was pretty shaken up, but he doesn’t seem to have a scratch on him.”
“And Petros?” Iolaus persisted, getting a sinking feeling in his gut.
“He’s dead, Iolaus,” the demigod said softly.
The blond ran a hand through his tangled curls, trying to absorb the news but before he was able the door opened and Jason and the centaur entered.
“I’m sorry, Cheiron,” Iolaus blurted out but the headmaster silenced him with a wave of his hand.
“Drink this,” the centaur said kindly, holding out a steaming mug. “It will help with the pain.”
Obediently, Iolaus drank the tea he was offered and held still as his burned arm was treated and bandaged, but the care only increased his misery. Sympathy was almost too much to bear when he knew he deserved anger and punishment. Finally when all his wounds were tended, Cheiron stepped back, wiping his hands off with a towel and gazing down at his student with eyes that were both hard and sad.
“I don’t suppose I have to tell you the amount of trouble you’re in, do I?”
“We didn’t mean any harm,” Iolaus protested feebly, unable to meet his headmaster’s eye. “We were just curious.”
“Curious? Tell me, Iolaus, in all your curious wonderings, did it ever occur to you that perhaps that room was not locked to keep you out, but rather to keep something dangerous in?”
The blond shook his head almost imperceptibly.
“For years people of authority throughout Greece have entrusted to me certain relics. Things that cannot be destroyed, but that are deemed too dangerous for the mortal world. I serve as guardian of these cursed objects, keeping them safe and secret and ensuring that their danger is contained. Now, Iolaus, thanks to your curiosity, that trust in me is broken and something terrible has been unleashed on the world.”
The centaur had not raised his voice, but Iolaus hung his head, his long curls obscuring his face, too ashamed to say anything.
“What was it, Cheiron?” Hercules asked, stepping forward with the empty copper box in his hands. “What was in this?”
“A Djinn,” the centaur told him. “They are Persian in origin and I do not know much about them, except that they appear in different forms to mortals, offering service but with evil intent.”
“What kind of service?” Jason inquired.
“They coerce people to make a wish to them, which they then grant although it is in the most literal and corrupt form. Often they arrange it so that the wish claims the life of the one who makes it, and then the Djinn takes his soul.”
“How do we stop it?” the demigod demanded, certain that there would be a way.
“That I don’t know,” Cheiron said, shaking his head. “These creatures are foreign to me. But I’ll send word to King Aegeus of Athens. He is the one who entrusted the Djinn to me so he may know more about how to deal with it.”
“This is my fault,” Iolaus finally spoke up. “I want to help.”
“No,” Cheiron told him firmly. “You are to stay put and not move from this room. That is an order, Iolaus. I will deal with you after we’ve dealt with the Djinn. Hercules, go and find the faster rider and tell him to stand ready to deliver my message to Athens. Jason, gather the rest of the cadets and send them out into all the surrounding villages. People need to be warned to be careful what they wish for.”
The centaur left the infirmary with a swish of the tail, and Jason followed him, glancing back once at Iolaus.
“Herc…” the blond trailed off, not knowing what to say.
“You really did it this time, Iolaus” the demigod said sadly. “I can’t bail you out of this one.” He followed the others out of the room, but did not look back.
“You guys were a little hard on him, don’t you think?” the jester asked as they walked through the dining hall with their meals, searching for seats. Lilith and Jason seemed to be having a family dinner with their daughter, and while he knew they’d be welcome to join in Hercules decided to give them some time alone together and found a small table in the corner that was unoccupied. “I mean, it was a big screw up,” Iolaus continued as he sat down, “but he didn’t mean it.”
“He never meant it,” Hercules sighed. “That was the problem with him. He never stopped to think about the consequences of anything he did. I suppose that maybe it was an effect of his life on the street, when he was just concentrating on surviving one minute to the next and he didn’t have the luxury of worrying about tomorrow. But because of that and his pride and his infernal curiosity and all encompassing need to prove himself, the Djinn was loose.”
“I bet you went after it yourself, right?”
“No, I went and hid in the bushes where I’d have a good view of the Academy wall.”
“Why would you do that?”
“Because Cheiron told Iolaus to stay,” Hercules grinned. “And ordering him to do something was a sure fire guarantee that he would do exactly the opposite.”
“And did he?”
