"What am I doing here?” Salmoneus, self-acclaimed entrepreneur and trader extraordinaire, moaned aloud as he picked himself up from the grass. His tenth attempt at snagging a fast-moving quail had left him triumphantly clutching what turned out to be a mottled brown leaf.
“Hercules always warned me that my quest for the almighty dinar'll be the death of me. Did I listen? Nooo! Here I am, in bandit country. They stole my food; no quail to catch; and all because of a wild rumor about a lost goldmine in the Baklava Province. Salmoneus, you deserve to starve!”
Talking out loud to himself was becoming a habit he really needed to break - he was even beginning to irritate himself. He shielded his eyes from the sun and peered into the distance; maybe he’d simply missed the telltale signs of civilisation and he wasn’t really stuck in the middle of nowhere with nothing around but grass and trees. He frowned as he caught sight of what looked to be a ruined temple at the foot of a distant hill. Must be hallucinating through lack of food, he though. He screwed his eyes shut, then opened them again quickly, expecting the mirage to have disappeared. But there it was - a real building within easy walking distance.
“Maybe they’ll have some food for me,” he mused aloud. “Some food; some mead - I’m easily pleased. Though if they have some gold as well…"
Grumpiness forgotten, he hurried towards the mysterious temple. It took him over an hour to get there - it was further off than he’d thought and by the time he’d found the entrance and poked his head inside he was out of breath and decidedly out of sorts. A little scared, too, he had to admit, as the interior looked dark and foreboding.
He found a burning torch in a holder on the wall and took it, hand shaking slightly. He walked slowly down the steps, hugging the wall closely.
"Hello! Anybody here?” His voice sounded high-pitched with nerves, even to his own ears.
“Oh, swell. No people; no food.”
At the bottom of the steps he edged into a room, starting at a rustling sound.
“Who's there?! I'm not alone, you know!” he shouted, trying to sound assertive. “Hercules, where are you?”
“I'm over here!” he answered himself, trying to drop his voice an octave or two. Maybe if the inhabitants of this strange place thought the great Hercules was with him, they’d think twice about messing with him.
“Good,” he shouted back. “Stay close!”
“Show yourselves,” he called again, deepening his voice once more into the closest approximation of Hercules’ tones he could muster. “We’re not afraid. Nah, the great Hercules and his best friend Salmoneus are never afraid!”
He was babbling. The great Hercules didn’t babble. He was resolving to be more convincing when something caught his eye on a table in the corner. Edging forward cautiously, the nature of what he’d seen became obvious. A bar of gold!
“Who needs food?” His fear was forgotten as his natural materialistic instinct took over and he picked up the solid bar, revelling in the solid weight of it. “I've died and gone to Mount Olympus! Hey, there's more where this came from!”
Spotting more bars across the room, he felt a faimilar tingle of excitement at the sight of so much wonderful gold all in one place.
He strode forward confidently - and felt the floor move beneath him. With a scream of terror, Salmoneus disappeared in a cloud of dust.
"How many were there?"
Iolaus glanced across at his travelling companion, not even attempting to hide his irritation.
"Three other girls are missing from the village," he said, sure he’d already told her this at least once.
"Well, you said your cousin didn't have the happiest home life…"
Iolaus stopped in the middle of the track and turned to face the woman who was fast becoming his least favourite female on the planet. "Moria, for the last time, my cousin Regina did *not* run away!"
He really didn’t need this. When he received a message from his aunt saying that his cousin, Regina, had disappeared, Iolaus reluctantly left Hercules to spend some more time with his brother and set out alone to investigate. Iolaus had fond memories of Regina. The daughter of his mother’s sister, Regina had often come to visit when he was a child and the two of them had gotten on well together. Regina had been a tomboy then, always wanting to play with the boys and the two of them had a good few adventures together.
So far, his investigations had shown that three other girls had gone missing from the village before Regina, all over a period of one month. They appeared to have vanished without a trace. It was while he was still questioning the villagers that Iolaus’ life had taken a decided turn for the worst.
Every time he spoke to someone, he found that a stranger had already questioned them. He finally tracked down the mystery woman. Her name was Moria and she worked for something called the Star-Globus - he’d never heard of such a thing, but apparently it was all the rage these days to gather together topical stories from around the province and write them down on scrolls for everyone to read. Moria, it appeared, was their star reporter. She had invited herself to accompany him on his search and try as he might, he’d been unable to persuade her that it wasn’t a good idea. Finally, with a feeling that he was making a bad mistake, he had agreed to let her come with him - after all, he reasoned, if there was any kind of trouble, he might need someone to get his cousin and the other girls to safety while he dealt with the threat.
They had been travelling together for less than a day and already he was regretting his decision. Moria chattered incessantly, asking his opinion on everything under the sun and more often than not moving on before he was able to answer. He could understand why she was a star reporter - she was certainly nosy enough. She had some very odd ideas, too. One of them was that the world was round. Round!
"Then my guess is that they were abducted - by visitors." Moria lowered her voice in a whisper, looking nervously over her shoulder.
That was another of them. Visitors! She’d talked a lot about these ‘visitors’, but he hadn’t been able to grasp exactly where she thought they came from.
"Phah!” was the only possible response to this latest ridiculous theory.
"From other *continents*,” Moria clarified impatiently.
“Other *continents*? What’s that supposed to mean?”
Moria looked around warily, as if she expected these *visitors* to jump out of the bushes. “You know - places far, far away.” She raised her eyes upwards as she spoke and Iolaus found himself following her gaze. Surely she couldn’t mean…? No, even Moria wasn’t that way-out. Anyway, he wasn’t going to waste time arguing with her. Maybe he should just humor her.
He stopped abruptly and turned to look at her, hands on hips. "Okay. What would these visitors want with my cousin?"
"You think I'm crazy!"
"No - no! You're… a few sandwiches short of a picnic, maybe, but you're not crazy. I… "
"Why do you think the Star-Globus sent me on this story?" Moria demanded.
"Would I hurt your feelings if I told you I couldn't care less?"
"Because they're out there - and I'm newshound enough to sniff them out."
Iolaus started pacing impatiently, almost at the end of his patience. "All I wanna do is find my cousin! Moria, I asked you along here because… because I thought you could help. But ever since we started out, all you've done is talk about people from beyond the stars; strange creatures from other continents; abdomina snowmen."
He was aware that his voice was getting louder - and higher - and he was waving his arms about too much, but he couldn’t seem to help himself.
"That's ‘abominable’," Moria interjected, the picture of calm.
"No, no, no - what’s ‘abominable’ is that we’re in the middle of bandit country, and I'm stuck with you! And if you're not talking about ‘celestial visitors’ then you're complaining about the food, or… or asking interminable questions!"
Finally, he had provoked a reaction. Moria went slightly red. "I'm a reporter!” she shouted. “How am I supposed to learn if I don't ask?"
"See? See?” Iolaus closed his eyes and counted to ten slowly, then continued in a quieter, more reasonable tone. “Why don't you try taking a few quiet moments and, maybe, just maybe, writing something down?"
Moria smirked. "I don't have to! I have a pictographic memory."
"Pictographic memory," Iolaus mimicked, exasperation rising to new proporations.
"When are we going to eat?"
"I DON’T KNOW!”
Iolaus glanced around, not wanting to admit how hungry he was himself. It was a barren area; there was little likelihood of quail or rabbit and if he was lucky enough to find any, they’d probably be scrawny and tough. Then, in the distance, he caught sight of an old building at the foot of a hill.
“Look. There's an abandoned temple. Let's see if we can find shelter there for the night and we can start out fresh in the morning."
"Think they'll have any food?" Maria asked hopefully.
"I DON’T KNOW!" Iolaus caught a scream in his throat and stomped off, not bothering to check if she was following.
He heard her call, "Iolaus,wait up!" and the sound of footsteps hurrying after him. He grinned to himself. She may be mouthy, but she had no idea how to look after herself in this country. She needed him, and that at least gave him some satisfaction.
