...Trace the curve ... Follow the black stone path with your eyes ... Feel it beneath your feet, as you move along it ... It will lead you away from danger...
By now Iolaus did not see the flashing lights, their blinding glare sliced into shards by the fan blades. Nor did he hear the monotonous creaking of the drive mechanism, the biting whine of the fan, or the ceaseless, whispering voices.
He was exhausted and thirsty, hungry beyond the pangs of hunger, and his whole body ached from the effects of the drugged dart, but he was aware of these things only dimly, at the very edge of his consciousness.
All his strength and effort were concentrated on two things.
The first was keeping an image in his mind - the image of his black stone medallion. He held it up like a shield before his mind's eye, blocking out the merciless assault of the flickering light. If he tried hard enough, he could feel himself moving along the graceful sweeping curves of the carven stone. It had become a path that he was walking in search of safety. But it took such effort to keep the picture in his mind. Every time exhaustion caused his concentration to waver, the treacherous light would rush in and he would feel his grasp on himself weaken a little more. Every time, it took more and more of his strength to re-form the picture in his blurred and tearing vision.
He was helped only by the second focus of his concentration. As he struggled to envision himself placing one foot after the other on the swirled stone path, he repeated, over and over,
"Who are you?"
"I am Iolaus."
"Who is Iolaus?"
"No man's slave!"
Just as the medallion filled his sight, the words - his own words, spoken in his own voice - drowned out the insidious whispering that sought to worm its way into his brain, into his very soul: "... You serve Lorell. You are part of the Family. The Family is all. Alone, you are nothing..." Over and over and over it hummed drowsily but inexorably in his ears, in an obscene counterpoint to the drone of the fan. Imperceptibly it seemed to have grown louder, to the point now where he must shout if the sound of his own voice was to be heard above it. And it took so much effort to shout ... and he was so tired.
And there was no way out. Fight it or die.
Time had disappeared, along with the rest of the world, and reality had shrunk to the two forces - sound and light - that were attacking him, and his two pitiful weapons against them.
'Trace the black path and follow it...'
"Who is Iolaus?" "No man's slave!"
Suddenly Kamaros was in front of him. For a weary instant, Iolaus wondered if the man was truly there, or if he himself had at last slid into madness. At this point, there was no way to tell.
Kamaros smiled, and Iolaus' flesh did its best to crawl off his bones. He gasped for air, for the fleeting strength of a deep breath, and reached desperately within his mind for the image of the medallion. Anything to shut out the sight of that taunting, triumphant face. But the smile hung before his eyes, contemptuous and unchanging.
Iolaus redoubled his concentration.
'Follow the black curve...'
Once again he could feel the smooth stone beneath his feet. Safety was somewhere beyond the bend in the black road, and he hastened his steps.
But now Kamaros now stood squarely in his path. He spoke - or was it simply Iolaus' imagination? Was Kamaros really there? The words cut through the whispers, the whine and Iolaus' own voice.
"Give it up, Iolaus. Do you think you can find refuge here? You're alone. Were you looking for a friend to help you? Do you really think anyone could?"
The smile on the priest's face stretched even wider and more self-assured.
"Yes," the voice inside Iolaus' head went on. "That's what you were hoping for, wasn't it? That a friend would come? That someone would rescue you from death? And that's what you fear, isn't it? That no one will be there, when Death comes for you!"
Tears spilled from Iolaus' blue eyes and slid hotly down his sweating face. "Hercules..." he gasped, and knew that he had spoken aloud.
"It's all right".
A different voice suddenly boomed out over all the surrounding sound.
With a surge of hope Iolaus saw that Hercules now stood before him. His dearest friend was holding out his hand, with an anxious expression on his face.
"Hey! Iolaus, it's OK! I took care of that creep! Let's get you loose from this chair, and then we're going to get out of here!"
"Yeah! Just follow me!"
The well-known hands in their leather and silver gauntlets reached out to loosen the straps. "Come on! Just follow me!"
Iolaus could not feel his own body, but he saw that he had arisen from the imprisoning chair. Hercules held out his hand once again. "C'mon! Hurry! You've got to follow me!"
Iolaus stood still.
His friend's voice echoed in his head. "Follow me!"
Iolaus did not move.
A note of impatience crept into Hercules' voice. "What are you waiting for? Come with me!"
Still Iolaus was motionless. Finally he felt the words tumble softly from his bleeding lips. "It ... has to be ... this way..." With shaking hands he reached out and took his best friend by the throat and began to throttle him.
There was no reaction from the figure before him, and no feel of flesh beneath Iolaus' fingers and he knew then that his fears were real. It all had been an illusion and there was no friend and no escape and no safety and a cry of pure despair clawed its way from his throat as the image of Hercules melted away into the smiling, sardonic face of Kamaros, looking down at Iolaus in a detached, almost amused way.
