Fireballs streamed from the sky and debris rained down on them from all directions. The air was full of screams from those ignited by the divine flames and buried under the rubble. But they were beyond help. All the tall, ornately dressed man could do was try and help those still standing. He strode through the chaos, grabbing those that he encountered, ordering them to get to the palace. They obeyed and ran, some making it and some falling victim to the storm from above. King Gilgamesh almost became lost in the horror all around him, watching his people dying by the hundreds, until another fireball caught his attention, striking a little too close. It hit an immense statue and the structure began to wobble. Spurred into action, the king threw himself under the colossal stone and caught it before it could crush the little girl standing beneath it. Calling upon his divine strength, he heaved the statue away and scooped up the child into his arms and began running for the relative safety of his home.
“My palace shall be a shelter,” Gilgamesh decreed as he passed the shell shocked girl off into the arms of one of his servants, brushing debris out of her hair as he did so. “We’ll tend to the wounded here.”
“By your word, King Gilgamesh.”
The king kissed his fingers and rested them gently on the child’s head before the attendant carried her off for treatment. Then he moved to stand before his people, huddled in groups in his great hall, confused and afraid but looking to their wise, beloved monarch for guidance.
“My people,” he addressed them in his booming voice, “the gods have turned against us. As your king, I’m asking for your strength, now more than ever. In return, I give you my word that I will not rest until Sumeria is safe again.’
“But, Sire,” one of the subjects dared to venture, “your father is king of the gods. And if he’s turned against his own son, what hope do we have?”
“I’ve sent for a man,” Gilgamesh reassured his people, “across the seas. A hero, who will not bow down to the will of the gods. Perhaps with his help we can restore our homeland to its former glory.”
And with that, some of the fear left the people of Sumeria. Their king had been through rough times of late, but he had never failed to protect them and act in their best interests. They had the utmost faith in Gilgamesh, and they knew he would keep them safe until the hero he had sent for could come and help him set things right again.
A ball popped out of the dark, yawing void of the well, and a minute later a child’s head emerged, followed by the rest of him astride a grinning demigod.
“That was fun!” the boy enthused, forgetting how scared he’d been down there alone, before he was rescued by the legendary hero of Greece. “Can we do it again?”
“I’m sorry, kiddo,” Hercules chuckled, giving the boy a friendly pat. “Only the first ride is free. Besides, I don’t think your mother would approve.”
On cue, the child’s frantic mother swooped forward and gathered her son into her arms.
“Thank you, Hercules,” she told him with tears of relief in her eyes.
“Your welcome,” the demigod replied humbly.
“Just wait til your father gets home,” the woman threatened her son as she carried him off, but her fond tone indicated it was most likely an empty threat, as she was just happy to get her child back safe and sound.
“My hero,” Iolaus smirked, tossing the ball up into the air a few times before giving it a good head butt, sending the toy sailing straight into the arms of the retreating child. “There you go!”
“Don’t start, Iolaus,” Hercules warned his friend, but he was still grinning. Another empty threat.
“I’m not starting anything,” the hunter protested. “I was just thinking maybe we could go find a kitten up a tree to rescue...” He trailed off, laughing, ducking away as his partner made a half hearted grab for him. “Come on, Herc, you have to admit we’ve been going through a pretty dry spell lately. There hasn’t been a monster around here in ages, and I think you’ve scared off all the wannabe warlords. Even the gods have been preoccupied lately. How long has it been since we’ve had a good, old fashioned...” Again, Iolaus trailed off when he realized his friend wasn’t listening. He followed the demigod’s gaze, immediately spying what it was that had captured his attention. A group of men were cresting the hill, and by their strange clothing it was obvious they weren’t from Greece.
“You were saying?” Hercules whispered to his partner as the men walked purposefully toward them. Iolaus didn’t answer, apart from tensing slightly. It was their policy to generally give people the benefit of the doubt, but experience had taught them both it was best to be prepared for anything. The strangers halted before them and one man stepped forward.
“I beg your pardon,” he spoke up. “Are you the one they call Hercules?”
“Among other things,” Iolaus couldn’t resist interjecting. The demigod smacked him on the chest, eliciting an “ow” and a firm glare. Ignoring his partner, Hercules focused on the men before them. “Can I help you?”
“I have traveled here from Sumeria as emissary to King Gilgamesh, son of the almighty deity, Ra. The gods have turned against us, Great One. Our cities lay in ruin, while our people hide in fear.”
“Sounds familiar,” Hercules muttered under his breath.
“Come to Sumeria with me, I beg of you,” the emissary continued, bowing low before the demigod as his company followed suit. “You’re our only hope.”
“Wait, wait, wait,” Hercules protested, stopping their groveling. “There’s no need to beg. We’ll be glad to help.” He glanced over at Iolaus, who had an unmistakable ‘what do you mean *we*’ expression on his face. Shrugging, the demigod told his friend, “It’s about time we broaden our horizons.”
Out of the previously blue, cloudless sky, lightening streaked above and an ominous clap of thunder echoed through their ears. Hercules shrugged again, but Iolaus was not so quick to dismiss the omen as coincidence.
“Herc, just wait a second,” he argued. “We can’t just go leaping into this on a whim. We don’t know anything about this king.”
“Like you, Great One, the blood of an immortal flows through his veins, but his heart is human.” The words were spoken to convince Hercules. Iolaus wasn’t being given more than a passing glance by the foreign emissary, a fact that had not escaped his attention.
“Um, Great One?” he said sarcastically. “Can I have a word with you?”
“Call me Hercules,” the demigod instructed the emissary, both for his own comfort and to stop endless mocking from his partner.
“As you wish,” the man conceded with a slight nod as the impatient Iolaus grabbed his friend and yanked him off to have a private word.
“You spend too long under water in that well?” he demanded when they were out of earshot.
“No,” Hercules replied with a hint of amusement.
“Hit your head?”
“Not that I can remember.”
“Little kid hold you too tightly around the neck?”
“I’m sure there’s a point to this,” the demigod declared, to move things along.
“The point is, Hercules, we don’t know anything about these other gods. Look, it’s not as though we don’t have problems of our own here.”
“Weren’t you the one who was just complaining about the lack of adventure in our lives?” Hercules reminded his partner. “And now you want to miss out on the adventure of a lifetime?”
“Herc, I’m serious,” Iolaus argued, fixing his somber blue eyes on his friend. “I don’t think it’s our place to get involved with these other gods. You know here you’re afforded some protection by Zeus, but these other deities aren’t going to respect that. You can’t save the whole world, Hercules, even though you think it’s your responsibility to try.”
“I know these gods are different from ours, but the people aren’t,” the demigod countered. “They need help and we can give them that. We can’t just turn our backs on them. Right?”
Iolaus locked eyes with his friend and held his gaze for long moments. He was convinced that his partner was getting in over his head, diving into something totally blind and uninformed, but Hercules was in his righteous mode and his mind was made up. His war against the gods was no longer specific to his own life and country. He was determined to stop divine oppression wherever it occurred, and whether it concerned him or not. The fact that he was right almost all of the time and had proven to be largely invincible gave him the confidence to accept such a mission. But the hunter was starting to have a really bad feeling about all of this. Knowing that Hercules would brush aside his concerns anyway, Iolaus decided to keep his feelings to himself. And since he couldn’t very well let his partner go off to a foreign land with no one watching his back, he broke eye contact with a heavy sigh, resigning himself to the inevitable.
“Well, that’s it,” he groused. “We go down in history as the guys that ticked off ALL the gods!”
“If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well, right?” Hercules joked as he looped an arm around his friend’s shoulders and started to lead him back to the waiting party.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah,” the hunter grumbled, halting his partner. “Just do one thing for me, Herc. Let’s find our own passage to Sumeria, ok? Just in case.”
