As their ship hove into Corinth’s harbour, before they ever reached the dock, Hercules and Nebula could sense that something was badly wrong. A pall hung over the area, like the last vestiges of drifting smoke darkening the air and smudging the sky. Death had stalked the town, and their noses wrinkled when an errant breeze caught the faint lingering sickly sweet scent of sickness and corruption. But it was the silence, the absence of vibrancy and hectic activity along the wharf that was the most telling of all. Corinth was a major trading centre, and normally the harbour and docks were a hive of activity, merchant ships coming and going, stockpiles of goods thick on the ground and awaiting loading or transfer to markets, dock workers and traders, prostitutes and sightseers, priests giving blessings and beggars seeking alms, families greeting returning travelers or saying farewell, all usually crammed the area, jostling as their voices raised in shouts, laughter, curses, instructions, all the sounds of life and prosperity - but now there was silence. There were no stockpiles of goods, and the docks looked nearly deserted.
It was as if the land and the people who lived there had been cursed, leaving nothing but dreary sorrow and surly anger.
“Oh, this isn’t good,” Nebula breathed, her voice low with trepidation. “He wasn’t that far ahead of us. How could he have done so much damage so fast?”
“I don’t know,” Hercules replied grimly, his gaze lifting to the heights and the walled city … and his brother’s palace as he wondered what he’d find there. And what he’d find when he made his way home to Thebes.
The evidence of devastation increased as their ship tacked close to the dock and the details became evident.
Buildings had been torched and the workers who still limped around the area moved slowly, with no vitality. Many looked practically starved, their skin sallow and haggard, their clothing ragged and torn. Several sported dirty bandages over recent wounds; many had lost limbs, making them awkward and unsteady as they stumbled through their work. Finally, their ship bumped against the wooden dock, and sailors leapt down to tie off her ropes around pilings; the gangplank was lowered. Those on the dock watched them dully, with little interest, as if they were all exhausted and it was all they could do to stand, let alone contemplate the unloading of whatever goods had been brought from distant lands. But then grimaces of resentment and evident hostility twisted lips and darkened eyes at the sight of well-fed sailors, of men who had not suffered as all of them had suffered.
And when Hercules followed Nebula down the gangplank, surly grumbling like distant thunder rippled through the standing workers. One man hawked and spat in evident contempt. Another called contemptuously, “Ah, so the hero finally returns, huh? Where you been hiding, Hercules?”
His eyes flashed at the angry sarcasm and his jaw tightened, but he quashed his irritation. His quarrel wasn’t with any of these pitiful men. From the look of them, they had every right to the anger and sense of abandonment and betrayal they very evidently felt. His gaze softened with compassion at the evidence of their suffering. “What happened here?” he asked as he moved into the small crowd of dock workers, his voice pitched to rise above the growing rumble of resentment. Nebula, tall and proud, kept pace at his side.
“Like you care,” someone snarled, but the demigod retorted emphatically, “I do care. Tell me - what’s been happening here?”
“Pestilence,” one man shouted hoarsely. “There’s been sickness everywhere! Apollo abandoned us.”
“Famine,” another cried out, his voice thin and feeble. “The crops all failed; the fruit rotted on the vine and in the trees. Cattle and sheep fell dead where they stood, their meat corrupt. We’re starving. Demeter is useless.”
“Death,” an old man snapped bitterly, his eyes rheumy with impotent fury and unspeakable grief. “My whole family - children, grandchildren, gone. Gone!
Another angry voice shouted, “None of the gods answered our prayers. Sacrifices were a waste of time. The gods are useless. Or maybe they’re all gone, too. Maybe the Horsemen killed them first.”
“Horsemen? What horsemen?” Nebula queried, a frown puckering her brow.
The old man shrugged and looked away. “Came on the wind. All in black, riding black stallions. Like demons, they were, foul and vicious,” he recounted distantly, sounding broken, utterly defeated and lost. “Everything - everything - they touched, even just looked at, withered and died.”
“There seemed to be no hope. Nothing that could be done. But then Iolaus returned … and he saved us,” a bruised one-armed youth with long, dark curly hair, hastened to recount, sounding awed by what he’d seen. “He has such powers now, Hercules. He’s … he’s a god, for sure. Said his new name was Dahak, and that he’d come back to save all of Greece. When he first arrived, he destroyed the evil Horsemen who had brought the pestilence and famine and death - he rallied us into an army and showed us we could win against demons. And … and, at first, everything seemed like it was going to be okay again, and we were grateful. So grateful. But … but, now, anyone who doesn’t bow to him is … punished; he’s becoming cruel.” He swallowed as he rubbed the bandaged stump of his arm, and swayed weakly, evidently in pain. Hercules reached out to grasp his shoulder gently, to brace him. The young man, scarcely more than a boy, really, looked up at Hercules, his dark indigo eyes shadowed with fear. “And now there’s war,” he said bleakly. “King Iphicles and King Orestes have banded together to destroy the armies of Iolaus, which doesn’t make any sense.” Shaking his head, he muttered, “Iolaus … he, he did save us. And the kings … they’re losing, Hercules. They’re losing. Nobody can beat Iolaus now.”
“That’s NOT Iolaus!” Hercules told him sharply, sickened by how much damage Dahak has wrought in so little time. And then he raised his voice to be heard by the crowd, his tones tight with anger. “Listen to me, all of you. Listen to me! Iolaus is dead; he was killed by the demon god, Dahak. It’s Dahak in Iolaus’ body, and the demon wants to conquer Greece and then the world. He cannot be trusted!”
“A demon!” the youth cried out, horrified. Others shouted inarticulately in fear, some in despair, most in confusion, arguing about what they’d just learned. Corinthians knew Iolaus, the stalwart companion of Hercules. Knew him well and trusted him. Believed he’d come back to save them. Many had seen him destroy the Horsemen.
But … but they also knew the Son of Zeus, had spent years of their lives believing in Hercules. He was the hero of heroes, the defender and protector of the weak and the innocent. And everyone knew Iolaus was his best friend. If he said that it wasn’t Iolaus ….
