[This requires a little background. It takes place a year after the events depicted in the joint fan-fic "The Storming of the Underworld" (preserved for posterity on Astraea's web page). Orestes has been sent back to the World Above, to serve in Hades' temple as his priest and oracle.]
Hercules stood and surveyed the scene in puzzlement. He'd gotten a message from Iolaus: "Meet me in the village of Comana." Usually a message like that meant one thing only - trouble. But this place looked about as far from troubled as it could get.
It was funny. Over the years, Hercules had developed a sixth sense when coming into an area - he could simply *feel* if there was trouble in the air. Happy villages were all alike, but unhappy ones each had their own particular brand of misery.
And Comana was happy - he could feel it. In fact, it stood out in the very intensity of its happiness. As he walked into the main square of the village, the scene looked very ordinary - people just going about the mundane tasks of daily living - but underneath he could feel a strong, vibrant, undercurrent of joy.
With a half-wondering smile on his face, he approached a woman who was drawing water from the well, and gave her a hand with the heavy bucket.
"Thanks, " she said, returning his smile. "You're a strong one, you are!"
"Maybe you can help me, " he told her. "I'm supposed to meet a friend of mine here. He's short, blond, wears leather and carries a sword. Anyone like - "
"You mean Iolaus!" Her grin blazed like a welcoming fire.
"You know him?"
"Indeed I do! There's none in Comana who *don't* know of Iolaus! He's a hero, you know. He slew the chimera!"
"You haven't heard?" She set the bucket down, wiped her hands on her apron, and flipped her greying braids out of the way. "Two moons ago, a chimera began to prey on our flocks. First it just took sheep - but then it started taking shepherds as well. So the village sent out hunters, but none returned. Those who went out after them, found only ... pieces." She grimaced at the memory. "We were in terror. Finally our headman Baro went to consult the Oracle in Hades' temple."
The woman looked at him in some surprise. "You can't be from around here! Scarce a year ago, the Oracle came to dwell in the ruined temple of Hades - only, of course, it's not ruined now! In a day and a night, so it's said, the temple was raised up again and the Oracle came to live there. Very wise, he is, too, and very simple to understand - not like that hussy at Delphi, who's no better than she should be, if you ask me-."
"What did the Oracle say about the chimera?" broke in Hercules, fearing she would go off on a tangent and never return.
"Ah, well! The Oracle said that at the full of the moon, Lord Hades would send a warrior, golden-haired and bearing a sword, to deal with the chimera. And would you believe it? - at noon on the eve of the full moon, into this very square walks this man named Iolaus! Right off, he began to ask about where the chimera might be found. When Baro heard of this, he and the elders took Iolaus into the temple to see the Oracle."
"And what happened then?"
Delighted to have such an attentive listener, the woman seated herself on the stone bench beside the well, and Hercules sat beside her.
"Why then, warrior, at moonrise, Iolaus came forth from the temple and went straight out into the hills to do battle with the chimera. I saw it myself, for a great crowd followed him, and I was one of them. He went up to the top of the highest hill. The moonlight was so bright, we could see him from far away - and so could the chimera. It swooped down on him, and he shouted defiance. He had a bow with him - the Oracle must have given it to him - and he pinned its wing against its own back with arrows. The chimera dropped down out of the sky. It could not fly, but it could still walk, and it leaped on him with its terrible claws. It struck at him, and we could hear his scream and we cried out in horror that he had been killed. But he rose up again, this hero, and his sword flashed in the moonlight. Three times he struck, and three times it was the scream of the chimera that echoed among the hills. And in the end, Iolaus came slowly down to meet us. Slowly - because he was wounded and burdened with the creature's head! We wanted to bear him and it back to the village in triumph, but he made us take him instead to Hades' temple. Certainly, this was wisdom on his part, because when he came out of the temple, his wound was healed. A miracle to end a day of miracles!"