The demigod nodded, knowing it wouldn’t be the first time that they were led into a trap by someone professing to need help. He decided to heed his friend’s caution and announced that they’d be making the trip to Sumeria, but on their own. The emissary, who introduced himself as Imuru, was visibly offended, but as he lived to serve he obliged them by sending the rest of his men back to the ship with instruction to return to Sumeria with the news that the Great One was following. He insisted on accompanying the two men, as he had been ordered to assist them in their travels and ease their transition into the country and he dared not disobey his king. The arrangement was accepted by the two heroes, and discussion quickly turned to finding a ship. Hercules suggested borrowing one from Iphicles’ fleet, but they were a fair piece from Corinth and Imuru was obviously antsy to begin the journey, since time was a factor.
“Forget Corinth,” Iolaus volunteered as an idea struck him. “I think I know where we can find a boat.”
“Two barrels, like we agreed,” Nebula announced, reaching in with a heavily gloved hand and pulling out one of the large, squirming eels. “Let’s do this.”
“I ain’t gonna give ya a dinar for ‘em, Nebula,” a filthy, one eyed man told her. “Them eels is female.”
“You’re kidding, right?” she demanded in disbelief.
“I might take ‘em off your hands if you were prepared to throw in a little something extra,” the thug insinuated, his eyes running lasciviously up and down her lithe body.
“I’ll think about it,” Nebula said evenly. Then a hint of a smile tugged at her full lips. “I don’t think so!” She tossed the eel in her hands at the welcher, watching in satisfaction as he began convulsing and yelling as waves of electricity began coursing through him. “Shocking, isn’t it?”
The man staggered backward and plunged off the pier into the sea, but the rest of his goons began to rush forward. To avenge their leader or to try and claim the prize he desired, Nebula was not sure. But either way, she wasn’t going to let any of these scurvy thugs touch her. She was deep in the thick of the fight when Hercules and Iolaus found her, and the two warriors forgot their chivalry, so caught up in the former pirate’s strength and prowess.
“Doesn’t look like she needs our help,” the demigod murmured. They each took a seat on a couple of barrels and enjoyed the show as Nebula lashed out with fists and feet and more eels and the men began to pile up on the dock like cordwood. She saw them out of the corner of her eye and acknowledged their presence.
“I’ll be with you in a moment, boys.”
“Take your time,” Hercules said graciously.
Nebula took out another of the thugs and spared her two spectators a disapproving frown. Not that she couldn’t handle the band of witless apes on her own, but it irked her that the two men were sitting there on their so called heroic butts while she was doing all the work. She was a captain, used to giving orders and watching the men work, and the role reversal didn’t sit well. Besides, with all the times she’d bailed the two of them out, she would have thought they’d see fit to return the favor.
“Or, you could give me a hand,” she pointed out in irritation.
“Just wanted to hear you ask,” the demigod smirked as he got to his feet. Iolaus likewise jumped up, assuming a battle stance and almost eager for a fight since he hadn’t had one in weeks. But Hercules had other ideas, hopping up on a cask and lifting his partner and Nebula up in the air as he kicked over the barrel of eels. They slid across the pier in a puddle of electrified water, shocking the fight out of the remaining goons. The demigod was expecting a thanks, but Nebula turned to him in exasperation.
“Do you have any idea what I went through to catch those things?!”
“You’re welcome,” Hercules sighed, suddenly well remembering what it was like dealing with the thorny pirate queen and almost wishing they had taken the extra days and gone to Corinth.
“My princess.” Three heads turned to see Imuru approaching, skirting the puddle of eels and writhing bodies and dropping to his knees in front of them. “I thought we’d never see you again. The king will be overjoyed to know that his sister is safe.”
“Sister?” Iolaus asked in shock, before he found himself unceremoniously dropped to the deck by an equally shocked demigod.
“Princess?” Hercules repeated in disbelief.
Nebula reluctantly confirmed that she was the half sister of King Gilgamesh. They shared the same mother, but her father was mortal and she did not possess the semi-divine blood of her brother. But her familial relations were a topic she definitely was not eager to discuss, and even the very mention of her returning to Sumeria seemed to ignite a rage within her.
“Forget it!” she seethed as she helped her crew load supplies aboard her ship. “There’s no way I’m going back!”
“Your brother is in trouble, Nebula,” Hercules argued. “Those people need help.”
“Half-brother,” she emphasized, “and those people never needed my help. You boys have any idea what it’s like to be a Sumerian princess?”
“No,” the demigod said dryly. “Can’t say that we do.”
“There is no position of power for a woman in Sumeria,” Nebula explained vehemently. “You look pretty and you keep your mouth shut. No way I was going to let tradition determine the course of my destiny.”
“I understand how you feel,” Hercules countered. “But if we don’t get there soon, those people will die. I don’t think you want that.”
She paused, his words hitting a nerve within her. Nebula glanced over at Iolaus, who shot her a small grin, long since accustomed to his partner’s ability to guilt people into doing the right thing.
“Persuasive, isn’t he?”
“All right,” she finally relented. “We’ll go. I can pick up some spices along the way that should net me a nice profit. But Sumeria saw the last of me a long time ago. This is just a ride, get it?”
“Got it,” Hercules agreed as she stepped aside to let them board.
Iolaus moved toward the bow, hearing the voice of the one he sought.
“Hopefully the winds will be at our back.”
“Are you all right?” the hunter asked as he approached Nebula, sensing that some painful memories had been stirred up and that the captain was masking her agitation and unease.
“Nothing like leaving port,” Nebula told him with false calm as she rolled up the map in her hands and tossed it to her first mate.
“Nebula...” Iolaus persisted as she brushed past him. She had been on her way up the short staircase to man the wheel, but she stopped and turned back to him, fire of conviction flashing from her dark eyes.
“See, in Sumeria I may be a princess, but here, I’m a queen. My country... borders. I go wherever I want, whenever I want to. That’s REAL power, Goldilocks.”
“I don’t think we’ve been introduced properly,” the hunter exclaimed in annoyance as he bounded up the stairs to face her. “See, my name is Iolaus. IOLAUS,” he emphasized with a sweeping gesture.
“You’re awfully cute when you’re angry,” she murmured with a seductive grin. But he just looked back at her with a knowing smile, those damn blue eyes of his seeing right past her projected wall and deep into her heart and her soul. The same way that they had when they’d first met. It was a trait that both infuriated and intrigued her.
“I understand you better than you think, Nebula,” he said softly.
“Do you now?” Her tone indulgent, encouraging his psychoanalysis.
“‘My country, my borders’?” Iolaus repeated. “You don’t like people getting too close to you because you don’t want to be tied down.”
Quick as lightening she reached out one of her long legs, wrapping it around his waist and pulling him in close against her.
“I never said I didn’t want to be tied down,” she drawled with obvious innuendo.
Iolaus chuckled and untangled himself, making his way back down the stairs. Nebula watched him go with a smile of satisfaction. She’d accomplished her task of distracting him from the uncomfortable subject, but maybe she’d also given him a little something to think about. After all, it was a long way to Sumeria.
“Oh, quite a grip you got there,” Nebula purred as she locked hands with one of her burly crew. “This must be the hand you use to...”
“Stow it, sister,” her opponent taunted. “You’re going down!”
“Talk to your captain like that,” she tsked. “Time for a beating, Baldy.”
As they each readied themselves and the rest of the crew shouted their encouragement, a highly disturbed Imuru approached the table.
“My princess, it’s highly improper for a woman of royalty to behave in this manner.”
The men all laughed and jeered, but something flittered over Nebula’s face. For a moment her shell broke and she scowled with a mixture of anger and humiliation. Not at his words, but directed at herself for allowing them to make her feel guilty and cowed, even for a second. But it was only a moment, and then she regained control and smiled lazily.
“Boys! Our guest seems a little tense. Help him relax.”
A couple of the crew seized Imuru and led him off. What they did with him was not high on Nebula’s list of concerns. She was just glad he was out of the way.
“She’s quite a handful,” Hercules remarked from the back of the room as the arm wresting match began in earnest.
“Yeah, too much of a handful,” Iolaus declared. “I don’t know how the crew puts up with her.”