“Can you save us?” someone shouted desperately. “There’s no one left. No one else.”
“We’ll do our best,” Hercules replied with harsh determination, and Nebula nodded resolutely. Pushing through the crowd, ignoring the rest of their shouts, their demands and insults, they strode away from the city toward Thebes.
But, when the city came into view, Nebula paused and caught Hercules’ arm, drawing him to a stop. When he turned to her, she held out Iolaus’ medallion. When he frowned, she lifted it toward him. “I think you should have this. I think he’d want you to have it, to wear it for him, when we go into battle with Dahak.”
Hercules swallowed hard. Then he took it from her and, after a moment’s hesitation, he solemnly looped the cord over his head and settled the medallion on his chest. He met her eyes, and nodded. Her gaze fell away and, lengthening their strides, they hastened on.
After hearing his brother was united with the gods in the war against Dahak, Hercules didn’t bother climbing up the long winding path to Corinth. He’d have to track Iph down later. Instead, anxious to know if his mother and Jason were all right, he quickly led Nebula around the city and out into the countryside, toward Thebes. Running most of the way along the worn, rutted road that was empty of the usual traffic of wagons and travelers, they made good time. Just over an hour later, they heard music - singing and the tinkling of bells, as if a religious festival was underway - and they slowed, glancing at each other in some confusion. After the dismal news they’d heard at the wharf, the last thing they’d expected was any kind of celebration.
Striding into the village, anxious to find out what was going on, they were appalled to see a procession of singers, dancers and musicians, and what looked like everyone in Thebes, fawning over Dahak. Garbed in a pristine white tunic and glistening silver armour, a woven crown of flowers encircling his brow, the false Iolaus was smiling benignly at the child he carried in his arms, and at the people calling out praises to him.
Hercules’ lip curled with aversion. “Dahak!” he shouted.
The demon god looked around at the call, and then chuckled when he saw the demigod and Nebula approaching. “Ah, Hercules, and the ever-lovely Nebula! Welcome, friends. Welcome!” Gesturing around at the gathered celebrants, he urged, “Come, join the party these good people have thrown in my honour!” Though his smile remained genial, even delighted, his gaze hardened as he said meaningfully, “To thank me for coming home, and saving them all - all of Greece! - from the Four Horsemen.”
“Yeah, right,” Hercules snorted, disgusted. Raising his voice to address the crowd, he told them, “This is NOT Iolaus! Iolaus was killed by the demon, Dahak, who took his body to fool you into thinking he’s Iolaus. Dahak is no saviour - he probably sent the Horsemen in the first place, to terrify you.”
But the awestruck crowd wasn’t listening and only a few broke off singing and cheering to look at Hercules and then back at the man/god they were honouring, confusion on their faces.
“Oh, Hercules,” Dahak replied mildly, shaking his head sadly. “What has happened to you? We used to be such great friends, and now you’re jealous of me. Jealous that I was able to defeat and destroy the old gods, who were tired and useless … and cared nothing for our people. But,” he held out his arm to encompass the villagers around him, “these people know who I am. They know I love them.”
“You don’t love anything but yourself,” the demigod snarled contemptuously, wondering if it was true, if all the gods and goddesses had truly been destroyed. He felt a pang as he thought of Aphrodite … and Zeus - and took a threatening stop toward the demon. But Dahak’s grip on the child in his arms tightened, and he lifted his hand to wrap it lightly around her throat, as if caressing her. The threat to the child clear in his eyes and taut tone, he asked quietly, “Are you sure you want to continue this … conversation, here and … now? You know me, Hercules. You know what I can do.” Dahak glanced over the entire crowd, and then back at the demigod, obviously signaling that he was more than willing to kill them all if Hercules forced his hand.
Swallowing hard, wanting so badly to destroy the demon and get it over with, Hercules nevertheless forced his fury back. He couldn’t risk all these innocent lives. Nebula gripped his arm and murmured, “There’ll be another time, a better place.”
“Yes, yes, I’m sure there will,” the voice of Iolaus taunted, laughing. “I’ll look forward to getting together with you. Soon, I hope. To catch up on old times.”
“The sooner the better,” Hercules growled, turning away.
“Give my best to Alcmene and Jason,” the demon called to them as they walked away. “Tell them I was very sorry not to see them here today.”
Hercules paused at the implicit threat, and glared back over his shoulder. “Stay away from them,” he grated, his eyes and voice icy with warning. Dahak simply laughed, as if he’d said something witty or ridiculous, before giving all his attention to his admirers. Hercules watched him for a long moment, his gut twisting with the horror of seeing Iolaus, hearing his voice, and yet knowing … knowing a murderous demon lurked within. Nebula touched his back, drawing his attention to her. She quirked a brow questioningly, and he could only nod, as if he was alright, as if he knew what to do, how to end the obscenity. Mutely, he stalked off, leading the way out of the village to his mother’s home.
When they topped the hill overlooking his childhood home, they saw Jason with a sword in his hand, standing vigilant watch while Alcmene tended her garden, as if it were a day like any other. Relieved to find them well, Hercules’ gaze drifted past the house to the forest on the edge of the meadow, and his gaze narrowed when he spotted woodland nymphs and sprites that human eyes could not see. They flitted in and out of the trees, clearly keeping an eye on his mother’s wellbeing. For the first time in what seemed like months, he marginally relaxed and he felt an unusual gratitude toward his father, who had apparently deployed a protective ring around his mother, to keep her safe from Dahak.
He waved to attract Jason’s attention, and then he and Nebula loped down the long slope, past the unfinished stone wall he’d begun years before, and up the short lane. Jason called to Alcmene, and they rushed to meet him, smiles wreathing their faces with the joy of seeing him again, of knowing he was alive and well. He hugged his mother tightly, while Jason clapped him on the shoulder, and then he stood back to introduce Nebula, the Queen of Sumeria.
“She’s an old friend,” he went on. “Her land has already been ravaged by Dahak, their gods destroyed. She’s come here with me to stop him before he can do the same to Greece.”