"Where's Iolaus now?" asked Hercules, impressed by the tale he had heard, and wanting more than ever to hear Iolaus' version of it.
"He's at the inn, of course! You're a friend of his, you said?"
"Yep. My name is Hercules."
"Ah yes! He said someone by that name might be looking for him. I'm Geilissa, the innkeeper's wife. Follow me!"
She lifted her water jar onto her head, waving off Hercules' offers of help, and set out at a surprisingly fast pace.
Before the inn, a large stake had been set up, and impaled upon it was the head of the chimera - its sightless eyes the target of clouds of black flies.
Geilissa escorted him inside and called, cheerily, "Iolaus! Your friend is here!"
It took a moment for Hercules' eyes to adjust to the noisy darkness of the common room after the bright sunlight of the square, but a familiar voice cut through the chatter of the patrons.
His friend came barrelling through the crowd like a golden-haired thunderbolt, to clasp arms with him.
"Herc, am I glad to see you! We've got to talk!"
"Sounds like you've been having yourself quite an adventure here!"
Iolaus shook his head. "You don't know the half of it. Come on upstairs - they've given me the best room in the place and they won't let me pay for anything. If I took them up on all their offers, I'd be permanently drunk and weigh more than Typhon!"
He led the way to a large, airy room overlooking a garden.
Hercules couldn't suppress a certain feeling of relief. At last Iolaus was getting some of the hero treatment that he was always complaining about missing out on. For once, Hercules was the one in the background - and he found he was rather happy to be there. Iolaus had suffered so much, being his comrade in arms - it healed a minor wound in Hercules' heart to see him being fussed over and made much of.
"So - congratulations on the chimera! Sorry to be late, but it looks like you didn't need any help anyway! Way to go, buddy!"
Hercules stuck his arm out to clasp Iolaus', but to his utter shock, Iolaus shook his head.
"Don't," he said briefly.
"What do you mean?"
Iolaus sighed. "I mean, I didn't kill the chimera. Or at least, I can't remember doing it!"
Hercules looked at him intently, and then very deliberately took a seat. "O-kay", he muttered softly. "That's not something you'd forget ... So - you want to tell me what you *do* remember?"
Ale foamed and ran over, as Iolaus poured two mugs of it from a sweating pitcher, and handed one to Hercules. He took a mighty pull from his own tankard and smacked his lips. "That's one thing they do really well in Comana - ale! And the local cooking is great! I just wish I felt like I deserved it all." He gave a snort of laughter. "Ironic, isn't it? All my life I've been bitching about being in your shadow and not being recognised for my own deeds - and now the one time I'm getting the hero treatment, I'm not sure I deserve it!"
"Iolaus - what happened?!"
"OK ... It started with a dream."
"Not again!" Hercules groaned, remembering the last time Iolaus had been driven by a dream to "Go North!"
"This was different!"
"I was standing on a hilltop - grass all around, no trees - and it was bright moonlight. I looked up and saw a chimera flying above me. It swooped down, and it should have hit me. But you know how it is in a dream - just when I should have felt it, there was a huge blast of wind, really cold, and a voice saying "Only one who was a king and is no longer - one who has crossed the Styx and returned." And when these words were said, the chimera plummeted from the sky and hit the ground with a crash. But when I ran to see if it was dead, the body had completely disappeared, and burned into the grass in huge letters, was the word "Comana."
Hercules breathed out noisily. "Yeah. That's a serious dream, all right!"
"So I sent a message off to you, and I set out for Comana. Took me a while to find it! Anyway, I got here and asked about the chimera, and that's when they sent me to the headman, Baro. He asked me why I'd come, and I told him about the dream, and he said that I should go and see the Oracle at the Temple of Hades. And so we went to the temple, and I went in - and that's the *last* thing I remember, until I found myself standing at the top of the steps with a bunch of cheering people below me and some character in a hood - I guess it was the Oracle! - whispering, "You are a true hero. Go forth and claim your reward!" Herc, I gotta tell you - I don't remember a thing! It was sunset when I went into the temple, and it was high noon when I came out - and everything in between is a complete blank!"
