Author's Note: Written for Halloween 2011, set sometime early season six. I do not own the characters of Herc, Iolaus, Jason or Nebula and mean no disrespect to Universal/RenPic - just borrowing the gang for a little non-profit demonic fun. Comments always welcome!
Tell me I'm not right
Tell me that there isn't any danger
Tell me in the dark of the night
Cause there's no turning back once we cross that line
And all your money in the right pocket
Can't buy you any time
A chilling wind feels so near
Will I live to meet my darkest fears?
“When the Thunder Comes” – Roger Daltrey
Hercules couldn’t help wishing he’d never given his partner that damn scroll. It had come from Nebula, a response to the guess-what-I’m-not-dead-after-all message Iolaus had sent to her upon being returned to the land of the living by Michael. The demigod had accepted it on his behalf while Iolaus was otherwise occupied getting reacquainted with mortal life and all the pleasures and pains that go along with it, quite sure that the hunter would be delighted to receive correspondence from the Sumerian queen. Iolaus was delighted and allowed Hercules to read the message over his shoulder. It was brief, full of attitude and a touch of fondness, and the demigod didn’t see anything remotely inflammatory in her words. But something about that message had lit a fire under Iolaus’ butt. He started talking about wanting to go back to Sumeria to visit.
At first Hercules dismissed it as a passing flight of fancy. Something Iolaus would forget all about in a few days. But he kept on, despite the demigod’s repeated attempts to distract him. And finally he began dropping hints that he was determined to go, with or without his partner.
“It’s not like you’re talking about the next province or one of the south islands,” Hercules complained. “Sumeria is a long, hard, dangerous, time consuming and expensive journey.”
“I know,” the hunter agreed amiably. “It’s a lot to ask and I’ll understand if you don’t want to do it. But this is something I need to do, Herc.”
“But why? I know you have feelings for Nebula but why do you feel compelled to go all that distance for a visit?”
“It’s complicated,” Iolaus sighed. “Let’s just say there’s some unfinished business between us.”
“What unfinished business?”
“Herc, Nebula and I… It’s more than just feelings. I love her, and for some crazy reason she seems to love me, too. That one night we had together? It wasn’t necessarily just going to be one night.”
“What do you mean?” Hercules asked, his brow wrinkling in confusion. Then his eyes went wide with shock when he realized what his partner was inferring. “You were planning on staying there in Sumeria with her?!”
“I don’t know,” the hunter shrugged. “The idea was broached and I didn’t say no. There was going to have to be a lot of things to talk over and work out, but honestly? I have to say I liked the idea.” Iolaus looked at his partner and grinned to see him so clearly put out though he was trying hard to play it cool. “Come on,” he said lightly, giving his friend a playful shove. “Quit looking at me like that. This is not a relocation trip, all right? But Nebula really means a lot to me and I can’t just send her a couple lines on a scroll when I come back from the dead. I need to go see her in person. We both need… what does Aphrodite call it? Closure.”
Iolaus’ mind was definitely made up, but in the end Hercules was able to sidetrack him with one last distraction. His trump card. Jason, Argonaut and former King of Corinth. The steady voice of reason, ever since they were children. So they went to the Academy under the pretense of giving Iolaus the opportunity to see how it had blossomed under its new headmaster and to say farewell to that same headmaster, for the two of them could not just pick up and leave Greece for such a long voyage without leaving word with someone they trusted. And Hercules had faith that their oldest and most sensible friend would be able to get the hunter to see the folly of his quest and talk him out of his mission. But Jason betrayed him. Not only did he think it was a good idea, he invited himself along for the ride.
“What?” the Argonaut demanded when he caught Hercules glaring at him behind Iolaus’ back. “The Academy break starts in a couple of weeks and I’ll have time on my hands. And Nebula did tell me I would be welcome if I ever wanted to come and visit.”
“Cool!” the hunter enthused. “The three of us off on another adventure.”
“It’ll be just like old times,” Jason agreed.
Hercules did not share their enthusiasm, but he knew when he was beat. So he held his tongue and kept his thoughts to himself, traveling to Corinth to stay with Iphicles while they arranged a ship passage. And by the time the term ended at the Academy and Jason met them in Corinth everything was ready to go.
It was a long, difficult journey, but fortunately uneventful and the demigod did not experience any ominous omens or nightmares during the course of the trip. That did little to ease his anxiety, however, and as they approached the Sumerian port he found himself gripping the railing on the ship so tightly that his knuckles were white.
“It’s kind of funny,” Iolaus commented as he came forward to stand next to his friend. “Last time we did this, I didn’t want to come and you were insisting. Now it’s the other way around.”
“You were right,” Hercules told him tightly. “You warned me about getting involved with other gods, but I was too arrogant to listen.” He glanced over at his partner and his expression softened. “I never told you that I’m sorry for that.”
“Nah, you were right,” the hunter reassured him. “Those people needed our help.”
“It wasn’t worth your life. All that time lost…”
“Herc, think about it,” Iolaus reasoned. “Dahak would have found his way into our world eventually. And who knows what kind of damage he could have caused? But because things worked out the way they did, the two of us were able to contain him and destroy him. You really think just any two guys out there could have pulled that off?”
“I suppose not,” the demigod conceded.
“Everything turned out ok. You saved Greece, I’m back… So cheer up already, would you? You’ve been moping the whole trip so far and that’s been a loooooooot of moping.”
“I’m sorry, but you have to realize that I’m not exactly thrilled to be coming back here,” Hercules told him. “I mean, Sumeria doesn’t really have a lot of happy memories for me. I was betrayed by someone I trusted, and the palace is the place where you…”
“I know,” Iolaus said softly. “I know it’s hard on you, Herc. And I appreciate you coming with me, even if you think it’s a bad idea. But you should let the past rest now. Dahak is gone. We’re not going to war with anyone. Nobody’s going to betray anyone. We’re just going to visit a friend. That’s all.”
Hercules turned his eyes back to the horizon, his restless gaze settling on the approaching land mass.
“I wish I could believe that.”
Agenor looked upon Iolaus with more than a little hostility and suspicion, but he was under orders from his queen so he led the group of travelers to where she was waiting to receive them. Nebula was almost unrecognizable from the pirate captain they’d first met in Arachne’s cave, sitting so solemn and regal upon the throne. She was clothed in a fine gown of flowing silk, her hair done in an elaborate upsweep and a circlet of gold adorning her head. Silenced weighed heavily in the room as she gazed at the three of them coolly, her expression unreadable. Jason was the first to move, having been practically born with royal protocol in his blood.
“Queen Nebula,” he spoke as he stepped before her and bowed low. “It’s wonderful to see you again.”
“Welcome, Jason,” she said kindly. “I’m glad you were able to come to our fair land.”
“Well, someone has to keep these two jokers out of trouble.”
“Speak for yourself.” The Argonaut stepped aside to give Hercules the room to approach, which he did although he did not repeat the formal bow. “Hello, Nebula.”
“Hercules. I wasn’t expecting to see you again so soon, but I’m glad that you’ve come.”