“Dahak?” Alcmene echoed. “Is that the loathsome creature in Iolaus’ body?” she demanded disgustedly.
“You know it’s not Iolaus?” Hercules exclaimed, a bit surprised, as everyone else he’d encountered seemed to have assumed his partner had simply become a god of some kind.
“Of course I know,” she retorted with a grimace. “One look in those cold, empty eyes ….” She shuddered, and Jason protectively wrapped his arm around her shoulders. Leaning into his support, she sighed sadly as she looked up into her son’s eyes, and said sorrowfully, “He’s dead, isn’t he? Iolaus is gone.” There was no question in her voice, though hope flickered in her eyes that there might be some explanation other than that Iolaus had to have perished before the demon had taken his body.
“He gave his life to save mine,” Nebula replied soberly, stiffly, confirming Alcmene’s worst fears that she’d never really see Iolaus again. “My brother, Gilgamesh, sold out to Dahak and ….”
“Oh, my dear, I’m so sorry,” Alcmene soothed her, tears of empathy and grief in her eyes.
“Hercules,” Jason solemnly informed them then, “Zeus, Ares, and Hades are supporting Iphicles and Orestes in the resistance to this monster.”
“So all the gods aren’t dead, after all,” the demigod responded thoughtfully, surprised by the relief he felt.
“But Hercules, the news isn’t good - they’re losing,” Jason continued, shaking his head in dismay.
“So I heard,” he replied grimly, his gaze drifting to the horizon, anxious to go and join the battle. But Jason’s voice drew him back from his ruminations.
“How did this Dahak get control of Iolaus’ body?” Jason was asking, sounding perplexed. “I can’t imagine the Iolaus we knew ever giving in to such a beast.”
Hercules and Nebula exchanged looks. “He … he sacrificed his body to save my life, our lives,” he told them unhappily. His jaw tightening, he went on, and he attempted to inject a more positive tone into his voice, but only with marginal success. “He … he should be safe in the Elysian Fields by now, with his family.”
Jason drew Alcmene closer and bowed his head, instinctively hiding the depth of his grief. He’d learned the old lessons well, that a king should never betray too much pain, lest it be counted a sign of weakness. But Iolaus was one of his oldest and dearest friends, and he was desperately sorry to know he’d never see his comrade again.
For a moment, they stood in silence, made mute by their shared memories and grief. But then Alcmene stirred and said wearily, “You must be tired from your journey. Come into the house and relax. I’ll fix you something to eat.”
“Ah, thanks, Mother, but there’s no time. We really need to talk to Iph and Orestes, and to Zeus and the others,” Hercules replied, firmly, urgently. “Do you know where their armies are?”
“Yes, yes, we do,” Jason replied stoutly, glad to be able to help deal with the demon who had killed their friend and done so much harm to Greece in so short a time - even if only in this small way for he was loathe to leave Alcmene unprotected for long. “I’ll take you to them.”
“I’m going with you,” Alcmene insisted. When Jason seemed about to protest, she gazed at him sternly, brooking no nonsense, and he mutely acquiesced. Hercules gave him a slightly amused, knowing look, having learned years before that there was no arguing with his mother when she was determined. “But it’s a fair distance, and you need to eat to keep up your strength,” she added, turning the same expression on her son. When she saw him hesitate, clearly wanting to be on his way, she relented somewhat. “I just need a minute to pack some food for us to eat on the way.”
Scant minutes later, Jason led the way across the meadow and into the forest, taking the shortest route to the royal encampment that was nearly half a day’s walk away. Finally, as the sun reached its zenith, they came over a rise and saw the massive encampment sprawled across the valley before them. The large Command tent, near the centre of the gathered forces, was ringed by flags fluttering from staffs thrust into the earth, making it easy to spot. Jason and Hercules striding purposefully in the lead, the small group moved quickly down the hill and through the huge camp of dispirited, exhausted soldiers. They couldn’t help but note how many of the gathered host were wounded and the ripple of shock when soldiers recognized Hercules and Jason as they passed by. Most of the seasoned warriors reacted with evident surprise to see the demigod, and Hercules once again felt the sting of having abandoned his people for so long that they’d never expected to see him again. And, as he’d found at the dock earlier, while some seemed glad, even hopeful to see him, others revealed their contempt of an erstwhile hero who seemed to be arriving far too late.
Inside the large, spacious and richly furnished tent, Iphicles, Orestes, Niobe, Zeus, Ares and Hades were gathered, holding a war council. All of them looked the worse for wear, tired, their clothing still soiled with the mud, dust and blood of the last battle. Iphicles’ crown had been replaced by a bandage wound around his forehead, and his left arm was in a sling. Zeus, as well as Orestes and Niobe, had avoided personal injury, but Ares sported bruises on his face and limbs, souvenirs of his hard won and unwelcome learning that Dahak’s powers exceeded their own. Hades had taken the worst wound, and he was pallid and perspiring from the pain he endured, one arm pressed across his body to support his damaged chest. Ares paced irritably in the middle of the tent, while Zeus’s fingers drummed on the map table and chewed his lip in thought; Hades looked seriously worried. The mortals watched the gods warily, disconsolate to see those who had been so powerful looking so uncertain about their ability to triumph.
“This is ridiculous,” Ares snarled furiously, smacking a fist into his palm. “One trumped-up, foreign god - one! And a handful of peasants, maybe a few mercenaries. We shouldn’t be losing this badly. We shouldn’t be losing at all!”
“Dahak must have covered them with some kind of spell of invincibility so, as long as they fight for him, they cannot be defeated,” Hades muttered wearily. “Nothing else makes any sense.”
“And the growing belief of the people in that ‘one god’,” Zeus observed dryly, almost bitterly, “along with their lack of confidence is us, is feeding his strength and weakening us dangerously. Else we could protect our own warriors the same way.”
Ares snorted and shook his head, disgusted. “Worthless, disloyal mortals,” he muttered disparagingly as he crossed his arms.
