Author’s Note: Because I love Halloween and it’s a tradition, here’s this year’s spooky-themed tale. I do not own characters that RenPic/Universal has a claim to, but I’m sure they won’t mind if I borrow them for a little non-profit creepy good fun. This story takes place right after the Season Five episode “Revelations” and contains spoilers. It is rated M for mild language, malevolent mayhem, and maggots. Comments always welcome.
If there's something weird
And it don't look good
Who ya gonna call?
“Ghostbusters” by Ray Parker, Jr
They never did make it to Thrace. Hercules wasn’t sure why Iolaus had wanted to go there upon his return to the land of the living, but as they’d set out the demigod’s common sense kicked in and began to override his overwhelming euphoria at having his partner beside him once again. He hadn’t been the only one mourning the loss of the brave hunter, and Hercules realized they couldn’t go laugh it up in Thrace while others were still missing Iolaus and grieving for him. So they turned around and changed direction, setting off instead to reunite with Jason and Lilith and Iphicles and a host of other friends along the way.
They made the rounds from Corinth to the Academy to Thebes, spreading the joyous news that Iolaus, the original, had come back to them, and leaving a string of mourners turned revelers in their wake. The hunter had approached it all with a degree of trepidation at first, not quite sure how he would be received since he still felt culpable for unleashing Dahak into the world. But his return was embraced and he was greeted with love and appreciation and happiness, most people just grateful their friend and hero had been restored and not overly concerned as to how such a miracle had occurred. After all, a little miracle working was pretty much standard order where the legendary duo was concerned. Iolaus, for his part, wasn’t used to being so celebrated. He’d seen Hercules getting that treatment for most of his life but he’d only been on the fringe of it himself, and quickly found he was a touch uncomfortable in the full spotlight. But he handled it all with his typical good humor and humbleness, deciding to enjoy the ride. It was a whirlwind, but a good one, and after being dead for so long he couldn’t deny he was relishing rediscovering the pleasures of food and drink and female companionship.
Finally the closest of friends had all been visited and Hercules was satisfied that there would be sufficient word of mouth to spread the news throughout Greece, so those they couldn’t see in person would still hear the account. Maybe they would believe it, or maybe they would discount it as rumor, but once the partners got back to what they did best the stories of their adventures would begin to circulate again and soon everyone would know the truth. It had been weeks of celebrations and Hercules and Iolaus had both enjoyed themselves, but the two men were more than ready to move on and get back on the road. They set out, neither of them mentioning a specific route, but together they automatically began heading in the direction of Thrace.
When evening fell the two partners made camp, sharing a simple dinner and chatting companionably until darkness blanketed them. Iolaus was exhausted from re-living his life to the fullest and fell asleep quickly, but Hercules remained awake, poking at their fire with a stick and staring absently at the dancing flames. He felt the pull of fatigue, as much as someone with the blood of the gods ever did, but he did not give in and let himself rest. Hercules still was trying to come to grips with the fact that Iolaus, his partner, his best friend, his brother in all but blood, was back with him once more. It was easier when there had been others around, celebrating his return and reaffirming the fact that the hunter was truly there, whole and healthy and as irrepressible as ever. But now, alone in the forest, just the two of them... The demigod was afraid. Worried that if he fell asleep he would wake up to find Iolaus gone again and that the whole thing was some cruel dream. And if that happened, he knew he’d never survive the pain of loss. When he’d oriented himself in the marketplace on that fateful day, realizing that Iolaus was beside him in the flesh and that Michael had made good on his promise to return him to life, his shattered heart had knitted back together on the spot. But the sutures were still fragile and weak. Hercules could feel the agony lurking there behind them, ready to burst forth and consume him. And if he had to sacrifice a night of sleep to stand guard and make sure it didn’t happen, then he would and he wouldn’t feel a bit silly about doing it, either.
The demigod probably would have brooded by the fire all night, but a tingling sensation snapped him out of his thoughts. It was the feeling he always got when the gods were nearby, so it was no surprise to him when Hades materialized next to him moments later. However, it WAS a surprise to Hades that he was greeted with no small measure of hostility and suspicion. He maybe hadn’t had the best relationship with his nephew and they’d definitely had their share of squabbles, but they’d also helped each other out and his arrival was usually greeted with tolerance, if nothing else. But this time Hercules jumped up and faced him, fists balled and posture threatening. It confused the god of the underworld, who would have expected that reaction upon the arrival of someone like Ares, but he was unsure what he’d done to deserve such open aggression. At least until Hercules shifted position slightly, putting himself directly between his uncle and his sleeping partner. Then it all clicked into place.
“Relax, Hercules,” the god told him. “I’m not here to take Iolaus.”
The demigod gazed suspiciously at his uncle for long moments. Michael had granted Iolaus life, but that didn’t mean the god of the underworld agreed and wasn’t there to haul off a soul he felt belonged to him. But then again, Hades had always been straight with him for the most part, so Hercules decided to trust him and lowered his defenses.
“Sorry,” he muttered as his stance relaxed.
“I suppose I had that coming,” Hades sighed, long used to his presence being feared and shunned. “I need to talk to you.”
Hercules glanced down at Iolaus, then nodded toward a stand of trees nearby.
He led the way and Hades followed, glancing back to the mortal still lying peacefully by the fire.
“How is he?”
“Fine,” Hercules responded curtly. “We’re both fine,” he added pointedly, cutting off his uncle as he was about to speak.
“I’m glad to hear it,” Hades said softly. “After what he went through...”
“I know you didn’t come here because you’re worried about Iolaus,” the demigod snapped impatiently. “So why don’t we can the insincerities and you just tell me what you want?”
“I need you to track down a soul,” the god announced, acquiescing to the request for brevity.
“Don’t you have minions for that sort of thing?” Hercules asked, a bit nastily and not even sure why he was giving his uncle such attitude.
“Thanatos has been trying but this particular soul is clever and has been eluding him. His body never had a proper burial so his soul never descended to the underworld. He’s been giving us the slip for months.”
“So, he beat the system,” the demigod shrugged. “Good for him. I’m not going to chase after him just so you can clear one off your books.”
“It’s not a matter of inventory,” Hades insisted. “This soul is dangerous!”
“It’s just a shade,” Hercules argued. “How much damage can it do?”
“At first, not a lot,” the god explained. “But the longer he stays out, the stronger he becomes. And I told you, this one’s clever. He’s been learning how to interact with the living world and he’s been growing more and more violent. If he’s not settled in my realm by the next full moon, I lose all claim to him. Then he’ll cease to be a shade and become an Eidolon.”
“And capable of possessing living mortals,” Hercules concluded slowly.
“He’ll use them to commit his evil and damn their souls in the process.” “I’d like to help you, Hades, but I’m going to have to pass on this one.”
“I did ask you nicely, Hercules,” the god warned, growing stern. “But you know I can use other methods of persuasion if you won’t help me willingly.”
The demigod felt rage overtake him, and he was suddenly aware of why he had been feeling hostile toward his uncle. It wasn’t Hades, specifically, but all the gods. Hercules had simply had it with all of them.
“Do whatever you want,” he lashed out angrily, “but none of you are getting any more help from me! All the gods ever do is wreck havoc and cause problems and you all look to me to clean up your messes! I’m tired of bailing the gods out and I’m done! Fix your own damn messes from now on. You’re the god of the underworld, you deal with your missing soul yourself!”
“Don’t you think I would if I could?” Hades thundered back. “You don’t think it kills me to admit that I need your help? Zeus made me lord of the underworld, and that’s where my powers lie. I have no claim to anything up here. No, Zeus has the skies and Poseidon has the seas. They left me down there to fester in gloom and misery. The other gods get worship and sacrifices, and all I get is fear and loathing. There’s not one temple in all of Greece dedicated to me. Because mortals don’t want to die! I provide a necessary service, and am reviled for it. But I rule my domain because I’m the only one who can. You have the luxury of standing there and cursing me, Hercules, when all I’m trying to do is to reclaim a dangerous soul before it transforms completely out of my reach and becomes something even more dangerous to the mortal world. If you want to lump me into the same category as the other gods, fine. But ask yourself where they’ve been for months now. I’ll tell you. Feasting on Olympus. While I’ve been stuck below, trying to sort out the mess I came back to. The underworld’s been in chaos since Dahak and it takes time to restore order. Time I don’t have to spend chasing after a rogue shade on earth!”
“Well, maybe if you hadn’t run from Dahak things wouldn’t be so bad,” Hercules chastised him.
“I seem to recall we weren’t the only ones who left Greece,” Hades shot back.
“Maybe I did run and maybe I did turn my back on my home,” the demigod seethed. “But I came back. And I saved not only Greece, but went through the vortex to save your asses and not one of you has ever bothered to say ‘thanks’! So just consider that your last favor, Hades. I’m done, I’m out and I would appreciate you just losing my name, ok?”