A long slug of the fragrant ale gave Hercules time to think. "Did you get knocked on the head, maybe?"
"Nah. I thought about that. I did feel kind of strange, standing at the top of the steps, but I don't have a bump or anything. And believe me - I know what a head injury feels like!"
"Geilissa said you were wounded by the chimera and the Oracle healed you."
Iolaus flung off his vest. "Look," he said, turning all the way around. "Do you see any scars? But yet, see -" he turned the vest inside out, to show a large, distinct bloodstain on the lining - "I must have been bleeding at some point! Herc, this is just too weird!"
"What's really the problem? I mean, you're OK, the chimera's dead, everyone's happy - what's not to like?"
Iolaus drained his ale and frowned into his empty tankard. "I just don't like not knowing. If for no other reason than I'd like to be able to tell the tale myself! And it bothers me! Why can't I remember?"
"Look - the gap in your memory begins and ends at the temple of Hades. So why don't we go and pay this Oracle a visit, and see if he can give you some answers. After all, what are oracles for?"
The temple of Hades was set deep in a hollow below a grassy hill. Tall, funereal yew trees stood like sentinels around it, and the broad lawn that stretched out in front of it was thickly grown over with mint, so that each step that they took was wreathed in sharp, clean fragrance.
Their footsteps rang in the dim and silent hall. A fire burned low upon the stone altar, and bronze lamps lined the walls, each with a single golden flame, but no one was to be seen.
"Hello?" called Hercules.
His voice echoed in the silence.
"Anybody home?" Iolaus asked loudly.
"Strange," Hercules commented. "There's *always* an acolyte in every temple to tend the fire, at least. I wonder if -"
He broke off suddenly, as there came the distant rustle of a curtain being drawn back. Out of the shadows behind the altar came a figure in a dark robe. As they drew closer, they saw it was a young woman with light hair tightly braided about her head and a red ribbon around her throat.
Hercules spoke up. "We need to talk with Hades' Oracle."
"Warriors, I beg your pardon, but the Oracle can speak to no one today."
"It's very important that we talk to him!" said Iolaus.
The young woman shook her head stubbornly. "He can see no one. Return in seven days."
"Seven days? That's ridiculous!" Having made up his mind to seek guidance, Iolaus was now impatient at any delay. "We need to speak to him now!"
Another shake of the head. "That's impossible." Her lips pressed firmly together in disapproval. "Come back in a week."
"But *why* can't we see him now? What's the problem?" By now Iolaus had raised his voice to almost a shout.
"There is no problem."
Soft and husky as it was, the new voice from the shadows cut through the argument. Iolaus and Hercules could just barely see a second, hooded figure standing in a doorway. The curtain fell back behind him with a faint whoosh. He took a step towards them, but stopped, still well within the dimness behind the altar.
The acolyte whirled and went deathly pale. "Lord! You should not be -"
"I will speak to these noble warriors."
"Tend the fire, Cherle. There is nothing to fear." Despite the gentleness of the Oracle's tone, there was a note of command, and the acolyte moved away, but not until she had directed a swift, worried glance at the two intruders.
The Oracle took a step closer to the firelight, but his deep hood still shadowed most of his face. Nonetheless, they could see a faint smile as he spoke. "What is it you seek?"
Iolaus stepped forward. "Oracle, I am -"
"You are Iolaus, the hero of Comana, the slayer of the chimera, the warrior about whose coming Hades told me. And, unless I am very mistaken, your companion is the son of Zeus. What could possibly trouble heroes such as yourselves, so that you would seek the counsel of Hades' priest?"
"I'm told you healed the wound I got from the chimera. Thank you! There's just one problem!" Iolaus tried to meet the Oracle's eyes, but found only darkness within the hood. "Everyone says I slew the chimera - but I can't remember doing it! There's a big hole in my memory. What's wrong with me?!"