It took the two of them some time to reach the temple and when they arrived, they paused for a moment outside the doors. It was a strange place - obviously abandoned a long time ago - but Iolaus couldn’t remember having seen it before. By the carvings on the front, it looked to be a temple to Hecate. He wondered in passing why it had been abandoned, but it wasn’t important really. What *was* important was that it was potential shelter for the night. That didn’t solve the problem of dinner, though, and he resigned himself to going out to hunt later.
They pushed the doors open and entered cautiously. There was a torch burning in a wall-holder at the top of a flight of steps. Not totally abandoned, then. Iolaus took the torch and led the way down the steps. As soon they reached the bottom, they found themselves surrounded by four huge, tough-looking muscle-bound men who emerged from the shadows. The tallest of the four scowled at them.
"Your gold or your life!"
"My *gold* or my *life*?" Iolaus felt a grin spreading across his face at the ludicrously clichéd expression.
“What’s so funny about that?” another of the bandits looked peeved at Iolaus’ unexpected response.
“Oh, nothing.” Iolaus’ grin broadened. “I’m afraid I don’t have any gold.” He turned to his companion. “Do you have any gold, Moria?”
Moria shot him an incredulous look that suggested that he should be taking their situation more seriously. Iolaus shrugged. If that was what the lady wanted...
He half turned away, then spun round on his left leg, his right boot shooting out and connecting with the first bandit’s face in a satisfying crunch. Another two he laid out quickly by banging their heads together. With the first three on the floor groaning and clutching various parts of their anatomy, Iolaus turned his attention to the leader, only to find that his efforts weren’t required. With a breathless, “Take that!” Moria bopped him on the head with what looked like a heavy bag. The bandit went down like a fallen tree.
Despite himself, Iolaus was impressed. Maybe she was more than a pretty face with a big mouth after all.
The first three bandits dragged themselves to their feet, groaning and holding their heads. Iolaus tensed, ready for another round and was almost disappointed when the three turned away. He’d been looking forward to a good workout.
"Come on! Let's get out of here!"
One of the bandit picked up their unconscious leader and slung him over his back and the four of them ran back up the flight of steps.
"Get out of here!” Iolaus shouted after then for good measure. “Go on! Get out!"
Iolaus watched, chuckling, as the bandits ran for their lives down the hillside away from the temple.
He turned back to find Moria frowning at him.
"Why were they trying to abduct us?"
Iolaus shrugged. "How would I know? Maybe they heard the same gold rumors we did."
"Why would they think we had any gold?"
"Will you stop asking questions!” Iolaus yelped, feeling a headache coming on. “Oh, and, er, by the way - thanks for, you know, for helping me. It was -“ he broke off suddenly, staring at the weapon Moria still held in her hand. “Where'd you get this bag of flour?"
"I landed on it. Why?"
"Well, if there's any more where this came from, we could have our dinner."
No sooner had he spoken the words and turned to check the rest of the room, than his eyes alighted on a table laden with food. Surely that hadn’t been there a few minutes ago? Iolaus rubbed his eyes. Maybe he was going mad. Or maybe the table had been there all along and his eyes were only now adjusting to the gloom. Yes, that must be it.
"Wow - are you as hungry as I am?" Moria exclaimed.
Iolaus grinned. "Are the gods crazy?” He grabbed an apple and a hunk of bread, shovelling them both into his mouth. He was hungrier than he’d thought. “This is good," he mumbled between chews.
"Mmmmm," said Moria happily.
Amazing, Iolaus thought. If he’d realized that this was all he needed to shut her up, he’d have loaded his carry sack with apples back in the village.
Iolaus was fully awake in an instant - which meant, he reasoned as he tried to get his bearings, that he must have been asleep. He didn’t remember going to sleep, but after they’d eaten their fill he did recall that they sat down and Moria began one of her interminable stories about a time she’d interviewed someone who’d reported to have met visitors from a different planet. Or was that continent? No wonder he’d nodded off.
Moria poked him. "Iolaus - we've had visitors."
"Moria, will you quit with these cosmic fantasies?"
"I'm not fantasizing."
"The food's gone."
Iolaus spun round. Sure enough, the food had gone. But in its place...
“And look what they've left us in exchange!" Iolaus picked up the lone gold bar that was sitting on the now empty table. He hefted it, frowning. Just what was going on here? Then he caught sight of a larger pile of gold bars across the room. What the…? He headed over to investigate and as he crossed the room, his keen hearing picked up a creaking sound - too late to get out of the way as the floor beneath him give way. His startled yelp mingled with Moria’s scream of alarm as he disappeared through a large hole in the floor.
Iolaus screwed his eyes shut as he anticipated a hard landing and was surprised when his fall was broken by something soft. The fall was still enough to knock the wind out of him and he lay back on the bed of cushions for a moment, getting his breath back. Before he’d had time to check if he was still alive, a heavy weight landed on top of him.
He managed a strangled “Umph!” as the wind was knocked out of him again and opened his eyes. Moria was lying on top of him, her face inches from his.
"Thanks for breaking my fall."
"You're welcome," Iolaus squeaked. His first thought was to wonder if he was ever going to be able to breath properly again. His second thought was that Moria’s proximity wasn’t as unpleasant as it really should be, but before this line of thinking had time to develop, Moria had rolled off and picked herself up.
"What is this place?"
"There you go with those questions again.” Iolaus levered himself slowly to his feet. He seemed to be in one piece, albeit a bruised, battered piece.
"I have another question for you,” Moria said, her voice holding a note of awe. “Where *are* we?"
Iolaus followed her pointing finger and felt his jaw drop at the sight that greeted him. They had landed in what appeared to be an alcove to the side of the temple’s central square. Far from being abandoned, the temple was teeming with life. What seemed like hundreds of men and women were milling around, going about their business - whatever that was.
Interestingly, they were all dressed in robes of different pastel shades. Certainly not the colors of Hecate, so obviously the temple had been re-designed for another god. Iolaus wondered briefly why Hecate had stood for that. There was some kind of rhythmic music playing in the background and the area was dimly lit with torches at intervals throughout the room. Everyone was moving slowly, as if in a collective dream. As they watched, a large group of blue-clad people detached themselves from the crowd and approached them.
"It looks like a welcoming committee," Moria commented uncertainly.
One of the men moved forward, presumably to act as spokesman.
"Welcome, welcome. Peace and love flows from us to you. Yeeee-yaaaaa-ho!” He spoke in a melodic, high-pitched voice, but the piercing yell that ended his greeting sounded like a cat being strangled. Iolaus hastily took a step back. Then he peered into the somewhat vacant, smiling face. It looked familiar. No! It couldn’t be!
The man looked puzzled. "Brother Sal is my name. Have we met?"
It was Iolaus’ turn to look puzzled. There was no way Salmoneus wouldn’t remember him, after everything they’d been through together. "Iolaus,” he explained impatiently, “friend of Hercules?"
He tuned out a couple of woman who now approached with their own words of welcome.
Salmoneus seemed to consider for a moment, then he said brightly, “No, doesn’t ring a bell. But we're all friends here.” He turned to Moria. “Welcome. Peace and love to you too, sister.” Moria seemed to be bracing herself for the yell, and looked relieved when it wasn’t forthcoming.
"Um, my name's Moria,” she said, “and we're not related."
Salmoneus beamed. Iolaus got the distinct impression that the conversation was going over his head. "Welcome, friend."
Iolaus was beginning to get a strange feeling about this place. "Yeah, yeah. Good. Salmoneus,” he muttered absently, trying to work out what Salmoneus’s vacant expression reminded him of.
"Uh, what are you people doing here?" Moria asked.
Salmoneus didn’t seem to hear the question, and gestured to one of the women, a pretty, blonde-haired girl also clad in blue. "This is Sister Aurora."
Aurora smiled sweetly. "Peace - and love."
Salmoneus beamed and opened his mouth. “Ya-waaaaah-aaah!”
Taken off guard, Moria took an involuntary step backwards into Iolaus. Ignoring his yelp of pain as she trod on his foot, she rallied quickly.
"No, I meant… who are you people? And… what are you doing here?"
"Why don't we give you a little tour of our community, and you can see for yourselves?" Salmoneus suggested, his broad smile threatening to break his face in two.
Iolaus shrugged. They didn’t seem to be getting anywhere with the conversation. Maybe taking a look around would give them some answers. He gestured extravagantly to Salmoneus. "Lead the way."