“As soon as things calmed down and most of the cadets had left,” the demigod confirmed. “Iolaus predictably came scaling over the back wall. But not for the reason I thought…”
“You can’t run from this Iolaus.”
“Geez, Herc, don’t do that!” the blond gasped, visibly startled as his friend materialized beside him out of the shadows.
“Look, I know it’s bad,” Hercules tried to reason with him, “but if you run now you’ll spend the rest of your life as a fugitive in hiding. Do you really want that?”
“I’m not running,” Iolaus informed him, clearly insulted.
“Then what are you doing?”
“This is all my fault,” the blond explained, slinging his small carry sack over his shoulder. “Petros is dead. And if this Djinn hurts or kills anyone else, I’ll never forgive myself.”
“You have the box in there, don’t you?” the demigod accused him, nodding at his bag. “So, what? You think you’re going to stuff the Djinn back in there?”
“Not yet. It’s like Cheiron says, you have to know your enemy. We need info and we need it now. There isn’t time to waste waiting to hear back from King Aegeus.”
“You’ve got a better idea?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact I do. I’m going to Thebes to talk to Bahram.”
“Bahram? The guy with the weird herb stand in the market?” Hercules asked in disbelief.
“He might know something that can help us. He’s from Persia.”
“He’s also crazy,” the demigod pointed out.
“No, he’s not. Ok, he is a little crazy, but the guy knows a lot of stuff. It’s worth a shot, isn’t it?”
“Fine,” Hercules relented. “I’ll go and talk to him. But you need to get back inside or jail will be a paradise compared to what Cheiron will do to you if he finds out you defied him.”
“I can’t do that,” Iolaus declared stubbornly.
“You don’t have a choice,” the demigod said in exasperation.
“Herc, I can’t undo what I did,” Iolaus began, a note of pleading creeping into his voice. “So I have to try to make it right. We both know you can stop me from leaving, but I’m asking you as your friend to please let me have the chance to fix this. Please…”
“Did you let him go?” the jester asked as he dunked a crust of bread into his broth.
“Of course I did,” Hercules told him wryly. “I never could say no to him, which is why I let myself get involved in too many hairbrained schemes to count. But I also couldn’t let him go alone, so we walked all night and by dawn we were in Thebes having tea with Bahram.”
“The crazy guy?”
“Turns out he wasn’t so crazy,” the demigod recalled. “He was definitely eccentric but his mind was sound. Sort of. Anyway, the thing that surprised me was that he and Iolaus seemed to have a rapport. Most of the villagers shunned Bahram and the market vendors all hated Iolaus, but the two of them were pretty friendly with each other. Seeing them, it actually taught me something about not judging a book by its cover.”
“Are you talking about Bahram, or Iolaus?”
“Both, I guess. I never got the chance to ask Iolaus how he came to be on such friendly terms with Bahram, but it was lucky that he was because the man did know about Djinns and was able to tell us a good deal.”
“Beware of Djinn bearing gifts and beware of gifts bearing Djinn,” Bahram cackled as he poured out three mugs of steaming, fragrant brew. “That is what we say in my country.”
“Yeah, well, that advice would have been much more useful to me yesterday,” Iolaus said dryly. “But since the Djinn is already out of the box, what can you tell us about them?”
“Legend has it that they were created by the gods from smokeless fire,” Bahram answered. “A very powerful race, able to travel great distance at speed, possessing superhuman strength and a keen intellect. There are different types of Djinn, with different abilities and weaknesses. Some are indifferent and a few have even been known to help mortals on occasion. But most have an intense hatred of mankind. They are physically able to take a mortal life, often appearing in the guise of the victim afterward. But what they most delight in is seducing a mortal one way or another to his own demise. The Djinn is a shrewd, cunning creature. Very manipulative, but with the potential to be quite charming and persuasive. He convinces a mortal to ask for a wish, the price being submission of the soul upon death. And the more souls a Djinn collects, the stronger his powers become.”
“Can you tell what type of Djinn we’re dealing with from this?” Iolaus asked as he pulled the box out of his bag and set it on the table.
“Copper,” Bahram mused, leaning in closely to the object. “What is this stain here? Is this blood?”
“It might be,” the cadet answered, looking at the crimson smear that he hadn’t noticed before on the bright metal. “Nicanor nicked his finger on an old sword. He might have still been bleeding when he tried to grab the box from me.”