“It’s because of Iolaus, isn’t it?” the god accused him. “You just don’t want to get him involved.”
“No, I don’t want him involved with anything to do with the gods,” Hercules said. “And I’m not exposing him to any Eidolons. We are done risking our lives for the gods.”
“Well, you may not have a choice in this case, Hercules.”
The demigod took a step forward, eyeing his uncle coldly.
“Is that a threat?”
“Not from me,” Hades replied. “The soul that’s missing? It’s Dymas.”
Hercules startled and turned around to find Iolaus standing a few feet away. He noticed Hades looked mildly startled as well, and had to hand it to his partner as being probably the only mortal on earth who could sneak up on a god.
“I thought you were asleep,” he finally said lamely.
“Yeah, well, you two were getting pretty loud,” the hunter pointed out. “So, who’s Dymas?”
The demigod looked back and forth between his uncle and his friend, both of them waiting expectantly for an answer. Hercules sighed, knowing he was trapped from both sides. There was only one way to go from here, the way he’d been hoping to avoid.
“How would you feel about going on a hunting trip?” he asked, turning to his partner.
“Hunting for what?” Iolaus inquired cautiously.
“Ghosts,” Hercules replied wearily as Hades smirked in approval.
“It was right after we defeated Dahak,” Hercules began as he stirred up the fire and made himself comfortable within its circle of warmth. Hades had gone and dawn was not too far off, so it didn’t make much sense to try and sleep. Not that Iolaus and his curiosity would have let him. The demigod glanced across the flames, smiling to himself as he took in his partner sitting there, alert, eager, and ready for the story and the adventure that was to follow. “I guess you could say I wasn’t in a very good place.”
“Tell me about it,” Iolaus snorted. “I’m the one that was stuck there for months.”
“No, I meant emotionally.”
“Oh.” The hunter considered this, then turned his bright blue eyes on his friend. “Why not? We won. Everything should have been great.”
“Because,” Hercules told him, struggling to keep the pain from his voice as he ducked his head, “it was like losing you all over again. Back in Sumeria, that was torture, but the thing that kept me going was that I had this feeling like it wasn’t finished. And then there was Dahak to fight against. I guess through it all, in the back of my mind, I still kept hoping there was a way to save you. To get you back.”
“You did save me, Herc,” Iolaus said gently. “You saved my soul and gave me peace.”
“I was glad, when Zarathustra took you into the Light, that you were safe,” the demigod continued. “But it was so final. I knew this time you were gone and there was no way to get you back. And the reality of that... Well, like I said, I just wasn’t in a good place.” Hercules was quiet for a moment, then he lifted his head and met his friend’s gaze. His blue eyes were shining moistly in the firelight, but he grinned widely. “I should have known not to count you out, that someone as stubborn as you would refuse to stay dead, even in bliss.”
Iolaus smiled back, but with a tinge of sadness.
“I would have come back sooner,” he murmured, empathizing with the pain his friend was still feeling and wishing with all his heart that he could have spared him from it. “If I could have.”
“I know,” Hercules whispered, holding his gaze for a moment. Then he shifted and cleared his throat. “Anyway, in the chaos that followed after Dahak, a new warlord had risen up and was terrorizing half of Greece.”
“Yeah. He razed the countryside, town after town, and slaughtered, raped, or burned everything in his path. His brutality and cruelty knew no limits. I finally caught up with him just as he reached Croatoa. It was a small village and they didn’t have a magistrate. So the right thing to do would have been to take Dymas to Athens for trial, but...”
“I turned him over to the villagers,” Hercules confessed. “I knew they would probably lynch him, but I didn’t care. I was just so fed up with innocent people getting hurt and killed by evil. It seemed like justice to me at the time.” He glanced at his partner, expecting to see reproach shining from his eyes and surprised when there was none.
“Did they kill him?” the hunter asked.
“I didn’t stick around to find out, but I never heard anything about Dymas after that.”
“So, they killed him, didn’t give him the proper burial rites, and now his soul is wandering around all pissed off and looking for revenge?”
“It would appear that way,” Hercules sighed. “And he’s growing stronger and more violent in the meantime. And if we can believe Hades, if he’s not stopped by the next full moon he’ll become an Eidolon.”
“I thought those were just a myth,” Iolaus said with a small shudder. “You know, something mothers tell their kids to make them behave.”
“No, they’re real. Rare, but real.”
“And they can really take possession of a mortal’s body?”
“According to legend,” the demigod confirmed. “I hate to think what kind of damage Dymas could do if he took over a king or someone else with power and influence.”
“So, what do we do to make sure that doesn’t happen?” the hunter asked.
“We have to go to Croatoa,” Hercules explained. “We find his remains, perform the burial rites, and then his soul will be bound to the underworld and Hades can toss him in Tartarus where he belongs.”
“And you want me to go with you?” Iolaus asked carefully.
“Why wouldn’t I?” the demigod queried in surprise.
“Because we wouldn’t even be having this conversation if I hadn’t walked up on you and Hades. Am I right?”
“I was wondering how much of that you’d heard,” Hercules muttered, squirming uncomfortably.
“I heard how you aren’t going to expose me to anything or risk my life anymore,” the hunter told him.
“No, Herc, it’s ok,” Iolaus interrupted, holding up a hand to halt his protests. “Really. I know why you said what you said and I’m not mad. But I am telling you, and this is not negotiable, that this ends here and now. I’ve got a second chance at life and I’m going to live it the way I want, not in some protective bubble while you decide what is or isn’t too dangerous for me.”
“Yeah, you have a second chance at life,” Hercules argued, getting to his feet and pacing around the fire. “And I know you died with regrets. I heard it from your own mouth. So I just want you to be able to live how you want this time around, instead of me dragging you from one disaster to the next.”
“Ok, firstly, this IS how I want to live my life,” the hunter countered, getting a bit heated as he jumped up and faced his partner. “I believe you heard that come out of my mouth as well. This is the life I want to live. And secondly, I resent you talking about dragging me around, like I’m some dog on a leash as opposed to a grown man with free will who can make his own decisions!”
“I didn’t mean it like that,” Hercules tried to placate his friend. “It’s just... you don’t owe me anything, ok? I’m just glad that you’re back and whatever you decide you want to do with your life, I’ll support you. I don’t want you having any regrets next time.”
“Herc, the regrets I had, they were all about just not having the time to do everything I wanted. None of them had anything to do with my choice to be with you and fight by your side.” Iolaus calmed considerably and reached out, placing a hand on his partner’s gauntleted arm. “What I want is just for things to be like they were before. You and me, back to back, fighting the good fight, kicking butt and taking names. This IS the life I choose,” he emphasized. “Ok?”
Hercules reached out, clapping his friend on the shoulder.
“Dawn’s coming up,” Iolaus pointed out, looking off to the horizon. “We should break camp and get moving. How far is it to Croatoa?”
“Four days,” Hercules answered as he bent over to retrieve his pack from the ground.
“That doesn’t leave us much time before the next full moon,” Iolaus mused, hands on his hips as he studied the fading stars and tried to work out the lunar cycle in his head.
“No, not much time,” the demigod echoed as he pulled what bread they had left from his supplies. Although he was thinking more about the time he had to learn to let go and to set his partner free from his protective bubble to live the life he had chosen. No, not much time at all.
“So,” Iolaus said finally. “This is Croatoa.”
“It was a little more lively last time I was here,” Hercules promised, turning in a circle for one more look at the still, silent town.
“What happened to everybody?”
“I don’t know.” The demigod shrugged, at a loss to explain why the village was devoid of life. “Let’s go find out.”
The partners decided to split up and do a quick search of the area to see if anyone still remained. Between them they checked several houses in the village and they all proved to be empty.
“Do you think Dymas had anything to do with this?” Iolaus asked when they reconvened in the center of town.
“Let’s not jump to conclusions,” Hercules replied, hating to think that the shade could have gathered enough strength to eradicate an entire village. “We’re just after his bones, remember. His soul could be long gone from here. Come on, it’s getting dark. Let’s go make ourselves at home in the inn and tomorrow we’ll do a better search of the place and see what we can find out.”
Iolaus agreed and they ambled over to the small inn. Being a relatively obscure village, Croatoa didn’t get many travelers stopping over so the inn wasn’t really much of one. Mainly just a small bar and tavern downstairs and two rooms on the upper level. There was no food to be found, but it was still pleasant accommodations for two warriors who were more used to campfires and hay bales. For each to have a comfortable bed in a room of his own, especially one they didn’t have to pay for, was a real treat indeed. And with nothing else really to do, they decided to turn in for the night.