Their guide was showing them the main features of the strange community.
"You see?” Salmoneus said proudly. “We have an underground spring, that supplies all of our water needs."
Peering into the depths of the enormous well, Iolaus had to admit that the set up was impressive.
"What about food?" Moria asked.
"You'd be surprised how little food you need, once you put your spiritual side ahead of your temporal."
Moria exchanged a sceptical look with Iolaus. "But you do eat?"
"Of course! One cannot chew one's spirituality! You might say, we live by the golden rule. We mine the gold, and trade with the outside world for food."
Iolaus whispered to Moria, “Gold! So that's where it came from."
"And you’re telling us that nobody ever wants to leave, or just see the outside world again?" Moria asked.
"Yeah, hasn’t anyone every tried to grab all that gold and run?" Iolaus went on.
Salmoneus looked genuinely surprised. "Why would anyone want to leave? We have everything we need right here. There's no violence. We all work and share equally. There's no need to be competitive, for there's nothing more to gain than what you already have.” He screwed his face into a look of ecstasy.
This time, both Iolaus and Moria were expecting the yell and took the necessary precautions.
"But, nobody ever wants more?" Moria persisted.
"More? That's a negative concept."
If Iolaus was suspicious before, now he was openly worried. If there was one thing Salmoneus was known for, it was his avarice where money was concerned, and gold in particular. Iolaus had never before seen the man look on gold, or any kind of money, without a predatory gleam in his eye. There was something going on here that had changed Salmoneus’s personality. An alarm bell began to ring insistently in his head. He studied the former conman closely.
“Salmoneus, you sure you're all right?"
Salmoneus beamed. "Never felt better, friend. The teachings of Lorel free me… "
"Lorel?" Moria interrupted.
"Our god. Kamaros interprets for us."
Now, a whole orchestra of alarm bells was clanging furiously in Iolaus’ head.
"I'd really like to see this Kamaros."
"You will,” said Salmoneus. A little later, we're all going to have dinner."
They continued for a while longer with Salmoneus as guide, proudly pointing out different features of his new, wholesome lifestyle. He finally led them to a large table in a recess from the main square where several men and women were already seated. Iolaus hadn’t yet been able to work out the significance of the colours, but around the table were people dressed in blue, pink and yellow. Iolaus recognised the blonde girl, Aurora, sitting to the right of a tall, well-built man with golden hair a shade darker than Iolaus’ falling freely to his shoulders. His simple robe was a dazzling white and Iolaus guessed immediately who he was.
His suspicions were confirmed as the man stood up to greet them.
“I am Kamaros. You are welcome at my table.”
“Um, it’s good to be here,” Moria said quickly, when Iolaus didn’t respond. He was too busy studying Kamaros. There was something familiar about the man’s features. He reminded Iolaus of someone, but he wasn’t sure who.
Kamaros gestured towards three empty seats at the table. They sat and after a few words of prayer to ask Lorel’s blessing on the gathering, the meal began. There was fruit and a sparse offering of bread and cheese laid out on the table.
"Food is taken very seriously in our community,” Kamaros remarked. “I do extensive studies in the areas of nutrition and diet, so I hope you're enjoying your meal."
"What there is of it," Moria muttered to Iolaus, observing her small share of cheese with ill disguised disgust.
Kamaros looked amused. "Among my findings, I've learned that we don't need as much food as we think to sustain strength and energy. But perhaps dessert will fill you up."
Iolaus decided it was time to get some straight answers. "Quite a lifestyle you have here," he remarked, glancing around at the opulently decorated room.
"I'd be the first to be embarrassed at the luxury of my surroundings,” Kamaros responded. “I'm perfectly content to serve Lorel in a more Spartan capacity. Yet, if our god wishes, who am I to question?"
"Yeah, right," Iolaus answered, barely able to conceal his scepticism.
Kamaros gestured widely, taking in the main area. "By communizing our efforts, we can produce more fruitful, harmonious results than a traditional, hierarchy-based society."
“So, I’m sure that means you work down in the mines like everyone else," Moria commented sweetly.
"Anyone can work down in the mines,” Salmoneus said brightly, when Kamaros failed to respond. He shot the blond man a glance of adoration. “Only a select few can interpret the wishes of our powerful, yet benevolent god."
"Well put, Brother Sal,” Kamaros said, “but you make it sound so important. I am but a humble servant doing our god's bidding. Now - why don't we enjoy our dessert?"
Iolaus watched as a woman served portions of a thick, cream-colored substance that looked a great deal like porridge. He thanked her politely and picked up his bowl, surrepticiously taking a sniff of the concoction. It wasn’t porridge, but it was sweet-smelling and there was a faint odour that he recognised, but couldn’t quite place. He was, however, sure that it contained a drug of some kind. It was the only explanation to account for the placid, almost vacant behaviour of these people. He came to a decision. It was time to get out of this particular situation.
"You know,” he said, casually getting to his feet, “We hate to eat and run, but we're gonna - eat and run.”
He caught Moria’s wrist as she was bringing a spoonful of the pudding to her mouth. “You're allergic to rice - remember?” He silenced her protest with a look. “Besides, I'd really like to see the rest of this place. You mind if we continue our tour?"
Kamaros waved expansively, seemingly unconcerned. "Not at all. Treat our home as if it were your own. If Brother Sal or I can be of any assistance…"
"Yeah, thanks. We'll let you know."
Iolaus grabbed Moria’s hand and practically dragged her from the table and back into the main thoroughfare.
Once they were out of Kamaros’s sight, Moria dug her heels in. "Iolaus, stop. Why did we leave?"
"There was something wrong with that dessert."
"They tried to poison us!" Moria exclaimed, wide-eyed.
Iolaus groaned at the theatrics. "Do you have to be so dramatic! How could it have been poisoned? Everyone else ate it."
“Look, it wasn’t poisoned, but I’m pretty sure it was drugged.”
“Drugged! That must be what makes these people so touchy-feely. I mean, the way they hug all the time - it’s not natural.”
“No, it’s not and that is *not* the Salmoneus I used to know. It's like they've done something to his mind."
"Yeah, I've noticed. If you look in his eyes, he's just not all there."
“Well, he never was… but now, you’re right, he really is more absent than usual!”
Iolaus and Moria had little chance to explore further that night. It appeared that the people of this community turned in early, for it was not long before the square began to empty. They were shown to the guest quarters which were spartan, but adequate.
They rose just after dawn the following morning. It was obvious that the community were early risers, for when the reached the main square they found it already crowded.
They wandered around the complex, becoming more and more suspicious of the behaviour of Lorel’s followers.They were all very friendly, offering wishes of ‘peace and love’ as they drifted past, but there was nothing of substance in their conversation.
They were walking through the main square for the third time, wondering what they should do ne when they passed a young, attractive, brunette who greeted them with the familiar, "Peace and love.”
Iolaus glanced at her in passing and did a double take, dashing back and grabbing the girl by the arm.
“Regina! Regina, is that you?"
The young woman frowned prettily. "Regina’s my name. Do I know you?"
"It's me!” Iolaus exclaimed. “It's your cousin, Iolaus."
"I'm sorry. I… I don't recognize you."
What! How could she not recognise him? “That's crazy. I… I taught you how to shoot a bow and arrow. Remember - ‘it's all fun and games ‘til somebody loses an eye!’"
Iolaus was getting more animated as he tried to prod the girl’s memory. She looked alarmed and began to back away. "I have to go."
“Iolaus, I think we should…” Moria put a hand on his shoulder, but Iolaus shook her off and made to follow his cousin. “Regina, wait!"
A tall, well-built man barred Iolaus’s way as he tried to pursue the fleeing girl. "Friend, there are plenty of available women, if this one isn't interested in you."
Iolaus bristled and squared up to the interloper. "I'm not your friend and I'm not interested in her, not like that."
"She's his cousin," Moria supplied helpfully.
"We're all family here."
Iolaus snorted. "Yeah? Well, maybe I don't want a family."
Moria put a warning hand on his arm: "Iolaus..."
"I just want to know why Regina doesn't recognize me."
"Sometimes,” the stranger said, “our inner selves are not in harmony with the outside world."