“Well, I was told this is the place to be.” The demigod took a step to the right, which just left Iolaus hovering in the back, eyeing the queen thoughtfully. Finally, he moved forward and stood in front of her, hands on his hips.
“I like the new look.”
“I like the old one.” Nebula’s lips twitched into a sly smile. “You’re looking pretty good for a dead guy, Goldilocks.”
“What can I say?” the hunter grinned. “I’ve had a lot of practice.”
“Well, now that this royal welcome nonsense is over,” the queen declared, rising from her seat and holding out her hand, “let’s eat.”
Iolaus helped her navigate the three steps down to the floor and together they led the others off to the dining room.
“Nebula, I couldn’t help noticing that the place is looking a little rougher than it did last time I was here,” Hercules began once the feast had gotten well underway and all the pleasantries and small talk was through. “You want to tell us what’s going on?”
“We’ve had some rough times,” the queen admitted after a long pause. “I never would have believed it, but apparently the gods really did serve a purpose in keeping order. Without the nectar that sustains them, they didn’t last long. And then chaos came.”
“We thought the fallout was bad when the gods were battling Dahak,” Agenor chimed in. “That was nothing compared to what happened when the gods perished.”
“But we got through it,” Nebula reminded him firmly, shooting him a warning glance. “Nature finally sorted itself out, and people learned to do for themselves. The worst is over and we’ve started rebuilding our city and our lives. My people are going to be self-sufficient and free from immortal meddling, and as a result our country will be stronger than ever.”
“If there’s anything we can do to help, you know we will,” Iolaus told her.
“Thanks,” the queen said sharply. “But we’ve got it covered.”
“Your Highness, you must tell them,” Agenor begged her. “Hercules can help us.”
“Help with what?” the demigod demanded. “What aren’t you telling us, Nebula?”
“The gods had one more purpose,” the queen finally confessed after what appeared to be a long internal struggle. “Keeping the demons under control.”
“Demons?” All three of the visiting men spoke the word in unison, exchanging a “this can’t be good” glance.
“The gods used them to satisfy their whims,” Nebula explained. “Sending them to punish mortals who disrespected or disobeyed them. But they also kept them on a tight leash. Now that the gods are gone, the demons are free to run amok with nothing to keep them in check. And they’ve been making the most of that freedom.”
“I sympathize with your problem,” Hercules told her, ignoring the look of annoyance Iolaus was giving him, “but I don’t think we can help you.”
“You can, Hercules,” Nebula said quietly, catching and holding his gaze. “I understand your reluctance, after what you and Iolaus went through with Dahak. And believe me I wouldn’t ask you if I had a choice, but I don’t. My people are suffering every day, tormented by these things. You can help us end that.”
“Because you carry the blood of the gods.”
“That doesn’t mean I can control an army of demons!”
“No, it doesn’t,” Nebula chuckled. “But it does mean you can get the one thing that will allow us to kill them.”
“What’s that?” Iolaus asked, intrigued.
“Gilgamesh had a knife, given to him by his father, the great sky god,” Agenor told them. “It was a powerfully magical blade and destroyed any demon it bit. We believe that Dahak influenced him to get rid of it, and we think he took it to the cave of Mt. Mashu.”
“Only one with the blood of a god can enter that cave,” Nebula continued. “Which is where you come in, Hercules.”
“All right, let’s say it is there and I get it for you,” the demigod speculated. “Even so, one knife doesn’t seem like much of a weapon against an army of demons.”
“We don’t have to stop an army.” The figure had been standing silently back against the wall as they had eaten and talked and the three foreigners had dismissed him as a servant. But now he came forward with an air of confidence and ease and as he stopped beside Nebula’s chair they realized there was nothing subservient about him. “We only have to stop three.”
“This is Susuda,” Nebula introduced him. “He’s a priest, of sorts.”
“Really?” Iolaus said acidly as he took in the handsome young man, now leaning very familiarly on the back of the queen’s chair. “A priest? That vow of celibacy has to be rough, huh?”
“I am a Chaldean,” Susuda bristled, glaring at him. “No mere priest can do what I can and I am not bound by any restrictions!”
“Easy, tiger,” Nebula calmed him, holding up a hand. “You are still bound to the crown, remember?”
“Yes, your highness,” the man said dutifully as he bowed his head and took a step back.
“Here’s the deal, boys,” the queen summarized for them. “Most of the demons in the city are low class. They have specific powers but they are essentially mindless rabble and they are pretty easily warded off and dealt with. The priests can handle them. What we’re after are the three heavy hitters, the generals. Big time baddies with a big time grudge against the gods who kept them enslaved for all those centuries. They are smart, powerful and deadly. But if we can take them out, then Sumeria can truly be free and order restored.”
“And you’re sure that Gilgamesh’s knife can kill something so powerful?” Jason asked.
“It was forged by the great god Anu, himself,” Agenor replied with reverence. “Nothing demonic, no matter how powerful, can withstand the blade.”
“Hercules, I’m sorry to put you in this position,” Nebula said to the demigod. “But you are the only one who can enter the cave and get the knife. I know you were lured here before upon the lies that you were the only one who could save Sumeria from ruin. But this time, it happens to be true.”
“Come on, Herc,” Iolaus wheedled his friend. “You can’t say ‘no’ to that.”
“No, I can’t,” the demigod admitted, even though his instincts were telling him to grab his partner by the scruff of the neck and drag him out of there. Swim back to Greece if they had to. For a moment, an image of Dahak masquerading in the guise of his friend invaded his mind and caused his heart to quicken. But he forced the memory away. He couldn’t let fear cloud his judgment. The people of this land needed him. Nebula, his friend, was asking for his help. And his conscience wouldn’t let him refuse. “All right, Nebula. If you tell me how to get to this cave, I’ll go after the knife at dawn.”
“He means we’ll go after it,” Iolaus corrected. “What about you, Jase? Are you in?”
“Sure,” the Argonaut agreed affably. “Vacations are overrated anyway.”
“Susuda will go with you,” Nebula announced. “He knows the way to the cave and he will be able to offer protection if any demons try and get in your way.”
Iolaus rolled his eyes at her words, but then realization hit and he looked at the queen in confusion.
“Susuda will go with you?” he repeated. “You mean ‘us’, don’t you?”
“Queen Nebula has a duty to the throne,” Agenor interjected quickly. “It is a far too dangerous undertaking and she is too valuable to the crown to risk her life needlessly.”
The hunter glanced at the queen, expecting her to lash out with sass and attitude and tell her chief of staff where he could stick his duty to the throne. But to his confusion, she merely shrugged.
“He’s right,” she said softly. “I accepted this role and with it comes a lot of responsibility. The people need their queen, especially now when everything’s so unsettled, and that’s what I need to think of first, not my own desires.”
“There are times when the crown seems more like a chain,” Jason commiserated, well remembering what it felt like to be left behind.
“And these mighty walls a prison,” Nebula agreed with a small smile. “But it’s what I signed up for. And there’s too much work to do here for me to go jaunting off, anyway.”