“I don’t know,” the demigod grinned, thinking that his friend was protesting just a bit too much. “They seem to be enjoying themselves just fine.”
“Come on, Hercules, they’re drunk,” the hunter argued. “They don’t know any better.”
“You like her,” Hercules said nonchalantly, stating the obvious. “What? Are you nuts?” Iolaus sputtered. “She’s stubborn and single minded. Hot headed!”
“That’s enough about you. Let’s talk about her.”
The hunter vehemently tried to deny his friend’s accusations, but Hercules interrupted him.
“I KNOW you, Iolaus. And I know you have feelings for her, even if you’re afraid to admit it.”
“Yeah, you do know me, Herc. And when have I ever been afraid to admit my feelings for a woman?”
“Maybe when those feelings run deeper than infatuation,” Hercules suggested gently. “When you really care a lot about the woman. Then when that stubborn, single minded, hot headed side of you takes over, you forget to follow your heart.”
“Well, that hasn’t worked out so great for either of us in the past,” Iolaus reminded his friend sadly.
“I know,” the demigod said, resting a hand on his partner’s shoulder. “And I know what you have hanging over your head, Iolaus. But denying your feelings isn’t going to make them go away.”
They were distracted by a loud cheer. Nebula, the victorious winner, stood up and proudly took her bows. Iolaus couldn’t help but smile, but that faded as he glanced over at his friend.
“I hate it when you’re right.”
Hercules laughed and squeezed his friend’s shoulder.
“So what are you going to do about it?”
“I don’t know,” Iolaus sighed. “I’ll worry about that later. Right now I’ve got something else on my mind.”
“Who do you think would win in an arm wrestling contest between Nebula and Atalanta?”
Hercules fell asleep trying to rid his partner’s query from his mind, for the image was starting to take his thoughts places that he didn’t think they should be going. But all that was soon forgotten as the dream began to overtake him. Flashing images of fire and doom and his body began to twitch restlessly as his mind tried to make sense of what it was seeing.
A wasteland. Dark sand beneath his feet. Cold gray sky above. And nothing else as far at the eye could see, except for a body, wrapped in canvas and resting on a pyre of wood. And a figure, robed in white, moving away from him. Hercules could not tear his eyes away from the image and an unfamiliar coil of fear began to snake around his spine. Whoever or whatever this figure was, it was bad news. Evil radiated off of it in waves, a pulsing malevolence that was almost tangible in the dead air. In all his long years of fighting on the side of good, the demigod knew he’d never come across anything like this. Such pure, strong, invincible evil. And his mouth fell open in shock when the figure in white finally stopped and turned. Hercules was looking at his own reflection.
“You’re having doubts about what you’re doing, aren’t you?” His doppleganger was suddenly beside him, whispering in his ear.
“Maybe Iolaus was right,” the demigod murmured distractedly. The wooden pyre had suddenly ignited, flames licking around the shrouded body. He found it hard to look away. “Maybe it’s not my place to get involved with these other gods. I just hope I’m doing the right thing.”
“And what if you aren’t?” the mirror image persisted as it walked around the flaming pyre. “Are you prepared to fail?”
“It’s a chance I’ll have to take.” Hercules wanted to know who was burning before him, but he was afraid to ask. Afraid of the answer. Afraid he already knew.
“That’s the wrong answer. When are you going to realize your struggle is in vain?”
“Save the world from evil, as if evil were an enemy to be kept outside the castle walls. It’s everywhere, even inside you.”
“Maybe.” Hercules stood a bit taller. He’d heard these words, or a version of them, many times before. Others attempting to weaken him, lead him astray. But he’d always clung to his faith in himself and what he was fighting for, and he reached for that now, wrapping his conviction around himself like a shield. “That doesn’t mean I’m going to stop trying.”
“But at what cost?” the vision argued. “Deianeira? Serena? Your precious children? They’ve all paid the price for your arrogance. How do you expect to save the world, Hercules, when you can’t even save the people you love?”
Hercules followed his pointed gaze toward the pyre and the burning body and some of his conviction wavered. It couldn’t be. He couldn’t lose another person he loved. Especially not the one he loved above all.
“Who are you?” he demanded.
The figure didn’t answer. He raised a gleaming curved dagger up to the sky. The clouds parted to reveal the sun, but it was immediately eclipsed, shrouding everything in darkness. Except for the funeral pyre. The flames leapt up, casting a hot, red, eerie light over the two mirror images as a disembodied chanting began.
“Who are you?” Hercules screamed in anger.
“I am the darkness that you hold closest to your heart,” the figure replied ominously, holding out the dagger. Hercules reached out, wrapping his hand around the blade. It was yanked from his grasp, slicing open his flesh.
Hercules awoke with a gasp, sweating and shaking with fear. He looked up at the peaceful sky, trying to calm his breathing and reassure himself of where he was. A bright comet streaked by the stars, and he closed his eyes with a groan. Iolaus, although not superstitious by nature, was disturbed by these continuing omens of bad luck. He hadn’t said anything, but the demigod knew his friend was hiding bad feelings about this trip, and he began to wonder if maybe the hunter’s instincts were valid. Heaving out a long breath, he ran a hand over his face. Instead of wiping away the sweat, it left something wet behind. Glancing down, a new thread of fear griped him as he saw that his palm was sliced open and leaking blood.
Sleep was out of the question, so Hercules rose and bound his wound, spending the rest of the night at the railing, looking out over the starlit sky as the ship bobbed gently in the calm sea. When the sun rose and the light of day was upon them, it was easier to shake off some of the bad feeling, convince himself it was just one heck of a nightmare. But he was still disturbed, obvious by the look of concern Iolaus shot him when he found him.
“What’s the matter, Herc? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“Maybe I did,” the demigod said slowly. He had decided not to burden his friend with his dream, but he found himself really needing to talk about it with someone. Someone who wouldn’t think he was nuts.
“What happened?” Iolaus asked as his partner held up his bandaged hand.
“I had a dream,” Hercules began hesitantly. “Maybe more of a nightmare. When I woke up, I had this.”
“Tell me about it,” the hunter urged. So the demigod gave him a brief version of his conversation with his mirror image, leaving out the part about the body on the funeral pyre.
“I’ve been trying for hours to tell myself it was just a nightmare,” Hercules concluded. “But it felt so real. And it doesn’t explain how I got this.” He massaged his bandaged hand absently.
“Maybe it was a warning,” Iolaus speculated. “You know, Herc, it’s not too late to turn back and just go home and let the Sumerians worry about themselves.”
“I can’t do that, Iolaus,” the demigod said, shaking his head slightly. “Those people are counting on me. And I’ll never be at peace with myself knowing that I refused them when they came to me for help. I don’t want their deaths on my conscience.”
“But is saving them worth the price of your own life?”
“What are you talking about?” Hercules demanded, shooting his friend an annoyed look. “I’m not going to die.”
“But what about this evil you. This ‘darkness’?”
“I’ve faced it before,” the demigod reminded his partner. “Back at the Academy. When you guys got sucked into the dreamworld and I had to embrace my own worst nightmare to get you out.”
“The dark side of you,” Iolaus recalled.
“It’s a part of me, but I have control over it,” Hercules stated, some of his confidence returning. “I don’t hate it and I don’t fear it. I embrace it and I don’t let it control me.”
“Then how do you explain that?” the hunter pressed quietly, nodding at his partner’s bandaged hand. The demigod just sighed and pushed away from the railing, wandering off and trying to ignore his friend’s worried gaze boring into his back.
The rest of the journey passed without incident. There were no more ominous signs or insidious visions and Hercules began to relax, becoming more convinced that he had overreacted and that there was a logical explanation for everything. Iolaus was harder to persuade, but he let the matter drop once he realized that his friend was set on seeing this mission through. So he concentrated instead on Nebula, alternately flirting with her and pumping her for information. She was loathe to talk about her past, but she did fill him in on much of the history and culture of Sumeria so that he at least had a better idea of what to expect. Sorting out his feelings for her was a little trickier, and Iolaus still wasn’t sure what to do by the time the man in the crow’s nest called out, “land, ho!”
