Surprise (Reprise)

by Owlharp

The world had closed in on him, until he remained aware of only two things.

One was the terror that wrapped him like a second skin, causing his heart to pound and the blood to roar in his ears, choking off his breath and burning his heaving lungs.

The other was the creature - the demon, the pursuer with his own distorted face, cracked, fleshless, and drooling. The sight of it maddened him with fear, and yet every time he looked behind him, it was there, relentlessly drawing closer.

He knew - without knowing why he knew - that he could not let it touch him. He was as certain of this as he was of his own existence. It was his own death which pursued him - not the clean, warrior's death that he had always expected and was prepared to face, but a death of corruption, of inevitable decay and rottenness. This he could not endure - the very thought brought him near to hysteria.

There was nothing to do but run.

Dimly Iolaus heard a voice he knew, shouting from somewhere down below him.

"Iolaus! Stay there!"

Someplace at the back of his mind he knew he was standing on the narrow parapet of the palace, and below him was a drop of nearly fifty feet. Somehow, this did not seem to matter greatly, yet he managed to shift his weight to keep his balance.

The familiar voice sounded nearer now.

"Don't move! It's going to be all right!"

There was something vaguely reassuring in the words. Iolaus - frightened and looking for refuge - turned and looked in the direction of the speaker.

What he saw tore a scream of honest horror from his very soul.

"No! Keep away!"

Below him, the demon leered and grinned at him as it climbed ever nearer. The very sight of it brought a wave of sickness to his throat.

"No!" Iolaus howled. He swayed atop the slender stone rim and suddenly lost his balance. Backwards he fell, down onto the walkway at the top of the wall. Stars blurred his vision for a moment as his head hit the wall, but when his eyes cleared, he saw the creature standing over him.

"Iolaus!" The words burst from the lipless, grinning mouth.

With a shriek of pure terror, Iolaus scrambled to his feet and began to run faster than he had ever run in his life.

As through a mist, his surroundings flew past him along the long, narrow passageways of the palace. Faces loomed up and fell behind as he pushed past them. His footsteps sounded loud in his ears, but above them, mockingly, came the echoes of pursuing feet. Only once did he turn and look behind, gasping - only to see the demon in hot pursuit, crying out his name.

He looked ahead. At the end of the long hall, the great carven doors stood open. If he could just make it outside ...

Suddenly he felt hands grasp at him from behind.

"Noooo!" he bellowed. Instinctively he lashed out with all his strength, made greater by his fear, and ripped himself free. Something hot and sticky was running down the side of his face, into his eyes. Desperately he wiped a hand across his face and noticed almost as an irrelevancy that his fingers were bright with blood.

The doors loomed before him. Almost sobbing in fear and exhaustion, he burst through them and flung himself out into the sweet air and blinding sunlight.

In the near distance he saw the woods, beckoning him with promises of dark places to hide from the horror that was chasing him.

He plunged into the green, welcoming shadows. Running blindly, he tripped over a fallen branch and sprawled heavily on the ground.

For a few moments he lay, chest heaving, breathing in the soothing scent of the forest, the smells of pine needles and dark, damp earth. He felt the coolness of the soft dirt against his hot, sweaty face and wished that he could simply stay where he was.

But over the sound of the breeze in the branches he could hear the sound of footsteps and feel their impact on the ground where he lay.

He did not have to look behind to know what was after him.

With a faint moan of frustration he pushed himself to his feet and once again began to run.

"Iolaus!"

The call was fainter, in the distance. Maybe he was outrunning the creature at last? The thought seemed to give him new strength. He ran on.

He lost track of time and distance. There was only his tormented body and the fear that whipped him onward. He ran and ran, and the forest disappeared in a green blur.

The ground rocked drunkenly beneath his feet. He could no longer hear the sounds of the chase - only the frenzied pounding of his heart and the whistling gasps of his tortured breathing.

Run ...

Water splashed shoulder-high as he dashed across a stream, slipping on the weed-slimed rocks of the bottom.

Run...

A doe and her fawn leaped in startlement as he crashed through the underbrush and out into a small sunlit meadow. The two deer fled, only slightly faster than did Iolaus.

Run ...

Before him stretched the huge trunk of a fallen forest-giant. He planted both hands and leaped nimbly over it, the rotting bark crumbling beneath his weight.

Run...

Coherent thought was no longer possible. All he could see was whatever lay before him, obstacles to be avoided or jumped over with legs that were growing heavier and heavier.

It took him a while to realize that the thudding in his ears was the sound of footfalls that were not his own.

He gave an anguished sob.

He dared not look behind. Nearer and louder came the sounds, and he tried to put on a burst of speed - only to find that his body would no longer obey him.