“That is how the Djinn was released,” the old Persian explained. “A blood sacrifice. But still, the incantation would have needed to be spoken…”
“Is this the incantation?” Iolaus pointed to the carved side. “It looked like the writing I’ve seen you do but I didn’t know what the words meant. I was just…”
“Wait a second,” Hercules interrupted. “You mean out of all the things in that room, you picked up this box, Nicanor just happened to be bleeding when he touched it, and you managed to read the exact words out of all these symbols that opened this thing up?”
“Pretty big coincidence, huh? Hey, you think there’s something else behind this?”
“If it were anyone else in the world, I would say ‘yes’,” Hercules told him wearily. “But you? No. I would expect nothing less.”
Iolaus gazed at his friend, trying to figure out if he was being insulted or complimented, but Bahram intervened in his thoughts.
“I have bad news, my friends. There is only one type of Djinn that is vulnerable to copper, so you most likely have a Shaitan on your hands. They are very strong and exceptionally cunning, and they are also particularly violent toward mortals.”
“Is there good news?” Hercules asked hopefully.
“The Shaitan is very prideful. It can be used against him, but it is not wise to match wits with him for he can weave a spell that is hard to resist. But I can give you this.”
Bahram got up and opened a small box that was resting on a shelf on the wall, pulling out a symbol that appeared to be crafted out of gold, attached to a leather cord. He handed it to Iolaus who took it gingerly.
“Is this some sort of protection?”
“Not exactly. It is an ankh and has no real power over the Shaitan, but it does hold some strange fascination for him. It will attract his attention and might be enough of a distraction for you to get close to him. It is valuable, but if it serves you well in other ways, return it to me when you are able.”
Iolaus promised him he would get his golden ankh back as he slipped it into his carry sack.
“How do we find this Djinn?” Hercules wanted to know.
“It will not be easy,” Bahram warned them. “I’ve heard they often can be found in caves or underground. But even if you find him you may not recognize him. The Shaitan can appear in many forms. A jackal, a cloud of smoke, even a beautiful woman although she will still bear the tail of a beast.”
“Ok, if we do find him, how do we stop him?” Iolaus asked impatiently.
“That actually might be the easy part,” the Persian said thoughtfully. “This box is covered in magical symbols. Created by a powerful wizard, I would guess. With it you can trap and hold a Djinn. Blood let him out, and the same blood will recapture him. You must stab the Djinn with a knife dipped in the blood of the one who freed him and recite the incantation and he will be drawn back inside and imprisoned once more.”
“I don’t suppose you know Persian?” Iolaus whispered to his friend.
“Well, then I guess we need to have a lesson before we go back to school.”
“Bahram showed us the incantation on the box,” Hercules relayed, pausing for a sip of water. “And he walked both of us through it until we could recite it properly from memory, even if our accents did make him wince. Then he gave us some food and wished us luck and we started heading back to the Academy, trying to figure out how to convince Nicanor to give us some of his blood.”
“There are a lot of caves around here,” Iolaus commented as he pushed his empty plate away and leaned back against the wall, experience having taught him that it was unwise to turn his back on his young, mischievous charges. “Did you have to search them all for the Djinn?”
“I thought we would, but when I started talking about which ones to start with, Iolaus revealed a different train of thought.”
“The Djinn isn’t going to be hanging out in some cave,” Iolaus said distractedly. “And we aren’t going to have to go looking for him. He’s going to come to us.”
“What are you talking about?” Hercules demanded.
“It’s an old hunter’s trick,” the blond explained. “To catch an animal, you have to think like that animal.”
“And just how do you know what a Djinn is thinking?” the demigod asked skeptically.
“I don’t, but I know what it’s like to be jailed,” Iolaus said seriously. “And I know the lengths you’ll go to in order to keep your freedom once you get it. Right now, the only thing standing between the Djinn and freedom is Nicanor.”
“If he gets rid of Nicanor,” Hercules concluded, catching on, “then we lose the only weapon we have against him.”
“The Djinn has to know that. I bet he’ll go after Nicanor, if he hasn’t already. Which is why we need to stop flapping our gums and get back there.”
“But that doesn’t make sense, Iolaus,” the demigod protested as they quickened their pace. “I mean, why wouldn’t the Djinn have killed Nicanor when he first escaped?”