“This is it, boys. Ride ends here,” Nebula announced, indicating a rowboat as she was unwilling even to dock in port.
“Sure you won’t change your mind?” Hercules didn’t hold out much hope as she had been adamant in her position from the start.
“You came all this way,” Iolaus added, sorry to have to say goodbye to her.
“Appreciate the effort, but you know what they say. You can’t go home again.”
“Well, we tried,” the hunter shrugged, feeling more disappointed than he let on.
They thanked her for the lift and descended over the side of the ship in the tiny boat with Imuru and two of the crew, who rowed them into shore. Once on land the two sailors immediately turned around and headed back to the waiting boat and the emissary escorted them through the ruined city to the palace, which was fortunately still standing.
“My king,” Imuru called out as they entered the great hall. “May I present Hercules and Iolaus.”
A man rose from the floor, where he had been tending to an injured woman.
“It is an honor to have you here, Hercules,” he said in a deep, baritone voice that reverberated with majesty.
“The honor is mine, King Gilgamesh,” the demigod replied, accepting the hand he was offered and putting sincerity in his words. The tall, dark man before him was regally dressed and ornately decorated in gold, but he immediately earned Hercules’ respect with the way he had opened his palace as sanctuary and seemed to be there with his people, among them when they needed him most. “This is my friend, Iolaus.”
The king, not showing the same disdain for the Great One’s friend as his emissary had, took the hunter’s hand in a firm grasp of welcome.
“I only wish that we could have met under different circumstances. This way.”
“It looks like you’ve got your hands full,” Hercules commented, following the king as he led them through the hall strewn with the injured and the lost.
“Our food and water supplies are running short. Soon, the dead will outnumber the living,” Gilgamesh explained absently, his attentions on his people as he caught a staggering man and steadied him.
“Why have your gods done this?”
“To punish me.” Anger flared in the king’s regal voice. “Not long ago, my kingdom was attacked by an army of pagans. Many of our temples were destroyed. I led my people to battle. I left my wife and my child behind. When I returned, I found them slaughtered. I was out, fighting for the gods and they did nothing to protect my family! I lost my faith, Hercules, in their goodness. And now my people are paying the price.”
“You can’t blame yourself, Gilgamesh,” Hercules consoled him. “There’s always hope. There has to be a way to stop this.”
“There is,” the king told him. “But I can’t do it by myself. Come with me. I have something to show you.” He started to lead them forward, but stopped short as he rounded a pillar to find Nebula standing there. It had been long years, but they had no trouble recognizing each other. “How long have you been standing there?”
“Long enough,” she replied quietly.
Gilgamesh opened his arms, and to the surprise of Hercules and Iolaus, Nebula stepped into his embrace almost eagerly.
“I always knew you’d return,” he whispered to her. “I prayed that you would.”
“I’m sorry about your family,” Nebula whispered back.
“You are my family now,” the king avowed, kissing her gently on the forehead.
But with time running out, the family reunion was short lived. Gilgamesh led them to quiet part of the palace, where great tablets were set into the marble columns.
“These tablets record our history from the first days of my people,” he explained.
“I remember.” Nebula smiled slightly, recalling the story that the carvings told. “When the first Sumerians came here, it was a desert. Then the gods fasted for seven days on the nectar that sustains them to give life to the land.”
“So,” Iolaus concluded, “if we get some of this nectar, we can restore the land?”
“That is why I sent for you,” Gilgamesh told Hercules as he waved at another tablet that continued the legend. “The nectar flows from this chalice, but it was hidden by the gods in the middle of a pyramid, protected by a series of trials. Only those with the blood of a god can reach it. If you’re willing to come with me, Hercules, together we may stand a chance.”
Once the demigod had seen the suffering all around him, he knew there was no going back. So he turned to the king he was quickly growing to like, a determined glint shining from his blue eyes.
“What are we waiting for?”
It did not take long to ready a few supplies and within the hour the two demigods were preparing to leave. Hercules and Iolaus lingered a few steps behind, giving the king a chance to speak with his sister, not wanting to intrude on a family matter.
“It’s my fault that you left,” Gilgamesh began regretfully. “No, it isn’t,” Nebula protested weakly.
“I put duty and tradition before family. The people have lost a princess, but I lost a sister. I was wrong, but you knew that all along.”
“Still, I should have been there for you,” Nebula said, truly sorry that her brother had to suffer through his loss alone.
Gilgamesh favored her with a brotherly grin of affection.
“You’re here now.”
“I’m glad that she decided to come,” Iolaus said softly as they watched the siblings hug. He had to admit he enjoyed seeing this side of Nebula. Defenses down. Open, even a little bit vulnerable. The side he always knew she was hiding behind a fortress of aloofness and sarcasm.
“Whatever you said to her must have worked,” Hercules agreed.
“Nah, she’s too stubborn for that,” the hunter chuckled. “She came because she knew it was the right thing to do.”
“She’s a better person than I ever wanted to give her credit for,” the demigod mused. He had taken an instant dislike to the pirate, but his partner had somehow seen the good inside her. And he’d been right. “Are you going to be all right alone with her here?” he teased his friend.
“Sure. At least until I tell her that I like her. Don’t be surprised when you come back to see me flattened against a wall.”
Hercules grinned, clapping his partner on the shoulder.
“Maybe you’re not so stubborn after all.”
“Well, don’t tell anybody.”
They shared a laugh and then sobered. Iolaus gazed up at his friend, his blue eyes conveying the fact that he hated not being there to watch his partner’s back and beseeching him to be careful.
“Good luck,” he said, holding out a hand.
“Yeah, you, too,” Hercules murmured, shooting a look toward Nebula as they exchanged a warrior’s shake. Then the pair moved forward, gently breaking up the farewell between brother and sister. “We’ll be back,” the demigod reassured Nebula. Gilgamesh nodded his agreement, and the two half gods set off, each looking back once at the ones left behind.
Iolaus and Nebula unconsciously moved closer together, keeping each other company as they both hated to see people they cared about go off into the dangerous unknown, feeling helplessly left behind. But it was a task not for mortals, so they could only wish the two demigods luck and trust that they would look out for one another and return safely to their loved ones, successful in their quest.
The trek was long and arduous, one wind swept sand dune after another as the blazing sun beat down on the travelers. Their divine blood shielded them from the discomfort somewhat, but eventually their mortal halves began to protest. So they stopped for a brief rest and some food.
“Hercules, I’m curious,” Gilgamesh said suddenly. Up to this point their conversations had been of mostly neutral topics, but the king was interested in the world his counterpoint came from and finally felt at ease enough to ask. “Tell me about your Greek gods.”
“Well, I don’t think they’re much different than yours,” Hercules answered slowly, not knowing how to even begin to describe his relations. They were probably miles apart from the Sumerians in personality, but their cruelness and penchant for havoc seemed to be on par. “It seems like I’ve spent my whole life trying to solve the problems they create.”
“Hmmm, funny,” the king reflected. “I spent my whole life looking to my gods for guidance. Like a fool,” he added bitterly.
“Don’t be too hard on yourself,” Hercules told him. “I used to think they had answers that people didn’t. I guess we both learned the hard way.”
“You know, I wish I had met you a long time ago,” Gilgamesh said as he put a companionable hand on his comrade’s shoulder. “Perhaps you could have spared me some disappointment.”
“I know how you feel,” Hercules confessed, opening up to his new friend as he felt a kinship with him. “I lost... I lost family to the gods, too. And my father turned his back on me. I wanted to give up on myself. On the world.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“Because I have faith in people,” Hercules explained. “And the inherent good in them. So long as they don’t give up, I can’t either.”
“Maybe your faith is stronger than my own,” the king speculated sadly.
“Or maybe I just had people in my life that leant me theirs. Iolaus, especially. He would never let me give up. And he had faith enough for the both of us when things were at their darkest. Whenever I lost my way, he pointed me in the right direction. Reminding me to just follow my heart. Because it will never lead you astray.”