“I could stay here with you and help,” the Argonaut offered. “I haven’t been that long off the throne that I don’t remember a few royal tricks.”
“That’s sweet of you, Jason,” the queen acknowledged. “But just because I have to answer to my responsibility doesn’t mean you should. You had enough of that when you were king. Go have fun with your friends. One more adventure for old time’s sake.”
“Be more fun if we could ditch the babysitter,” Iolaus muttered.
“What is your problem?” Susuda demanded angrily.
“Nothing,” the hunter replied airily. “I’m sure you’re a great Charlatan and everything…”
“That’s Chaldean,” the younger man hissed. “The one with the power to cast out a demon that crams itself into your smart mouth. Or at least I would cast it out, if you weren’t such a…”
“Hey!” Nebula interrupted sharply. “That’s enough. You have preparations to make, don’t you?” Susuda nodded sullenly. “Then go make them.” He gave an almost imperceptible bow while glaring at the hunter and turned and left the room.
“See you later,” Iolaus called out sunnily.
“And you,” the queen continued, wheeling around on the hunter. “Whatever this little jealousy thing is you have going on here, it ends right now. It’s not endearing, it’s not wanted, and it’s not even warranted. Susuda is my cousin. And as for you,” she went on, turning to Hercules, “get that look off your face. Susuda was being dramatic. There are precautions you can take and he’s the best demonologist in Sumeria. He’s studied long and trained hard and he is not going to let anyone get possessed on his watch.”
Humbled, the two men hung their heads like scolded schoolboys while Jason looked on in bemusement.
“Now,” Nebula said in a calmer, more dignified voice as she rose from her chair and smoothed her dress with her hands, “you’ve had a long journey and have a hard road before you tomorrow. I’ll make sure that you are well stocked with everything you’ll need, but I would advise resting well tonight. Agenor, will you show Jason and Hercules to their rooms, please?”
“What about me?” Iolaus protested as the chief of staff nodded and began escorting his friends out of the room.
“Oh, your accommodations are taken care of, Monkey Boy,” the Queen said seductively.
“Something tells me I’m not going to be resting well tonight,” the hunter chuckled. Not that he minded in the slightest.
Despite the early predawn hour, Iolaus was in extremely high spirits as the team met up for a hearty breakfast before departing. He even apologized to Susuda for his attitude of the previous evening. It seemed to catch the younger man off guard and got him to lower his Chaldean badge that he wore like a shield so that he was happy to answer the questions the hunter asked him about his life in Sumeria. And by the time the meal was finished, the four men were laughing and joking together, on the way to becoming good friends. Susuda gave them each a small bag that was sewn shut but felt very lumpy, telling them they were powerful magical charms and to keep them on their person at all times, for they would offer protection from demons. Hercules watched his partner until Iolaus stuck the bag into the small pouch on his belt and hoped fervently that Nebula hadn’t been wrong about her cousin’s talents.
They made ready to leave and set out from the palace, with three fourths of the company thinking it strange that Nebula had not seen them off. It was early, the first rays of dawn were just beginning to reach over the land, but it was customary and as a friend, they would have thought she’d have been there to wish them well. Iolaus said nothing, just walked along with a smile on his face. And he didn’t seem too surprised when they rounded a bend in the road to find the queen there waiting for them, clothed in her familiar leathers, hair wild and free with her head unadorned.
“Agenor and the rest of the council would have fought me tooth and nail if I’d said I wanted to go with you,” she explained. “It was just easier to sneak out now and deal with them later.”
“And what about all that talk about having a responsibility to the people who needed you?” Jason teased her.
“My people need to be free from these demons,” Nebula insisted. “My place is here, helping to get that for them.”
“You don’t happen to have one of those demon proof bags for her, do you?” Hercules asked Susuda.
“I don’t need one,” the queen informed him. “I’ve got something better.” She indicated one of her many tattoos, a five pointed star in a circle of flames. “Built in demon proofing.”
“That takes always being prepared to a whole new level.” Jason said with admiration.
“Well, now that we’re all assembled and prepared, how about we hit the road and see about kicking some demon butt?” Iolaus suggested.
Hercules wanted to point out that he had just signed on to get the knife, but deep down he knew that he and his friends wouldn’t be able to leave it at that. They would see the job through, and he knew it was the right thing to do. Although he would have felt better about it if a lightning bolt hadn’t come streaking out of the clear blue sky to send a tree crashing down, barring the road in front of them.
“It’s a warning,” Susuda concluded.
“From whom?” Nebula asked. “The gods are gone.”
“One of the igigi?” the Chaldean suggested.
“Earth spirits,” the queen supplied for the foreigners. “The often acted as go betweens for the gods with mortals.”
“We don’t know that they perished along with the gods,” Susuda argued.
“It doesn’t matter,” Hercules grunted as he grabbed the massive trunk and heaved it up, tossing the fallen tree out of the way. “There’s no turning back now. Right?”
“Right,” Nebula said firmly. “I’m taking my kingdom back or I’ll die trying. Susuda, lead the way.”
The next few days were uneventful as the team journeyed through the vast cedar forest toward the mountains. Hercules and Jason talked and laughed as if they were on a routine fishing trip and even the solemn Susuda relaxed. Nebula and Iolaus used the time to reconnect, walking and talking softly together and sneaking away from the campsite every night into the dark privacy of the woods. They weren’t really being openly affectionate in front of their friends, but they weren’t necessarily trying to hide anything either. Hercules and Jason just shrugged to each other, willing to play along and ignore the elephant in the room until Iolaus felt like talking about it.
As they neared their destination, the trees began to thin out and the ground became rockier. They stepped out into a clearing, but Iolaus and Susuda both tensed and halted almost simultaneously.
“What?” Hercules whispered.
“There’s a scent in the air and I can feel a presence,” the Chaldean whispered back. “We’re not alone.”
The demigod was fairly sure that his partner hadn’t felt any presence, but the hunter was more at home in the woods than anywhere else and nature had managed to tip him off that something was not right. They all waited silently, the seconds ticking by.
“Shouldn’t we get under cover?” Jason finally suggested.
“There is no cover,” Susuda told them. “If we’re dealing with…” The Chaldean was suddenly knocked backward by an unseen force.
“What in Tartarus was that?” Iolaus demanded as he helped him up.
“A demon,” Susuda answered with a groan. “A powerful one.”
“I thought you said these charmed bags would protect us?” the hunter yelped.
“They protect you from possession, not from an outside attack.”
“Now he tells us,” Hercules grumbled. “So what do we do?”
“I can stop it, but I’ll need as much time as you can give me.”
“All right, we’ll try to distract it, but hurry up,” Nebula told him. She exchanged a glance with Iolaus and the two of them took off, making it seem as if they were making a run for a rock outcropping on the other side of the clearing. There was a roaring sound and then they both hit the ground, the hunter on his face and the queen on her butt. Susuda slipped off back toward the trees, trying to be as unobtrusive as he could as Hercules strode forward angrily.