Moria shook her head in bemusement: "You guys really believe that stuff, don't you?"
The man nodded, the sarcasm obviously lost on him. "It is the way of Lorel - our godhead."
Iolaus shrugged. "Yeah - well, I'll believe this god when I see him."
"She is appearing now," the man said.
Iolaus exchanged a confused glance with Moria. "*She*?"
The man gestured towards the centre of the square where there was a raised diaz. As they watched, a small procession made its way to the diaz. Four men were carrying a litter on which sat a small figure. As they reached the diaz the figure was helped down from the litter and sat down in the throne-like chair, revealing itself to be a young girl barely in her teens.
"There goes your powerful, but benevolent god," Iolaus whispered to Moria.
"She's barely out of diapers!"
"Yeah, well, they don't seem to mind."
A large crowd had gathered and voices began to call out, until all present had their hands in the air and were chanting, "Hail to Lorel!"
Iolaus noticed a familiar figure hurrying towards them. "Oh, no - here comes ‘brother Sal’"
"I can't uncover any conspiracies with him around," Moria hissed.
"Yeah,” Iolaus agreed. “Tell him you want a personal tour, and I can do some snooping of my own."
"Guess again,” Moria whispered. “Brother Sal!” She greeted the grey-haired man with a friendly arm around his shoulder. “What a coincidence! Iolaus was just saying how he'd love a tour of your gold-mining facilities."
"Hey!" Iolaus yelped, as he realized he’d been out-manoeuvred.
Salmoneus beamed. "I'd love to give both of you a tour."
"I'll take a raincheck,” Moria said hastily. “I have some questions for your god."
"I'm sorry, but you can't just wander around aimlessly."
"Oh, don't worry. I'll go through the proper channels."
"You know what?” Iolaus broke in hastily. “I don't need a personal guide either, Salmoneus."
"Please, it’s Brother Sal - and it's my pleasure. We don't get many visitors here. I'm always happy to show them how we live, what we're about.”
His mouth opened wide and by the time Iolaus had recovered from the inevitable yell, Moria had disappeared into the crowd. Cursing interfering, hard-headed women beneath his breath, Iolaus allowed himself to be led away by his beaming guide.
Kamaros was reclining on his bed, absently eating a peeled grape. He was somewhat concerned about the newcomers. True, they hadn’t actually done anything to concern him - yet. But he had a feeling he’d met the short blond man before, and the woman had trouble written all over her. Well, he’d made sure to get a report from Brother Sal later. There was, after all, little two people could do to disrupt the harmony of his rule and the moment either of them did anything remotely suspicious, he’d hear about it.
He smiled as the brunette lying next to him as she ran a hand invitingly across his chest, reminding him that he had more important things to consider than a couple of strangers.
"Is the fruit to your liking, Master?”
Aurora. For a moment, he’d forgotten about the latest addition to his personal entourage. He looked up at the attractive blonde, hovering anxiously beside the bed. "Very much so."
"And the wine?"
“Then, if you have no more need of me, I have some chores…”
“Oh, no, Aurora. You stay right where you are.” The words were pleasant, but he could see from her unease that she understood that this wasn’t a request. “I want you to watch and learn how best to serve an emissary of our god.”
Aurora looked alarmed and took a step backwards. Kamaros laughed as he reached out to grab her arm and pull her closer. Even drugged, she was still a feisty one - just the way he liked them. “Oh, no, dear Aurora, you must observe. How else will you learn?”
For the past hour Iolaus had been trying to find a way to give Salmoneous the slip, but the ex-conman hadn’t let him out of his sight for a moment and had talked so incessantly about the loving community that Iolaus was ready to scream. If he didn’t find out something of note in the next five minutes, he was definitely going to do a runner.
Salmoneus winked at Iolaus. "Here is the entrance to our mine. You're going to be thrilled and delighted.”
Iolaus stared at the bars of gold piled up in baskets in the entrance to the mine. "This gold - it doesn't interest you, right?"
Salmoneus looked puzzled. "It's only so much rock and mineral."
Iolaus shook his head thoughtfully. "Boy - you've really changed from the Salmoneus I used to know."
"I'm sorry - I don't follow?"
"Well, whatever happened to that ambitious, dinar-loving, little - opportunist - who always bugged Hercules, hmmm?"
Salmoneus looked blank. "You must have me confused with somebody else."
"So, this is just so much dust and glitter, right?" Iolaus persisted.
"Exactly," the former-conman stated firmly.
"And no one really cares about it, huh?"
Salmoneus shrugged. "Why should they? There are no possessions here, so there's no reason to be envious. We all share in everything equally.”
He ended his sentence with the strangled-cat yell. Iolaus, who hadn’t been ready for it, jumped about three feet. “That’s getting really old,” he muttered to himself under his breath. But he was still determined to get to the bottom of what was happening here.
"So, this means you could all share Kamaros' things."
"Absolutely - if one wished. It's all community property. What's yours is mine. What's mine..."
"What's mine is mine alone - yeah, I'm familiar with that."
"You're very cynical,” Salmoneus remarked, in a condescending tone. “That will change with time."
Iolaus was contemplating his next line of questioning, when he saw two men walking past, with a woman between them. They both had their arms around her shoulders.
"Don’t tell me you share the women as well?"
"If we don't believe in owning things, why should we believe in possessing people?” Salmoneus explained patiently. “We share everything."
"Everything,” Iolaus repeated thoughtfully, seeing a potential opening here. “You know - I would really like to see my cousin again."
"I could do that. She works not far from here, in food storage."
Moria had spent over an hour wandering around the temple, but so far had been unable to get any sense out of any of the people she had spoken to. She was getting to the point where she would reward the next person to greet her with ‘love and peace’ with a kick in the teeth.
Then she noticed a pretty blonde standing by herself away from the crowd. The girl stood out not just because she was alone, but because she was the only person Moria had seen in this place who looked sad and confused.
Moria walked up to her, recognising her from the meal with Kamaros. "Are you all right?"
The girl hastily blew her nose. Close up, Moria could see that she’d been crying.
"It's nothing," the girl said, her eyes on her feet.
Moria wasn’t sure how far to push her. “I’m Moria,” she said finally. “Remember, from last night?”
The girl looked up. “Yes, I remember you. I’m Aurora.”
“So, Aurora, you’re obviously upset about *something*. Why don’t you tell me? I won’t tell anyone."
Aurora hesitated, but she was obviously desperate for someone to talk to. "It's Lorel."
"Your child god? What about her?"
"She… she's my sister."
After a stunned silence, Moria recognised the girl’s statement as her first real break.
“Aurora, why don’t you tell me how you and your sister got mixed up in this?"
"It's all my fault. We're from a village in the next valley."
"So, you were one of those that exchanged food for gold?"
Aurora nodded miserably. "I met Kamaros, and he was so - charismatic. I really wanted to believe him. He told me the whole community was free of violence. It was all about peace and love. I've just realized that all he cares about is the love part - if you can call it that."
Aurora shuddered. "He's done something to her. She used to be nothing but energy and talk, and… and now she walks around in this… fog."
"I've heard they do that," Moria commented absently.
"Oh, never mind."
"She is not a god,” Aurora said finally. “She's my kid sister."
“Aurora, forgive me for asking, but Lorel isn’t the only one who seems to be walking around in a fog. How come you’re - normal?”
“Yesterday I was feeling unwell, so I didn’t eat very much. This morning I woke up and everything seemed - different somehow. I looked around me and I couldn’t understand why I was here, how I could have believed Kamaros’s lies.”
“Iolaus thinks the food is drugged.”
“You met him last night.”
“The short blond man? Well, I think he’s right. Today I’ve been trying to eat as little as possible, to try and stay sane. Moria, I just don’t know what to do. How can I help Lorel?”
Moria patted her arm. "Look - don't worry; we'll think of a way."
The food storage area was expansive, with over a dozen people, both men and women, hard at work packing up fruit and vegetables. Iolaus looked around. "Very impressive."
Salmoneus pointed to where Regina was busy with a pallet of tomatoes. "See how happy your cousin is. Ah, the harmony of the workers, each performing his own little task; sharing the fruits of their labor; following the way of Lorel."