“Is that what brought you to Sumeria?”
“You could say that, I guess,” Hercules grinned.
“Then I’m glad it led you here. Come,” Gilgamesh said as he rose. “The pyramid is not far now.”
They both gathered their meager belongings and continued their journey, sharing past experiences as they realized they had much in common, and bonding as they spoke of the hardships and heartbreaks that accompanied being the son of a god, commiserating with the only one who could truly understand.
The quiet of the palace was shattered by Imuru’s panicked announcement.
“Our water supply has been cut off! The aqueduct has been badly damaged!”
“These people won’t survive another night without water,” Iolaus pointed out in concern.
“We’d better get to fixing that duct,” Nebula concluded, abandoning her ministrations of the injured in favor of a more pressing project. But she halted when she realized nobody was moving to follow. “Is there a problem?”
“My princess,” Imuru intoned coldly, “I must remind you that you are in Sumeria now. It would be improper for you to do a man’s job.”
“Give me a break!” Nebula shouted in frustration. “You’re all just going to stand there because you don’t want to work with a woman?!”
Again, nobody moved, and Iolaus turned to try and reason with the crowd.
“Come on, guys..”
“I don’t need your chivalry, pal,” Nebula spat, her cold, hard, defensive mask firmly back in place. She glared around her at the small crowd of uninjured people. “You can all just kiss off!” she told them angrily as she stomped out of the palace. Iolaus sighed, giving the crowd a reproachful look as he trotted after her.
It took their combined strength to open the stone door of the pyramid, but soon enough Hercules and Gilgamesh were inside. All they brought with them was a torch, the dim light bouncing back toward them as they found themselves literally up against a stone wall.
“There’s nowhere to go but up,” Gilgamesh pointed out, looking up at the light that was beaconing far above their heads.
“Look at this.” Hercules waved the king over to a series of carvings in the stone. “You’ll have to do the honors. My Sumerian’s a little rusty.”
“You must walk in the footsteps of another,” Gilgamesh translated.
Suddenly the chamber shook and the floor beneath them dropped about a foot. The king became alarmed, but Hercules just rolled his eyes with an air of experience.
“I hate it when that happens.”
“Footsteps of another,” Gilgamesh said nervously as the chamber quaked again and the floor vibrated beneath their feet. “I don’t see anything.”
“We’re not looking for a trail,” Hercules told him, fighting to keep his balance as the floor tilted wildly. “We have to walk in each other’s footsteps.”
“What are you saying?”
“Quick, back to back.” Hercules, long familiar with the traps of the gods and the riddles that went with them, quickly realized the solution and got into position. Gilgamesh didn’t quite understand but he followed suit, pressed against the Greek demigod’s back and linking arms with him. As the floor finally gave way beneath them, they braced themselves against the steep stone walls, supporting each other so they didn’t fall. “Like you said, the only way to go is up.”
It was going to be a long climb, but it was, indeed, their only way out. So the two demigods began slowly walking up the sides of the walls toward the light.
“Wait!” Iolaus shouted as he ran after Nebula.
“People are dying and they refuse to take my help!” she seethed, spinning around to face him. “I never should have listened to you and Hercules. Nothing has changed!”
“Yeah, you’re right!” the hunter told her as he jumped in front of her, blocking her path when she tried to storm away. “But if you leave now, nothing ever will!”
“Are you blind?!” Nebula screamed, her fists balling in rage as she turned away. “I left because I refused to waste my life fighting a losing battle!”
“So now you fight it everywhere but here!” Iolaus yelled back at her.
Nebula stopped and quieted. A deceptive calm that was the equivalent of the eye of the storm. She turned and stalked back toward him, getting into his face and staring down at him with a look that would have had any other man cowering away in intimidation.
“Who are you to talk to me that way?”
Not only did Iolaus not shrink away, he held her gaze with a haughty defiance.
“Someone who cares about you.” It was not the response she was expecting, and Nebula was the one who had to shrink away. “Yeah, it’s true, Nebula. Someone *actually* cares about you. And if you leave now, you’re going to regret it for the rest of your life.”
It was true. Running would be a cowardly act. She’d hate herself for it, and she’d always regret turning her back on those who really needed her. Her people. But damn him for seeing it in her. Damn him and those blue eyes of his that could see right through her.
“What am I supposed to do?” she asked, almost wearily.
“Show them what you’ve shown me,” Iolaus told her, gentling his tone. He turned her slightly to face him, those all seeing eyes radiating support and encouragement. And faith. Faith in her. “Show them that you don’t take orders from *anybody* but yourself.”
“Oh, deities, our injured need water,” Imuru prayed as he supplicated himself to the heavens. “Hear our prayers. Please, show us a sign that you have not abandoned us.”
An ear splitting whistle was the only answer forthcoming, and Imuru turned to find Nebula waiting there.
“Listen up, boys,” she commanded in a voice that brooked no argument. “We’ve got a lot of work to do, and a short time to do it in.”
“How dare you interrupt our prayers?” Imuru hissed as he approached her. “Your sacrilege will be the death of us all!”
His words had no effect on her, other than to broaden her smirk.
“I’m going to let you in on a little secret,” she told him patronizingly. “The gods aren’t going to help us. And if you haven’t figured that out, you’re a lot dumber than you look.” She turned her back on the man to address the crowd once more. “All right, boys, in my brother’s absence, I will assume his authority, beginning now! You can stand here and wait for a miracle, or you can come with me and fix this thing.”
She strode off, past Iolaus who was grinning proudly from ear to ear. “Well, I don’t know about you guys, but I’m thirsty.”
He turned to follow as the crowd hesitated, but only for a moment as they collectively decided to bet on the sure thing. They all fell in behind their princess, leaving Imuru alone to fume.
“Whoa!” Hercules exclaimed, coming to an abrupt halt before a deep, yawning void. “This place isn’t big on floors, is it?”
After a brief examination, Gilgamesh located another tablet and he translated the carving for his companion.
“Only a blind man can see his way through the eye.”
Neither of them could figure out the riddle, and they both stood silently, each growing frustrated at the seeming dead end. Until Hercules noticed the air around them was moving. The wind grew stronger, and the Grecian demigod was not encouraged.
“I get the feeling this is gonna blow.”
In response to his words, a roaring tornado erupted in the void.
“We’ve got to find another way to make it,” Gilgamesh shouted over the noise of the wind.
“No, we don’t,” Hercules shouted back, the riddle coming clear. “We can jump!”
“Jump?!” the king demanded in disbelief. “What, do you know something I don’t know?”
“Only a blind man will see his way through the eye,” Hercules explained. “The eye of the whirlwind.”
“If we don’t make it, we’ve got a long way to fall.”
“We’ll make it if we have faith. Blind faith!” Hercules called out as he leapt.
“Who wants to live forever?” Gilgamesh asked himself before following suit.
The two demigods found themselves spinning wildly within the cyclone, both straining to grab onto something solid, wondering how long the winds would sustain them above the void. But the momentum finally pushed Hercules closer to the far ledge, ejecting him out of the tornado to land safely on his feet. Gilgamesh just barely made it to the ledge and he struggled to hold on, the powerful winds threatening to suck him back in. Hercules grabbed his hand, pulling him for all he was worth and finally the tempest released it’s hold on the king. As the winds began to die down, they both stood panting and trying to shake off the dizziness. Finally Gilgamesh turned to his companion.
“So,” he asked casually, “how are you finding Mesopotamia?”
“A little breezy,” came the wry answer.
It was a lot of hard work and a lot of construction by men who weren’t really skilled for the task. But they all worked together, following the plan that Nebula laid out, and slowly the aqueduct began to come together. Iolaus scaled a rickety ladder to help guide the final piece into place, deciding it was worth getting doused just to hear the cheers that exploded as the aqueduct was repaired, once again carrying water into the city. Flushed with success, the men began heading back home, leaving their two main engineers behind.
“Well, not bad, Nebula,” Iolaus praised her as he admired their handiwork.