“Hey! Pick on someone your own size!”
He felt a force coming at him, thanks to the semi-divine nature that usually allowed him to pluck arrows out of the air. But when he grabbed at it, his hands found nothing tangible but something slammed into his chest with the force of a battering ram. He staggered backward but somehow stayed on his feet, trying to reorient himself while Jason came forward, his sword slashing at the air. It did no good and the demon sent it one direction while the Argonaut was thrown in another.
“How can we fight something we can’t even see or touch?” Iolaus complained as they all regrouped.
“I’m thinking,” Hercules muttered.
“Think faster,” Jason advised as the wind started to blow, picking up speed until it was a howling whirlwind around them. They all linked arms and crouched to the ground, holding onto each other for dear life as they were pelted with dirt and rocks. But the wind couldn’t blow them apart, and after what seemed like an eternity it finally dissipated to the echo of faint laughter.
“Is that all you’ve got?” Hercules shouted to the sky. “A few party tricks?”
“Yeah, I thought you demons were supposed to be tough,” Iolaus joined in. “But you’re nothing but a coward,. Show yourself!”
An intense bolt of lightning came streaking out of the sky, landing in the middle of the clearing with a deafening boom and a force that sent them all reeling. They were collectively blinded by the blast, but as their vision started to clear they saw a figure standing in the middle of the charred earth.
“Whoa. I’m sorry I asked,” the hunter murmured.
The creature was hideous, covered in tangled, matted hair. His face was lumpy and misshapen and his eyes glowed a sickly yellow. He snarled, revealing a mouth full of black, rotting teeth.
“It’s Rabisu,” Nebula announced in revulsion.
“Is that thing one of the ones we’re after?” Jason asked.
“Yes. Do you think we’ve given Susuda enough time?”
“I hope so, because we’re out of time,” the demigod answered. “Run!”
They took off toward the trees with the demon in hot pursuit. As they reentered the forest they spied Susuda who began waving to them. They veered to the left and the demon followed, but as they reached the Chaldean Rabisu suddenly came to a screeching halt.
“I don’t understand,” Jason panted. “Why did he stop?”
“Because of this.” Susuda went up to the enraged demon and carefully moved some of the leaf litter aside, uncovering part of a symbol that he had etched into the moss underneath. “It’s hardly ideal circumstances and pretty crudely executed, but it worked.”
“What is ‘it’, exactly?” Iolaus wanted to know.
“A trap,” the Chaldean explained. “A magical symbol that will hold him there as long as it remains intact. We must go quickly now. Mount Mashu is close and we need that knife. It’s the only thing that can deal with Rabisu permanently.”
They left the demon, stamping and screaming in ancient Sumerian at them, and resumed their journey at a much more urgent pace. And it wasn’t long before they came to the cave, which was unsurprisingly guarded.
“Scorpion-men,” Susuda whispered as they surveyed the scene from hiding. “That’s strange.”
“What could possibly be so strange about scorpion-men?” Iolaus asked sarcastically.
“They aren’t particularly friendly to humans, but they despise demons so often they end up protecting mortals by default,” Nebula told him.
“Anu must have placed them here to guard the entrance and instructed them not to let anyone without divine blood in,” Susuda theorized. “That’s how Gilgamesh could come and go.”
“Well, then I should be able to do the same.” Hercules rose and moved out into the open, slowly but steadily making his way to the cave. The two scorpion-men, completely human looking except for the monstrous scorpion tail complete with venomous barb they sported, ignored him as if they couldn’t see him. He cautiously approached and started to walk between the sentries as they stood immobile, staring straight ahead. Glancing back to where his friends were waiting, the demigod shrugged and took a step into the cave.
Instantly he was pulled back and tossed onto the ground. He got up swinging, but his powerful blows were easily shaken off by the creatures. They were not skilled fighters and Hercules was able to dodge their clumsy swings easily, although he realized there was a good bit of force behind their punches. He managed to slip between them and made a run for the cave, but one of them caught his right foot and he was pulled down to the ground. Apparently tired of the nuisance, one of the scorpion-men hovered over him, tail raised and poised to strike. But he didn’t, and after a moment he took a step back and began speaking to his companion.
“They sense the blood of the gods in him,” Nebula translated, “but they know he is not of our Pantheon. They are arguing over whether they should let him in or not.”
Apparently, the scorpion-men came to the conclusion that the rules were divine blood, no matter the point of origin, for they went back to their posts and ignored Hercules, once more staring straight ahead. He cautiously got to his feet and took a step toward the cave to test them, but when they didn’t move he hurried inside before they could change their minds.
It was a long time before he came back out again. Iolaus paced relentlessly, fretting that it was taking too long and hating that he wasn’t there to watch his partner’s back. Several times he made like he was about to try for the entrance but the others held him back, reassuring him that Hercules could take care of himself and would be fine. They were half right.
When the demigod finally reappeared, he was limping and bruised and bloody, but he had the knife.
“What happened in there?” the hunter asked anxiously.
“Some sort of.. I don’t know. Ogre or something.”
“An ogre did this to you?” Iolaus said skeptically.
“Really?” Hercules glared at his friend. “You’re going to give me crap NOW?”
“Sorry,” the hunter grinned. “So let’s see this treasure that you fought so valiantly for.”
The demigod slid the knife out of a plain looking leather sheath and held it up for inspection. It was about six inches long, with symbols inscribed on the blade and a handle that was made out of bone. Once they all had a look he slid it back into the sheath and tried to hand it to Susuda, who hesitated.
“Perhaps you should hold onto it, Hercules,” the Chaldean suggested.
“Out of all of us you’re the one with the best chance of getting close enough to a demon to use it,” Jason rationalized.
The demigod nodded and attached the sheath to his belt.
“Come on,” Iolaus said, clapping his partner gently on the shoulder, “let’s go get you cleaned up and then we’ll take that thing for a test run and see if it really works.”
After Rabisu had been dispatched, the charmed knife indeed sending him to whatever place in the Sumerian underworld was reserved for fallen demons, Susuda called the group in to discuss their next move.
“I don’t think running into Rabisu out here was an accident,” he told them. “I think the demons knew we were coming here for the knife. They weren’t able to get it themselves because of the scorpion-men guarding it, but now that it’s out of the cave they will stop at nothing to possess it.”
“So why aren’t we up to our eyeballs in demons right now?” Iolaus asked.
“Because of the hex bags I gave you,” the Chaldean explained. “In addition to preventing possession, they also act as a shield. The demons can’t use their powers to zero in on our location. We’re safe for the moment, but we need to get moving. And I think from this point we should stay together. Nobody should go off on their own.”
“But get moving to where?” Hercules inquired. “How can we find the other two demons before they find us?”
“I have an idea,” Susuda answered. “One of the demons we seek, Labartu, had a mortal enemy in Pazuzu. They fought constantly. Now I haven’t been there in a while, but Pazuzu’s temple used to contain artifacts, souvenirs of his deeds and his battles. If we can find something there that belonged to Labartu, I can use it to summon her. We can bring her to us and then take her out.”