Regina glanced up when they entered the area, but there was no recognition in her eyes. Iolaus decided that it wasn’t after all a good time to confront his cousin. The distinct odor he’d smelt in the dessert pervaded this whole area and he’d finally recognised it for what it was. Now wasn’t the time to draw attention to himself.
“I’d still like to know why Regina doesn’t recognise me,” he commented.
"Sometimes,” Salmoneus said slowly, “We need help to get in touch with our true inner being. That's what the re-education room is for.” His eye twitched on the last statement.
"Re-education?" Iolaus asked excitedly, wondering if he was finally getting close to the truth about this place.
"A special place,” Salmoneus whispered. “I'll show you… "
This was one place Iolaus really wanted to see on his own. "You know what, Sal?" he interrupted.
"Yeah, good. Maybe some other time, huh? I've got a lot of looking around to do."
Salmoneus spread his hands. "Fine, you're our guest."
Salmoneus smiled, the momentary fear at the mention of the re-education room forgotten.
A thought occurred to Iolaus and he put an arm around Salmoneus’s shoulder. “Sal, my brother, there’s just one little thing I’d like you to do for me…”
Having put his plan into action, Iolaus hurried away from the food-processing area, walking quickly back towards the main square. Everything was beginning to make sense. Now all he had to do was figure out a way to fix it. It occurred to him that it might have been sensible to find out where they re-education room was before he left. Well, he’d just have to keep looking - the temple wasn’t that big, he was bound to find it sooner or later.
He yelped as someone grabbed his arm and dragged him into a corner. Moria, with the blonde girl, Aurora, in tow.
Iolaus gave Aurora his best winning smile. “Hi! I’m Iolaus.”
The girl smiled back. “Aurora.”
Moria grabbed his arm impatiently. “If you could drag your one-track mind onto more important things - we have to rescue Lorel."
Iolaus raised his eyebrows. "That would be Lorel, the child god?"
"She's not a god. She's Aurora's sister."
Iolaus felt his eyebrows shoot up. "She's your sister?"
Aurora nodded. "Kamaros has done something to her."
"Yeah, I think I know what it is,” Iolaus said grimly. “I've just been to food storage, and I noticed the same odor I smelled on the dessert."
"What kind of odor?" Aurora asked.
"It's lotus leaf,” Iolaus explained. “It's an opiate that Hercules' cousin, Asclepius, told us about. It's not lethal, but prolonged exposure to it explains the lethargy. Probably explains the strange beliefs, too - opium can leave a person susceptible to brainwashing. I suspect it’s in everyone’s food - just a small amount would be enough to keep the whole community under Kamaros’s influence once they’ve been brainwashed. We've gotta get your sister off it, the sooner the better."
"You have a plan?" Moria asked eagerly.
"Yeah, kind of,” Iolaus replied. “I made a deal with Salmoneus that if he didn't eat food for a day, I'd - er - I'd join the band."
Iolaus shrugged. "It's a long shot!”
“Well, if you’re going to rescue Lorel, we’re coming with you.”
“No, you’re not,” Iolaus said firmly. You need to stay here and keep out of sight, in case I fail.”
Moria looked like she was about to protest, but Iolaus wasn’t in the mood for an argument. He thrust a small handful of gold nuggets into her hand. “Here - if there's any trouble, try giving him these gold nuggets."
Moria frowned: "I don't understand."
"Well, if he doesn't eat the food - hey, I said it’s a long shot!"
The child-god was no longer on the throne in the central square, but Aurora was sure that she would be in her secluded throne room where she spent most of her time. Surprisingly, there were no guards there - presumably there was no need, if everyone in the compound was brainwashed - and Iolaus had no difficulty sneaking into the throne room unseen. He looked around curiously. Many of the fittings had an emblem of double-eagles carved on them - an emblem he was certain he’d seen before.
Sure enough, the girl was there, seated cross-legged on a large cushion, staring vacantly ahead.
Iolaus approached her cautiously. "Don't be afraid. Aurora sent me. Can you understand me?”
There was no response to his words. Slowly, he passed a hand across her face, but her eyes didn’t track it. She was obviously so drugged she could barely understand what was going on.
Iolaus noticed a bowl of half-eaten fruits beside her, exuding the same aroma he had smelled before. “You eat this? Tastes good, huh? Look - I haven't got time to explain. But I have to get you out of here.”
He looked round quickly to check for guards, but saw none. He approached the girl gingerly. “It's gonna be easier if I just carry you, OK?”
She offered no resistance as he picked her up in his arms with a vague sense of unease. Surely it couldn’t be this easy? He turned to leave the room -the room that was no longer empty, but full of four mean-looking guards - and Kamaros. Nope, it couldn’t be this easy.
Kamaros stood there with arms folded, a slight smirk on his face. "I take this to mean you don't approve of our little community?"
Iolaus shifted his grip on the girl, mind racing as he answered. "Oh, I've seen it before - only, then it wasn't called interpreter and disciples. It was called master and slaves."
"Well, I'm sorry you feel that way."
Kamaros gestured to the guards who moved in quickly.
Iolaus shifted his grip on the child-god, swinging her round onto his back. Fortunately, she held on instinctively so he was able to free both hands. Kamaros stood back, still smirking, as the fight began.
The guards were tall and well-built, but the fact that they were under the influence of drugs slowed their reactions and Iolaus had no trouble in dispatching all four of them in record time. Kamaros applauded as Iolaus sent the final guard flying.
"Good - but not good enough," the interpreter remarked.
Iolaus whirled around to face him, spotting what looked like a blow pipe in his hand. "You better be careful with that thing,” he warned. “You don't wanna lose your god."
In response, Kamaros put the devise to his lips and blew. Iolaus ducked to one side, but hampered by the girl, he was not fast enough. He felt a faint sting in his neck and immediately his legs turned to water and collapsed beneath him. As he fell to the floor, vision blurring, he heard the last words he was to hear for some time.
"There are plenty more where she came from."
When Iolaus regained consciousness he could tell immediately that he was in a lot of trouble.
He was in a large room, sparsely furnished. The main feature of the room was an enormous round structure built into the far wall. It appeared to be some kind of fan, although Iolaus had never seen anything like it. It was positioned so that the sun shone directly into the room through the gaps in the blades. He himself was seated in a solid wooden chair facing the fan, ankles bound to the legs and wrists to the arms. He tested the bindings furtively, but they were strong and tight - there was no way he could break out of them. Something across his forehead held his head tight against the high back of the chair. The binding bit painfully into his skin and effectively stopped him moving his head at all. He knew that he was totally at Kamaros’s mercy, and cursed himself for allowing himself to be taken by surprise in the throne room.
"In case you haven't guessed, the poison from that dart isn't fatal.”
Iolaus heard and recognised the voice before Kamaros came into his line of sight.
“It'll merely aid in your - re-education.”
"Thanks. I've already finished my schooling."
Kamaros smiled. "Well, I'm afraid you've got a lot more to learn. You're much too aggressive for our little community. Reprogramming or re-education, as we like to call it - is definitely called for."
"What if I don't want to be re-educated?” Iolaus asked, playing for time. “What if don't want to join in your plan to rule the world?"
"Well, you misjudge me,” Kamaros said. “Why would I want the world? I have everything I could want right here. The trick is not to let anyone come in and spoil it."
"Like you, for example.” Kamaros went on, when Iolaus remained silent. “As for your lack of enthusiasm; you really don't have any choice. In my travels, I've learned many things: a mastery over lights; the necessity of sleep. Hercules' own cousin taught me about the healing and intoxicating qualities of certain herbs and plants. You'll be one of us - eventually."
"Don't count on it." Iolaus was determined to fight this monster every step of the way.
"Oh, I'll count on it. No one can resist re-education. No one. Peace, Brother."
"I'm not your brother!"
"You will be - whether you want to or not.” Kamaros’s expression hardened as he turned to one of the guards. “Begin."
Iolaus watched as the guard moved to the huge fan and turned a wheel. The fan began to turn, gaining speed. The guard continued to turn the wheel until Kamaros nodded. The sun outside had not yet reached its zenith, but already the rays were emitting off a white-hot light. The movement of the fan shot dappled light straight into his eyes and within seconds Iolaus was feeling dizzy and disoriented. He screwed his eyes closed against the burning rays, but they seemed to penetrate his eyelids as if they were made of papyrus.