“Ah, not bad yourself, Iolaus,” she reciprocated as she lowered herself down to the ground to rest.
“Wait a minute,” the hunter drawled as he flopped down beside her. “Did you just call me ‘Iolaus’?”
“I owe you a thanks,” Nebula told him, smiling almost shyly. “So, thanks.”
“What have you done with the real Nebula?”
“All right,” she chuckled at his teasing. “I deserve that.”
“Nah, I kind of like you like this,” Iolaus said seriously.
“I don’t know. Off guard?”
Nebula ducked her head, wondering for the hundredth time what it was about this man that could fluster her so. More and more she found herself off guard with him. And liking the way she was with him. Every other man in her life had either been intimidated by her or had wanted to dominate her. But Iolaus saw her as an equal. As someone with something to offer, and someone who could appreciate what he had to offer. The man who looked at her without judgement and could see through to her very soul. See the gentleness and compassion underneath. And what’s more, the man who made her want to nurture that part of herself. She had to face the truth. Iolaus just brought out the best in her.
“Nebula, are you blushing?”
She tried to hide her face, hoping he wouldn’t see her smile. But it was useless, for those infernal blue eyes saw everything she tried to hide. So Nebula finally gave up and met his gaze. No defenses. No wall. No sarcasm or taunting or denial or broad innuendo. Just her, and her honest feelings for the man next to her. Even if he did look like a drowned rat. He leaned forward and Nebula closed her eyes as their lips met. Iolaus was tentative at first, almost as if he expected her to slug him. But as she responded his passion grew and their kiss deepened. Then he pulled away slightly, giggling to himself at this highly unexpected but much appreciated turn of events. Shaking her head, Nebula just got to her feet and extended a hand to pull him up. But once he stood she didn’t let go, twining her fingers through his as they walked side by side back to the palace.
Despite the impressions she had given in some of their earlier flirtations, Nebula didn’t seem to have much of a kinky side. But both of them had a lot of repressed tension where the other was concerned, and their lovemaking was a rather explosive, passionate affair as that tension was finally released and satisfied. Round two was less frenzied and more on the sweet and gentle side as the two lovers took the time to get to know each other and concentrated on pleasing each other. It was equally satisfying, and afterward they fell asleep curled around each other.
It was dark when Iolaus awoke, and he was dismayed to find he was alone. He got up, wrapping one of the bedsheets around his waist as he spied Nebula, similarly attired, out on the balcony. Her shoulders were hunched and he was worried she was suffering regret, but as he approached he caught her expression as she stared out into the peaceful night and he knew she was thinking about her brother and Hercules.
“They’ll be all right,” Iolaus reassured her as he stood beside her at the railing.
“I know,” Nebula replied softly, smiling as her gaze raked over the handsome hunter’s strong, bronze chest. The soft candlelight washed over him, giving him a golden glow, and she silently lamented her stubbornness and the way it led her to waste so much time and opportunity with the amazing man before her. Well, there was something to be said for making up for lost time. But she turned away from him and focus back out onto the horizon, her thoughts troubled. “I never thought I’d come back here. But seeing my brother and these people in such pain... This is the first time that I’ve felt like I actually have a place here.”
“So, why do you look so sad?” Iolaus asked.
“Because I’m thinking that I should maybe stick around for awhile. And I know that sooner or later, you’re going to go back to Greece.” The words weren’t easy for her to say, but Nebula looked back at him and knew she had to get them out. “And I think I might miss you,” she concluded haltingly. “I bet that’s the last thing you expected to hear from me.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” the hunter agreed. “But I hoped you’d say it anyway.”
“I can’t ask you to stay, Iolaus,” Nebula sighed, turning to lean her back against the railing. “You and Hercules have a destiny that’s very different from mine. And if you gave that up, you’d always wonder if you made a mistake.”
“Yeah,” he murmured, capturing her hand, “but the thing is, if I leave, I’ll always ask myself the same thing.” He raised her hand to his lips.
“So what are you saying?” she asked, not believing him. “That you want to stick around here, too?”
“No.” Iolaus’ sigh mirrored her earlier one. He couldn’t deny that he cared about her. In fact, he was well on his way to falling in love with her. That brought danger, but maybe not as much as he thought. After all, Hera was gone, trapped deep in the Abyss of Tartarus. So maybe the curse she put on him, the one that decreed he never again could have a wife or family, was gone with her. And she was a powerful goddess, but surely that power couldn’t extend all the way to Sumeria. But what if it did? Nebula could definitely take care of herself and wouldn’t become a helpless victim of the gods without one Hades of a fight. So maybe loving her didn’t have to come with risk. Iolaus also couldn’t deny that he was getting older. And while he was still a man in his prime, he knew that he couldn’t go on at Hercules’ side forever. Someday age would get the best of him and force him to retire, and he thought it would be nice to have something in his life beside adventure and memories when that time came. But looking inside his heart, he wasn’t ready to give that life up yet. Wasn’t ready to give Hercules up yet. And he knew that while Nebula might want to stay in Sumeria for awhile to reconnect with her roots and her family, she wasn’t ready to settle down yet, either. It took a lot for her to let down her guard enough to admit she had feelings for him. She wasn’t ready for any more of a commitment. So he had to be honest, for both of them. “No, I can’t stay.”
She tried to pull her hand from his, but he held on tightly.
“But that doesn’t mean that one day I won’t come back,” he continued. “Nebula, we have something here. It’s not ready to blossom yet, but that doesn’t mean it won’t someday. You have a lot to do here. You’re still finding out who you are and you’ve got a lot of backwards traditions to kick into history. And I still have work to do with Hercules.”
“I suppose we probably should start out slow,” Nebula agreed. “And just take things one step at a time.” She shot him her lazy, seductive grin as she took the cord of his medallion in her free hand and wound up the slack, pulling him in closer. “And I have a good idea of what the next step should be.”
“Really?” Iolaus grinned, feigning innocence. “And just what does the princess have in mind?”
“Come to bed, Goldilocks,” she purred, “and I’ll be happy to show you.”
The hunter eagerly obliged, and the morning sun was dawning by the time the two exhausted lovers drifted off to sleep, both happy with the agreement they had reached concerning the definition of their burgeoning relationship. No promises, but lots of hope for the future.
Again, it took their combined strength to slide the heavy stone door open. But they slipped inside the musty chamber, both relieved to see they had finally found their prize.
“We did it,” Gilgamesh said, removing his helmet.
“Let’s grab some of that nectar and get out of here,” Hercules muttered, wisely holding off on the celebration until they were safely out of the pyramid.
“After you, my friend.”
Unaware, Hercules stepped toward the pedestal that held the chalice of nectar, but the second his back was turned, Gilgamesh clobbered him in the head with his solid metal helmet. Hercules fell to his knees, struggling to hold onto consciousness as the king seized the chalice and began to greedily gulp the contents, the vibrant yellow nectar a sharp contrast to his dark skin as it dribbled out of the corners of his mouth.
Hercules was seeing stars, but he recovered his vision and tried to focus, not wanting to believe what he was seeing. Gilgamesh crumpled the chalice in his hands like it was made of paper and tossed it to the ground where a ring of flames sprang up, encircling them both.
“None left for the gods,” the king declared, wiping his mouth with his fingers and lapping up the last drops. “What a pity.” He turned, raising his arms to the sky as his eyes shone with an unholy red glow. “Soon the world will tremble with the arrival of Dahak!”
“I trusted you!” Hercules said in disbelief, trying to comprehend what was happening.
“Please don’t think too badly of me,” Gilgamesh urged him seriously, steepling his long fingers underneath his chin as he tried to explain to the man with whom he’d felt a kinship. “You see, Hercules, we’re in the middle of a war. And in war, there’s always betrayal.”
“You betrayed more than just me,” the demigod told him in a soft voice that belied his growing anger.
