Ghostlight

by Carolyn ("Cal")

When I think of the ways of the other world,
And all the ones who’ve gone before,
Well I believe they can see us,
Believe they are with us,
Hear every word that we speak,
I’m not scared anymore.
-- Chris De Burgh, “I’m Not Scared Anymore”

It was an old hunter’s trick. So old, in fact, that it had outlived its creator. It had lain in wait for many long years for the prey that did not come. Long enough for the forest floor to accumulate several seasons of spring growth and autumn detritus; for summer vines and creepers to reclaim their domain and wipe away the small traces of the hunter’s efforts until his handiwork was a forgotten memory. In its abandonment, the snare had been reclaimed by the forest’s leafy bosom.

It was an old hunter’s trick that Iolaus had used more times than he cared to count, and admittedly one of the most primitive. Although it required a considerable bit of time to prepare, the results were usually quite impressive. Designed to dispatch larger game in the hunter’s absence, the snare consisted of a log suspended in the trees and precariously balanced at an angle. A thin trip wire was placed across the game trail and concealed with a loose covering of moss or fresh leaves. Smaller animals could -- and often did -- pass over or under the wire without disturbing the counterbalance. Larger game, on the other hand, tended to trod right through it. Once triggered, even the most fleet footed animal would be hard pressed to escape the several hundred pounds of log that swung down from the canopy to meet them, gathering momentum and deadly force as it fell.

A hunter’s trick so old that Iolaus, as comfortable and familiar with the heart of the forest as he was with a tavern floor, failed to see it until it was too late. The instant he stepped on the ancient trip wire and felt it shift beneath his boot he knew what had happened, and what was about to happen. In the next fraction of a second he was moving. He did not make the mistake of trying to run but rather *dived* head and hands first. A loud creak and *crack!* broke the forest calm as the log so long neglected was finally set in motion toward it’s final purpose. As quickly as Iolaus reacted, the momentum of the log was faster. The small consolation was that it caught him in the right hip and abdomen instead of crushing his head like a melon.

It was an old hunter’s trick that had successfully managed to bag bigger game than ever it was intended -- one of the most adept hunters in all of Greece. With a shout of mixed pain and surprise, Iolaus was thrown through the air with tremendous force and slammed into the rough bark of an ancient oak fifteen feet away. Consciousness fled on winged feet as he slid down the trunk to the ground...

“This isn’t like him,” said Hercules for the fourth time in less than an hour. He stood in the doorway of his mother’s cottage and watched the road with an expression that deepened with concern at each passing candlemark. “Where is he?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry too much,” said Jason complacently from his seat by the hearth. “You know Iolaus. He probably met a pretty girl along the way and is just a little ... delayed. He’ll turn up soon.”

Hercules wasn’t so certain. “He’s more than a day late.” A dark fear stirred within his heart. “Something’s happened.”

“What could have happened?” asked Jason reasonably. “You both know this countryside like your own hands. The roads are too well traveled and patrolled for bandits and, frankly, I pity the bandit that tries to attack Iolaus in his own stomping grounds! None of the villages are fighting, there are no natural disasters worth mentioning or any warlords in the area, and I don’t think I’ve heard tale of a single rampaging monster since Echidna and Typhon got back together. What’s there to be worried about?” he concluded. “There’s nothing out there for a hundred leagues that Iolaus can’t handle on his own. He’ll be here any time now. Mark my words.”

“Well, I’m certainly not going anywhere anytime soon.”

Iolaus had regained consciousness to find he had come to rest on his left side in a soft, thick patch of moss and dead leaves. Concentrating on keeping his movements to a minimum so as not to injure himself further, he had begun the arduous -- and excruciatingly painful -- task of assessing his hurts. He concluded that at the very least he had suffered two broken ribs and a broken hip; at worst, a bruised or punctured lung. His mouth was filled with the metallic taste of blood and he could hear a gurgle in his lungs that most definitely had not been there before. Breathing was becoming incrementally more difficult as the pressure within his chest tightened and he feared the less optimistic diagnosis was also the more realistic one.