One of the guards backhanded him hard across the face.
“No sleeping. You will keep your eyes open.”
Great. The light seemed to penetrate straight into his brain, setting up pulsating, nauseating patterns of white-hot light. Iolaus gritted his teeth against the ordeal ahead.
Moria was fuming. Iolaus’s plan - if it could be called a plan - hadn’t included much detail on what she should do if he disappeared off the face of the earth. She and Aurora had waited for several hours, but there was no sign of him. When they’d finally agreed to go to Lorel’s chamber themselves, they had found it heavily guarded. An appearance by the child-god herself later in the afternoon convinced Moria that something had gone seriously wrong with Iolaus’s plan.
Moria’s anger turned to concern. This had started out as a bit of a game, a journalist’s big break, but now things had gotten out of hand and she was seriously worried for Iolaus’s life. She remembered Iolaus’ cryptic comments about Salmoneus. Maybe the strange little man could help. Anything was worth a try at this point.
She and Aurora began to search for Brother Sal and Moria breathed a sigh of relief when she finally found him.
"Salmoneus, you have to help us. Iolaus is in trouble."
"Well, he doesn't keep his word,” Salmoneus complained. “He promised if I gave up food for a day, he'd join the band. I did; he's not here; and I'm hungry.”
Remembering Iolaus’s words, Moria allowed him a glimpse of the gold nugget in her hand.
“What - what do you think you're doing?” he laughed nervously. “Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. You're trying to tempt me, aren't you?"
"What gives you that idea?" Moria asked innocently.
"Oh, yeah, huh. Uh-huh,” Salmoneus squeaked nervously. She could see that he was trying to resist, but the pull of the glittering nugget was great. She held it out again.
“You see, I am impervious to the overtures of the outside.” He turned away, then looked back, his expression eager. “Could I have another sniff of that?"
Moria handed it to him. "Keep it."
Salmoneus was obviously torn; Iolaus was right; the drug must be wearing off.
“The teachings of Lorel tell us that the outside world is not…”
Moria pulled another nugget out of her bodice.
“Do you have any more in there? You're bad. Bad girls! Bad girls! I'm gonna tell Kamaros how naughty you've been, and, you're gonna get in trouble."
“I don’t think so, Salmoneus.” She linked her arm in his. “Now, Sal, tell me about this re-education room…”
Iolaus kept trying to shut his eyes shut against the deadly light that was burning holes into his mind, but every time he did, a guard would pounce and hit him in the face, or in the abdomen with the end of a sword. At least that was a different and more bearable pain to concentrate his thoughts on. He was becoming so disoriented that he wasn’t sure which way was up and the voices started to sound a long, long way away. No! This was what Kamaros wanted. He had to stay alert, had to beat this. He felt his eyes closing once more, and a moment later a pain in his side forced them open again.
"Sorry, you're not allowed to sleep." The guard standing over him with a club was nothing if not persistent.
"You guys aren't big on creature comforts, are you?" Iolaus ground out through gritted teeth.
The guard stared at him. "The purpose of the room is not to soothe the body, but to ease the mind."
"I guess that fan's not for cooling me off then, huh?"
The guard obviously didn’t have a sense of humor, for he began to explain seriously, “It's for filtering light. When it revolves at the right rate, it can induce a trance-like state, leaving the mind extremely malleable."
"It sounds like a lot of laughs."
"Kamaros is a master of light manipulation. It's extraordinary, the things he's accomplished, for the good of the community."
"Yeah - I'll bet."
Moria frowned as she saw a dark haired girl walking swiftly towards her. The girl seemed familiar. "Aren't you Iolaus' cousin?"
Regina looked puzzled. "Iolaus? I… I think so. He’s the one who asked Salmoneus to speak to me. He wanted me to stop eating for a while."
"And?" Moria prompted.
"I can't remember. It's so confusing."
"Try harder," Moria said, frustrated.
Aurora put a warning hand on her arm. "Well, maybe we shouldn't force it."
"We have to,” Moria disagreed. “Memories are important. They're who we are. Regina, remember when you and Iolaus tied your father's sandals together, and he fell in the pig trough?"
Regina frowned in concentration. "Kind of. Were you there?"
"Iolaus told me the story. He was right about the food. You're starting to remember!"
"Come with us," Aurora urged.
"Where are you going?"
"To rescue Lorel from Kamaros," Moria explained.
"Rescue? From Kamaros?" Regina was obviously having trouble taking this in.
"Lorel's my sister," Aurora explained.
"She's not a god,” Moria went on. “Kamaros has just tricked everyone into believing that."
"Iolaus tried to get her from the throne room, but, well…” Aurora glanced at Moria. “Something’s gone wrong.”
"We think he's been taken to the re-education room," Moria said, unable to hide her fear.
Regina gasped. “The re-education room? That’s really bad. We need to hurry."
The only way he could hold the madness and the pain at bay was to attempt the meditation he had been taught when he was in the East. Meditation could take you out of your current bodily situation and to a plane beyond; but it required concentration and not even being able to close his eyes wasn’t helping. He continued to try, though, muttering the words of a chant beneath his breath.
"You're not enjoying yourself,” remarked Kamaros, who had appeared to find out how the re-education process was proceeding. “From your babbling, I'd say you have an uncommon fear of death."
Iolaus broke off his chanting to rise to the bait. "The only thing... that I'm scared of…is… turning into a… monster like you."
Kamaros grinned. "Oh, such spirit. Enjoy it while you can. Because in a few more hours, you won't even remember who you are."
The light was getting more intense now, as the sun reached its zenith. The burning was too much - Iolaus couldn’t stand it any more; the light was too bright, too hot, it was burning his mind. The world was turning and the pain was beyond anything he had ever experienced. Somewhere, in the distance, he heard someone begin to scream.
With Regina leading the way, the three women hurried as unobtrusively as possible to the area where the re-education room was located.
"Stay here,” Moria ordered. “If anything goes wrong, at least you two won't be caught."
"But, he’s my cousin!” Regina protested. “It’s all coming back to me now - I want to help you!”
"Yes, we're all in this together," Aurora stated firmly.
"Look, it’s going to be easier for just one of us to creep about in there. The best way you two can help is to stay here on guard - and rescue Lorel if anything goes wrong in there.”
Aurora and Regina must have seen the sense in her plan, for, reluctantly, they agreed to wait. Moria made her way quickly to the re-education room, slightly concerned that she encountered no guards on the way. When she got there she discovered why. It was empty. She glanced around quickly, looking for any evidence that Iolaus had been there, but there was none. She stared curiously at the enormous round object built into the far wall, wondering what it was for. A fan, perhaps? It wasn’t moving; possibly because the sun was now so low in the sky there was no need for the ventilation it provided.
She quickly re-joined the others.
"What happened?” Aurora asked.
"He's gone! Is there any other place they could have taken him?”
Regina and Aurora exchanged a concerned glance.
”No,” Regina answered, really worried now. “There’s nowhere else.”
“Then they've killed him." Moria felt her voice tremble slightly as she uttered the words.
“No,” Regina shook her head firmly. “He can’t be dead! Maybe he escaped?"
Aurora shook her head. "Where to? There's nowhere to go down here."
"He could've gone back to get your sister," Moria suggested.
Aurora grabbed her arm. "Moria!"
Moria followed Aurora’s horrified gaze and her jaw dropped. "Iolaus!"
It was Iolaus all right, but instead of the leather breeches and tunic, he was wearing a loose-fitting blue garment of the kind worn by the other worshippers in the temple.
Moria caught his arm as he walked past and he stopped and smiled at her. "Greetings, friends.”
"Iolaus, where have you been?” Moria hissed, thinking that she’d never been so glad to see anyone in her life. “And what's with the outfit?"
Iolaus smiled serenely. "Peace and love, Sister."
The three women exchanged horrified looks.
"Oh, no!" Aurora exclaimed, summing up Moria’s thoughts.
"Likewise," said a voice behind them.
The three whirled round. Behind them stood Kamaros flanked by three of his guards.