The hunter fell asleep quickly, luxuriating in the soft mattress and warm blankets that he didn’t have to share. But soon his instincts overrode his comfort and he stirred awake, yawning as he listened to try and determine what had disturbed him. Then he heard it. Soft scratching noises, followed by a few quiet thumps. Rodents, he thought to himself. Well, it was probably to be expected in a deserted building. He snuggled back down into his pillow and tried to ignore it, until a loud, reverberating bang startled him fully awake. After a second he realized the shutters of the window had come undone and had blown open. Iolaus climbed out of bed and stumbled over to the window to pull them shut.
“I could have sworn I latched these,” he muttered to himself as he secured the hook. But a sudden cold draft washed over him and he hurried back to bed, climbing under the covers and pulling his pillow over his head to block out the ambient noises as he drifted back to sleep.
The two men spent the morning conducting a more thorough search of the village and met back up at the inn at midday to compare notes. Both had come to the same conclusion that the people of Croatoa had not met with any grisly fate, but had fled their homes. Valuables were gone but furnishings remained, suggesting they’d taken the time to pack up what they needed but had still made haste in leaving. So the question remained, what had driven them off?
“Here,” Iolaus offered, handing his friend a clay pot.
Hercules looked at the glazed object in his hands, noting that it had been decorated with a painted stalk of grain but otherwise not seeing anything remarkable about the rather ordinary vessel.
“Open it,” the hunter urged.
The demigod removed the lid and turned the pot upside down, expecting grain to spill out and raising his eyebrows questioningly when something else scattered on the floor.
“Why would anyone fill a grain pot with sand?”
“It’s the same in every house I checked,” Iolaus informed him. “Amphoras, jars, bowls... every kitchen just has containers of sand. And have you noticed the fields?”
“Pretty hard to miss,” Hercules answered, referring to the withered crops that littered the barren fields.
“The flower beds and herb gardens, too. Everything’s dead.”
“Lack of food would be strong cause for these people to move on,” the demigod concluded.
“Yeah, but what caused it?”
“Maybe drought, or some kind of plant disease? An insect plague?”
“Come on, Herc,” the hunter scoffed. “We walked through miles of woods to get here and there was no sign of anything like that. It’s just this village. Like it’s cursed.”
“I can’t believe one shade could have the power to wipe out the food supply for an entire village,” Hercules insisted, though his voice lacked conviction. “All the same, I will feel a lot better once we find Dymas’ bones and deal with them.”
“You and me both,” Iolaus sighed. “So, what now?”
“I’ll keep looking,” the demigod offered. “Why don’t you take that bow off the wall and see if you can hunt us some dinner before we starve to death and become shades ourselves?”
“Now you’re talking,” the hunter agreed, glad for the chance to do something productive. He snagged the weapon from where it was hanging next to the fireplace and drew back experimentally on the string, testing its elasticity. “Hey, Herc, I forgot to ask. Did you hear anything last night? Any kind of noises?”
“Just some scratching sounds,” Hercules answered absently. “Sounded like branches scraping on the roof from the wind.”
“Yeah, I guess it could have been,” Iolaus murmured. He’d been quick to dismiss the noise he’d heard during the night, but now he wasn’t so sure. Something was definitely wrong in the village of Croatoa. He could feel it in his gut, his hunter’s instinct warning him. Maybe Dymas was just a shade or maybe he was more than that. But Iolaus knew he wasn’t going to relax until his soul was safely in the realm of Hades.
Hercules sighed, tossing the last scroll down on the table and running a hand over his eyes. He’d happened upon a mountain of them in one house and had been pouring over them earnestly, looking for any information that could help them. But all he’d come away with were descriptions of every malady under the sun and how to treat them. Potentially useful information down the road, but nothing that would help him locate Dymas’ remains.
The demigod stood and stretched before gathering up all the scrolls and beginning the process of putting them back where he’d found them. He realized he probably didn’t need to bother, but something just didn’t seem right about disrespecting someone’s home and property, even if they weren’t coming back. So he tidied up and then left the house, pulling the door shut securely behind him as he squinted against the bright rays of the late afternoon sun.
Something to the left caught his eye, and at first Hercules thought it was just a reflection, or the sun playing tricks on him. But as his gaze swept the area in front of the barn that was adjacent to the house, he plainly saw the figure of a man flicker into view. The form was ethereal and unfocused, but it cleared enough to grin grotesquely at him before disappearing entirely.
“Dymas,” the demigod hissed under his breath. With long strides he made for the barn, throwing open the doors and stirring up a cloud of dust. He entered cautiously, his muscles taut and ready. Hercules didn’t see anything in the gloom or sense anything amiss, but he stepped forward regardless, wanting to make absolutely sure. Then he heard it, a soft noise coming from the far stall on the right. Hercules crept carefully up to the compartment, tensing for a fight even though he wasn’t sure what he could physically do with a shade if he found him. Taking a deep breath, the demigod kicked in the door of the stall and leapt inside. And immediately relaxed, shaking his head at his own paranoia as a tiny barn kitten stared up at him with wide eyes, mewling softly.
“Good thing Iolaus wasn’t here to see that,” he chuckled to himself. “He’d never let me live it down.” Intent on giving the young feline a scratch to the ears, Hercules bent over just as a pitchfork came whizzing through the open stall into the space where his head had been a second before. It stuck in the wall with a crashing thunk, causing the kitten to hightail it out of there to safer parts. Hercules spun around, but could see nothing. “Show yourself, Dymas!” he ordered angrily, but his attacker was either gone or cloaked from even his semi-divine sight.
A flash of movement startled the demigod as he rounded the corner on his way back to the inn, but he relaxed when he realized it was just his partner, drawing up a bucket of water from the well in the center of the street.
“Hey,” he greeted the hunter as he approached. “Any luck?”
“Not much,” Iolaus reported ruefully. “There’s hardly anything out there. Whatever’s going on here is scaring off most of the game. All I could get were a couple of scrawny rabbits.”
“Better than nothing,” Hercules rationalized.
“I’ve already got them on the fire. Shouldn’t take too long to cook,” the hunter announced as he led the way back to the inn with the sloshing bucket. He stopped just inside the door, setting the bucket down and staring into the room.
“What is it?”
“I’m sure I left my sword against the wall over there,” Iolaus insisted, waving to where his sheathed blade was lying in the middle of the floor. “Now don’t try to tell me that was the wind.”
“No,” Hercules said, closing the door and sliding the heavy cross beam in place, firmly bolting it. “Dymas is here. And Hades was right. He’s violent and he’s strong. We’re going to have to be on guard.”
“Speak for yourself,” the hunter scoffed as he went to check the meat roasting in the fireplace. “I’ve been on guard since we got here.”
“No, Iolaus,” the demigod argued, shaking his head. “This isn’t a person or a monster like we’re used to dealing with. Not something we can lock out or kill with a sword. He’s not tangible. We can’t touch him, but I think he can touch us. And we don’t know for sure how powerful he is, or the full extent of what he can do. We need to be careful with this one.”
“You sound like you’re worried,” Iolaus said, hoping that he was wrong. “What happened while I was gone?”
Hercules quickly told his friend what had transpired in the barn and extracted the promise from him that he would be careful until their mission was complete.
“So, what’s the next step?” Iolaus asked.
“One thing at a time,” the demigod decided. “First we eat, then get some sleep. Tomorrow we’ll try again.”
The hunter nodded and went to the fire, pulling the roasted rabbits out and placing them on a platter. But despite being his favorite, he barely ate anything, picking at the meat listlessly as he found he no longer had much of an appetite.
“Damn it,” Iolaus cursed sleepily as the crashing shutters woke him up again. He was absolutely sure they had been latched when he went to bed, but nonetheless they were loose and banging against the walls. He got up and yanked them shut, latching them forcefully in his irritation. But as he started to climb back into bed a thunderous boom echoed from below, shaking the entire building with its force.
He darted out into the hallway, running into Hercules. Both men were wide awake and fully alert and after a few brief hand signals they started to descend the stairs side by side, ready for anything. Except they weren’t ready for the attack to come from behind them. A presence blew down the stairs between them, knocking them both off balance. Hercules grabbed onto the banister to keep himself from falling, wincing slightly as Iolaus dug his nails into his arm to likewise catch himself. Both saw the outline of a dark, shapeless mass moving down the steps and vanishing into the inky darkness of the tavern. They both hurried down after it, but it was gone. From sight, anyway. Something was still there, evidenced by the loud thumping and banging that was coming from the walls all around them.
“Duck,” Hercules shouted, yanking his friend down in the nick of time as a heavy skillet came sailing their way from the kitchen. It was followed by crockery and vases and other unidentifiable projectiles and the two warriors were forced to take refuge behind an overturned table, covering their heads and listening to the smashing of breaking pottery against the tabletop. The air whistled faintly and the table vibrated as it was pierced with the fire poker, the sharp tip splintering the wood and emerging through the bottom right between the two men. They bolted back and began scrambling for new shelter, but the onslaught suddenly ceased. There was more thudding on the ceiling, and then the heavy door that Hercules had bolted crashed inward to slam against the wall. Then everything went quiet and still.