“Then what are we standing around here for?” Nebula demanded. “Let’s get going.”
The quintet packed up and began the long walk back to the city. Susuda wasn’t quite as relaxed on the return journey. While he wasn’t exactly nervous, he remained vigilant and on guard. The others tried to be alert, but they did not have the Chaldean’s skills so they mostly let him worry about the demons, convinced he would sound the alarm at the first sign of trouble. But there didn’t seem to be anything to worry about. There in the cedar forest all was calm and peaceful, the weather pleasant and the company true. Maybe that was why they decided to make camp on the outskirts of Uruk instead of pushing on and arriving late at night. They told themselves it would be better to finish their travels in the dawn light and meet their next challenge rested and ready. But perhaps the danger of what they were doing weighed heavily on their minds, and they really just wanted one more night’s lull before charging into the next battle.
Hercules volunteered to go collect the firewood and Iolaus immediately offered to go with him which made the demigod raise an eyebrow. It was not often that the hunter so enthusiastically signed himself up for menial manual labor, so Hercules suspected he had something on his mind. And indeed, as soon as they were alone together away from the others, Iolaus told him that they needed to talk.
“I don’t know how to say this, so I guess I’ll just say it,” the hunter began. “Last night, Nebula asked me to stay here in Sumeria with her.”
The demigod showed no reaction to this news, other than to bend over and pick up a good sized stick.
“And what did you tell her?”
“Nothing, yet. I was wondering what you thought about it.”
“What I think doesn’t matter. It’s your decision.”
“Of course it matters, Hercules,” Iolaus said in exasperation. “After everything we’ve been through together I’m not going to make a decision like that without hearing what you’ve got to say first.”
“Iolaus…” the demigod sighed, dropping the kindling he’d gathered and turning to face his friend. “I just want you to be happy. I can’t help but wish you could be happy a little closer to home, but Michael gave you a second chance at life and you shouldn’t waste it. I don’t want you to have any regrets. If this is truly what you want, you should follow your heart. You know I’ll support you.”
“Thanks, Herc,” the hunter beamed. “That means a lot to me.”
“Anytime, buddy.” Hercules returned the smile but as he bent to gather up the wood he dropped it quickly faded from his face.
Morning dawned bright and clear and after packing up their supplies the group headed into the city, following Susuda as he led them to the temple of Pazuzu. The building was deserted and had sustained some damage but was more or less still intact. They entered and walked around, taking in the various murals and paintings and carvings on the wall.
“This is Pazuzu,” Nebula told them, pointing to a statue that resembled a cross between a human and an eagle. “He was a protector of the people. When it suited him, I guess, but he was more reliable than most of the other gods and spirits.”
“Please tell me this is not Labartu,” Jason begged as he uncovered a painting depicting Pazuzu in an epic struggle with a lionesque female with repulsively oversized teeth.
“That’s her,” Susuda confirmed. “Now we just have to hope Pazuzu took something from her and kept it here.”
They all began searching, a task made difficult since none of them knew exactly what they were looking for. But after a few minutes Nebula gave a triumphant shout, pulling a fistful of hair from an amphora with a faded picture of the vanquished demon on the side.
“It looks like lion,” Hercules agreed, considering himself an authority since he’d killed more than a few in his time. “It has to be Labartu’s, don’t you think, Susuda?”
“We’ll know in a few minutes,” the Chaldean said absently as he went to work with a piece of chalk on the stone floor. Unlike with Rabisu, time was not of the essence so he was able to use care and make the symbol more elegant and precise than the one he was forced to hew in moss. The others watched in fascination as he effortlessly drew the intricate symbol, adding in small details almost unconsciously as he lectured them. “Once I call her she’ll appear immediately in the circle. She won’t be able to leave it, but her power can transcend the borders. Labartu is a demon of bloodlust. She feeds on bone and flesh and devours babies as soon as they emerge from their mother’s wombs. She is also a demon of disease and pestilence. So, Hercules, it is vital that you act quickly, or else we’ll all be dead before we can dispatch her. Nebula, place the hair in the center.”
Very careful not to smudge any of the chalk marks, the queen gently set the tangle of mane in the middle of the symbol.
“Everybody ready?” the Chaldean asked.
“Wait a second!” Iolaus called out. He grabbed Nebula around the waist, dipped her low and gave her a passionate kiss before lifting her back up and letting her go. “Ok, now I’m ready.”
Susuda shook his head and turned to the circle, raising his arms in the air. He began to chant, the words foreign to the Grecians. At first his voice was low and melodious but then began to increase in tempo and volume until he was shouting the final lines of the conjuring spell. And as the last word left his lips, the demon appeared before them in a flash of light. The pictures in the temple did not do her justice. She was even more terrifying in person and she hissed evilly as she tried to get at them, but the magical symbol held her fast. Hercules started toward her with the knife but fell to his knees as a blinding white hot pain exploded in his gut.
“Herc?” Iolaus started for his friend but likewise fell to his knees, clawing at his neck as his throat began swelling shut, preventing him from breathing.
The demigod heaved, vomiting up a wave of blood. Helplessly he looked to his friends, hoping one of them would be able to get the job done. But Iolaus was on the floor turning blue and Nebula was beside him, blood pouring from her nose and ears. Jason was still on his feet but clinging to the wall and coughing violently. And Susuda was writhing in the corner, screaming as his skin erupted in raw oozing boils. So Hercules summoned up every last ounce of his divine strength and somehow clambered to his feet. The pain kept him bent in half, but he managed to stagger forward and as the demon turned on him, her red eyes wild with hate and malice, he brought the gleaming blade down unerringly, straight into her heart.
They had killed two demons, which left only one more to go. He was called Gallu, Susuda warned them, and would be worse to deal with than the other two combined. Many believed him to be the original demon, the ancient evil from which all other demon spawn arose. He was incredibly intelligent and incredibly powerful. The knife alone had the power to defeat him, but getting close enough to use it was not going to be an easy matter.
As soon as Labartu was vanquished, everyone had recovered from the afflictions she had wrought upon them. But the encounter had left everyone a little shaken, and Hercules and Nebula a little bloodless, so they decided to go back to the palace. They would spend the night there, eat and rest and regather their strength, and then they would go after Gallu in the morning.
Hercules knew that he had a major fight ahead of him, but he felt restless and sleep evaded him. He prowled around the palace for a bit in the late hours of the evening, finally coming to the room where he had battled Dahak. And it was there, out on the balcony, where Jason found him a short time later.
“It was here.” The demigod didn’t turn around as the Argonaut approached, instinctively knowing who it was. “Right over on those stairs. I held my best friend in my arms and watched him die. It wasn’t the first time, either. But I really believed it would be the last. He was gone and there was no getting him back this time.”
“But thankfully you did,” Jason said softly. “We all did.”
“Did we?” Hercules glanced over at his old friend. “Nebula asked him to stay and I think he wants to say ‘yes’.”
“He must love her very much, if he’s even considering leaving you.”