His self-diagnosis concluded, Iolaus took the time to consider his surroundings. He had landed in a thicket some distance from the old game trail he had been following. A day late for his rendezvous with Hercules, he had opted to take a short cut through the forest rather than stick to the conventional path. Had all gone well, he’d have been sitting in front of a bowl of Jason’s fabled venison stew by now.

“Nice short cut, Iolaus,” he admonished himself. Lying more than a quarter mile away from the road and surrounded by dense forest, it could be days before anyone found him. “That’ll teach me to think twice the next time some pretty doxy wants to play roll in the hay.”

High overhead, the canopy of leaves whispered to a chill wind. Long shadows lengthened and pooled around Iolaus as the sun began its descent. Night came early to the heart of the forest, and for once Iolaus did not relish sleeping in its bosom. Badly injured and smelling of blood -- and with his sword lost from sight -- he would be hard pressed to defend himself should some woodland denizen come calling for an easy supper.

Can’t stay here, he thought grimly. I’ve got to get back to the game trail...

But in order to do that, he would first have to find a way to bind his chest to keep his broken ribs from grating together. As if that wasn’t difficult enough, he’d also need to splint his right leg to keep his hip immobile, and find a branch to serve as a staff so he could lever himself up onto his feet as well as serve as a crutch...

In his heart of hearts, Iolaus knew his chances of accomplishing even one of these feats was slim, but one of the most powerful lessons he had learned at Hercules’ side was *never* to give up hope, no matter the odds. No matter the consequences.

No matter the pain.

And this is gonna hurt like Hades, he thought. Still, it was a price worth paying. If he could somehow reach the trail, he had a chance of being discovered. Lying here, he had virtually no chance at all.

“So, Iolaus,” he said aloud as he began to struggle into a sitting position, “Let’s start looking for something to --”

Iolaus suddenly screamed and fell back.

The simple movement of bending forward had produced a pain so excruciating that Iolaus thought his chest would burst. Far worse than his broken bones could account for, it suddenly felt as if his belly had been filled with molten lead. Agony tore precious breath away from him as talons of darkness grasped at his consciousness. With a determined shake of his head, he struggled to hold the darkness at bay. Hands suddenly weak and trembling, he forced his fingers to probe the right side of his abdomen and screamed again as something liquid shifted beneath his touch.

Hope slipped away and black despair filled his heart.

It didn’t much matter whether the injury had been caused by the initial blow or the impact with the tree; something had torn inside him. The broken hip and ribs were no longer of consequence. Even supposing he could miraculously find a way to hobble onto his feet, the bleeding in his belly would poison the rest of his body in a matter of hours.

He was alone and helpless in the heart of the forest, and he was dying.

At Jason’s suggestion, Hercules left the cottage and roamed his mother’s garden while he waited for Iolaus to make an appearance. In life, Alcmene’s garden had been her pride and joy. It was said that more magnificent roses could not be found in the whole of Greece and Hercules believed that to be true. Whenever he had returned home from the Academy as a boy, or from his many adventures abroad as a man, the garden’s sweet fragrance was always the first thing to greet him. It’s riot of brilliant color was the second greeting to assault his senses and there, without fail, standing among the blossoms awaiting his arrival would be Alcmene, her straw-blonde tresses a halo around her heart-shaped face.

In death, Alcmene’s beloved garden embraced her as the gentlest of resting places.

Hercules stooped down beside the grave and laid a single red rose at the foot of the ornate wooden marker he had carved so short a time ago.

“Hello, mother,” he said softly. He touched the monument’s intricately carved rose, as if by doing so he might also be able to brush his mother’s soul on the Elysian Fields. “I’ve missed you. More than I can say.” Tears glittered in his dark blue eyes -- her eyes -- as he envisioned her in his mind as she had been before her illness, healthy and whole and laughing. “Iolaus misses you, too. He’s been trying to write you a song, did you know that?” Hercules smiled sadly at the grave. “It’s not very good, I’m afraid, but his heart is in the right place.”

Crimson orange sunlight danced on the rose as the wind tickled the velvet petals beneath his hand. Hercules’ gaze strayed once more to the road that lead past the cottage and the glorious sunset beyond, framed by the rolling hills of Thebes. No jaunty figure appeared on the horizon, wild blonde hair shining golden in the last rays of day; no familiar hand was uplifted in greeting.