After long moments, the demigod picked himself up and went to the door, closing it and rebolting it with the crossbar, realizing how utterly futile the gesture was but feeling the need to do it anyway. Then he turned back and approached the hunter who was still crouched on the floor amid a mess of clay shards.
“I think I’m officially creeped out now,” Iolaus told him dryly, accepting his hand up. “Herc, I think we’re out of our league here.”
“Not yet,” the demigod countered, picking up an overturned chair and righting it, wanting to make order of the chaos. “We can still stop Dymas.”
“How?” the hunter asked in frustration. “We have no idea where his bones are and that’s the only way we can get to him.”
“We keep looking,” Hercules insisted. “There has to be some record of where these people went. Even just one of them that we can track down and ask what they did with Dymas.”
“The problem is, we are running out of time for tracking anyone down,” Iolaus argued. “We’ve only got four or five more days before the full moon, and then we’ll have even bigger problems than we have now!”
“I know,” the demigod said quietly, his shoulders sagging in defeat. “But I don’t know what else to do.”
Iolaus ran a hand through his hair, realizing he wasn’t helping matters by being negative.
“No, we do just like you said,” he finally spoke, clapping his friend on the back. “One thing at a time. Let’s start by cleaning this mess up.”
Hercules nodded, his eyes radiating his thanks, and together they went to work on the shambles of the tavern.
Iolaus was sure that sleep would elude him for the rest of the night, so he was surprised when he opened his eyes to sunlight streaming through the cracks of the shutters, which were fortunately still latched. He heard some muffled sounds coming from downstairs and, hoping it was Hercules, got up and headed down to join him.
“Morning,” the demigod greeted, pausing from his chore of sweeping the floor and setting the broom aside. He went over to the fireplace, taking down the kettle hanging over it and pouring the contents into a mug. “Here,” he offered, sliding it across the counter of the bar where his friend had a seat.
“What is this?” Iolaus demanded, sniffing at the steaming mug.
“I found a little bit of dried mint in my pack and steeped it in some boiling water,” Hercules explained. “Not much of a breakfast, I’m afraid, but...”
“Yeah, better than nothing,” the hunter finished. He took a small sip of the weak pseudo-tea and found it wasn’t that bad. “What about the leftover rabbit?”
“Oh, that.” Hercules quickly grabbed up the broom and started sweeping. “I accidentally finished it off this morning. Sorry, buddy.”
“You finished it off?” Iolaus questioned skeptically. “No, that’s something I would do. In all the time we’ve known each other, Herc, you’ve never forgotten to leave me something.”
“Maybe I’m just not used to rationing for two anymore,” the demigod muttered, intent on his sweeping until he couldn’t stand the blue eyes boring into his back. “All right,” he groused, giving in. “It went bad overnight, ok?”
“How?” the hunter demanded. His friend didn’t answer, but he stole a quick glance at the pile of broken pottery they’d stashed in the corner the night before. The covered platter that had held their leftover dinner was sitting on top, though it didn’t appear to have been damaged. Iolaus slid off his chair and went over to it, lifting the lid and quickly dropping it in disgust when he saw the rabbit meat was writhing with maggots.
“Still hungry?” Hercules asked him.
“Not in the slightest,” Iolaus grimaced as he returned to his seat. “Oh, it’s on now, Herc. Dymas can throw whatever he wants to at my head, but when he starts messing with the food I take that personally!”
“I hear you,” the demigod grinned. “So do you want to try your luck hunting again today?”
Iolaus swallowed down the contents in his mug and shook his head.
“I’ll help you search some more houses,” he declared. “We need to find this jerk’s remains and we need to do it now.”
“Then let’s stop wasting daylight,” Hercules suggested as he tossed aside the broom. Iolaus jumped down from the bar and the demigod followed him out the door into the cool, clear morning.
They had split up once more to maximize their efforts, meeting again at midday at the inn. This time Hercules was the one that didn’t come back empty-handed.
“What’s that?” Iolaus asked, seeing the scroll in his friend’s fist and trying not to get his hopes up.
The demigod handed it to him and the hunter unrolled the parchment and read it for himself. It was an account of how the village of Croatoa had become unliveable, cursed by the ghost of a murderous warlord. Crops had died, goats had stopped giving milk, and meat became rancid. Structures were being damaged and people were attacked. Most of them had moved on in an attempt to save their families and find salvation, and the author of the scroll was finally giving up the battle for his home as well and moving to his brother’s home in Crete.
“How does this help?” Iolaus asked when he’d finished. “It doesn’t say what they did with Dymas.”
“No, but at least we know for sure what happened to the villagers. And we know where one of them went.”
“Big deal,” the hunter burst out. “By the time we get to Crete, Dymas will already have become an Eidolon and the whole thing will be pointless.”
“Are you ok?” Hercules asked suddenly, thinking that his friend was acting almost... nervous. “You didn’t have any trouble this morning, did you?”
“No,” Iolaus replied, calming down. “Nothing happened. But...”
“I could feel him, Herc,” the hunter confessed. “Watching me. Once I swear I even felt him breathing down my neck.”
“Maybe we should stay together from now on, what do you think?” the demigod suggested.
“Ok.” Iolaus seemed simultaneously embarrassed and relieved. “But listen, I’ve been thinking. You’re right. There has to be a record of what happened to Dymas. And since this town doesn’t have a magistrate or town hall, then the most logical place to keep records would be the village elder’s house.”
“I found that yesterday and went through all his books and scrolls,” Hercules told him. “There wasn’t anything about Dymas.”
“But how hard did you look?” the hunter pressed. “I mean, our friend’s already proven he can move things. What if he hid the record, knowing that if we don’t find it, we can’t stop him?”
“It’s possible,” the demigod said as he considered it. “Worth another look, at least. Come on, we go together.”
He led the way back to the village elder’s deserted home and they went inside and began to search. Not just looking for something obvious this time, but rather searching for something hidden. And after moving a rug, Iolaus finally came across a small area of floor that was loose. He pried up the section of board and Hercules knelt beside him as they both peered down into the dark hole.
“I think I see something down there,” the hunter said.
“So,” Hercules told him, “reach in and grab it.”
“You reach in and grab it.”
“You found it, you reach in and grab it.”
“All right,” Iolaus snapped as he lowered his hand toward the hole. “But if there’s something slimy down here I’m going to be very unhappy.”
He groped around for a few moments and then quickly withdrew, clutching a bound volume that was covered with spider webs. After dusting it off, he rose from the floor and went over to the window where there was more light, with Hercules following close behind. Iolaus opened the cover and skimmed over the first page.
“It’s definitely a village record,” he announced.
“Flip to the back.”
Following his partner’s request, the hunter opened the book from the back and thumbed through until he found the last written page.
“This is it,” he exclaimed excitedly. “They hung Dymas out in the center of the orchard and, direct quote, ‘left him there to rot’.”
“Finally,” Hercules sighed in relief. “Now all we have to do is... Do you hear that?”
“Sounds like whispering but I can’t make out the words,” Iolaus said quietly.
They both froze, straining their ears to hear the quiet sounds, and both were significantly startled when a whoosh of flame suddenly erupted from the pages of the book. The hunter tossed the volume away from him and the demigod grabbed a blanket from the bed in the corner and hurried to put out the fire, but the book was reduced to nothing but ashes.
“It doesn’t matter,” Hercules said tightly, kicking at the pile of ashes and scattering them. “We got what we needed.” He turned to his partner who was looking a touch pale and tried to see his hands to make sure he didn’t get burned. “Are you ok?”
“Yeah, fine,” Iolaus assured him, taking a deep breath. “Let’s just go end this.”
“I’m with you, partner,” the demigod agreed, clapping him on the shoulder and leading the way out of the house.
The orchard was like the rest of Croatoa: dead. All the trees were barren of fruit and leaves, their twisted branches reaching up to the sky as if in supplication to the gods. Iolaus glanced up at the naked canopy, noticing that the sun was plenty visible and that it was starting to get low in the sky.
“How are we going to know which tree it is?” he asked, following closely behind his partner. There were no signs of life at all in this patch of forest. No birds, no squirrels, not even so much as a fly. It was silent and unnatural and it was starting to unnerve him.
“Try to gauge the middle of the orchard and circle out from there, I guess.”
“Well I hope we find it fast. At least before nightfall.”
“Why?” Hercules shot his friend a bemused look. “Scared to be out here with Dymas after dark?”
The demigod didn’t answer, but he did significantly pick up the pace.
After a bit of squabbling, the duo more or less came to an agreement about where the center of the orchard lay and began kicking through the detritus covering the ground. It was a blind search until Iolaus spied a bit of frayed rope that still dangled from a heavy limb protruding from a large, old tree, which gave them a more concentrated area to focus on. But after almost an hour of combing the forest floor, all they had come up with was a piece of broken femur and a few small finger bones.