“It’s that kind of attitude that is costing us,” Iphicles snapped angrily, rising to confront the God of War. “Your contempt -”
“Enough!” Orestes and Zeus called together, and then gave each other looks of wry respect. Zeus carried on, “We can’t afford to fight amongst ourselves. There must be something we can do, some new strategy? Hades - can you undo a spell that keeps men from dying?” he asked, hopefully.
But his brother shrugged wearily, and winced at the pull on his wound. “I deal with the spirits of the dead,” he replied caustically, “the living don’t usually concern me.” Sighing heavily, he shook his head. Turning to his son, Zeus persisted, “Ares, some new battle tactic? Or maybe Hephaestus can build us a new war machine?”
Grimacing, Ares shrugged dejectedly, hating to admit he was out of ideas. “He’s working on it. Since we don’t know how to kill this guy, Heph has come up with an idea about creating a bubble to imprison Dahak, but he’s having trouble with it. Doesn’t have a good enough fix on the limits of Dahak’s powers and what it will take to hold him inside.”
Just then, Hercules followed by the others entered the spacious tent.
“Well, if it isn’t the prodigal son,” Ares sneered contemptuously. “Nice of you to finally join the party. And what’s with your little buddy going over to the enemy?”
“He didn’t! Iolaus fought with all he had! He’d never join Dahak!” Hercules snarled angrily in defense of his friend. “Iolaus gave his life and … and his body to save our lives from Dahak.” When Nebula cleared her throat, he remembered the presence of his companions, and introduced them. “Uh, sorry, this is Nebula, Queen of Sumeria. And my mother, Alcmene, and I think you all know Jason. Mother, I don’t think you’ve met King Orestes and Queen Niobe, or Hades before. Nebula, this is my brother, Iphicles, King of Corinth, Ares and Zeus.”
“Ah, Nebula, the famous, fearsome pirate,” the God of War purred, eyeing her salaciously. “I’ve heard of you, of course. It’s, uh, nice to finally meet you.”
Hades snorted and rolled his eyes, thinking, ‘like father, like son,’ but the others ignored Ares completely when they were immediately distracted by shouts of surprise and alarm. The mortals shoved back outside, while the gods simply vanished and reappeared in front of the tent - where they all gaped at the unexpected appearance of Iolaus and Gilgamesh.
The two ghosts stood with Persephone in a clear space left by the soldiers who had reeled back in awe and superstitious terror at their unheralded and astonishing appearance in their midst. Most had drawn swords in an instinctive impulse toward self-defence, but held them awkwardly, uncertainly, conscious that beings which could appear from the thin air had little to fear from their blades. Shouts rippled through the sprawling encampment, like wavelets on the ocean, spreading the fearsome news about the apparition of what many believed was Dahak, or at least the new god-like Iolaus that they were warring against. In moments, the whole camp was up in arms, perched on the edge between panicked retreat and pitched battle, confused and alarmed.
No less astonished than the common soldiers, Hercules gaped at his friend, flicked a wary glance at Gilgamesh and blurted in confusion, “Iolaus! What are you doing here?”
Emerging behind him, Nebula glared angrily at her faithless brother. Alcmene gasped in surprise when she came out of the tent in her turn; bittersweet joy flooded her eyes as she took an unconscious step toward Iolaus but, concerned for her safety, Jason took her arm and held her back, at least until they knew what was going on. The Royals spread out on either side of Hercules and Nebula, and laid their hands on their swords as they watched the proceedings guardedly. Ares’ lip curled in contempt at the sight of the spirit of the man he’d so often tried to annihilate; Zeus’ brow quirked in surprise at the manifestation, and he wondered if the large black spirit had once been the fearsome king of Sumeria, but he remained silent, letting events play out. For his part, Hades frowned in annoyance to see that Persephone had brought Iolaus - it was long past time that the dead warrior appeared on the Other Side and fulfilled his bargain of staying dead. He certainly had no business showing up where he could have no role to play. Gazing over the assembled mass of warriors, the God of the Underworld took note of their near panic and wondered fleetingly how many more he’d have in inventory before the day was done.
“You didn’t really think I’d pass up on all the fun, did you?” Iolaus jibed back teasingly, but his gaze took in the others and he smiled in apology for … well, for so much. Most particularly that he could not go to them, was no longer one of them, a person alive and vital who could greet them with strong hugs and a whole and happy heart. But his expression and tone hardened as he turned his regard back upon Hercules and continued, “Besides, that jerk’s got my body. I want to help bring him down.” Belatedly registering Nebula’s fixed glare and Hercules’ clear suspicion, he gestured toward Gilgamesh, “It’s okay. Gil is on our side now.”
When the anxious murmuring of the men near them and the distant shouts grew louder, more pressing, he shifted his stance and raised his hands for calm as he called reassuringly to the warriors, “You know me! I was Iolaus of Thebes! Hear me out! Pass my words to the men behind you! Tell them to be quiet and to listen to what I have to say!”
Soldiers swallowed heavily, and did their best to master their atavistic fear of ghosts. But the nervous mumbling continued, and there was a growing rumble of sound as the warriors considered, questioned and challenged him, and looked from Iolaus to their gods and kings, seeking guidance.
“Hear him out,” Zeus commanded sharply as he stepped forward to take charge and, gradually, an uneasy silence fell over the valley.
With a glance of gratitude toward the King of the Gods for his help in settling the soldiers down, Iolaus began, “I have come from the Other Side to tell you that a vicious demon called Dahak has taken my body to confuse and delude you and everyone else in Greece. He is an evil god from Sumeria, and has great power, but he can be beaten! He has to be beaten before he destroys all that you hold dear - your families, your friends and comrades, your communities … even your gods.” He paused for a moment, and the silence was electric, the tension thick. “His weakness is his mortal body, my body. Kill the body and he will lose all his power to act in this world.”
“Works for me,” Ares muttered with a wolfish grin, but Hercules gave him a withering look before insisting, “Iolaus, there has to be another way.”
Shrugging, his friend replied bluntly, “It’s not like I need it anymore, Herc.”