“The destruction that you’ve seen across the land is the direct fallout from a battle raging high above between the gods and my master,” the king elaborated. Hercules hadn’t moved from the floor, still somewhat in shock, and Gilgamesh ceased his pacing to crouch down in front of him, meeting his cold blue eyes over the flames. “You see, when I lost my family, I did lose my faith. And in my deepest despair I heard the voice of Dahak.” He said the name with reverence and the ring of fire flared up briefly in response. “A voice so pure, so true, I knew I had found salvation.”
“I’d like to meet him,” Hercules announced. Indeed, he had long been itching to get his hands on the spectral evil that had nearly succeeding in stealing his mother away from him. “We have a lot to talk about.”
“You already have. He’s the darkness that you hold closest to your heart.”
Hercules clenched his fist gently, recalling the nightmare he’d had on the ship. His mirror image, the darkness closest to his heart. And the incredible feeling of fear and doom that image had instilled inside him. But he pushed those foreboding thoughts away and tried to shake the memory of the burning body on the pyre, turning his concentration instead to the immediate threat before him.
“Without the nectar, the gods won’t be strong enough to prevent Dahak’s arrival. All he needs is the sacrifice of a warrior heart.”
“You took the easy way out.” The ache in his head caused by the force of the half immortal’s blow was starting to recede, as was the shock of the betrayal. Hercules’ strength and conviction were rapidly returning, and he got to his feet, blue eyes flashing with righteous determination. “You couldn’t face your pain so you gave up on yourself and everyone who believed in you!”
“You are a fool, Hercules,” Gilgamesh told him, a bit sadly. He had really come to like and respect his Grecian counterpart and had entertained the hope that he would be able to sway his new friend into Dahak’s embrace. But he knew that would never happen, for Hercules refused to take the power he was entitled to and chose instead to walk the path of humbleness and servitude. The path of weakness and pain. And some of his respect waned. “You’re blinded by your own goodness. In a way, you’re your own worst enemy.”
“Wrong,” Hercules snarled as he tensed. “Now I’m yours!”
But before he could leap, the ring of flames shot up to the ceiling. When they came back down, Gilgamesh was gone. Hercules quickly tried to digest what he’d been told. The sacrifice of a warrior heart. Which meant someone was going to die at the hands of the king, and if he was to be believed, the death would herald the arrival of a force best kept under wraps. But Hercules wasn’t going to be able to prevent either of these tragedies if he soon didn’t get himself out of the chamber and the suddenly erratic fire that began shooting in incendiary bursts. Having no other choice, he leapt over the flames, rolling in the middle of the circle and leaping over the far wall of fire. With adrenalin nudging his divine strength, he ripped the impossibly heavy stone door from the wall and used it as a shield to block the fountain of fire that came shooting at him.
Chaos. Iolaus was confused by the bedlam that had erupted, until the news that the king had returned reached his ears. But he immediately knew something had gone horribly wrong. The people weren’t happy or celebrating; rather, they were darting about in fear and confusion as they were herded into the palace by a handful of guards. Iolaus began pushing through the crowds, a bit roughly in his haste to get through and find out about the fate of his friend.
“Get out of my way!” he snapped, shoving at a soldier before coming to a halt at the base of the stairs. “Where’s Hercules?”
Imuru had been standing in front of the king like a guard dog, but he slowly moved aside and began descending the stairs. Gilgamesh stood regally, the sun backlighting him and hiding his face in shadows. But Iolaus knew something was wrong. Something horrible had happened, and the bad feelings that had been plaguing him since leaving Greece now settled like ice into his bones.
“The one god has been good to him,” the king finally answered.
Iolaus started to draw his sword, but before the blade could even clear the sheath Gilgamesh raised a hand and sent a blue bolt shooting toward him. It was absorbed into the hunter’s body and he fell to his knees. Pain radiated through him but he found himself paralyzed, unable to speak or move apart from a gurgling moan and a slight quivering of his muscles as the energy washed over him in waves. Nebula was instantly beside him, but realizing she could do nothing to help she rose and advanced on her brother.
“What’s happened to you?” she demanded in confusion.
“Such fire inside,” Gilgamesh murmured, repeating the words of Dahak that were echoing through his mind. “Such a warrior’s heart. The great Dahak has other plans for you.”
“We’re family,” Nebula protested weakly. She had opened her heart and had given her estranged half-brother her trust. And the realization that her trust had been betrayed was now hitting her hard.
Gilgamesh reached out, gripping her face with a hand that pulsed with an unnatural strength and power.
“My family has been gone to me a long time now.”
Dahak watched the proceedings with a degree of satisfaction. His earlier machinations had fallen through, but this time things were going perfectly according to plan. When he’d left Greece, it was not in defeat, but rather with the understanding that it would eventually fall to him. It would just take a little more time and patience than he had anticipated. And then once Greece was conquered, it was only a matter of time before the rest of the world followed. Then the age of Dahak would begin.
But the first step was also the most challenging. Hercules needed to be dealt with. It should have been easy, for a mere half god with limited strength should have been no match for an ancient force with his power. But Dahak had continually underestimated the demigod and his prior attempts at sidelining him had failed. He couldn’t understand the mortal bonds and convictions that the half-mortal relied on, but that didn’t necessarily mean he couldn’t use them to his advantage. And that’s when Sumeria and another half-god caught his eye.
Gilgamesh had strength of body, but his soul had been shattered by grief and loss. He was trying to carry on, ruling his kingdom and leading his people but his heart was broken. As the king, he was not allowed the luxury of mourning and the weight of his sorrow was slowly crushing the life out of him. He was ripe for taking, and it did not take Dahak long to seduce him, whispering to him of the power that could be his. How he could make the pain go away and give the king the abilities that the gods possessed. Gilgamesh could have the chance to truly lead his people, using the strength of the gods instead of abusing it as they did. He could be the greatest leader Sumeria had ever known and the world would bow at the feet of Mesopotamia. And Gilgamesh, his judgment clouded by exhaustion and pain, believed his lies and vowed his allegiance.
Once he had it, Dahak began his assault on the Sumerian gods. On the surface, it appeared to be a fruitless endeavor. As long as they were sustained by the nectar, he couldn’t really hurt them. And he was largely impervious in his current spirit form. But the battle was merely a distraction to keep the gods’ attentions fixed on him and away from the mortal world which was slowly being destroyed by the fallout of their war. On his orders, Gilgamesh sent for Hercules. He couldn’t get the chalice by himself, and getting Hercules out of Greece was phase one of the country’s demise. Without their hero, the people would start to lose faith. And without the faith of the people, the gods would be rendered powerless. And without Hercules, nothing would be able to stop Dahak from conquering. Greece would be his greatest triumph, but Sumeria was destined to be his first.
Nebula had quickly gotten over her shock and had fought like a wildcat, but the nectar had given Gilgamesh the power to easily subdue her. She was stripped and ceremoniously prepared before being secured to the altar. All was ready, and it was time. Dahak whispered into Gilgamesh’s ear and the black robed king moved forward. He was completely under Dahak’s control, unable to disobey the whispered commands that reverberated through his mind. But only as long as he was influenced by the nectar. Once it wore off, the king would cease to be his willing puppet. And would more than likely rethink his allegiance when he realized the warrior heart in question belonged to his sister. But Dahak couldn’t resist. Nebula was a true warrior in every sense of the word, and the fire she had inside was too alluring to ignore. And once she was sacrificed to him and he took her voluptuous body, his entrance into the living world would be permanent. Some of his spirit power would be lost, but in exchange he would gain the power to dominate and conquer the world. Just a little more patience, another few moments, and it would be done.
Gilgamesh stepped forward and grabbed the curved dagger from Imuru.
“I call on you, master of the darkness,” he intoned, waving the dagger in a circle above Nebula’s face, “to consume this warrior heart and become whole. Show us a sign that you are ready.”
The room began to grow dark as the bright sun was eclipsed. Iolaus struggled futilely against his bonds and the guards holding him. Dahak had advised Gilgamesh to keep him close by, as he had underestimated the mortal’s determination and strength before and now thought it best to keep an eye on him and make sure he wasn’t given the opportunity to thwart their plans. Nebula glanced over the hunter, taking in the stricken look on his face as he vainly tried to get free. Then she spared a quick look to the window and the darkening sky. She couldn’t keep the fear from her face, but defiance was strong in her voice as she looked above her at her brother.