Desperately, Moria turned back to Iolaus. "Iolaus, it's me, Moria."
Iolaus took her hand and kissed it. "Oh, I am so pleased to meet you, Moria. Has anyone shown you our fair city, yet?"
Moria turned to Kamaros furiously. "What have you done to him?"
"Maybe he's found a better way?" Kamaros suggested, unaffected by her anger.
"I'll be the judge of that," Moria snapped.
"Moria, why are you angry?” Iolaus cocked his head, his expression one of bewilderment. “Anger is a negative emotion."
Moria ignored him and addressed Kamaros. "If you're so sure he's gone over to your side, can I speak with him alone?"
Kamaros shrugged. "I see no reason why not."
Moria dragged Iolaus out of earshot of the others. She was convinced he was simply putting on a show for Kamaros’s benefit.
"Okay, you can drop the act now," she hissed.
Iolaus frowned. "I'm not sure I understand?"
"Iolaus, it's me, Moria. We came here together, looking for visitors."
Iolaus beamed. “Ah, yes. Togetherness is next to godliness."
Moria felt her heart sink. There was no reason for him to continue the charade - no one could hear them talking. "They really did it to you, didn't they? They changed you."
Iolaus nodded seriously. "Change is often necessary if we are to remain in touch with our true selves. It's like sitting in a cave - what we see before us are but shadows, and what is behind us is the truth."
Moria took one more look into his vacant eyes and snorted. “All right, I’ve heard enough.”
"I have to be getting back,” Iolaus said. “I hope to see you later, friend. Peace, and love."
"Yeah, right.” She watched as he headed off into a crowd of similarly blue-clad worshippers. Kamaros smiled at her and walked away. He obviously felt that the main threat had been eliminated. Well, he could think again. She was going to expose this place for what it was and rescue the child-god if it was the last thing she did.
A short while later the three women were huddled together behind a pillar, trying to come up with a workable plan.
"Are you sure we can save my sister without Iolaus' help?" Aurora asked doubtfully.
Moria wasn’t at all sure, but she needed to show confidence. "We have to,” she said. “We can do it, if we work together.”
A familiar voice sounded behind them. "Girls - hello!"
Moria groaned as Salmoneus came into view. This was all they needed. "What do you want, Sal?"
"I wanna thank you, for waking me up,” Salmoneus said, smacking his forehead. “I can't believe what a schmendrick I was."
Moria raised her eyebrows. "You mean, Brother Sal is starting to remember the old Salmoneus?"
"You bet. I even remember Iolaus. He used to hang around with some big guy - uh - the name escapes me."
"Salmoneus, Iolaus is in trouble,” Aurora said urgently. “They've done something to his mind."
"And we need his help to rescue Lorel," Moria added.
"Rescue a god?” Salmoneus squeaked. “Are you *crazy*? I'll tell you what to rescue. Across the square, there's a room full of gold. *That's* what needs rescuing."
"Iolaus is your friend!" Regina protested.
Salmoneus cast a longing look across the square. "You're right. Who? Oh, the blond guy, yeah. Let me get some gold first."
Aurora sighed as Salmoneus dashed off. "It looks like we're on our own."
"No - *I'm* on my own.” Moria held her hand up as the other two opened their mouths to protest. “There's no sense risking all our lives, and if I don’t succeed, it will be up to you."
Moria sneaked back into Lorel’s chamber. This time there didn’t seem to be any guards around, but then again, there was no child-god there either. She frowned. It was one of those days for losing people.
"Lose something?" a voice behind her said, obviously reading her mind.
Moria whirled round, to see Kamaros, leaning casually against a pillar, arms folded, an amused smile playing on his lips..
“Oh, just a friend, and now a god,” she said flippantly. “It's been one of those days.” She began to edge towards the door. “I can come back later."
Kamaros moved to block her way. “I'd rather you stay."
Moria eyed the deadly-looking bow in his hand. “Watch out. If that goes off, it'll ruin your reputation as a man of peace."
"And put an untidy hole in your blouse," Kamaros quipped, still smiling.
Moria conceded defeat as three guards entered the room behind Kamaroa. "Good point. I'll just be going - anywhere you want me to."
Within minutes she was back in the re-education room, firmly strapped into a chair. Trying not to let her fear show, she glared defiantly at Kamaros.
The door opened and Iolaus entered.
“Ah, Brother Iolaus,” Kamaros said. “I believe you two are acquainted. I though you might like to help persuade your friend to accept our hospitality.
Iolaus beamed as he picked up a flask of liquid. “It would be my pleasure to bring another soul into enlightenment.”
Moria shrank back in her chair as he approached and tried to force her to drink. She could smell the strange aroma and knew that the water was laced with the drug. If she drank it, she would be lost. She kept her mouth resolutely shut as long as she could and when he finally managed to dribble a small quantity of the liquid into her mouth, she spat it back at him defiantly.
Iolaus stepped back, wiping his face with his sleeve, and shook his head in disappointment. "Sister, how are you ever going to find your true self, if you don't allow us to help you in your journey?"
"You know what you two can do with your journey and your drugs!”
Iolaus stepped forward again, leaning in until his face was only inches from hers. Then her mouth dropped open in shock as he winked - and in a flash the vacant look was gone. Iolaus grinned. "I'm glad you haven't changed, Moria."
Moria watched in surprised delight as the Iolaus she knew and - liked - moved into a fighter’s stance. Kamaros was looking at him in shock.
“This cannot be!”
Iolaus shrugged. "I learned one or two things on my travels, too. Meditation is also a way to control your mind. But, now that I know that the other women are safe..."
Out of the corner of her eye, Moria spotted Salmoneous enter the room, dragging behind him a wheelbarrow filled with gold bars.
Kamaros circled Iolaus warily. "It doesn't matter. Neither of you are leaving here alive."
Moria screamed a warning as three guards appeared from nowhere, two of them grabbing Iolaus from behind while the other began to land blows on his unprotected body. Salmoneus hefted one of the bars, and brought it down heavily on the third man’s head; he dropped like a stone. Iolaus quickly threw off and disabled the other two men, just as another four rushed into the room.
"I can't believe I did that!” Salmoneous groaned. Then, with a shrug, he picked up another bar. “Iolaus! Catch!"
Iolaus caught the bar one handed. "What am I supposed to do with it?!”
Kamaros took advantage of the distraction to run to a pillar in the centre of the room. An unseen door in the pillar opened, revealing an arsenal of weapons. He picked up a bow and quickly let off an arrow. The arrow hit the gold bar, deflecting it from Iolaus and into another of the guards.
Iolaus grinned at Salmoneus. “Never mind.”
He fought off the remaining guards, leaving them crumbled in a heap. That left only Kamaros, who was now moving in, a lethal looking sword in his hand.
“Oh, great,” Iolaus remarked to himself, “Just what I need.” Then he caught sight of the emblem on the handle - the same emblem he’d seen in the throne room and everything suddenly became clear. “Now I know where I've seen this emblem. Kamaros, or should I say, Karkis. You know, if you're gonna reinvent yourself, you really ought to change the markings on your swords."
Salmoneus was desperately trying to break the bonds holding Moria to the chair. He looked up. "Karkis?"
Moria’s mouth dropped open. “The Butcher of Thessaly?"
"The one and the same,” Iolaus answered grimly, as he circled Kamaros, one eye on the open pillar. “I guess you found manipulating people's minds a little easier than butchering them, huh?"
"Much easier,” Kamaros answered, “And you don't even have to get your hands dirty." He moved in with a thrust. Iolaus deftly avoided the blow, taking the opportunity to dart past his opponent and grab another sword out of the pillar.
"Your hands are dirty,” Iolaus said, as he squared up to the Butcher, the playing field now level. “You've turned those people into slaves."
"People are sheep, you know - born followers. I merely stepped in and filled the void."
"Prepare to step back out.” Iolaus glanced behind him. “Salmoneus! Take Moria, and help the others spread the news about their leader!"
"I'm going as fast as I can!"
Moria pulled impatiently at her bindings which were still refusing to break.
Iolaus darted in, swiftly brought his sword down on first one and the other leather strap, neatly severing them, before turning his attention back to Kamaros. "We've got to finish this conversation!"