“ I don’t know,” Iolaus told him with a hint of exasperation. “Maybe the Djinn just wanted to get away, or maybe he was disoriented. Maybe the calvary showed up before he had a chance. Or maybe…” The cadet’s voice trailed off and he came to a dead stop in the road as a horrible thought occurred to him. “Or maybe, he did.”
Hercules looked at him blankly for a moment, then suddenly realized what his friend was thinking.
“The Djinn has the power to take the form of one he’s killed.”
“And Nicanor survived an explosion and a fire without a scratch on him,” Iolaus summarized.
The two cadets exchanged a look and then began running back to the Academy as fast as they could go.
The place was quiet. Most of the students appeared to still be off grounds, but even so Hercules and Iolaus still hoped to find Nicanor in his dorm. They were disappointed, and a little lost as to what to do next. Finally Iolaus suggested returning to the forbidden room, wanting to get a better idea of what had happened down there. Hercules was not in favor of the plan, but as always, went along with it.
The door had been bolted once more but Iolaus picked the lock quickly.
“I’ve never seen a lock like that before,” Hercules said, impressed. “How did you do that?”
“All locks basically open the same way,” the blond answered with a shrug. “Some just have fancier mechanisms. You just have to be able to see how to get around the bells and whistles to where the meat is.”
They entered the room and Iolaus took a look around as best he could in the dim torch light.
“There’s some fire damage, but not too bad,” he said, mostly to himself but the demigod heard him.
“We got it out fast. Lucky thing it didn’t burn anything else. I hate to think about what evil monsters the rest of this junk is hiding.”
“It didn’t burn anything else, did it?” Iolaus commented, obviously finding that strange. “Where did it start?”
“I would guess here,” Hercules replied, waving at a circle of black staining the stone floor. “This trunk was singed pretty badly.”
“The only thing that was,” the cadet muttered. He picked the lock on the large case and lifted the lid to reveal the lifeless body of Nicanor crumpled inside.
“So, the Djinn kills Nicanor,” the demigod reasoned out, once he recovered from the shock of finding his classmate. “Takes his form and tries to burn his body to get rid of the evidence. But we interrupted him before he could finish. So the question is, where is he now?”
“Your guess is as good as mine,” Iolaus answered dejectedly.
“What happened to thinking like the animal?” Hercules teased him.
“I don’t know… Kora’s!”
“Herc, it’s perfect,” Iolaus enthused. “A cadet hanging out there won’t raise any suspicion and there’s a constant influx of travellers, easy prey who won’t be missed for a while. Come on, let’s go!”
“Wait!” Hercules halted him. “We can’t just leave Nicanor like this.”
“No, you’re right,” the blond acquiesced. “Let’s take him upstairs. We can put him in the infirmary for now.”
The demigod reached into the trunk and hoisted the cadet’s body into his arms. He turned and left the room and Iolaus made to follow, but something in the trunk caught his eye. Pulling out his knife, he dipped the blade into the dark blood that was pooled in the bottom, then rose and trotted out after his friend.
“It sounds like Iolaus is lucky the Djinn didn’t kill him, too,” the jester said as they walked down the hallway.
“I know I was thinking that at the time,” Hercules told him. “The Djinn probably would have if he hadn’t been knocked unconscious. As it was, he was probably counting on the fire to finish him off.”
“You know, Hercules, you don’t have to come with me to do bed checks,” Iolaus declared. “I guarantee those little monsters won’t be asleep and if I stick my head in there I won’t get back out without at least one story.”
“I don’t mind,” the demigod chuckled. “I’d love to hear one of your bedtime stories.”
“Uh uh, not until you finish yours first,” the jester insisted. “Did you go looking for the Djinn at Kora’s?”
“We did, but we had a little trouble getting past the bouncer.”
“Jason!” Hercules exclaimed upon finding their friend guarding the entrance to Kora’s. “What are you doing here?”
“It was Cheiron’s idea,” the prince explained. “Kora doesn’t want to close the inn so I’m trying to warn everyone that comes by.”
“Is Nicanor inside?” Iolaus asked anxiously.
“What are you even doing here when Cheiron told you to stay at the Academy?” Jason grilled him. “Don’t you think you’re in enough trouble without…”
“Jason, listen to me,” the blond interrupted before the older cadet could get in the full swing of his “lecture mode”. “Nicanor is really the Djinn.”