“He asked me for my blessing.” The demigod chuckled humorlessly, shaking his head. “I gave it to him. I could never deny him, but how can I let him go? Just when I got him back again…”
“There is another option, you know,” Jason counseled him. “You don’t have to say goodbye to him. You could stay here, too. The gods might be gone, but it’s pretty obvious the people of Sumeria still need a hero.”
“I can’t leave Greece,” Hercules protested.
“You can do whatever you want to do, Hercules,” the Argonaut insisted. “We would all hate to lose both you and Iolaus. But you’ve spent your entire lives helping people and you’ve both more than paid your dues in the process. No one could ever begrudge you if you wanted to seek out a little happiness for yourself. Wherever that might be.”
“You didn’t come here for an adventure, did you?” the demigod asked as a ray of suspicion dawned. “You weren’t kidding when you told Nebula you were here to keep us out of trouble.”
“Well, before she died your mother asked me to look after you. Both of you. I think she knew it was an impossible request, way too much for one mere mortal. But I’m obliged to do what I can. I promised Alcmene.” Jason clapped his friend on the shoulder as he turned to go. “Just think about what I said. And try and get some sleep. We probably won’t live through tomorrow anyway so no use staying up and worrying about what will come after.”
“You’re a real ray of sunshine, Jason,” the demigod called after him, but he couldn’t help grinning.
Gallu was too clever to ever have left something behind that could be used to conjure him, so they were going to have to hunt him down the old fashioned way.
“Not to be negative,” Iolaus speculated, “but isn’t looking for something with invisibility powers worse than trying to find a needle in a haystack?”
“I was thinking about this last night and I might have an idea,” Susuda offered. “Gallu is prideful to a fault. It was an great insult to him to be enslaved by the gods, for he believed himself to be superior to them. Now that they are gone, he will have declared himself lord of all.”
“How will that help us find him?” Jason asked.
“There is only one place that’s fit for the lord of all. I think he’s residing in the temple of Anu.” The Chaldean pointed to the west where they could see something golden shining against the sky.
“That’s pretty far to walk on just a hunch,” Nebula said skeptically.
“You have a better idea?”
None of them did, so once again they loaded up supplies and provisions and set out. The queen explained that the temple of Anu was made of gold and was constructed on a ziggurat, a steep pyramidal mound made of brick and earth that elevated the god to the sky and allowed him to keep watch over everything in his dominion. When she put it that way, it did sound like the sort of place an egotistical demon would hang out.
Maybe because they were journeying over open scrub land and missing the peace and the shelter and security of the forest, but things were not as relaxed and light this time. The company was tense and on edge and seemed to be at each other’s throats. Even the two lovebirds seemed to be doing more bickering than anything else. And by the time they stopped for the night and started to make camp, conversations had halted and everyone was speaking only when absolutely necessary. Iolaus was not so quick to volunteer to help gather firewood this time, but Hercules insisted.
“I don’t know why you need me,” the hunter grumbled as he stomped after his partner. “You can carry enough for the entire night in one hand.”
“That doesn’t mean I should have to,” the demigod argued. “You wanted this adventure, you can damn sure pull your weight.”
“I don’t know why I wanted it. Look at us, Hercules. We’re out here in the middle of nowhere in a foreign country chasing after demons! Who does that? Our lives are completely insane! Well, after this I’m done. I just want to settle down and live a normal, boring old life where I don’t have to go chasing after supernatural things that want to kill me.”
“Yeah,” the demigod seethed, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “You go on and do that. Settle down here with Nebula. Live long and prosper.”
“What’s your problem?” Iolaus demanded. “I thought you were ok with that.”
“I’m fine. If you want to abandon me in order to stay here and play lap boy to the queen…”
“Abandon you? You really want to go there?” the hunter said angrily. “Ok, then let’s talk about all the times you left me behind!”
“When did I ever…?”
“When Deianeira and the kids died and you went to wage your war on Hera,” Iolaus reminded him. “Or how about when you became a god and went up to Olympus? And let’s not forget when you fell in love and married Serena, Mr. Double Standard.”
“That was different,” Hercules protested.
“Different because it was you!” Iolaus snarled. “Screw this. Get your own damn firewood. I’m outta here!”
The hunter stormed off and the demigod let him go, swearing under his breath as he kicked a dead tree, taking satisfaction in the way the brittle wood snapped and came crashing to the ground.
“Where is everyone?”
Susuda looked up, doing a double take at the massive tree Hercules was dragging behind him.
“Nebula got mad at me and took off. Jason got worried and went to go and try to find her. Where’s Iolaus?”
“Oh, Nebula’s bad mood must have rubbed off on him.”
“We need to get everyone back here,” the Chaldean said anxiously.
“They’ll come back on their own,” the demigod shrugged, unconcerned. And as predicted, the lost members of the group all trickled in one by one over the next few minutes. Iolaus was the last one to show up and he tossed a curved piece of bark filled with berries to the ground at his partner’s feet.
“My contribution to dinner.”
“Hope you didn’t strain yourself,” Hercules muttered as he snapped a heavy limb off the dead tree and whipped it into the fire, sending sparks spraying in all directions.
“You know,” the hunter began as he whirled around.
“Stop it,” Susuda commanded. “All of you, stop! This anger isn’t natural. It’s coming from the outside.”
“What do you mean?” Jason asked.
“We are not alone,” the Chaldean said quietly.
“Gallu?” Hercules whispered.
“I don’t think so,” Susuda replied. “He wouldn’t waste his time with such basic measures. It’s most likely a lesser spirit, stirring up agitation and causing spite and rage. The problem is, it can go and tell Gallu where we are, if it chooses.”
“So what do we do?” Iolaus asked.
“We’ll sleep together in a protective circle tonight,” Susuda informed them. “That will keep us safe for now. But from this point on we must be ready for anything.”
The Chaldean began working on the protection symbol, struggling to make it large enough to encapsulate five adults as the others got dinner ready. But the meal was a half hearted affair and they all decided to call it a night soon after. Huddling around the fire, careful to keep all extremities inside the chalk lines, the group settled in for the night. And the last thought Hercules had as he drifted off to sleep was that each of them had gone off alone that night, the very thing Susuda had warned them against.
In the morning, the heavy feeling of spite weighing on everyone had gone and they all felt much better.
“All those things I said to you yesterday,” Hercules apologized as he helped his partner fold up his bedroll, “I didn’t mean them. It was just like when Strife was messing with my head. The words were coming out, but it wasn’t me saying them.”
“I know,” the hunter told him easily. “You know I didn’t mean anything I said either, right?”
“Yeah, but some of those things… You had a point. If you want to talk about anything, we can.”
“There’s nothing to talk about,” Iolaus reassured him. “Unless you want to.”
“No, not really.”
“So, we’re good?” the hunter asked.
“We’re good,” Hercules confirmed.
“Do you need a hug?”
“No, I’m really good,” the demigod drawled.
“Come on, Hercules,” Iolaus cajoled innocently, opening his arms wide. “Don’t be afraid of your feelings.”