"Nothing is wrong with you. Set your mind at ease, and enjoy your victory. If you doubt your achievement, you have but to ask any of the folk of Comana, and they will tell you what they saw."
"But what did *you* see?" Hercules spoke up for the first time since the Oracle had appeared. "Iolaus says that the last thing he remembers was entering the temple. Tell us what happened then!"
The request seemed to surprise the Oracle, and he stepped back a pace, putting out one hand to touch the altar, almost as if for reassurance. "Very well, " he replied. "What is the last memory you have?"
"I entered the temple."
"So you did. Baro and the elders brought you here to the temple door. Do you remember me greeting you and leading you inside?"
"Nor my giving you a drink from Hades' own cup?"
Iolaus hesitated, then shook his head. "No. It's all just a tremendous blank."
"Yet it happened, just as I have told it - and just as I foretold it." The Oracle drew an audible breath and leaned against the altar. " 'The chimera will die at the full of the moon, by the sword in the hand of the golden-haired warrior'. And just such a warrior went forth from this temple, bearing a sword and a bow. In full sight of the moon and the folk of Comana, he climbed the highest hill - " the Oracle's voice grew softer - "and did battle with the chimera. He brought it down with arrows, and it wounded him in the breast, but he fought on and slew it finally with ... three strokes of the sword ... that sword ... which hangs from ... your own belt ...."
The last words were said in a strained whisper. The Oracle seemed to be leaning his entire weight against the side of the altar.
"Oracle?" said Iolaus uncertainly.
With a hand that could clearly be seen to be shaking, the Oracle drew his hood closer about his face.
"The victory ... is ... yours. Go ... and enjoy it. ... Leave me!"
Hercules frowned in puzzlement. "Are you all right?"
To their astonishment, the Oracle abruptly crumpled to the floor by the altar and lay still, his face completely hidden by the folds of his hood.
Both men rushed over and knelt beside him. Hercules put a hand on the man's chest, to feel for the beating of his heart, and suddenly realised that the dark fabric of the Oracle's robe was wet. He pulled his hand away, and - "Iolaus, it's blood. He's bleeding!"
But Iolaus was not listening.
He had pushed the Oracle's hood aside - and found that he was looking at his own face.
The shock rocked him back onto his heels and he grabbed at the altar for support. For a long moment he could not breathe, but just knelt, pale and staring silently. Finally the word slid out.
"Your cousin? But you said that he was dead!"
"He is - he was ... but -"
Cherle, the young acolyte had returned and was staring in horror at the scene. Iolaus was still in shock. Hercules took control.
"We have to help him."
The acolyte responded to the stern, calm voice. "Bring him back here! He's reopened his wound. I begged him not to get up, but he wouldn't listen."
Hercules gently lifted the unconscious Oracle and bore him through the doorway whose curtain Cherle held back. Iolaus followed silently. Back behind the main hall of the temple were what were clearly living quarters for the priest and acolytes.
Hercules laid the injured man down on the low bed and pulled open his robe, to find a blood-saturated bandage wrapped around his chest. "I'll need clean bandages and water. And woundwort, if you have it." The acolyte scurried away and swiftly returned with the necessary items.
Gently Hercules stripped off the sodden bandage, revealing a deep, ragged tear, two hand-spans long, which was sullenly oozing bright blood. He daubed at it, and Orestes suddenly moaned and flinched away from the pain.
"Iolaus, come and hold him down."
White and wide-eyed, Iolaus stood frozen at the entrance to the room, clutching the doorframe.
The sharp tone moved Iolaus into action; he knelt down and gently pinned Orestes to the bed as Hercules cleaned the wound. But the stricken look did not leave his face.
"Herc - the words in my dream: 'only one who was a king, and is no longer; who has crossed the Styx and returned' ... I thought it meant me!"