“We’d better get him back to the Academy,” the prince whispered theatrically to Hercules. “That blow to the head he took obviously did more damage than we thought.”
“I know it’s hard to believe, but it’s true,” the demigod confirmed. “The Djinn killed Nicanor and took his form.”
“You’re serious, aren’t you?” Jason said slowly, realizing that his friends for once were not joking.
“Look, there’s no time to explain it to you now so you’re just going to have to trust me,” Iolaus told him. “I know I haven’t given you much reason to lately, but please, just trust me. Can you do that, Jason?”
The prince gazed at him evenly for several heartbeats, then nodded slightly.
“Ok. I’m in. What’s the plan?”
Hercules and Iolaus exchanged a glance.
“Actually,” the demigod hedged, “We hadn’t really thought that far ahead.”
“Guys, listen,” Iolaus cut in quickly. “This is all my fault. I made this mess, and I can’t ask the two of you to help me clean it up.”
“Well, that’s the beauty of having friends,” Hercules told him, clapping him on the shoulder. “You never have to ask.”
“Yeah,” Jason agreed. “We’re in it together, just like always.”
“I was hoping you guys would say that,” Iolaus grinned, unable to disguise his relief. “If we live through the next five minutes, I owe you big time.”
“Our odds of living will increase exponentially if we have a plan in place before we storm in there,” the prince insisted, ever the tactician.
“Ok, a plan,” the blond mused. “How about we go in and sneak up on the Djinn? We trap him back in his box and then Jason will buy us a round of drinks. There’s your plan.”
“So, it’s the usual,” the prince muttered as he fell in line behind his two friends. “Glad we got that cleared up ahead of time.”
As soon as they entered the inn it became clear that they were not going to sneak up on the Djinn. The creature that looked exactly like Nicanor was seated at the counter, chatting with a shepherd, but he saw the three cadets enter and as his gaze fell upon Iolaus his countenance changed, twisting into an evil smile and an internal fire seemed to blaze in his eyes. The very air in the tavern became thick with malice and all three of them started to wonder if they were in over their heads.
“I think we should get everyone out of here,” Jason suggested quietly, not liking the sudden malevolent tension weighing on them and worrying about innocents getting caught in the crossfire. Hercules and Iolaus agreed and the prince and the demigod began herding patrons out of the tavern as quickly as they could, a fact that did not sit well with Kora. The feisty innkeeper gave Hercules an earful and refused to trust him as he asked, so finally he just picked her up, slinging her over his shoulder and carrying her outside. Iolaus saw that injustice out of the corner of his eye and knew his friend would pay dearly for it, but at the moment all his attention was focused on the Djinn. They locked gazes and he slowly moved forward, almost as if it were against his will.
“You should have killed me when you had the chance.”
“And why is that?” Nicanor’s voice, but different. More melodious and soothing.
“Because I’m going to make you pay for what you did to Nicanor and Petros.”
“Come now, Iolaus,” the Djinn purred. “There’s no need for hostility. Yes, I know your name. I know a lot about you.”
“You don’t know anything about me,” the blond insisted testily.
“Oh, but I do. I can see into your heart. I know your truest desires. And if you would like to be friends, I can give you what you really want.”
“And what do I want?” Iolaus challenged. They were now face to face, neither one even blinking.
“Money. I can give you that. No more carrying dishes here or scrabbling for dinars to survive. I can make you richer than Jason. Or as strong as Hercules. I know you would like that, to be an unstoppable force for good and a hero to Greece. Or how about the beautiful Kora. So very fair, and so very out of your reach. Or, she was. All of these things can be yours. You only have to say, ‘I wish’.”
The Djinn’s hand was on the cadet’s shoulder and Iolaus trembled as he fought the trance that was being woven around him.
“I… I wish…” Suddenly he convulsed and turned away from the hypnotic gaze boring into his mind. “If you really knew what was in my heart,” he whispered hoarsely, “you would know that you’re wasting your time. Joining you would be betraying my friends and I would never do that, not for all the money or power or women in the world.”
“Well, then it appears we have nothing more to discuss.”
The Djinn turned and took a step away, almost casually producing a ball of flame in his hand and tossing it over his shoulder. Iolaus was saved from incineration by Hercules, who appeared as a blur out of nowhere and crashed into his friend, knocking him clear of the flames.