“Give it up, Herc,” Iolaus finally urged his friend. “Dymas is long gone.”
“Animals,” the hunter concluded. “The bigger predators in the area probably ripped the carcass apart and rodents would have gotten the rest.”
“Rodents?” Hercules asked skeptically.
“They like bones,” Iolaus shrugged. “For minerals, and the chewing wears down their teeth.”
“Well, I don’t think this is going to be enough to bind Dymas’ soul to Hades,” the demigod said doubtfully as he surveyed the meager remains.
“Great. So how are we going to end this if we can’t bury him?”
Hercules looked at his friend, his eyes reflecting an unfamiliar helplessness.
“I wish I knew.”
A cold wind washed over them both, and in the trees they could hear a faint echo of ominous laughter.
“Can you see him?” Iolaus asked.
“Not really,” the demigod replied. “Just that once by the barn. I get little flashes, out of the corner of my eye, but by the time I focus on him he’s gone. You can’t see him, can you?”
“No,” the hunter answered, unconsciously wrapping his arms around his chest. “But I can feel him.”
“In what way?”
“I can feel him watching me. And when he’s near, I feel this strong... presence. I don’t really know how to describe it. Something dark and heavy around me. Like now, the air seems thick and I just have this really bad feeling... Herc, I think we should go back to the village.”
“I want to bury these first,” the demigod said, nudging the bones at his feet with the toe of his boot.
“What for? You said it wouldn’t be enough to work.”
“Probably not but since we’re here we might as well give it a try.”
“Fine,” Iolaus sighed in exasperation and picked up the shovel they’d brought, digging it into the ground and tossing away a few scoops of dirt. They made sure to place the bone fragments with the proper burial rites, just in the off chance that it would be enough. Then Iolaus shoveled the dirt back into the hole, patting the soil back down with a degree of finality. “There, it’s done. Can we go now?”
He swung the shovel over his shoulder and started walking away without waiting for an answer, not noticing that Hercules wasn’t following him until he heard a strangled grunt from behind. Turning, Iolaus dropped the shovel in horror when he saw that his partner was pinned back up against a tree, the very one from which Dymas was presumably hanged, held fast by a band of vines around his throat.
Hercules’ hands scrabbled frantically at his neck, but for every thick vine he snapped, two more would take its place. He tried to go faster but the pressure was intense, enough to snap his neck had he been a fully mortal man, and spots were beginning to dance in front of his eyes from the lack of oxygen.
Then suddenly the pressure released and he fell to his knees on the ground, coughing and gasping in great lungfuls of air. Iolaus was instantly beside him, worming under his arm up against his side, forcing him up and somehow taking most of his weight.
“Come on, Herc, we have to get out of here,” he urged.
The demigod glanced up at the tree, taking in the hanging vines that had been severed with a blow from Iolaus’ razor sharp sword. And he also saw more vines snaking down from the tree, reaching out for them. So he closed his eyes and held on, letting his friend usher him as fast as they could manage out of the orchard.
Iolaus strained as he worked the windlass, struggling to pull the bucket up from the bottom of the well. It seemed heavier than before, almost too heavy for him to lift. Maybe it was due to exhaustion, or the fact that he hadn’t been eating, but the chore took a toll on him and he was trembling by the time he managed to drag the bucket over the stone ledge. But then it immediately became apparent why he’d had such a hard time. The bucket wasn’t filled with water, but rather a dense, foul smelling sludge.
“I-ol-aussssss.” The name was whispered into his ear, a wisp of breath stirring his golden curls.
The hunter went into a spin kick, sending the bucket and it’s contents crashing back down into the well as he turned to face the dark night.
“Leave me alone,” he snarled through gritted teeth, but his only answer was a faint mocking laughter on the breeze. The hunter started back for the inn, forcing himself to walk instead of run. Once inside, he made sure to bolt the door. True, it had proven to be no deterrent to Dymas, but the action made him feel better so he did it anyway. Once the door was secure, he went and had a seat at the bar next to Hercules. “Bad news. Our friend out there’s been screwing with the water. Well’s no good.”
“More bad news,” the demigod croaked out from his hoarse throat. He picked up the kettle that was resting on the counter in front of him and turned it over. It had been filled with mint infused water when they’d left, but now only sand trickled out.
“Great,” Iolaus muttered as he slid back off the chair. “Well, I found a stream out in the woods yesterday. Not much more than a trickle, but...” He paused as Hercules grabbed his arm to stop him. “What?” The demigod glanced out the window at the dark night and shook his head. “Herc, we need to get you some...”
“No,” Hercules insisted with as much force as his weak voice could manage.
“Ok,” the hunter finally conceded. “But at least let me put something on that, all right?” He trotted upstairs and found his partner’s pack, coming back down with a small jar of the healing salve he carried. Hercules obligingly tilted his head back and let his friend liberally smear the medicine over the abraded skin the choking vines had left behind. When he was done, Iolaus wiped his hands off on a rag and studied his partner thoughtfully. “Herc, I sure hope you have a plan here, because I got nothing.”
The demigod nodded and used sign language to convey that in the morning they would leave Croatoa to find food and water.
“Well, that’s all well and good but you know I was talking about Dymas. What are we going to do about him?”
“I don’t know,” Hercules admitted, wincing at the rawness in his throat. “But we’ll figure something out.”
“Yeah, I guess we always do,” Iolaus agreed. But neither of the two heroes looked like they believed themselves.
It was cold. Iolaus woke up shivering and it took him a minute to realize his covers were bunched up at the foot of the bed. He reached down, groping for the blankets, but then all of a sudden there was a dizzying vertigo and a loud thump and shooting pain. The hunter was momentarily disoriented, and it took him a minute to realize that something had dragged him from his bed and he’d had the wind knocked out of him when he’d hit the floor. Correction, something was still dragging him.
Iolaus reached out and grabbed hold of the door frame as he was pulled out of his room.
“Herc!” he shouted out desperately. “Hercules!”
He was yanked hard and lost his grip. His fingers clawed at the floor, trying to find some sort of hold as he kicked wildly at the thing holding his ankle. But all he connected with was air as he slid down the hallway toward the stairs. Iolaus managed to grab hold of the banister and clung to it for dear life, at least until his partner’s hands clamped onto his wrists. The hunter became victim of a tug of war between a demigod and the dark force that seemed equally matched in strength, and as he was yanked from both ends he surreally thought he would be pulled apart before either one managed to claim him. But he underestimated the determination Hercules had where those he loved were concerned, and Iolaus found himself pulled free from the spectral grasp and up into his partner’s arms.
“Are you all right?” the demigod panted.
“Yeah,” the hunter gasped out.
Hercules patted him on the back and moved to the edge of the stairs, his gaze sweeping the darkness below.
“Looking for me?”
Too late he saw the flash beside him, and he was unable to protect himself from the heavy blow that landed on his back and sent him flying down the stairs, crashing head over heels down into the blackness.
“Hecules.” Hades materialized in the chamber he used for an office and eyed his nephew expectantly. “Do you have Dymas?”
“Does it look like I have him?” the demigod asked sarcastically.
“No,” the god answered him drolly, giving him a once over and taking in his impressive arrays of bumps and bruises. “No, it looks like you got your butt kicked.”
“Yeah, I did. Down a flight of stairs. After I was garotted and before I spent the morning trying to avoid doubling as a shade’s punching bag.”
“Well, you have my sympathies but I’m not sure why you’re here if you don’t have...”
“Because his remains are gone, Hades,” Hercules informed him. “There’s nothing left to bury. So if you want Iolaus and I to help you, you’re going to have to give us some other way to bind him to the underworld. And don’t you dare say ‘I can’t’!” the demigod added quickly as his uncle opened his mouth to speak.
“It’s different this time,” Hades explained. “My hands aren’t tied because of some rule or code. There’s nothing I physically can do unless he’s bound to me.”
“Oh, come on,” Hercules scoffed. “You have to have some trick or toy lying around that will let us capture a spirit.”
“If I did, I would have given it to Thanatos months ago and we wouldn’t be having this conversation now.”
“Well, then, I don’t know what you expect us to do,” the demigod said in exasperation. “We can’t bring you something we can’t even get our hands on.”
“You’ll find a way,” the god told him, almost dismissively. “You always do.”
“Maybe this time I don’t want to,” Hercules argued, annoyed. “We did what you asked, it didn’t work, so maybe we’ll just be on our way and you can get one of your minions to chase after Dymas and take his abuse.”
“You’re free to leave Croatoa at any time,” Hades reminded him. “But you’re either naive or stupid if you think Dymas won’t follow you. You’re the one who brought about his end, and you’re the one he wants to exact his revenge on. He won’t leave you in peace. Not now.”
The demigod sagged in defeat, knowing his uncle was right.