"I know." He crushed the woundwort leaves that the acolyte had brought and packed them into the wound, an action which brought another moan from Orestes. "Shhh...." He laid several layers of linen atop the poultice and bound it into place. "And this is a tearing wound - like from a claw." He tied the ends of the bandage firmly and looked up into Iolaus' eyes. "I think we know now who *really* killed the chimera!"
"Yeah..." Iolaus took a deep breath and wiped sweat from his face.
"You all right?"
"Never better. Just a bit of a shock, that's all. I didn't think things could get any weirder than they were already. My mistake!"
Hercules brushed the hair away from Orestes face and laid a hand upon his forehead, checking for fever. "You know, you weren't kidding when you said the two of you looked alike. It's amazing!"
"Oh yeah ... do you realise that we've now got twice as many questions as when we arrived?"
Hercules nodded. "And we're just going to have to wait to get some answers!"
It was an hour or so later when Orestes finally stirred. His eyes immediately fell up Iolaus, and he breathed out a weary sigh.
"Orestes? Is it really you?"
"... Yes ...."
"How are you feeling?" broke in Hercules.
"Weak ... but better... We haven't met before ... but I've heard a lot about you. My cousin is ... fortunate in his friends." He held a shaking hand out, and Hercules clasped it with a smile. Then Orestes turned his glance back towards Iolaus. "Cousin ... forgive me."
Iolaus' face was nearly as pale as Orestes'. "I don't understand any of this! You died - you died in my arms!"
"Hades sent me back ... It's a ... very long story. He ordered me to serve him ... in his temple, as his priest ..." A faint smile crossed his face. "Between the two of us, cousin ... we have caused Hades quite a lot of trouble."
Iolaus was not to be dissuaded. "It was you who killed the chimera!"
Orestes swallowed hard. "Yes ..."
"And where was I, while this was going on?" His voice was hard, with the beginnings of anger in it.
"Asleep on this bed... watched over by my acolyte. The cup of Hades that you drank from ... contained poppy infused in water from the Lethe ... It made you sleep and ... forget what had happened to you in the temple."
One set of blue eyes drilled into an identical pair. "Why?!"
"To save your life, cousin."
Orestes struggled to sit up and fell back with a gasp of pain. Cherle moved forward to support him, but Hercules motioned her back. "Don't try that yet. You'll open the wound again."
Iolaus had not moved. "To save my life?" he asked Orestes stonily.
"Yes. If you had gone after the chimera yourself, you would have been killed."
"You have no way of knowing that!"
Orestes shifted uncomfortably. "Actually - I do. When he made me his priest, Hades gave me the gift of prophecy. It really works and it's not a pleasant thing to have. I always knew that I was the one who had to go out after the chimera: 'Only one who was a king and is no longer - one who has crossed the Styx and returned'."
"Those were the words I heard in my dream!"
"Yes. I heard them too. And then, when Baro came and told me that a blond warrior named Iolaus had come to Comana to slay the chimera, I saw your death in its claws."
Iolaus' anger had shifted to puzzlement. "So you knew you yourself wouldn't die?"
"No. But I knew for certain that you *would*. I couldn't allow that to happen. So ... I invited you in for a drink, and this time, cousin, it was your turn to pass out!" A wry grin flashed across Orestes' face. "We laid you down in here, and I borrowed your clothes and your sword - and the rest, you know."
"Did you ever think of just *asking* me not to go after the chimera?"
Orestes looked at him gravely and shook his head. "I know too well what your answer would have been."
"You risked your life for me."
"Cousin ... how many times did you risk yours for me?"
"But I failed!" The guilt that Iolaus had carried since that horrible day when Orestes died - or so he had thought - from the assassin's arrow, burst forth from him now. "I didn't protect you well enough!"
"It doesn't matter. You tried. You were willing to die for me. I owed you."
"No, cousin. You owe me nothing, for a lot of reasons!" The second source of his guilt was all too clear in Iolaus' mind.