“Get away from me,” Hercules laughed, giving his friend a playful shove. “Go hug your girlfriend.”
The hunter staggered back a step, bumping into Jason who was kneeling on the ground.
“Sorry, Jase. You know Herc doesn’t know his own strength. Did you lose something?”
“My bag,” the Argonaut told them nervously. “The hex bag. I can’t find it.”
“I’m sure it’s around here somewhere,” Iolaus reassured him, his blue eyes scanning the ground.
“Iolaus, check your pouch,” Hercules commanded as he felt the pocket inside his shirt and realized it was empty. The hunter did, looking up and shaking his head. They immediately questioned Susuda, but the Chaldean’s bag was likewise missing.
“They were taken,” Susuda concluded.
“Taken by what?” Iolaus demanded. “You said nothing could get inside the circle.”
“Nothing should have been able to,” the Chaldean stammered. “I don’t understand…”
“Great,” Nebula sighed. “Now you four are sitting ducks for any demon that wants to drop in.. your skin.”
“So why haven’t they?” Hercules wondered. “If we aren’t shielded anymore and everyone’s allegedly looking for us, why aren’t we under attack?”
“I think…” Susuda went pale and paused to clear his throat. “I think because we’ve already been attacked. Only something extremely powerful could have taken those bags. And only one could command the other demons to stay back.”
“Gallu?” Iolaus asked. “You think Gallu is here?”
“I think he’s closer than we realize.” The Chaldean looked at each one of his companions in turn. “He’s here, inside one of us.”
What is done has been done for the best
Though the mist in my eyes might suggest
Just a little confusion about what I'll lose
But if I started over I know I would choose
The same joy the same sadness each step of the way
That fought me and taught me that friends never say
Never say goodbye
“Friends Never Say Goodbye” – Elton John
“What do you mean, Gallu is in one of us?” Hercules demanded. “You actually think one of us is possessed right now? That’s impossible!”
“Gallu is the only one strong enough to penetrate the warding and take the bags,” Susuda argued.
“Well, if he could do that, then why didn’t he just kill us while we slept?” Iolaus countered. “Why would he even bother playing games?”
“Because killing us is too simple,” the Chaldean theorized. “He’s a god, at least in his mind. And we’re the insolent peasants who dared have the hubris to believe we could kill him. He wants us to fear him first.”
“Well, I don’t fear him,” Hercules growled angrily. “And when I’m done with him, he’s going to wish that he’d killed me when he had the chance.”
“Hold on a second,” Nebula interjected. “Before we all start going hysterical, let’s think this through. Susuda, what are you basing this on? You don’t know for sure anyone’s been possessed, right?”
“No,” the Chaldean admitted reluctantly. “But I have a feeling. A sense. He’s here, masking as one of us.”
“I’ve seen enough to know to take your senses seriously,” the queen told her cousin. “But it’s not enough to justify a witch hunt on each other. Is there any way to tell for sure?”
“There is one thing,” Susuda answered. “We can continue on to the temple of Anu. There is a stream behind it that flows to the Euphrates. It is sacred to Ea, who was the god of healing and magic. The water represents purity and we must all drink from it. It will have no effect, except to the one concealing the demon. It’s the only way to be sure.”
“It’s still a long way to the temple,” Jason pointed out. “Do you really think Gallu will let us get that far?”
“What else can we do but try?” the Chaldean shrugged.
“Let’s get ready to move out,” Nebula commanded. “We stay together at all times, all five of us. Everyone watch your backs. And each other.”
They finished packing up the campsite and started back on the path, nobody particularly happy with the current situation, least of all Iolaus.
“I hate this,” he muttered, falling into step beside Hercules as the scrub country started turning into forest land. “Can’t do anything but wait around for one of our friends to attack us. If Gallu wanted to torture me, he couldn’t have picked a better way.”
“There has to be some way to speed up the process,” Jason agreed. “Gallu had five people to choose from. Susuda, you know how demons think. Who do you think he would have chosen as his vessel?”
“Well…” The Chaldean hesitated and shot an apologetic look at the hunter. “Demons can be successfully exorcised. But they leave behind a… a residue, for lack of a better word. It’s attractive, which is why people who have been possessed are prone to being attacked a second time.”
“No, do not look at me,” Iolaus insisted vehemently. “The Light wiped me clean before they threw me out. Not that I’m not attractive, but it’s not because I have Dahak residue in me. Because I don’t!”
“If you say so, “ Susuda nodded, humoring him.
“It’s not Iolaus,” Hercules confirmed confidently. “I would know if it was.”
“Herc, come on, don’t start talking like that,” the hunter sighed.
“We’ve known each other since we were kids,” the demigod reminded him. “I know you better than you know yourself. Besides, I know what you look like when you’re possessed.”
“Yeah, and I know what you look like when you’re possessed, too,” Iolaus argued. “But nobody here is sprouting horns or floating in the air or talking backwards, so if Galllu is in one of us, he’s keeping himself hidden. And until he shows himself, we’re going to have to assume it could be any one of us. Nostalgia has no place here.”
“What about Nebula?” Jason asked. “It can’t be her, right? Not with that anti-possession tattoo she has. Or is Gallu powerful enough to get by even that?”
“I don’t think it’s safe to consider anyone above suspicion,” Susuda cautioned them.
“Do you consider yourself above suspicion?” Hercules asked him. “Because I think it’s you. What better irony than for the demon to take possession of the demon hunter. Then when we trust you enough to follow you, you lead us right into a trap.”
“I’m not the demon,” the Chaldean told him. “Although you’re wise to suspect me. Just as I’m wise to suspect you. Why wouldn’t the demon choose the strongest of us, the one with the blood of immortals?”
“Guys, this is what Gallu wants,” Nebula pointed out. “He wants us suspicious of each other. Because we can’t deal with him if we’re too busy pointing fingers at each other.”
“Nebula, what does Gallu look like?” Iolaus asked suddenly. “I mean, when he’s not hiding like a coward inside a mortal body. Is he as ugly as those other two were?”
“Well, I’ve only ever seen representations, but they weren’t pretty,” she answered. “He’s maybe not as repugnant as Labartu and Rabisu, but definitely ugly. He resembles a bull, kind of like a minotaur. I’ve heard Hercules has taken a few of those by the horns.”
“I have,” the demigod agreed. “And I’m ready to take one more. I don’t think we need to go any farther, do you, Gallu?”
“What are you doing?” Nebula demanded as the heavy hand of Hercules came down firmly on Jason’s shoulder.
“Susuda insinuated that my strength would make me attractive to Gallu, but as a demon of pride he wouldn’t have seen that as a step up so it’s not Susuda. It’s not me. But everything Jason’s said today can be interpreted as an underhanded compliment to Gallu’s power. And he flinched when Nebula and Iolaus were insulting him.”
“You can’t just accuse a man, especially not your friend, on the basis of something so circumstantial,” the queen protested.