“I guess it’s on now,” Iolaus gasped, rolling with the fall and scrambling back up to his feet.
“Yeah. You ready?”
“Not really, no.”
“Three,” the two cadets shouted as a battle cry as they rushed toward the Djinn. Iolaus was immediately sent flying and Hercules didn’t hold out much longer.
“Where’s the ankh?” Iolaus panted as they painfully regrouped.
“Here.” Jason strode regally forward, holding out the golden symbol in front of him. As soon as the Djinn saw it some of the malignance faded and he seemed to calm slightly. His attention was riveted to the ankh and he gazed at it with an almost reverent expression, reaching out slowly to touch it.
Seizing the opportunity, Iolaus recovered the carry sack that he had dropped by the door and pulled out the copper box. He began reciting the incantation, which was enough to snap the Djinn out of the spell the ankh had over him and piss him off pretty good in the process. Jason dropped like a ton of bricks and the Djinn started for Iolaus. Hercules tried to intervene, but the creature was matched with him for strength and also possessed an unearthly speed. The demigod only managed to distract him for a few seconds before he was knocked to the ground and the creature went for Iolaus once more. Rolling over, Hercules pulled the knife from his belt and as the Djinn stepped past him he stabbed him in the calf as Iolaus spoke the final word.
The Djinn fell to his knees, his image wavering as he shed the guise of Nicanor and reverted back to his true form with a scream of anger. A bright light began to shine from his body and Iolaus, having learned from experience, took cover behind the counter. There was a great roaring noise and the Djinn dissolved into a ball of fire that shot up into the air before coming down squarely into the copper box. The lid clanged shut and the box resealed itself, trapping the Djinn and his evil once more.
Kora was more or less understanding once everything had been thoroughly explained to her, and the fact that a celebration was called for went a long way in earning her forgiveness for it meant more dinars would be spent on food and drink. Word spread quickly and soon half the cadets were there, happy for any excuse for a party. But there was one among them who wasn’t in the mood to celebrate.
“I get that you need to get that box back and lock it up again,” Jason argued, trying to talk his friend out of leaving. “But it can wait a few minutes. I need to buy you a drink, remember? It was part of the plan.”
“I’m going to have to take a raincheck on that one.”
“What is your hurry?” Hercules demanded. “You should be savoring the victory. We won!”
“Yeah, well, that still remains to be seen in my case,” Iolaus said quietly as he bagged up the box. “Make sure that ankh gets back to Bahram, will you, Herc? I promised him.”
He swung the carry sack over his shoulder and walked out of the inn. Hercules and Jason looked sadly at each other, realizing that their friend would most likely rather face a hundred Djinn than have to go back and answer to one disappointed centaur.
“Come in,” Cheiron called out in response to the knock on his office door. Hercules and Jason stepped inside and lined up before him.
“Sir, we’ve come to ask you for leniency on Iolaus’ behalf,” Jason began.
“He disobeyed my orders, broke into Academy property, unleashed a monster I had vowed to keep guarded, and as a result of this two cadets are dead. What makes you think he deserves leniency?”
“He didn’t intend for any of that to happen,” the prince argued. “It’s not an excuse and it was an incredibly stupid thing that he did, but there was nothing malicious in his actions. He’s sick over what happened to Nicanor and Petros and he’ll never forgive himself for betraying your trust.”
“He’s punishing himself, Cheiron,” Hercules added. “The guilt from this is going to be with him for a long time.”
“I dare say it will, but I can’t just overlook what’s happened here,” the centaur insisted. “Iolaus will have to answer for his actions, to more than just himself.”
“We understand that and we’re not asking you to let him off the hook,” Jason continued. “But he did take responsibility for his mistake. Iolaus is the one who figured out the Djinn’s plan, and if it was not for him knowing where to find the answers, we never would have recaptured the Djinn as quickly as we did. Iolaus risked his life, not to mention your wrath, to make this right as much as he could. That’s worth something, isn’t it?”
“I will take your words into consideration,” Cheiron promised, turning his back on the cadets by way of dismissal. Jason nodded and slipped out of the office, but the demigod lingered behind. “Is there something else you wanted, Hercules?” the centaur inquired without turning around.