“Where are you, Iolaus?” whispered Hercules.

Iolaus lost his battle with the enveloping darkness and slipped into unconsciousness. When again he opened his eyes, full night was upon him. His vest was sodden with sweat and clung like a leach to his flesh while chills chased goosebumps across his bare arms and chest and eagerly fanned the flames of fever.

“Nice going, Iolaus. Couldn’t die heroically saving the life of a foreign princess or some beautiful sacrifice victim. Oh no -- *you’ve* got to fall for the oldest hunter’s trick in the scrolls.” His teeth began to chatter. “No bard’s going to write a heroic ballad about a guy who let himself get whacked to death by an overgrown twig.”

Lying on his back, he tried to catch a glimpse of the stars through the canopy of leaves but saw only blackness. It was a moonless night, which meant that anyone who might be searching for him would have an even harder time penetrating the forest gloom.

No one in their right mind will come in here until morning, he thought.

And by then it would be far too late.

When full night fell and still Iolaus had not appeared, Hercules could wait no longer. He was convinced that something terrible had happened to his missing friend and he was determined to move every stone and tree in Thebes until he found him. He delayed the start of his search only long enough to stuff a leather satchel full of herbs, linen strips and a waterskin. Raising a son with a frustrating tendency to get himself battered and bruised at regular intervals had taught Alcmene to keep her medicinal supplies well stocked and Hercules silently thanked her for it as he crammed the last jar of salve into the overstuffed satchel.

“I hope you won’t have occasion to use that,” said Jason he watched Hercules settle the strap over his right shoulder and across his chest. “I’ll ride to the village and round up as many men as I can,” he continued as he followed his friend outside. “We can cover the hills and the beach, but I don’t know if I can get any of them to brave the woods after dark. In the morning --”

“Morning may be too late,” said Hercules. “I’ll start from this side and make my way through the woods to the village. If Iolaus is in there, I’ll find him,” he vowed.

A raging fever held Iolaus in an unmerciful grasp and ravaged his mind while it brutally decimated his body. As he grew weaker and lapsed more frequently in and out of consciousness, his thoughts began to fray and wander down nightmarish paths. His greatest doubts and fears became magnified a hundred fold and plagued him like a swarm of harpies. Long dead enemies laughed their derision at him from shifting shadows, framed by the fires of Tartarus, while familiar faces from the past flitted like wraiths across his mind’s eye. He saw his mother’s accusing eyes, her face care worn and aged beyond her years by the burden of a troublesome, ungrateful young son who would rather run wild in the streets than settle down to a life on their small farm. The shade of his father, black as night but clad in well oiled leather armor, loomed over her as it pointed an accusing finger at Iolaus over her frail shoulder. Both turned their backs on him and faded away. Gone. All gone.

King Orestes, garbed in a raiment of royal purple stained crimson with his heart’s blood, cast a look of such scorn upon the prone, shivering body of his cousin that Iolaus cried out from the weight of it. In the King’s wake hobbled the broken body of a peasant woman whose name Iolaus had never known, but whose life had slipped through his fingers and been dashed on the jagged rocks below a swaying rope bridge. She spat in his face from torn and ruined lips. Dead and gone, dust and bones, all because of him. Like his beautiful Ania, stricken with plague while he was away from home in search of adventure; and their son. Oh gods, his son! His beautiful, fair-haired boy. Iolaus began to weep as another violent spasm of white hot pain gripped his belly and arced his battered body.

In the midst of his delirium and the depths of his despair, a random thought cut clear and true to his heart with a fear more terrible than dying helpless and alone.

O gods! What if Hercules finds me?

So soon after the deaths of Serena and Alcmene, discovering Iolaus’ broken and lifeless body would be a devastating blow. There was only so much grief the son of Zeus would be able to stand before it drove him into madness.

“Zeus,” rasped Iolaus, his throat thick with blood and raw from screaming. “... please ... if I die here, don’t let Hercules find me. If he doesn’t know what’s happened to me, he always have hope to hold on to.”

A gentle voice brushed his mind with words that were barely more than a breath. [*But the not knowing would be a pain worse than grief, and he could not bear it.*]

Iolaus struggled to open his eyes and blinked against the bluish white glow that assaulted his vision. The trees were alive with motes of dazzling starfire.