As if reading those very thoughts, Orestes said softly, "You loved Niobe, and you feel guilty for making love to her."
What little blood was left in Iolaus' face drained away from the shock. "You knew?!"
"Yes. As I said - Hades' gift to me is not always pleasant! But Iolaus, you did not betray me. Neither did she. I truly was dead - and both of you acted out of love for each other."
"Orestes... cousin ... I'm sorry."
"Don't be. You acted honestly. I wish she could have loved me as she loved you, but that was not possible, and she was too honest to pretend."
Iolaus sighed. "She wanted me to stay, you know. To stay and take your place as king. I couldn't."
"I know. You also are too honest to pretend for long."
"That's true - and I can't pretend to be a hero, either. You killed the chimera, not me, so why did you send me out to take the glory?"
"Hades' orders, cousin. He does not think it proper for his priest to be a hero. He says -" a rather embarrassed smile lit Orestes' face - "that heroes always cause him more trouble than the worst villains in Tartarus!"
Hercules and Iolaus exchanged grins and Iolaus snorted. "Yeah, that sounds like Hades!"
"So Iolaus - I must ask you for one last time, to fill in for me. Receive Comana's gratitude, for my sake. If it helps you to see it in terms of obligation, consider it the price of your life. Will you do this for me?"
Iolaus sighed and slowly seated himself on the floor beside Orestes' bed. "Do you realise, Orestes, that this will be the third time I have stolen your glory? Your coronation, your queen, and now this?"
"You've stolen nothing. By impersonating me, you saved my kingdom. Niobe came to you of her own free will. And I freely give you the spoils of chimera. Besides - I still can't drink, and Comana is famous for its brewing! You don't really want all that ale to go to waste, do you?"
The fire burned low as the three men talked. Cherle brought food and drink to them, for at Hercules' insistence, Orestes remained in bed.
"Orestes," Iolaus finally had the courage to ask, "does Niobe know? I mean -"
"No, cousin. There's no purpose to it. As far as she knows, I am dead - and she is queen. That is how it must remain. It would only burden her - agh!" All of a sudden he cut off. His eyes went wide.
"Is it your wound?!" Hercules bent over the wounded man, whose whole body abruptly stiffened and arched.
"No!... prophecy-" he gasped.
As they watched in consternation, Orestes' pupils spread until his eyes were completely black. His mouth opened, but it was not his voice that came forth.
"Quit bugging my oracle, and let him rest -" thundered a voice which both heroes recognised as Hades' - "or you'll spend eternity scraping barnaclesfrom Charon's boat! The three of you have caused me enough trouble already!"
Hercules grinned "Keep your shirt on, Hades! We were just leaving!"
As quickly as it had come, the spell departed. The blackness faded from Orestes' eyes and he sagged back, panting, into Cherle's waiting arms.
"Are you all right?" Iolaus asked anxiously.
"Yes, " answered Orestes. "I told you - it's not a very pleasant gift to have."
"Hades just threw Herc and me out!" Iolaus smiled, in spite of himself. Hades still hadn't quite forgiven them for messing up his bookkeeping on more than one occasion.
Orestes had the grace to look embarrassed. "I heard him. He's not always the most gracious of gods, especially since Persephone's been away for a while. But cousin ... this changes nothing. I am still very grateful to you!"
"No need to be. But we probably better get going anyway. There's supposed to be a victory feast in Comana tonight - and I'll enjoy it a lot more, now that I know what really happened!"
Hercules stepped up to Orestes' bedside. "You risked yourself for my best friend." He held out his hand, and Orestes clasped arms with him. "No matter what Hades says - if you need help, I'll be there!"
A true smile lit Orestes' pale face, so like Iolaus' in some ways, so different in others. "Thanks."
"Cousin." Carefully avoiding the wound, Iolaus embraced Orestes.
"Raise a tankard for me, Iolaus."
"I'll do that. C'mon Herc - we've got a victory feast to go to. There's a lot of hard work ahead of us!"
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