Immensely relieved to be assured that the powerful Dahak could, indeed, be stopped, the soldiers began chanting, their cadences growing ever louder into a mighty roar of determined fury, as the throng yelled from one end of the valley to the other, “Kill the body! Kill the body!”
Growing pale, Alcmene shuddered and crossed her arms against the assault of the heated, nearly frenzied shouting. “So much hatred,” she whispered, and then frowned, thinking about what she was hearing, what she felt. “Hercules!” she called out abruptly. “Zeus, all of you, wait! I think we’re making a mistake!”
“What is it, Alcmene?” Jason asked in concern, putting his arm around her and drawing her close to lend his unspoken support.
She looked around at all of them, willing them to hear her. “What does Dahak represent?” she asked urgently, but when they simply stared at her, not comprehending, she went on, pointing first at the God of War. “You represent the valor and courage of men at war for what they believe in. And you, you care for the spirits in the Underworld,” she added, gesturing to Hades who, sorely weakened by his grievous wound was being supported by Zeus. “You … you represent many things,” she said as her gaze found the King of the Gods, “among them order and power and enjoyment of pleasure.” And she asked again, “What does Dahak represent?”
“Hatred,” Gilgamesh interjected, grimly blunt, when the others hesitated. “Blind malicious need to dominate. Cruelty. Delight in destruction and death.”
She nodded to herself, her brows puckering in thought. “And the war effort has been failing,” she mused, speaking as her thoughts formed and her reasoning led her to understanding. “Because … because he feeds on hatred and fear, on conflict, on battle, grows stronger when he can hurt and maim. Angry resistance only serves to make him ever stronger.”
Now the others looked thoughtful, if still perplexed. “What’s your point, Alcmene?” Zeus asked gently.
“My point is we can’t win by only making him more powerful. Maybe we’re fighting him with the wrong weapons,” she replied, her tone and expression growing more certain as she spoke. “Instead of hate, which makes him stronger, maybe we need to overwhelm him with the opposite - with, with love.”
Snorting, caustically amused, Ares mocked disparagingly, “You can’t be serious. Love Dahak? Never gonna happen.”
“Not Dahak,” she replied, and then looked meaningfully at the son of her heart. “Iolaus.”
“Me?” he squeaked, startled by the turn the conversation had taken.
“Yes, Iolaus, you. When we look at him, we see you,” she insisted. “When he speaks, we hear your voice. It’s not so difficult to look at him and remember … remember our love for you.” Iolaus gaped at her, and then swallowed hard at the naked expression of her love for him on her face, in her eyes and voice. He blinked hard and looked away, deeply moved, but he shook his head, unable to imagine that any but her, and maybe Hercules, could ever care so much for him. Who was he, after all - who had he ever been - but a simple man, a flawed mortal, who’d only done his best to support the greatest hero Greece would ever know, Hercules.
But before he could respond, a frisson of energy rippled the air, heralding the appearance of another god, and they all looked to see who it was.
“Now that’s what I call a bitchin’ idea!” Aphrodite crowed bravely as she flickered into view, her broad grin and gleefully enthusiastic rubbing of her hands only serving to underscore her wan pallor and evident weakness. Love had been the first casualty of the Four Horsemen as they’d rampaged unchecked, sowing seeds of fear, anger and death, and she’d been sorely weakened by their onslaught. “There needs to be a whole lot more love in this ole world!” Waving at Iolaus, she called fondly, “Hey, sweetcheeks, how’re ya doing? Sorry that creep has your body, you know?”
“This is ridiculous!” Ares roared in outraged frustration. “Who ever heard of winning a war with love????”
“Personally,” Zeus pondered thoughtfully, “I think the idea has merit.” Giving his son a sharp look, he added heavily, “And, frankly, we need a new strategy because it’s abundantly clear we’re losing badly. I think we should try it.”
Ares rolled his eyes and his lips thinned in annoyance, but he crossed his arms and held his peace. Beaming at her father, Aphrodite shouted gaily, “Right on!” Hades, Hercules and Jason studied Iolaus thoughtfully, while Iphicles, Orestes and Niobe nodded, agreeing it was worth a try. Alcmene murmured, “This will work. I know it will.”
But the gathered armies around them were still loudly chanting, “Kill the body! Kill the body! Kill the body! KILL THE BODY!!”
Impatiently, Zeus suddenly clapped his hands and thunder erupted with an earthshaking crack. In the sudden, stunned shock, he roared at the cringing soldiers with all the power of the King of the Gods, so that his voice was heard by all the gathered host of men, “SILENCE!”
Terrified by the blast that nearly deafened them all and his livid command, the soldiers fell into uneasy silence.
With an open gesture that encompassed them both, Zeus drew the spirit of Iolaus and Aphrodite with him as he vanished and then reappeared on a nearby rise, so that they could all be clearly seen by the multitude of warriors. Iolaus blinked at the sudden change of venue, and then looked down at Hercules. The demigod gave him a small, encouraging smile, and seemed very clearly relieved by the idea that he wouldn’t be forced to destroy his partner’s body in order to defeat Dahak.
“This is the true Iolaus,” Zeus boomed at the massed men. “You know him! You all know of his courage and bravery in standing with my son, Hercules, to defeat monsters and warlords! He is a hero of Greece! Hear me now, and hear me well! Iolaus sacrificed his life to save the life of my son, Hercules. He has earned my gratitude and my honour. By my order, NO ONE will attempt to wound or destroy his body. Do you understand?”
Murmurs of cowed acquiescence resonated through the crowd, and heads nodded to signal their understanding.
“An evil foreign demon called Dahak is wearing Iolaus’ body to confuse you,” Zeus went on to clarify matters, keeping it all as simple as he could. “That evil demon is using our anger and hatred against us, against all of us. Our armed resistance has been feeding Dahak like mother’s milk, making him stronger, more powerful. All of your bravery has simply fueled his fire, and helped him to overcome our attempts to overpower him, to dominate him. That ends now.”