Alcmene knelt down beside him and gently caressed his forehead. [*You must be strong.*]

Iolaus gasped at her touch and felt some of the pain fade away. “Alcmene,” he tried to say, but could only moan. *You’ve come to take me to the other side,* he thought with resignation.

[*No. It is not yet time.*] She continued to stroke his forehead in a soothing, lulling way. The hem of her sleeve brushed his cheek, all gossamer light and shadow, but he felt no material against his fevered flesh.

*I’m dying,* he sighed with a thought.

[*Yes, you are.*] Alcmene’s soothing touch moved to his shoulders and the terrible pain fled in the wake of her ministrations. [*But you must not. You must be brave and live. The world still needs its heroes.*]

*The world has Hercules.*

[*And Hercules has you.*]

“Me?” he croaked aloud.

[*You, Iolaus, and no other.*] Alcmene’s loving smile was more radiant than the glowing aura that surrounded her. [*Even the son of Zeus needs a hero.*]

Iolaus closed his eyes and sighed.

Now I *know* I’m delirious, he thought.

An hour into the forest, Hercules had covered every inch of the main path and the land to either side without encountering a single trace of his missing friend.

Damn it, Iolaus, he thought in frustration. You took another one of your short cuts, didn’t you?

Which meant that Iolaus could have left the path at any point along the way to cut through the trees. Had he been following a game trail or did he simply strike out to the north, trusting in his sense of direction to bring him safely through to the other side? Whatever course he had taken, whether by whim or design, Hercules was determined to find it -- and Iolaus.

Hercules dared not think about what his life would be like without Iolaus to share it. The good-natured, robust blonde hunter-warrior had been a constant for as long as he could remember. They had met as very young boys, strangers from two different worlds whose only common bond had been their shared abandonment by their fathers. At first awkward and combative, together they hurdled the challenges of youth and forged a bond that would make them lifelong friends, inseparable partners, and brothers in all but blood. Iolaus became a more frequent visitor to Alcmene’s small cottage than his own mother’s home. For her part, Alcmene had been exultant to finally see someone who could draw her son out of his melancholy shell and grew to look upon Iolaus as another son.

For Hercules, Iolaus was more than a partner and brother -- he was his anchor. When Dienarra and his children were murdered by Hera, it was Iolaus who rescued him from the well of despair. When the godling Strife killed Serena and framed Hercules for her murder, it was Iolaus who remained faithful by his side in spite of his own uncertainties at the circumstances surrounding her death. And when his beloved mother passed away in the Spring, Iolaus was the one who sat with Hercules throughout the night, and held and comforted him as he cried out his grief at Alcmene’s loss. A loss that Iolaus, too, felt keenly, for Alcmene had been as much mother to him as any rebellious and lonely teenager could ever have wanted.

Now, of all the people that Hercules held most dear, only Iolaus remained.

I couldn’t bear to lose him, too, he thought. Hercules glowered at the forest gloom and *willed* Iolaus to appear.

“IOLAAAUUUSSSS!!!” he called for the hundredth time. Only heavy silence replied.

Answer me, he mentally pleaded. Come on, Iolaus. Tell me where you are!

Something snagged the hem of his shirt and he turned to brush it aside. A wisp of pale blue light danced away from his hand, startling him. It was a tiny thing -- smaller than his clenched fist -- but it shone with a blue so pure it instantly reminded him of his mother’s eyes. Bobbing in the air before him, it drifted a few feet off the path toward the thicket ... then paused, as if expectant and waiting. Hercules extended his hand to it but it floated just beyond reach. When he stepped toward it, the orb pulsed brighter and fled deeper into the trees. Throwing caution to the winds, Hercules ran after it.

*Can’t ... hold ... on ...* Iolaus could no longer feel his body. The pain was a remote, distant thing as his mind sought to free itself of the weight that anchored it.