“Can you at least tell me why I can’t see him like I could with Timeron?” he asked finally.
“Dymas has either learned to cloak himself from even divine eyes, or he’s learned to manipulate objects over distance so he’s not there to be seen. Either way, it means he’s become very powerful.” Hades relented a bit, his stern countenance softening slightly. “Hercules, you can try to lay low for a couple of days. Once he transforms into the Eidolon, he’ll be more susceptible to outside forces.”
“Are there ways to kill an Eidolon?”
“Not easily, but yes, it can be done.”
“But we also run the risk of losing him,” Hercules mused. “He could take over any mortal in Greece and we wouldn’t know who until it was too late.”
“But if it’s the only way...”
“It’s not,” the demigod sighed wearily. “I’ll think of some way to get Dymas before the full moon. Like you said, I always do.”
As Hercules walked up the main street into Croatoa, he spied his partner pacing in agitated circles outside the inn. Iolaus halted when he saw his friend approaching and strode up to meet him.
“What happened?” he demanded. “Was Hades any help?”
“About as much help as any of the gods ever are,” Hercules answered, not bothering to hide his disgust. “What’s wrong?”
“What do you mean?” The hunter tried for a show of innocence, but he wasn’t fooling the man who had known him since childhood. Iolaus was clearly freaked, and someone with his past just didn’t get freaked unless it was major. So the demigod fixed a hard look on him, letting him squirm until he finally caved. “Ok, all right, just stop glaring at me. This afternoon, Dymas... He tried...”
“Dymas tried what?” Hercules prodded with little patience.
“He tried to get inside me, ok?” Iolaus blurted out.
“What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean, Herc,” the hunter snapped as he began his agitated pacing anew. “He tried to get inside me!”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure! I let Dahak in! I know what it feels like to be invaded and overtaken by an evil presence!”
“Well, what happened?”
“Obviously he didn’t succeed,” Iolaus pointed out. “But it doesn’t matter, because once he becomes an Eidolon nothing will be able to stop him. I can’t go through that again, Herc! I just can’t! I’d rather be dead...”
“Ok, just stop and listen to me,” Hercules ordered, grabbing his friend by the shoulders and holding him still so that he could look him squarely in the eye. “I swear to you I am not going to let that happen! Do you believe me?”
“I believe you’ll try,” the hunter whispered.
“I’m going to do more than that. I’m not going to let him have you, buddy, I promise.”
“I hope you mean that,” Iolaus said, looking at him pointedly. “Because I meant what I said, Herc. I’d rather be dead. I want you to promise me you’ll do whatever you have to in order to stop Dymas, even if it means...”
“I promise, but it won’t come to that.” Hercules released his grip on his friend, only to loop an arm around his shoulders. “I brought back a wineskin and some food. Why don’t we go inside and we can talk about it over dinner?”
“I don’t want to spend another night in there,” the hunter protested, having had enough of the inn and its nightly disturbances to last him a lifetime.
“I’m not sure it matters where we go,” the demigod shrugged. “Come on, I think it will be...” His words faded as he pushed open the door to the inn and looked inside. “On second thought, it is a nice night to camp out.”
Iolaus peered around his partner’s bulk and stole a look inside before Hercules could slam the door shut. A pool of what looked like blood was covering the floor and dripping one drop at a time up the ceiling. The duo quickly backed away from the inn and started out of town, making for what they could only hope was the safety of the woods as a malevolent, disembodied laughter followed behind.
“Iolaus,” Hercules chided gently as his friend refused the bread and cheese he tried to hand him, “you need to eat. You’ve barely eaten anything since we got to Croatoa.”
“I’ve felt sick to my stomach pretty much since we got to Croatoa,” the hunter shrugged as he uncorked the wine skin and took a sip. “Don’t worry about me, Herc. I’m ok.”
The demigod took the wineskin that was passed to him, but he did not drink, instead staring at the object as he turned it over in his hands.
“I’m sorry,” he said finally.
“Dragging you into this.” Hercules set the wine skin aside and shifted slightly to look at his partner, sitting next to him on the fallen log. “You’re not fine. And I’m not, either. I knew Dymas would be after me, because of what I did. But now he’s after you, too, because you’re my friend. If I had known it was going to go this far...”
“You would have what?” Iolaus demanded. “Forbid me to come? Come on, Herc, we’ve talked about this. I’m here because I chose to come. Because it’s where I want to be. You didn’t drag me anywhere and you have got to stop trying to shield me from the big, bad world!”
“I’m not shielding you,” the demigod protested.
“Oh, what about when we met up with those bandits on the way here?”
“What about it?”
“You took five and left me with one. The little one, I might add.”
“All right, fine,” Hercules acknowledged. “I was just trying to keep you from getting hurt. Is that so terrible?”
“Yes, it is,” Iolaus insisted. “It’s bad enough having to live in your shadow without having to live under your thumb, too.”
“Well excuse the Hades out of me for giving a damn about what happens to you,” the demigod muttered, clearly hurt as he shifted back to face their campfire.
“I’m sorry,” the hunter said quietly after a minute of tense silence. “I didn’t mean that the way it sounded. Stress is getting to me, I guess. It’s just that it’s not going to work this way, Herc, and you know that. There’s nothing I want more than to be by your side, but the one thing I can’t ever do is to stand behind you. I know what you went through and I’m trying to be patient and cut you some slack, but you have to get over this fear you have and let me live my life, along with whatever comes with it.”
“You don’t know what I went through,” Hercules disagreed, shaking his head slightly before looking back at his partner. “Iolaus, when you were killed...” He trailed off, simply not able to put the soul shattering agony of loss he’d felt into words. “I can’t go through that again.”
“I don’t particularly want to relive it, either,” Iolaus told him lightly. “But it’s a chance I have to take. Because if I’m not doing what I love, fighting at your side and doing what I can to make the world a better place, then my life isn’t worth living. Michael sent me back here for a reason, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t to hide behind you for the rest of my years. You have to believe me when I tell you that he never does anything without a greater purpose in mind. And he didn’t just restore me to life, remember, but he specifically sentenced me to live out my life at YOUR side. You and I do make a difference, Herc. I didn’t see it before, but I do now. So you have to try and let everything go, ok. So we can be like how we were before.”
“I promise I’ll try,” Hercules vowed after careful consideration. “As long as you promise you’ll be careful.” At his partner’s dubious look, the demigod grinned and clarified. “I don’t mean swearing off taking risks. Just the reckless ones.”
“Ok, I promise to look before I leap,” the hunter chuckled. “Does that make you happy?”
“Good. Now pass that wine back over here.”
“You know it’s not because I doubt your abilities, right?” Hercules asked as he complied.
“I would hope not. Not after all the times I’ve bailed your butt out of trouble.”
“Oh, you want to compare heroic rescues now, huh?” the demigod said, taking the bait along with the wineskin from his partner.
They passed the vessel back and forth until it was empty, reminiscing about past adventures and challenging each other’s selective memories. Finally they decided to get some rest, but both men were on edge and lay awake for a long time, tensely waiting for something to happen. But the forest clearing they’d retreated to remained peaceful, and warmed by the wine and hypnotized by the flickering flames of the fire, they were both eventually lulled to sleep.
A half-muted curse woke Hercules and he sat up to see his friend illuminated in the first faint rays of dawn. Iolaus was poking at the dying embers of the fire to stir them to life with one stick in his right hand and scratching his back with a second stick in his left.
“What are you so happy about?” the demigod yawned, scrubbing a hand over his face and running his fingers through his hair.
“Take a look,” the hunter invited, kicking at Hercules’ pack with the toe of his boot.
“If its maggots again, I’ll pass,” he said dryly.
“More sand. I’m deducting points for lack of creativity.”
“I thought out here we might be far enough away to at least spare the food,” Hercules sighed. “I guess we could... what is wrong with you?”
“I feel like I slept on an ant hill last night,” the hunter complained as he squirmed uncomfortably. “My back’s burning like it’s all bitten up.”
“Let me see.”
Obligingly, Iolaus turned around and slid out of his vest, expecting to hear some sort of dig about how he was overreacting. But his heart sank down into his stomach when a hushed ‘by the gods’ reached his ears.
“What?! What is it?” he yelped, craning his neck over his shoulder and trying to see his back. “What is that? Are those letters?!”
Hercules could only nod mutely, struck momentarily speechless by the sight in front of him. For carved into his best friend’s flesh was Dymas’ ominous message.
“Well, what in Tartarus does it say?” Iolaus exploded.
Hercules cleared his throat, tearing his gaze away from grisly sight and meeting his partner’s frantic eyes as he answered.