"Get ... back. Please ... get back...". Iolaus knew that this time he had spoken aloud, and Kamaros was indeed standing before him.
Kamaros was saying something, but it took a moment to reach Iolaus' exhausted, drug-fogged brain. "... From your babbling, I'd say you had an uncommon fear of death..."
Everything was in slow motion, it seemed. The bitterness in Iolaus rose up for what felt like an hour before it burst forth in the words, "The only thing I'm afraid of is turning into a creep like you."
That took the last of his strength. Kamaros may have made a reply, but Iolaus could no longer hear it, and then suddenly the light and the noise surged upward to a single unbearable pitch.
"Who are you?"
"Trace the black curve..."
"I am ..."
"I am - ?"
"Follow the - ?"
"I - "
Desperately he grasped for the shattered shards of his concentration, and the defenses that had protected him before, but the shrieking sounds and slashing blades of light surrounded him and bore him down, screaming, beneath their inexorable assault.
Silence. Blessed, soothing, healing silence. Iolaus had never realized how loud, how tangible, silence could be. It filled his ears and eased his mind, like cool water on fevered flesh.
A long time later, voices fell into the pool on which he felt himself floating ... floating ... It was so good, just to float there in the soft darkness, on the still waters. He couldn't move, and didn't want to, anyway. Even his eyes were too heavy to open.
One voice sounded nearer. "He's still unconscious."
"Yes. I've never seen anyone fight that hard. But Kamaros won, in the end."
"Kamaros always wins."
Soft, warm hands pulled at Iolaus' clothing, easing it off his body. "He won't need these any more. Send them up to the trash heap above." The hands were now tracing the lines of his body.
"How beautiful he is. I want to be the one to welcome him."
"Later. Let him sleep now."
And he did.
When he awoke, it was to the soft, mellow light of a dozen scented candles. The golden light - so different from the blinding glare of the past ... hours? days? - washed over the flesh of the woman who stood facing him, smiling.
"I'm Hetaira. I want to welcome you to the Family." Her hands reached out for him.
Too dazed to think - and not really unwilling - he let her welcome him. Her greeting was enthusiastic and sincere, and his body, at least, responded in kind. When at last their breathing slowed again, she led him to another room where a pool of steaming water waited.
When he would have washed himself, she gently insisted on doing it for him. "Let us take care of you, for the moment," she said with another heart-melting smile, "You're newborn to the Family. Birth is an exhausting experience."
He said nothing, but returned her smile. His mind was working furiously, nevertheless. There was something he had to remember, something of over-riding importance. Now that he was awake, words began to echo in his head, like a tune that had gotten stuck there, playing itself over and over again ... 'You serve Lorell. You are part of the Family...'
No. That was not what he needed to remember. Those were not the words that he needed. It was something else. But what?
Hetaira touched a silver bell, and two other women, equally beautiful and identically smiling, came into the room. One carried a tray with food on it, and the other, an armful of clothing - blue silken trousers and vest, with a woven belt.
Passively he stood as they dressed him, drawing the silk smoothly, caressingly, over his now-clean body. It was a distraction - he had to remember ... what?
They offered him food and drink, but something made him shake his head in refusal.
"It's all right," soothed Hetaira. "You can eat later, if you wish. It's a new life for you now, and everything will be just as you want it to be. It is the gift of Lorell to all her followers."
Iolaus just smiled abstractedly. What were the other words, the words that were his lifeline? Why couldn't he remember?
Hetaira eased him down on a cushion and with the most delicate of strokes, began to comb out the tangles in his golden hair. Another woman knelt before him and started to adorn his forehead with tiny crystals, dotting glue on with a small brush and gently pressing the gems into his flesh. The third was plaiting a small wreath of yellow flowers.
All the while, Iolaus was thinking, grasping at the memory which just barely eluded him. What were the words?
"Sisters, how is the newest member of our Family?"
The sound of the voice was like cold water thrown on the face of a sleeper. Every fiber of Iolaus' being woke up with a jolt, but the shock brought with it remembrance.
Kamaros strode over to where Iolaus sat. "Greetings, brother!" the priest said and smiled, looking expectantly and searchingly in Iolaus' face.
The words were there at last, written in fire across Iolaus' brain. In a triumph that he struggled to keep hidden, he suddenly knew, once again, just who and what he was.
'Who are you?'
'I am Iolaus!'
'And who is Iolaus?'
Iolaus looked up at Kamaros, while the words rang out in his mind.
'Who is Iolaus? He is the man who is going to kick your slimy, lying, manipulating, lecherous, exploiting, brainwashing, murderous tail all the way to Tartarus!'
A smile of immense, tranquil, sweetness appeared on Iolaus' face. He opened his guileless blue eyes as wide as they could go, and met Kamaros' gaze.
"Hello, dear brother", Iolaus said, and hugged him.
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