The soldiers shifted and look confused, worried. How could they defeat a monster that fed upon their attacks? What good would their weapons and skills be in such a confrontation?
“When next we take to the field, we will go without weapons, but with arms open and love in our hearts,” Zeus told them and laid a hand on Iolaus’ shoulder. “Love for this brave valiant warrior, who gave his all for love of my son, Hercules. There is no more honourable, loyal or courageous comrade in all of Greece, nor in all of our history, as Iolaus has been to Hercules. And no single mortal has ever given so much for the whole of his life to sustain and protect the people of Greece. When you next march against Dahak, march for Iolaus, to honour his memory as a true hero of Greece.”
Iolaus flushed in embarrassment at the accolades, and had to force himself from shifting away from Zeus’ strong grip on his shoulder, to keep his head up and his expression resolute.
But the warriors were alarmed by the prospect of going into battle against an armed and determined foe without the protection of their weapons and shields. A low, uncertain murmur arose, for they were afraid to challenge the word of the King of the Gods, but surely, what he’d ordered them to do could only result in their deaths. Finally, the Captain of Iphicles personal guards stepped forward, hesitantly, and bowing his head low with respect, he asked with studied courtesy, “But Zeus, it’s not just Dahak, is it? It’s his army. They’ll cut us to pieces.”
“He’s right, I’m afraid,” Iphicles agreed darkly, while Ares nodded solemnly.
“No, he isn’t right,” Hades interjected mildly, his voice thin with strain, but carrying well enough to be heard. He’d considered Alcmene’s idea and liked it, thought it made good sense. And anything that kept the lid on his rising inventory was worth actively supporting. Flashing to the rise, to stand beside his brother, he went on, “His army is made of men like you; men who have been deceived but who have no more wish to die than you do. I’m nearly certain they are protected against attack and injury so long as they are met with hate and the will to destroy them. If we don’t fight them, they’ll have no reason to fight us - and whatever spell Dahak has over them will be broken.”
“So … what then? We just walk on by them? Won’t they try to stop us from getting to Dahak? Won’t he order them to stop us, to cut us down?” one of Orestes’ senior officers called out, clearly having difficulty imagining a battle that wasn’t a battle - or a demon god who would allow himself to be so easily out-maneuvered.
“No, no, you don’t walk past them, you love them!” Aphrodite exclaimed impatiently, for it all seemed so simple and straightforward to her. Stepping forward to stand beside Iolaus, so that he was between her and her father, she drew their gaze and rapt attention, and many frowned in concern at the sight of her. She was obviously weakened, appearing frail and totally lacking her usual zest and energy. But she seemed somehow valiant to the warriors who loved her, standing so tall, so sure, her pink diaphanous gown drifting in the breeze. Holding her arms out toward them, she reminded them poignantly, “The men in Dahak’s army are your friends, comrades, brothers, cousins, neighbours. Not strangers. And definitely not your enemies.”
But even their admiration and awe of her wasn’t enough to still their fears. They simply could not picture it; could not see how the coming confrontation would play out. When another uncertain rumble of commentary issued from the crowd, she shook her head and flapped her hands at them to regain their attention. “Look,” she insisted, keeping it simple, making what she wanted of them abundantly clear, “pretend Iolaus is one of those poor, misguided warriors who believes Dahak’s lies! You don’t want to kill your brothers, your neighbours, your friends, do you? No. No, of course you don’t. So, this is how you want to greet them!”
Grinning gaily, she turned to Iolaus, smushed him with a huge hug and rained kisses on his face. Giggling as she continued to hold onto the furiously blushing, obviously very discomfited spirit, she gazed out over the multitude, many of whom were now also grinning, some even laughing. Once a hushed silence again fell, her voice full of compassionate love and sorrow for the men in Dahak’s army, she explained, “Those poor men have been lied to, completely deceived by that terrible demon, and they will lose their souls to Dahak if you don’t save them. They deserve your pity and your compassion, not your hatred or fear. They need to be greeted by you as brothers, long lost brothers; they need to hear the truth from you. You, all of you, every last one of you, can free them from Dahak! You just need to hug them, and tell them it’s alright. They can rest. They can stop fighting and killing. They can go home to their families.”
Toughened, battle-scarred warriors felt their throats thicken and their eyes burn in response to her words and the images she conjured in their hearts. Jaws tightened to hide their unseemly, unmanly emotion, and many bowed their heads.
And then she cried out breathily, her voice reaching magically over the fields to ring against the hills beyond. “Free your brothers! Your friends! Love them! Love all the brave warriors!” She waved her hand and, using almost the very last vestiges of her waning power, she sent tiny, brilliantly crimson hearts floating into the air to land upon each and every soldier in the multitude, filling them with overwhelming, irresistible love.
“Free our brothers! Free our friends!” the soldiers chanted in response to her call for help, their voices filling the air like thunder.
“Good grief,” Ares muttered, appalled, and shook his head in horrified disbelief. “You’re ruining perfectly good soldiers!”
Appearing beside him, clearly exhausted and fading a little, Aphrodite nudged him with her shoulder and gave him a winsome smile. “Ah, lighten up, Ares!” she cajoled prettily. “This’ll work! It’ll be fun and we’ll win!” Winking, she added teasingly, “And you know how much you love to win!”
He rubbed his cheek and mouth, and nodded grudgingly. “Yeah, I do,” he admitted ruefully. Sighing, he opined almost pathetically, “This is one very weird war.”
Anxious worry in his eyes, Hercules studied Iolaus, whom Zeus had returned to the ground in front of the tent. “You need to go to the Underworld,” he insisted urgently. “Your time is almost up.”
“Not until we’re finished here,” Iolaus replied stubbornly, looking away at the gathered soldiers. “These are our people, Hercules. And that’s my body! I … I have to help defeat him.”
In the background, Hades again regarded him thoughtfully as he rubbed at the deep ache of the wound in his chest, an uncomfortable reminder of his own unexpected but apparently possible mortality. “Well, we best get it,” he said sardonically. “The sooner we love Dahak to death, the better; for everyone’s sake.”