Cause this is thriller, thriller night
And no one’s gonna save you from the beast about strike
You know it’s thriller, thriller night
You’re fighting for your life inside a killer, thriller tonight
They’re out to get you, there’s demons closing in on every side
They will possess you unless you change the number on your dial
“Thriller” by Michael Jackson
“I expected Dymas to go after me,” Hercules spoke as he paced rapidly in tight circles. “And yeah, Iolaus would be a target as long as he was with me. But I can’t help feeling like there’s more to it than that. I know historically Dymas has never needed a reason to hurt anyone, but my gut is telling me that he’s got some other motivation. It’s like he’s drawn to Iolaus...” The demigod trailed off as he glanced over at his uncle. Hades had adverted his gaze. Such a small, simple, meaningless gesture, but Hercules knew the look of guilt when he saw it. “You knew, didn’t you?” His voice was calm, quiet, but with more than a hint of danger to it.
“You knew!” Hercules shouted, all pretense of calm leaving him. “You knew somehow that this evil bastard would target Iolaus and that’s why you sent us after him!!”
“All right,” the god of the underworld acknowledged. “But I didn’t know anything for sure. I suspected Dymas would be attracted to Iolaus, and I thought that would be our best chance for drawing the spirit out.”
“Why?” the demigod demanded. “Why Iolaus?”
“Because he’s been dead,” Hades explained. “He was perfectly restored, but an essence of death still clings to him. It’s intoxicating to the spirit world, for those without life respond to the hint of death that’s like they are, coupled with a vibrant life force that is what they desire. Iolaus is the very poster child for cheating death, so if Dymas was to inhabit anyone, I presumed it would be him.”
“I can’t believe you,” Hercules hissed, having a hard time controlling his fury. “I trusted you, Hades. I thought you were different, but you’re like the rest of the gods. You gamble with peoples’ lives for your own ends and think nothing of those that you hurt in the process!”
“Don’t get sanctimonious with me, Hercules,” the god shot back. “I was trying to stop one evil from becoming an even greater one.”
“At the expense of my friend!” the demigod roared. “You know what it did to me to lose him, and then just when I get him back you want to sacrifice him again? Put him in the one situation that he’d rather die than go through again?” He turned and punched the wall so hard that a large hole opened up, giving Hades’ office a new scenic view of the Styx. “You know, I brought you all home from the Vortex because the balance between the two worlds was off and I thought I needed to restore it. And I haven’t regretted it, up until now. I wish I had left all of you over there to rot! I’m done with you, Hades! You and the rest of the gods!”
“Your love for that mortal is your greatest weakness, Hercules!” Hades called as his nephew started to storm out. His words made the demigod pause, some of the anger draining out of him as he turned back around.
“You’re wrong,” Hercules told him softly. “It’s my greatest strength. But that’s something you’ll never understand, Uncle, and I pity you for that.”
“What are you going to do?” the god asked as his nephew once more tried to leave. Hercules again paused, but he didn’t turn around.
“I’m going to get you your ghost. But I’m doing it for Iolaus, not for you. And this is the last favor you can ever expect from me. Once this is done, I don’t ever want to see you again.”
Hercules found his partner sitting beside the brook that trickled through the woods, idly tossing acorns into the water and watching them float away.
“Hey,” he greeted as he sat down beside him. “How are you doing?”
“Great,” the hunter replied glumly. “For a marked man, that is.”
“Yeah, I’ve been thinking about that. Maybe we could change the ‘m’ to an ‘f’ somehow. Then you could use it as a new pickup line on the girls.” At the look his friend shot him, the demigod felt chastised. “Sorry. That wasn’t funny.”
“It was a little funny. How did it go with Hades?”
“You don’t want to know,” Hercules muttered darkly.
“That good, huh?”
“Herc, listen, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and we need to talk about what our next move should be. I know what I want to do, but...”
“You aren’t going to like it,” Iolaus warned.
“Try me. I might surprise you.”
“Iolaus, come on, be reasonable,” Hercules pleaded as he strode after his friend.
“I am being reasonable,” the hunter argued. “You’re the one who wants to stay and fight a losing battle.”
“We can’t quit now.”
“We cannot win this fight, Hercules,” Iolaus said forcefully. “Our only recourse failed, and now if we stay we’re just going to keep getting our butts kicked. Now I say we cut our losses and get out of here while we can.”
“Look, if Dymas really wanted to kill us he could have done it a hundred times over by now. He didn’t hurt any of the those villagers, either, just ran them off. Yes, he’s screwing with us and no, it’s not pleasant, but there are limits to what he can do. He’s just trying to mess with our heads, but what has he really done besides a few parlor tricks?”
“News flash, Herc,” the hunter seethed, yanking up his vest and waving at his etched skin. “This is NOT a parlor trick.”
“Come on, you’ve gotten worse than that hunting stag before.”
“It’s been escalating the whole time we’ve been here and I don’t want to wait and see how much worse it can get.”
Look, you’re sleep deprived and hungry and you aren’t thinking straight.”
“I’m perfectly rational,” Iolaus countered. “You’re the one who’s obsessed with ghosts. Both here and the ones in your past.”
“No, I just gave my word and I’m trying to hold true to that,” Hercules threw back at him. “We agreed to do this, remember?”
“And now I’m agreeing to quit. I’m not wasting my second chance at life waiting around to get taken over by some spirit you pissed off. I’ve got better things to do with it.”
“Iolaus, I forbid you to leave!”
“You forbid me?” the hunter echoed icily. “You’ve got a lot of nerve, Hercules.”
“That’s not what I...”
“I’m out of here,” Iolaus shouted over his shoulder. “Have fun with your dead friend.”
“Fine, go!” Hercules shouted back, watching his partner stomp off. “I don’t need your help. And don’t come crying back to me asking for mine anytime soon, either!”
The hunter didn’t dignify that with a verbal response, but a prominent hand gesture made his feelings abundantly clear.
Iolaus had been hard pressed to make it to the Mantean Crossroads by dusk, but he had pushed himself and managed to arrive with just enough time to set up camp before Apollo’s sun disappeared over the horizon. He had traveled hard and felt the fatigue acutely, but he doubted that the night would bring him much rest. For he hadn’t traveled alone. Dymas had followed him.
Throughout the journey the spirit had kept his distance, remaining unobtrusively in the background. But Iolaus had known he was near by the dark, heavy feeling that clung to him even after he’d left Croatoa far behind. It was like a permanent shiver in his spine, a constant black cloud over his head, and an almost unbearable feeling of foreboding in the depths of his soul. But there wasn’t much he could about it, apart from keep walking and wait for the shade to make a move.
The tension of that waiting had almost driven the hunter to the breaking point, but as night blanketed the land he began to fervently wish it back again. For it was then that Dymas began his torment. At first it was small, more annoyance than anything. Minor jabs and pokes and pinches. A far off unintelligible whisper followed by a roaring laughter right in Iolaus’ ears. And having to endure the shade literally breathing down his neck.
But then Dymas’ assault began to grow stronger and more violent. The nudges and pinches became slaps and punches and kicks. Flames from the fire would go shooting up with a roar to the heavens and then die down to embers. Wind would appear out of nowhere, showering the hunter with a hailstorm of sand and dirt and stones. And the maddening laughter intensified to the point where it seemed like it was coming from inside Iolaus’ head.
“Stop it,” he pleaded desperately, kneeling on the ground and covering his ears with his hands.
“You know how to stop it,” the evil voice echoed through his mind. “Just give me what I want.”
An icy coldness enveloped the hunter, causing him to jump up in horror.
“No!” he cried out as he forcibly blocked the deranged soul from entering his body. It took an act of will, but he pushed the spirit back out. Everything went quiet, and Iolaus collapsed back down to the ground, panting as he lay back and looked up at the sky. The bright moon shining down was normally a welcome sight, but now it filled him with dread. He had one more day. Two at the most. Then Hecate’s orb would be full and Dymas would become an Eidolon. Then it wouldn’t matter how much he resisted. He wouldn’t be strong enough to stop Dymas from taking what he wanted.
But in the meantime he could resist, and Iolaus enthusiastically did so, loudly and with unusual vulgarity as he told the ghost exactly where he could go and exactly what he could do when he got there. The expected retaliation didn’t come and the night remained still. More inclined to believe Dymas was biding his time rather than gone, the hunter tried to remain vigilant. But before long he succumbed to his fatigue and nodded off.
Iolaus awoke extremely disoriented. The fact that he was levitating off of the ground didn’t help matters any, nor did the rather painful landing a few feet away.
“End your torment, Iolausssss,” the voice came again. “Let me in.”
“Go to Hades!” the hunter shouted at him. Maybe not the most clever response, but it was all he had air for with the wind knocked out of him. Invisible hands grabbed him from behind and the hunter tried to fight his way free, but there was nothing solid to connect with and he just ended up flailing as he was picked up into the air and tossed back down to the ground like a rag doll. “Oh, yeah,” he gasped out, wincing as he pressed a hand against his aching ribs, “it’s going to be a long night.”