"Nice cut!" Salmoneus said admiringly.
Moria scrambled out of the chair and headed for the door. "Come on, Salmoneous!"
”I’m coming, I’m coming.” Salmoneus followed her, pulling the wheelbarrow behind him.
”Leave that!” she cried impatiently.
”Are you kidding? Do you know how much this is worth?”
As they ran from the chamber, Moria felt her veins chill at Kamaros’s next words.
"You've made a big mistake. The Butcher is back!"
Aurora rushed up to Moria as she and Salmoneus dashed into the main square. "Where's Iolaus?"
"He'll be right along. Right now, we have to show these people the real light.”
Moria ran up to the dias where Lorel sat, surrounded by a large crowd of worshippers, followed closely by the others. Moria smiled at Lorel, and then faced the crowd, shouting to make herself heard. “Listen to me! You people have been duped by Kamaros. Lorel isn't a god. She's flesh and blood like everyone else."
The crowd stirred. She heard a few of their shouts.
"Lorel is our god!"
"Maybe this isn't such a good idea?" Salmoneus said, edging away.
Moria grabbed his arm. “We have to keep trying.”
“You've been tricked - all of you!" she shouted.
"Who do we believe?" a woman’s voice rang out.
"Kamaros is nothing more than a fast-talking magician," Moria went on desperately.
Aurora joined her voice to Moria’s. "Lorel is my sister. Kamaros drugged her. He made her do what he wanted so that you would do his wishes - not hers."
"You're a liar!" someone shouted.
Suddenly Lorel sat up straight, staring into the crowd. "My sister doesn't lie!" she said clearly.
There was a collective gasp from the crowd. “She speaks!" a man said, uncertainty in his voice.
Moria saw her opening. "Kamaros is the one who's lied to you. He doesn't care about your good - only his own. Why do you think he lives better than everyone else?"
Kamaros showed little concern over Salmoneus and Moria’s escape.
"They’re wasting their time. My disciples won't do anything unless I tell them."
"Well, maybe they'll be a little bit more open-minded soon,” Iolaus said. “That lotus leaf you've been spiking their food with - it wears off when you stop eating it."
Kamaros’s eyes narrowed as he moved in. "It's a pity you won't live to see the fruits of your meddling."
The two men circled each other warily. Iolaus knew that Kamaros - Karkis - was an expert swordsman and he had his work cut out to match him. Expecting Karkis to move in for the kill, he was surprised when the Butcher darted instead to a rope holding a large weight and severed it.
"Let's make this interesting, shall we? The system of pulleys and counterweights are rigged to the beams over the city. When they buckle, this whole place'll collapse in on itself."
"You're sick!" Iolaus attacked furiously, pushing his opponent back until he fell, then ran past him to the weight, grabbing a spare sword from the pillar and wedging it between the weight and the floor. Menwhile, Karkis backed away and set the fan in motion.
As Karkis moved in, the sword began to buckle, and Iolaus grabbed the rope with one hand, trying to put enough weight behind it to stop the weight falling. He fought Karkis off desperately with one hand. Hissing against the pain of a couple of shallow cuts to his chest, he nevertheless hung on determinedly. Then Karkis delivered a mighty blow to the rope itself, severing it just above Iolaus’ head. Iolaus dodged out of the way as the weight hit the ground with a thud. Immediately, there was a sound of cracking.
Kamaros picked himself up, and pushed a hidden handle in the wall. A secret door swung open. "I may be sick - but I'm the only one who knows a way out!"
Moria shot Salmoneus a grateful look as he addressed the crowd. "Friends, listen to her! You've been brainwashed! I was brainwashed! To serve Kamaros' own purposes!"
The sudden sound of wood groaning and creaking drowned out everyone’s voices.
"What's that?!" one man shouted.
"What's happening?!" asked another.
Moria looked upwards in horror. "The roof's falling in!"
Salmoneus put his head in his hands. "Oh, no."
Karkis and Iolaus exchanged another flurry of blows. Iolaus yelped as his opponent’s sword nicked his arm and lost his balance, falling heavily back against the fan. The outer casing broke with his weight and he just managed to throw himself forward before the sharp blades made dog meat of him.
Karkis backed away from him, heading for the secret passage. "Sorry you can't come with us."
Oh, no, he wasn’t getting away. Iolaus charged, and Kamaros sidestepped, losing his balance and falling backwards. Iolaus looked away, grimacing, as the Butcher fell into the lethal blades of the fan, his scream cut off abruptly the moment the blades cut into him. Iolaus flinched. A fitting end perhaps, but not a death he’d wish on anyone.
He glanced rapidly around the room. The walls and the ceiling were buckling - there was no time to lose. He ran for the door, then skidded to a halt, as his eye caught something purple in a pile of rags in the corner of the room. He gathered the pile up quickly and shouted aloud in delight. His own clothes! He wouldn’t have to leave this place looking like a refugee from a theatrical production. Things were definitely looking up!
Iolaus dashed out into the square where Moria seemed to be hesitating, unsure which way to run.
"Come on,” he shouted. “Everyone out! Over here! This way! Kamaros has rigged it so the whole place is gonna cave in! Come on!"
He grimaced as Salmoneus started off in the wrong direction.
"I'll just be a moment!" the conman said.
Iolaus grabbed his arm as he passed. "Salmoneus, what’s more important?! The gold or your life?!”
Salmoneus hesitated, a look of indecision on his face.
Unbelievable. Brother Sal was definitely gone. “SALMONEUS!"
The man’s look of agony was almost comical. "I'm thinking! Oh, all right, let's go!"
Iolaus grabbed his arm and dragged him into the passage. He looked back to check that no one was left, just as the whole ceiling of the main square came down. Coughing at the dust, he continued on, pushing Salmoneus before him, until they finally emerging into the evening sunshine quite a distance from the temple.
Iolaus stood silent for a moment, watching the remaining walls of the temple crumble, listening to the comments from happy people around him. .
“Look - it’s the sky!”
“I can see the sun!”
Iolaus turned as Moria and Salmoneus came up beside him.
“Salmoneus, what’s that in your hand?”
Salmeoneus hefted a bar of gold. “It's a souvenir - there's nothing wrong with a souvenir…” he pulled back his cloak, revealing another couple of bars. “… or two!”
"Ah, Salmoneus!" Iolaus couldn’t help but laugh at the look of beaming delight on the other man’s face.
Regina ran up, throwing herself into Iolaus’s arms. “Iolaus! I remember you! I don’t know how to thank you for saving my life!”
Iolaus hugged her back. “Think nothing of it.”
Aurora came up then, with a confused-looking Lorel, and hugged him too. “You saved all our lives, Iolaus. There’s no way we can repay you, but at least let us put on a feast for you back at our village.”
“Will there be food and dancing girls?” Iolaus asked hopefully.
Aurora laughed. “Plenty of both!”
“Then I’ll see you there!”
Iolaus turned to Moria as the others began to make their way in the direction of the nearest village.
“Before we go, I just need to go and change my clothes - there’s no way I’m gonna be seen at a celebration looking like this!” he said with feeling.
“Oh, I don’t know. You look rather fetching in blue!” Moria’s eyes sparkled with mischief.
Iolaus cocked his head. "You think? Well, I’m still changing my clothes - back in a minute!”
A few minutes later he emerged from behind a tree, leather pants and tunic back in their rightful place.
“Feel better?” Moria asked.
“Much, thanks.” He grinned. “Well - it looks like you got your story. I'm just sorry there were no visitors in it."
"Oh, that's all right. But, you know, I do high-profile stuff, too, and - I was thinking maybe you could set something up for me with your buddy, Hercules?"
"I don't think Hercules wants to see his name in the Star-Globus,” Iolaus said as they began to walk away. “‘Hero gives birth to two-headed dog' is not really his kind of thing."
Moria linked her arm with his. "I wouldn't do a hatchet-job on him. I was talking about a classy, high-profile piece… "
Iolaus raised his eyebrows. "Oh?"
"With maps to the hero's home - something like that."
That didn’t sound so good. He didn’t think Hercules would take kindly to tourists knocking on his front door. "Well, I don't know,” he said carefully, “I'll have to think about it."
"How about over dinner?"
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