Taking his words as their signal to march, Orestes, Niobe and Iphicles called for their standard bearers and mounted their prancing steeds. Hercules and Nebula moved up to join them, while the gods and goddess remained by the tent. Understanding there was little they could do in terms of physical action and worried that their own deep hatred of Dahak would hamper the efforts of the others, Iolaus and Gilgamesh stood to the side, close to Alcmene and Jason.
Just before the Kings signaled their troops to move forward, Aphrodite called to them, “Wait!” When they looked back, she urged, “You’re still too filled with anger! Still thinking more about Dahak than about the body he is occupying.” Stepping forward to stand beside Iolaus, she urged them, “When you go forward, remember why you love this mortal’s soul. Think only of your love for Iolaus as you march on Dahak.”
Ares rolled his eyes and woefully shook his head, but he remained mute.
Iolaus swallowed and held their gazes, meeting Hercules’ long look last. They all studied him soberly, various unreadable expressions flitting over their faces and shadowing their eyes. But, finally, they each nodded and smiled slightly, some sadly. And then the Kings raised their right arms and commanded their troops forward.
As they rode off, Alcmene pulled at Jason’s arm. “We have to go with them,” she insisted. He hesitated, reluctant to risk her safety, but she turned to gaze at Iolaus. “We love him, too. We have to be there.” And he could not find it in himself to disagree.
Deeply worried about them, about whether the plan would really work, feeling helpless and hating it, Iolaus scowled as he watched them all leave. Sighing, rubbing his mouth uncertainly, he looked at Ares, who was regarding him bemusedly. “Do you really think this is going to work?” he asked the god.
Ares lifted a hand, and shook his head, as if to disparage the effort, but Zeus stated firmly, answering for him as he gave Ares a pithy look, “Yes, Iolaus, we all believe this will work.”
Ares quirked a brow and then looked back at Iolaus. “Father has spoken,” he replied sardonically. “So, of course, this is going to work.”
“Oooo, I can feel the love already!” Aphrodite chirped merrily. When they all turned to look at her, they could see that, like a flower that’s been drooping from lack of water but which blossoms anew when anointed, she was radiant. Clearly, she did feel the love and it was doing her a world of good. Affection for her in all their eyes, they all seemed to relax a little, grateful and relieved to see her more like her old self. Her very evident rejuvenation gave them all hope. As if she felt the inflow of affection from them, their uncomplicated love for her, she sparkled even more brightly, her power returning ever faster.
“Maybe this really will work,” Gilgamesh intoned as he looked down at Iolaus and smiled.
The mounted Kings and Queen, Hercules and Nebula, Alcmene and Jason, crested a hill overlooking the demon’s army, and they saw Dahok hastily striding out of the forest, coming from the direction of Thebes. As they moved forward at a sedate pace, the soldiers behind them appeared and flooded over the rise and down toward Dahak’s forces, like a dam overflowing and spilling in a great, continuous wave into the valley below. Behind them, Iolaus and Gilgamesh appeared on the crest of the hill. Though they didn’t want to hinder the plan to overcome Dahak, neither had they been able to stay away.
Dahak’s voice rose in the distance, commanding his army to kill them all and his men responded with cheers and bloodthirsty roars as they lifted their weapons and charged toward the warriors rushing down the hill toward them. But, as they got closer, they could see that none of the Kings’ warriors were carrying weapons. And instead of attacking battle cries, they heard shouts of affection and concern being directed toward them.
The craftsmen and shopkeepers, farmers and shepherds that made up Dahak’s army weren’t seasoned warriors or mercenaries, and certainly weren’t butchering, bloodthirsty killers of unarmed men. They’d taken up arms to protect the man most thought was Iolaus, who had miraculously saved them all from the depredations of the Four Horsemen - a brave warrior being unreasonably attacked by jealous kings and useless gods. They’d fought out of gratitude and loyalty, out of a sense of fairness, more to defend than to conquer. Now, confused by the lack of aggression of the opposing forces, even more by the overt display of trust, friendship and affection, they stumbled and slowed in their advance. Completely mystified by the unexpected turn of events, they exchanged muddled looks and shrugs.
And, finally, prepared to defend themselves but unable to attack unarmed men, they came to a halt, lowered their weapons and shields, and listened with growing awe to the words being shouted at them across the meadow by smiling men. And some of them began smiling in return, relieved and heartened to believe the war was over.
The mounted Royals spread apart to bracket the friends and family who walked with them; Hercules and Nebula, and Alcmene with Jason strode on either side of Orestes, all of them moving purposefully but sedately forward, so as not to raise alarm. When they reached the outer fringes of Dahak’s army, they did not stop but rode and walked through the scattered soldiers, calling out with quiet emphasis, “That’s not Iolaus leading you. Iolaus is behind us, on the hill. Look, you can see him there. You’ve been deceived by a demon. We will not fight you - you are our brothers, our friends. You can lay down your arms. There will be no battle today.”
And then the kings’ soldiers were amongst them, wrapping them in strong hugs of affection, murmuring or calling out, “Rest now, the war’s over. You can go home. Be at peace.” Some kissed the cold cheeks of the confused strangers in their arms. Others rejoiced at having found their brothers or good friends or respected neighbours in the mass of men, and hugged them with jubilation.
And Dahak’s warriors were utterly disarmed by the peaceful tide that overtook them and gathered them up; none struggled, nor fought. Some hesitantly lifted their arms to return the hugs, then held on fiercely, feeling the warmth, the life, the joy, the reality of peace flow into them. Tears of abject relief slipped down some of their cheeks. Others lifted their heads, gaping at the strangers who were heralding them, hugging them, unable to take it all in and stammered, “Why?”
And the Kings’ soldiers waved back at the warrior standing on the hill, and told them patiently, “For Iolaus. Because he gave his all for love of his friend. And there is nothing that matters more; is more courageous, more noble than love.” Then, pointing down the long hill, they explained heatedly, “That’s not Iolaus. That’s a demon that took his body to deceive us.” Then, again pointing up the hill, “That’s Iolaus. He came to stop us from fighting our friends, our brothers. He came back from the Underworld to tell us the truth. In his name, we greet you with love.”