The very air seemed to weigh him down and catch in his throat.

"Iolaus!"

The cry was at his shoulder. He felt a hand grasp at his arm.

"No ..." What should have been a despairing scream came out as barely a whisper.

"No...". He could no longer keep his balance, but he lurched awkwardly away from the grasp of his pursuer and tried to keep running.

His legs - heavy as stone - betrayed him and suddenly gave way. The ground slammed him in the face as he fell, and tears of pain and terror burned his eyes.

"Iolaus!"

It was the voice of the creature, standing above him.

Whimpering in fear he tried to crawl away from it. His arms and legs were nerveless and trembling. Sickness again rose up in his throat and this time he was powerless to stop it. Facedown in the dirt he lay, without the strength to turn himself over, or the courage to face what had finally run him to ground.

He screamed faintly as he felt a hand on his shoulder, rolling him over onto his back, and shut his eyes to avoid seeing the triumphant demon standing over him.

Heavy hands and a knee pinned him firmly to the ground. He opened his eyes wide in terror as something soft was pushed between his lips. An arm encircled his head as he tried to spit out whatever it was, and a hand clamped his mouth and nose shut. He struggled wildly for a few seconds, before the need to breathe overwhelmed him and he was forced to swallow what was in his mouth.

Immediately the hands released him.

Blackness swam at the edges of his vision, then poured in a like a flood and drowned him.

"Iolaus?..."

"Iolaus?..."

"... uh?" The first thing he saw when he opened his eyes was the sundappled green of leaves, far above his head.

"Iolaus?"

He turned his head carefully and saw his friend kneeling by his side, bending over him anxiously.

"Hercules?"

A sigh of relief hissed out from the son of Zeus. "Man, I'm glad to hear you say that!"

"Huh?"

"Iolaus - what's the last thing you remember?"

This was tough and it took a few moments for Iolaus to think about it. "Um ... running? Something nasty - with my face on it! - was chasing me. I've never been so scared in my life". He tried to sit up and pain lanced through him, causing him to fall back with a gasp.

"Just lie still, Iolaus!"

"What happened to me? My whole body - it feels like someone tied it into one big knot!"

"You did it yourself! Here..." Hercules picked up a waterskin and helped Iolaus to drink.

The water quenched the fire that still burned in his chest and throat. Iolaus frowned in puzzlement. "But something WAS chasing me - wasn't it?"

"Oh yeah! That was me!"

"You?!"

"Iolaus, I don't know if you can remember - but Callisto poisoned the wine at my birthday gathering. I had to bring one of the golden apples back from the tree of life to save all of you. You were all hallucinating! I had a tough enough time getting everyone else to eat a slice, but you - you were impossible!"

Iolaus grinned weakly. "So what else is new?"

Hercules grinned back. "Yeah. You started to run, and you wouldn't stop! I kept chasing you, and yelling your name, and you'd look back at me and then run faster! I don't know what you thought you saw - "

"Well THAT I can tell you! I saw myself - but looking like I had been dead of debauchery for a year or two! You - it - kept chasing me, and all I could think of, was that I couldn't let it touch me! All I could do was run!"

"Well, you ran all right, buddy! Do you know where you are?"

Iolaus looked about him. They were surrounded by forest in all directions. He shook his head, and immediately regretted doing so.

Hercules put a comforting hand on his shoulder. "We're in the forests of Mount Eriboaea."

Sheer surprise helped Iolaus to push himself up. "Mount Eriboaea?! That's ten miles from the palace!"

"Tell me about it!"

"You mean I ran ...?"

"Uh-huh! And I chased you the whole damn way!"

Iolaus put his aching head in his hands. "No wonder I feel like this..."

Hercules laughed sympathetically. "Let me tell you - I haven't had a run like that since the fifty Thespiae were after me!"

"Believe me, Herc, I'd rather have fifty girls on my tail than what I thought was chasing me!"

His friend got to his feet. "Can you walk?"

Iolaus tried. It was not a complete success, but at least he managed to stand. "My legs feel like rags."

Hercules sighed. "OK - I guess I get to help out here!" With a gentleness that belied his words he grabbed Iolaus around the waist and took most of the weight on himself. As they walked slowly and, for Iolaus, painfully, along, Hercules commented, "What you need is someone to work those muscle-cramps out of your legs. One of the bath attendants at Iphicles' palace gives great massages. Her name is Floria."

Iolaus' face brightened. "'Her' name?"

"She's at least fifty years old and has a face like a goat."

"Oh".

"But she's got great hands!"

"Yeah. Right."

Go on to the next story in the challenge.


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