[*I know it hurts, but you *must* stay.*] Alcmene took his limp hands between her own and held on as if they were a lifeline. [*Please wait.*]

*... can’t ...*

[*Iolaus, my wild, golden one ... if you leave now, then both of you will be lost and a great evil will be free to enter the world.*] Tiny, jewel-like tears glittered in her eyes. [*This is not your time. This is not your destiny.*]

*... sure ... feels like ... it ...*

No conscious of the world around him, Iolaus did not hear the approaching sounds of something large and fast crashing through the trees toward him.

Alcmene listened for a moment then gave a small sigh of relief. [*Not today, my son.*] Her fingers lovingly brushed limp strands of sweat soaked hair from Iolaus’ swollen eyes. [*When it is your time, it will be where you are happiest -- by Hercules’ side, fighting to save the lives of others.*] She leaned down to bestow a feather light kiss on his fevered brow, and whispered, [*And in so doing, you will save both Hercules and our world.*]

As if summoned, a moment later Hercules burst through the trees into the tiny clearing ... and stopped as suddenly as if he’d struck a stone wall. Alcmene stood before him in a simple white shift enveloped by a blue light so radiant it dazzled his eyes.

“Mother?!”

His heart sang with joy and cried out in anguished astonishment at the sight of her. He saw her as she was in his youth -- young, vibrant with life and beautiful. So beautiful! He was suddenly wreathed in the perfume of roses and a feeling of joy and a love so profound that it took his breath away.

“Mother, I --”

Sadly, she shook her head and said in a gentle voice, [*Hurry, Hercules.*]

He followed the direction of her gaze and saw what lay broken and bleeding at her feet. “IOLAUS!!” Hercules fell to his knees beside his friend’s battered body.

Alcmene drifted backward as he frantically tore open the satchel of medicines.

“No mother could be prouder of her sons. I love you both so much...” she whispered, and faded away.

“Make certain he takes two of these packets with a mug of tea every three hours for the next two weeks,” instructed Brysus.

“Every three *hours*!!” Iolaus protested weakly from his bed. “No way! That stuff tastes like cat pi---”

“He’ll drink it,” interrupted Hercules as the high priest of Asclepyus placed a heavy drawstring pouch in his palm. “Every last drop, if I have to pour it into him myself,” he concluded with a significant glance at his patient.

Iolaus opened his mouth to argue then decided on discretion as the better part of valor. He didn’t relish the thought of being force-fed by the son of Zeus. A pretty nurse, on the other hand...

“Then I leave him in your capable hands,” said Brysus with a grin, and left.

Hercules wasted no time putting together a steaming mug of the remedy and forcing it into Iolaus’ hands.

Grumbling, Iolaus grudgingly took a sip of the concoction and grimaced. “Ugh! Do I--”

“Drink it.”

“Come on, Herc. Have a heart! It’s bad enough I’m wrapped tighter than a mummy in these bandages,” he protested, “But to have to down this swill, too --”

“Drink it,” warned Hercules in a voice that brooked no argument.

“You’d really force feed it to me, too, wouldn’t you?” With a martyred sigh, Iolaus grudgingly drained the contents of the mug in a single gulp. “Gack!”

“There’s a good boy,” said Hercules with mock pride. “Now that wasn’t so bad, was it?”

“No? YOU drink it next time and tell me how bad it isn’t,” groused Iolaus as he moved to hand the mug back. He shifted too suddenly and gasped as pain lanced through his chest.

Hercules was instantly there, easing him more comfortably against Alcmene’s rose petal and goose down pillows. A faint floral scent drifted upward between them and their eyes met.

Iolaus saw an echo of the same memories and emotions mirrored in Hercules gaze, and said sadly, “It wasn’t a fever dream, was it? You saw her, too.”

“I saw her.”

Silence settled between them, neither able to find the words to express their feelings. Of wonder, and of loss.

“I think I’d like to plant some roses in the garden,” said Iolaus after a time. “When I’m up and around, I mean.”

“I think mother would have liked that,” said Hercules. In his mind’s eye he envisioned her standing among the bright blooms and smiled. “I think she’d like that very much...”

Oh they say that the stars in the sky,
Are the souls of the people who die,
Will we meet them again when we reach our destination?
-- Chris De Burgh, “Carry On”

FINI
10/24/98

DISCLAIMER:
Hades and Persephone were on holiday and could not be reached for comment during the writing of this story.

Go on to the Next Story in the challenge


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