“You’re pathetic! You may have sold your soul, but mine will always belong to me!”
Gilgamesh kissed the tips of his fingers and rested them on her forehead.
“We’ll see about that,” he said absently as he raised the dagger high.
“Gilgamesh!” All eyes swung to the doorway where Hercules came bursting through, shoving the soldiers aside. “No more Mr. Nice Guy.”
He launched himself at the king and they both crashed to the ground. Gilgamesh lost his grip on the dagger and it went skittering across the floor. Ignoring it for the moment, he rose and hoisted the demigod up by his shirt, lifting him clean off the floor.
“This is really going to hurt,” he threatened ominously.
“You took the words right out of my mouth,” Hercules said through gritted teeth. He clobbered the king hard with his fists and then unleashed his most brutal head butt. But Gilgamesh barely flinched and countered with a punch of his own that sent the demigod sailing through the room to land hard against the stairs. The king rose his hands to the sky, roaring as the earth outside erupted in flames, the fire shooting up past the window behind him. He tilted his head back and growled, and when he straightened the veins were bulging out of his face and his eyes were demonic yellow, the pupils mere slits. An obvious indication of Dahak’s presence as he hovered between the mortal and spirit worlds, lending his power to his puppet.
Gilgamesh levitated and flew across the room, landing on his feet in front of Hercules and kicking him savagely. It was the distraction Iolaus needed, and he punched his stunned guards with his fists, sending them staggering away. Someone came at him with a sword and he used the slashing blade to slice through the ropes binding his hands. Once he was free he began taking on the guards, not having much trouble dispatching them as he was inspired and they were confused by what was transpiring, attacking out of loyalty to their king even as they were highly unsettled by the changes coming over him. Imuru came after him, his loyalty going beyond his king to Dahak for he believed that under his influence Sumeria would return to the traditions he still held sacred, but which were threatening to fall by the wayside. But Iolaus had procured a sword from one of the soldiers he’d sent flying and he dodged Imuru’s wild thrust and felt his own blade hit home in the emmisary’s gut. Normally he didn’t like to kill if it could be avoided, but Nebula’s life was in danger and religious zealots weren’t likely to be talked out of their assault. Iolaus watched Imuru fall then sought out Hercules. The demigod was busy with Gilgamesh and not looking like he was faring too well. But the hunter rushed to Nebula’s side, deciding that first he needed to get her out of danger, or at least in a position to protect herself, and then he could help his partner. With his sword he cut through her restraints, extending a hand to help her off the altar as he simultaneously reached down to grab the tapestry that had been ripped down off the wall during the fight and was lying in a heap at his feet. She wrapped it around herself and quickly secured it in a knot at her shoulder, leaving her hands free to fight if she had to. Then she looked into the eyes of her savior and she smiled, the words leaving her lips before she even realized what she was saying.
“I love you.”
Iolaus grinned broadly, but before he could answer they were distracted by Hercules landing heavily on the altar next to them. The hunter grabbed Nebula and pulled her a safe distance away, then he rushed back and attacked the guy who was whaling on his partner. Gilgamesh repelled him easily and as Iolaus picked himself painfully up off the floor, he decided to hang back. He couldn’t afford to be hit with another agonizing energy bolt that would render him completely useless. And while he would risk that to help his friend, he also had faith in Hercules. He’d always come through before, and though he was ready to intervene if needed, Iolaus had no doubt his partner could do it again.
“There’s nothing you can do to stop Dahak from entering our world,” Gilgamesh informed his adversary as he landed repeated blows to his sternum. “It’s his destiny.”
“And it’s my destiny to shut you up,” Hercules gasped out as he caught the king’s fist and blocked another blow. Dahak had tried and failed twice before to put him out of commission and the demigod vowed to himself that the third time would not be the charm. Gilgamesh grabbed him and yanked him off the altar and they struggled, but Hercules rallied his flagging strength and managed to push him away.
Dahak was furious at the delay that he couldn’t afford. The nectar wouldn’t last much longer and his influence on the mortal world was already starting to fade. It had to be done now, and Gilgamesh visibly flinched as Dahak shouted his orders in his mind. But the king reached out, procuring the sacrificial dagger without ever physically touching it. It rose in the air and spun around, its movements complying with the gestures Gilgamesh made with his hand. Hercules saw the dagger speed off through the room and he called out a warning to Nebula as he realized what was happening. She turned, her eyes going wide as she caught sight of the blade coming straight for her. Then the world turned upside down as she was knocked forcibly to the ground by a blond blur.
The fire outside the window exploded in proportion to Dahak’s rage. Nebula winced at the noise and the wave of heat that surged through the room, but she was unhurt and being helped to her feet by that troublesome mortal insect. There was no more time. If the sacrifice was not completed now, all his plans would fall to ruin. But first the insect needed to be swatted. Dahak let his orders be known and again the dagger rose from the ground. But it circled around and changed direction and before anyone saw it coming it had embedded itself deeply into Iolaus’ chest with enough force to send him crashing back against the stairs.
The world froze for Hercules. He stood unmoving, not even breathing, looking at the body of his best friend sprawled across the steps, the hilt of the dagger protruding grotesquely from his chest. And then something snapped inside.
When Dahak had arranged for Hercules to be trapped inside the vortex and manipulated Callisto into going after Alcmene, he had greatly underestimated Iolaus and the bond he shared with the demigod. It had ruined that scheme, and he apparently didn’t learn from that mistake as that bond would serve as his undoing now. For the sight of Iolaus, stricken with a mortal wound, was enough to unleash a rage in Hercules that was unmatched by any force on earth or beyond. He reached deep inside himself and embraced the darkness closest to his heart, unleashing it but not even attempting to control it. As he turned and attacked Gilgamesh, his fury exploded out through his fists. Dahak tried to give the king some of his fading power but it was no use. Gilgamesh snarled, baring a mouth full of suddenly long, recurved fang-like teeth, but he was beaten back by the enraged demigod. Glaring at his foe in defiance, the king called out Dahak’s name in triumph. But Hercules kicked him hard, sending him flying out the window into the firestorm. The demigod screamed along with the implosion, and then the fire burnt itself out and the dark sky cleared to reveal the setting sun. As the soft orange light filled the room, Hercules almost buckled at the knees as he was again assaulted by the vision of the body on the funeral pyre. Then he turned and ran across the room as fast as he could, falling to his knees beside his friend. Nebula was hovering next to him in tears, afraid of touching him and making the damage worse. But Hercules had no such reservations as he pulled his partner into his arms.
“Hang in there, buddy,” he murmured raggedly, sparing a glance toward the wound. It wasn’t bleeding much, but he knew if he pulled the dagger out it would likely start to gush.
“Can’t,” Iolaus gasped out apologetically, blood trickling from his lips.
“Sure you can,” Hercules encouraged him. “Come on.” Denial. The dagger had landed squarely in the hunter’s heart. Not even the best healer could help him now. The demigod didn’t want to face that fact, but he didn’t have a choice.
Iolaus looked up at him, the pain receding from his clear blue eyes as they locked onto his best friend’s gaze. No regrets, no blame, no I Told You So, no sorrow. Just a deep and abiding love.
“Hercules,” Iolaus whispered, giving him that familiar grin. Then the light faded from his eyes and his head fell back and his last breath escaped him with a sigh.
“Come on,” the demigod said in a panic as he realized what had happened. “Don’t you give up on me. Come on.” He shook the limp body, watching Iolaus’ head loll against his arm. “Come on!” he shouted in desperation, the shaking getting almost violent. “Don’t you give up on me!”
But his partner was beyond hearing and Hercules relented, lifting the lifeless body and cradling it against his chest. He was unaware of Nebula crying softly beside him as he absently began to rock his best friend, desperate to hold onto him for just a little longer until he figured out how he was ever going to go on without him.
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