They went on like that for hours, Iolaus clinging to his stubborn defiance while Dymas physically vented his frustration. But as he landed one last time, face down in the dirt, the hunter knew it was over. The spirit had tried to enter him several times, and each time he’d managed to push him out. But the constant strain and abuse had taken its toll. Iolaus was exhausted, cold, sick and weak, and as he coughed out a mouthful of dirt he knew the last of the fight had been beaten out of him. Glancing at the sky, he saw the barest hint of light creeping up in the east. Dawn was only minutes away, and he knew that it was time to put an end to his suffering. The hunter dropped his head down on his arm and relaxed on the ground, overcoming his mental anguish and forcing himself to submit. And it was almost a relief when he felt the presence overtake him, for it meant oblivion was close at hand.
Dymas rose from the ground, a bit awkwardly as he wasn’t used to the encumberment of an unfamiliar body. But he could feel the strength and power in his limbs and knew it wouldn’t take him long to get used to moving around. And then, the world would be his for the taking, or destroying.
“Yes,” he cackled, raising his arms up to the lightening sky in triumph, “I’m back!”
But his celebration was short lived, as Thanatos suddenly materialized and slapped heavy irons on his outstretched arms. And before Dymas even knew what had hit him, he was already halfway to Hades.
“You’re going to wear a hole in my floor,” Hades remarked dryly as he entered his office to find his nephew again pacing around the room. “Although I suppose it would match the one in my wall.” He could have fixed the damage with a mere thought, but the god had decided he liked having a view, gloomy as it was.
“What happened?” Hercules demanded anxiously. “Is Thanatos back?”
“Yes. He brought Iolaus and Dymas has already been extracted from him. I’ll keep him secured until I can think of a suitable torment in Tartarus for him. But I have to ask, how did you know that he would be at the Mantean Crossroads?”
“We planned it,” the demigod explained impatiently. “It was the only way we could think of to contain Dymas long enough to get him here. We set it up to make it look like Iolaus went out on his own and agreed that he’d allow Dymas to take possession of him there at dawn, so I’d know where and when to send Thanatos. Is Iolaus all right?”
“He will be. I can’t believe you agreed to let him do something so dangerous.”
“It was his choice. What do you mean, will be?”
“Possession and extraction takes a lot out of a mortal. Plus he looks like he had a rough night. But he’ll be fine. Persephone is tending to him now.”
“I want to see him,” Hercules announced, trying to push past his uncle. But Hades reached out and stopped him.
“Just a minute, Hercules.” The god sighed, some of the sternness leaving his face. “You were right. I shouldn’t have misled you like I did. I’m sorry. And, I owe you a debt of thanks.”
“I’m not the one you should be thanking,” the demigod hinted broadly.
“Fine. I’ll take you to your friend.”
Hades led the way into his inner sanctum and Hercules found his partner reclining pitifully on a couch, his head resting in Persephone’s lap. The demigod knew his incorrigible friend well enough to know he was putting on a show of suffering to gain a little female sympathy and coddling, but there was no denying that Iolaus had to have been in legitimate pain.
“What happened to you?” Hercules asked, taking in his partner’s battered state.
“Dymas didn’t like waiting until dawn and seemed to think he could speed things along by breaking a few ribs,” Iolaus told him, struggling to sit up and wincing as he did so even though Persephone did her best to aid him.
“Why didn’t you give in sooner?” the demigod grilled him with heavy concern. “You shouldn’t have let him do this to you, Iolaus!”
“I was afraid if I jumped the gun that Dymas would disappear.”
“We would have found you,” Hercules told him softly, reaching out to brush his fingers lightly over the bandage on his friend’s forehead. “It wasn’t worth getting your head busted over.”
“Yeah, well, I didn’t want him in me any longer than I had to,” Iolaus declared, ducking his head away as his partner tried to probe the bruising around his eye. “Do you mind? It’s hurts enough without you grinding your stubby fingers in there!”
“Hades,” the demigod said, fixing a hard look on his uncle. “That debt of thanks you owe me?”
The god of the underworld stepped forward and looked at his nephew with something almost resembling affection.
“I know. And I do understand, Hercules. What you meant about your greatest strength.”
Iolaus looked back and forth between them in confusion, completely not expecting Hades to turn and zap him with an electric bolt.
“Ow,” he complained, rubbing at the spot on his chest where it had hit. “Was that really...”
The hunter paused, taking stock and realizing the jolt he’d received, while stinging a bit, had actually taken away the rest of his pain. The bruising was gone, his ribs were healed, and the ugly carvings in the flesh of his back were erased like they’d never been. “Ok, never mind.”
“Thank you, Iolaus,” Persephone told him, leaning forward and kissing him on the cheek. “It’s good to have you back.”
Hercules saw his partner flashing that 100 watt grin on the wife of the god of the underworld and quickly reached out to snag him by the back of his vest.
“On that note, I think it’s time we were going,” he announced. “Hades...”
“I know. No more favors.” The god actually smiled, knowing that the time would probably come when he would need his nephew’s aid, and Hercules grinned back, knowing that he would most likely give it.
“What’s that about?” Iolaus whispered to his friend.
“Nothing. Just hold on.”
Dizzying seconds later, Iolaus found himself holding onto the ground. Hercules was more of an old hand at Hades’ teleportation methods of travel to and from his domain and had managed to keep his balance. He extended a hand and the hunter took it, pulling himself up to his feet.
“Wow. That was a rush.”
“Yeah. Let’s hope it’s the last one for awhile. I’ve had more than enough excitement over the last couple of days.”
“Me, too. I vote that we go on vacation from all monsters, warlords and especially ghosts for the next week.”
“If anyone’s earned a vacation it would be you,” Hercules said fondly as he began walking. “You took a big risk letting Dymas take control.”
“I trusted you,” Iolaus told him with a shrug as he fell in step next to his friend. “I knew you’d get me out of it.” He shot a cheeky grin up at his partner. “Even though you didn’t want me in it in the first place.”
But Hercules didn’t smile back, his face growing somber and thoughtful.
“Iolaus, did you mean any of it? What you said to me when you were leaving Croatoa?”
“No,” the hunter replied, surprised at the question. “Of course not. It was just a show for Dymas. Why? Did you mean any of what you said?”
“No,” the demigod stressed. “I don’t know, you just seemed so... sincere. And really pissed off at me.”
“I knew we only had one shot at this and if Dymas suspected a trap he’d never take the bait,” Iolaus explained. “I was just trying to sell him on the fact that you were out of the picture and it was safe for him to make his move.”
“Ok.” Hercules was quiet for a moment, thinking again, then he glanced back at his partner. “Although I wouldn’t blame you if were pissed at me. You were right. I have been shielding you, and I’m sorry. I know you can handle yourself, but I just couldn’t stand the thought of anything like Sumeria happening again. I spent most of last night thinking things over and I realized something. When you were gone, all I wanted was just to have you back. Even for one day. For one hour. And now that you are back, instead of enjoying it I’m worrying all the time, afraid the worst will happen. I told you I don’t want you to have regrets next time, but I don’t want to have them either. And I would regret knowing I didn’t live each day to the fullest and let you do the same. So from now on I promise to live in the moment and not fear the future. You and I, back to back, fighting the good fight just like we did before.”
“That’s the thing, Herc,” Iolaus said softly. “I did a lot of thinking last night, too, and I also realized something. Things are never going to be like they were before. They can’t be. I went through some pretty incredible stuff, and I know you went through a lot, too. And we can’t just ignore that. It changed everything and it’s changed us. And no matter how much I want it, we just can’t go back to the way it used to be.” The demigod’s face fell at these words and the hunter smiled and elbowed him gently. “Well, don’t look so sad. We’ve learned a lot, too, and just because we can’t go back doesn’t mean that we can’t go forward to an even better place. And I’ll tell you one thing that will never change is this, what we have between us and the team that we make together. That’s untouchable.”
“Well, of course it is,” Hercules agreed, his mood lightening considerably. “You can’t mess with perfection.”
Iolaus chuckled as he gazed off down the road, then something dawned on him and he turned back to his partner.
“Hey, where are we going?”
“Well, I guess Thrace. Why did you originally want to go there, anyway?”
“That tavern on the corner has really good boar stew. What?” Iolaus demanded as Hercules rolled his eyes in exasperation. “I suppose you have a better suggestion?”
“Well, it is festival time in Opus again.”
“Yeahhhh,” the hunter drawled. “The festival where everyone dresses up and decorates to scare away the ghost of Cecrops? The same Cecrops who vowed to exact revenge on you from beyond the grave?”
“That’s the one.”
“Mmm hmm. Thrace?”
“Thrace!” Hercules agreed, his blue eyes twinkling merrily. “The boar stew’s on me, buddy.”
Stories by Quiet Wolf
A list of unrelated stories by yours truly
The Iolausian Library