“It’s alright, Nebula,” Jason reassured her, raising a calming hand. “I can see the logic in what he’s saying.” The Argonaut smiled, his features twisting into an evil grin of malice. “You mortal insects are more intelligent than I gave you credit for.” His hand sliced sharply through the air and the four of them went flying backward.
“Let him go!” Hercules ordered as he got to his feet, pulling the knife from his belt and gripping it tightly.
“Come and get him,” the demon taunted.
The demigod rushed toward him but an invisible force picked him up and spun him around, slamming him hard against a tree and pinning him there. He tried to struggle, but found he literally could not move a muscle. The others tried to help but Iolaus was thrown into a large rock and then lay crumpled and still and Nebula and Susuda found themselves trapped in a circle of fire with flames shooting up above their heads.
“You have no idea what you’re up against,” Gallu told Hercules softly. “You can’t even comprehend the amount of power I possess.”
“Is it as big as your ego?” the demigod snapped.
“Enjoy your sense of humor while you still have it,” the demon advised, learning in closely to Hercules’ face. “It won’t last long. Because I know what terrifies you. I know what you fear most in the world.”
“Having to listen to you for the next eternity?”
“You don’t know what an eternity is!” Gallu hissed. “I am eternity. An all powerful being, as old as creation. And yet I was forced to spend centuries enslaved in servitude to those lesser beings who dared call themselves gods. Well it is my time to rule now. And the world will tremble before me!” He calmed suddenly and looked like the old Jason again, running a finger along the demigod’s cheek almost lovingly. “But you first, Hercules. Descendant of immortals. For their crimes, and for the crimes of arrogance and plotting against me, I’m going to hold you here. And here you will see your greatest fears realized. You will watch, helpless, as your friends die screaming, one by one. You won’t be able to save them. And believe me when I say I have something very special planned for Iolaus.”
For a moment, stark panic gripped the demigod and pure terror shone from his eyes. But then it was gone and he relaxed with an easy smile.
“What a coincidence. Because Iolaus has something special planned for you, too.”
Gallu felt an intense burning fire in his left shoulder and reaching back his fingers closed upon a bone handle jutting out from his flesh. His gaze immediately went to the knife Hercules was still clutching in his frozen fingers. The ordinary knife that normally resided in the hunter’s belt.
“You know, for being as old as creation,” Iolaus told him conversationally, “I would have thought you wouldn’t be naïve enough to fall for the oldest trick in the book.”
“No,” Gallu whispered, sinking to his knees. “Nooooooooooooooooooooooooo!”
Hercules suddenly fell to the ground as the invisible force keeping him pinned vanished. And as if that weren’t enough, he further had the wind knocked out of him as Iolaus dove on top of him. They covered their faces, not really sure what happened after Jason fell backwards, writhing on the ground. It sounded like he was choking and then there was a massive explosion that rocked the earth beneath them.
“It’s not too bad,” Nebula assured the disoriented Argonaut as she tried to stop the bleeding in his shoulder. “I’d be willing to bet you’ve had worse.”
“Sorry I had to stick you there, Jason,” Iolaus apologized.
“Yeah, but in his defense you were trying to kill us,” Hercules pointed out.
“Gallu was inside of you, controlling you,” Susuda explained.
“You were possessed by the demon,” Nebula spelled out slowly.
“Possessed?” A look of revulsion crossed the Argonaut’s face.
“Don’t worry, Jason,” Iolaus reassured him as he spared a glance toward his partner. “It happens to the best of us.”
“Come on,” Nebula encouraged with a grin as she helped the Argonaut to his feet. “I’ll bandage that up for you and Susuda will explain everything.” They led Jason off, but the demigod and the hunter lingered behind.
“You took a big chance, Hercules,” Iolaus chastised his partner. “You never should have switched knives with me. You couldn’t be sure I wasn’t the one possessed.”
“Yes, I could,” Hercules told him fondly. “I KNOW you, Iolaus. Besides, you trusted me.”
“Force of habit,” the hunter grinned. “But I know you, too.”
“Come on,” the demigod chuckled, slinging an arm around his partner’s shoulders as they went after the others. “As of right now, we are officially off duty heroes on vacation. Do they have fish in Sumeria?”
“Hey,” Iolaus greeted his friend as Hercules sat down beside him as he sharpened his sword on one of the balconies that overlooked the city. “Where’ve you been all afternoon?”
“Out making some inquiries,” the demigod answered. “There’s a ship leaving for Greece next week. I need to know how many passages to arrange.”
“You want to go back already?”
“It’s a long trip,” Hercules reminded him. “And Jason needs to be getting back to the Academy.”
“It’s nice here,” Iolaus said thoughtfully as he paused in his work and looked out over the horizon. “Give it a chance, Herc. It’s not all evil gods and demons.”
“You might be able to talk me into visiting,” the demigod chuckled, “but Greece is where I belong. I’m ready to go home. But you don’t have to come with us. You could stay for a few more weeks or a couple of months and come back later.”
“And what if I decide that I don’t want to come back?” the hunter asked softly.
“Well, demons aside, I’m sure there are worse places to call home,” Hercules told him. “I would miss you, but we didn’t say goodbye when you went to the Light and we’re not going to say it now. We’ll just leave it as ‘see you around’. “
“And you’d really be ok with that?” Iolaus prodded gently.
“Of course not,” the demigod scoffed. “But if you’ve found someone that you can love and be happy with, you can’t take that for granted. You’ve spent your whole life fighting the good fight, risking your life and sacrificing everything for the good of Greece. And no one, not me or even Michael and the Light, can begrudge you if you want to walk a different path this time around and try for a normal life.”
“I do love Nebula, Herc,” the hunter confessed. “With all my heart. And I can’t deny that I want to be with her. So much that it actually hurts when I think about leaving her.” Iolaus looked at the sword in his hands, running his fingers delicately along the blade. “But she’s not my path. The one we walk together is the one I want. It’s what I’ve always wanted. Where I belong.”
“Are you sure?” Hercules asked, hardly daring to hope.
“I’m sure,” Iolaus replied, sadly but with confidence. “This is who I am. This is what we do. As much as I love her, I’ll never be happy here in the palace living the royal life of luxury. And I think Nebula knows that.”
“So you’d rather spend your days getting beaten up, begging for food and sleeping on the ground?”
“Absolutely,” the hunter grinned. “I couldn’t live a normal life if I tried. Talk about boring. I’d go nuts, drive Nebula nuts and she’d kick me back to Greece anyway.”
“You’re already nuts,” Hercules teased him fondly. “But I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“Thanks, buddy,” Iolaus said, rolling his eyes. He stood up, sliding his sword automatically into its sheath as he took one more look over the city his queen commanded. Then he turned to his friend with a smile. “I’m ready, too. Let’s go home.”
Disclaimer: The Sumerian Visitor’s Bureau would like to reiterate that Sumeria is a lovely vacation spot and the stories of it being rampant with demons are greatly exaggerated. Mention this ad and get half off any exorcism by Susuda.
Stories by Quiet Wolf
The Iolausian Library