“You aren’t going to expel him, are you?” Hercules asked anxiously. “I know he deserves it and I know he doesn’t always take the training here seriously, but I also know Iolaus is capable of great things, Cheiron. Without your training and influence, I’m not sure what will happen, but I am sure he’ll never reach his potential in a jail cell. Please, you can’t do that to him.”
“There are many influences in this world,” the centaur lectured. “Just as there are many paths that lead to the same road.”
The demigod rolled his eyes, needing reassurance, not riddles, and turned to leave.
“Hercules?” The cadet turned back around to see Cheiron facing him, a hint of a smile on his lips. “Do not burden yourself with worry. Any cadet who has both the future king of Corinth and the son of Zeus willing to speak on his behalf must be worth a second chance.”
Hercules grinned at that.
“Thank you,” he said gratefully before letting himself out of the office and closing the door gently behind him.
The speeches had been made, the goodbyes had been said, and it was time for the demigod and the jester to begin their journey to Pamphylia.
“You know,” Hercules suggested as he walked through the Academy gate with his companion, “you don’t have to come with me. You could stay here and keep teaching if you wanted to.”
“Well, I’m not sure yet where my place is here in your world,” Iolaus told him, “but I am quite sure it doesn’t involve a group of children who have managed to turn pranking into an art form. I’m not saying it wasn’t enjoyable once I figured out how to make learning fun, and it was refreshing to be able to help out for once, but it was definitely not my life’s calling. Whatever that is.”
“There’s no shame in being lost,” the demigod counseled his friend. “Just keep looking, and eventually you’ll find the path where you belong.”
“As long as you don’t mind, I think I’ll stick with you until I find it. That worked for your Iolaus, right?”
“I don’t mind,” Hercules replied, giving him a smile that was both fond and wistful.
“Hey, you never finished the story last night,” Iolaus reminded him. “Obviously Iolaus never got expelled.”
“No, he didn’t. He set a record for the greatest amount of detention ever given to one cadet at one time, but he got to stay on at the Academy.”
“And was he a model cadet from then on?”
“No,” the demigod laughed. “He was never a model cadet. He went on scheming and acting reckless and getting into trouble until long past graduation. But he won the respect of the other cadets for what he did to recapture the Djinn and he stopped trying to prove himself so much. It took time, but eventually he lived up to the potential inside him and grew into a noble man and a great warrior. I was always proud to call him my friend, but I became honored that he called me the same.”
“Did he ever know that you and Jason spoke to Cheiron on his behalf?” Iolaus asked.
“No, but I’m not sure we really had any influence on Cheiron’s decision. I think he always considered Iolaus to be his diamond in the rough. As incorrigible as he was as a kid, Iolaus always had the heart of a hero and Cheiron saw that and did what he could to bring it out of him.”
“What happened in the forbidden room wasn’t his fault,” the jester concluded. “Do you think he ever forgave himself?”
“I don’t know,” the demigod said thoughtfully. “He blamed himself, because if he hadn’t opened that door, two cadets wouldn’t have died. But he also knew he wasn’t responsible for their actions and they played a part in their own fates. It was a tragedy he always deeply regretted, but he learned from it and I think he eventually made his peace with it. I also think,” Hercules continued, gazing up at the sky, “that we got a late start. We’re going to have to pick up the pace. It’s a long walk to Pamphylia.”
“All right,” Iolaus agreed, arranging his pack more comfortably on his back. “But I don’t understand why we’re walking at all. You’d think a king with riches and servants and armies at his disposal would at least send a carriage or a horse or some sort of transportation when he’s asking for help dealing with a crisis. Oh, I know, your Iolaus would probably say the journey there is half the fun of the adventure.”
Hercules actually broke stride as he realized that in all their long years together on the road helping those in need, neither he nor the hunter had ever thought it strange that they were never offered a ride. And had Iolaus ever had the idea planted in his head that pampered royalty should provide pick up service, he would have demanded luxury transport or complained incessantly the entire trip if denied. The demigod grinned and trotted forward a few steps to catch up with his companion.
“I think you’re right,” he agreed with as straight a face as he could muster. “That’s exactly what Iolaus would say.”
Disclaimer: No wishes were granted during the writing of this story, otherwise original adult Iolaus would have appeared in his blue speedo thingy.
Author’s Note: I would like to think that Cheiron made up some sort of inventory list for all the relics in the forbidden room before he died and Jason inherited the list along with the Academy. But if not, fodder for a sequel J
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