Sickened to know they’d been deceived, but afraid of the demon’s possible revenge for their betrayal, many of Dahak’s warriors simply stumbled away, going back to their homes and families. Many though, angered to have been deceived, turned to march with the soldiers, arm and arm, their spirits aroused and strengthened by the warmth of the comradely love that surrounded them.
Aphrodite appeared on the rise of the hill close to Iolaus and Gilgamesh, and waved her arms to strew more crimson hearts in the air, to counter the anger shame Dahak’s former supporters felt at having been so deceived, and to fill them all with love. Zeus and a visibly much stronger Hades flashed into sight on one side of her, Ares on the other. The soldiers looked back, and cheered them heartily, once again believing in them, trusting them, and their renewed faith restored the powers of the Panthion. Other goddesses began to appear: Persephone, Athena, Demeter and Artemis, and gods materialized behind them: Deimos, no longer needing a sling, his arm healed, Hephaestus, Apollo, Hermes, and even Poseidon, who had finally been drawn in because of his ire at Dahak’s conjuring of storms on his seas to delay Hercules and Nebula. Dite lifted her arms jubilantly and, glowing with vibrancy, did a little dance of joy. More and more warriors looked back to see all their gods, and to cheer them, making them all more powerful still.
At first, Dahak didn’t understand what had gone wrong, and he gaped in consternation at his warriors, their failure to fight, maim and kill. And then he shrieked at them in fury, demanding they obey him, but it was as if they’d all become deaf to his voice. Unable to believe the evidence of his eyes, he shook his head in denial and rubbed his hands over his face, as if to clear his vision. As the Royals, with Hercules and Nebula approached closer and closer, he felt a pang of fear, and then rage at what he didn’t understand. This couldn’t be happening! His plan had been perfect, and had been working perfectly. What had gone wrong? Furious to see his strategy for ultimate domination unraveling, he was unsure whether to stand his ground or run away to regroup and plan his next move. His very uncertainty and hesitation disconcerted him and strengthened the fear beginning to coil in his belly, for he knew his confusion was evidence that he was weakening, his strength leaking away.
As they drew nearer, Hercules focused on the face he knew so well, and had always trusted above all others. His voice thick with emotion, he called out, “Iolaus! Partner and my lifelong best friend! I … I love you! I will always love you!”
And Nebula added her voice to his. “As will I. You taught me how to love again, and gave your life to save mine. I will be forever grateful to you.”
“We love you, Iolaus!” Niobe cried. “We all love you and always will!”
Iphicles and Orestes, more subdued but no less sincere, added their own heartfelt chants to the rising din of affection, “Iolaus, I love you, my brother.” “My cousin, you are dear to me.”
“My son. My dear, dear son,” Alcmene breathed, tears of love in her eyes. And Jason, his arm solidly around her shoulders, resonated, “My very good friend.”
Giddy with excitement, Aphrodite flashed closer. Pompoms appeared in her hands and, like a cheerleader, she chanted exuberantly, “Go Love! Feel Love! Be Love!”
Dahok held out his arms to fend them off, and stumbled backwards, but they crowded closer and closer, their voices a crescendo of expressed love, their deep affection a tangible force suffocating his power. He tried to send bolts of energy at them, to fling them back, to kill, but Aphrodite just laughed as she tossed more hearts in the air that absorbed the demons energy, expanding, lighting up and flashing like bright beacons of love in the air.
“Iolaus is dead, gone!” the demon protested furiously in rejection of the flood of love. “I am Dahak, all-powerful! I destroyed him!”
“No,” Hercules argued as he continued to pace forward. “You haven’t the power to destroy Iolaus.” His tone softened into fondness as he gazed at his best friend’s beloved face, “Iolaus is unconquerable. He’s the bravest, best man I’ve ever known. He’s my hero, always has been, always will be.” His voice passionate, he gestured to lend emphasis to his words. “Even in death, he will live forever, here, in my heart, and in the memories of world for all time, as the most loyal of friends, the most beloved friend, so that his very name will come to mean beloved companion! He fought, always, in the name of love, to protect the innocent and the vulnerable.” Pausing, he added knowingly, confidently, “You know all this - that he’s the best, that he’s unforgettable, that he is well loved. That’s why you chose him, chose his face and his body, because people would welcome him, and rejoice in his presence. Laugh and be glad of having him back. You cannot destroy that - you can never make us forget him, his sacrifices, his courage. You haven’t the strength. You haven’t the power. You can never defeat what he stands for.”
“Iolaus, oh, Iolaus,” Alcmene then added, her expression sweet, her eyes warm with love. “Son of my heart. I remember when you were just a little, little boy, stealing cookies and giggling with irrepressible joy. And I remember you saving my life and Hercules’ life, before he was ever even born. And you’ve saved us both so very many times since, not just physically, but with your belief in us, your compassion and your joy in life. You’ve shown us how to bear loss and go on, being grateful for what life still holds. You have never failed us. Never. I love you, child. Do you know how much I love you?”
“You’ve always been a great friend, a real friend,” Jason said then, as they all continued to pace forward, spreading out to encircle Dahak who was watching them with a wild look in his eyes. “Others wanted to be my friend because I was a prince, and then a King. But not you. You always saw me … me. You cared enough about me to tell me when I was acting like a fool. And you never forsook me, even in my darkest days. You always believed in me. A man couldn’t have a better friend than you, Iolaus. You’re like a brother to me.”
“And me,” Iphicles asserted strongly, dropping down from his horse to move closer. “Lesser men would have hated me for the jealousy I felt and showed for your role in Hercules’ life. But not you. Instead, you always did your best to reconcile us, never in competition, only in friendship. You’re a good man, Iolaus. I respect you and trust you completely.”
“You saved my Kingdom and my life twice,” Orestes asserted then, also dismounting, and holding out a hand to assist Niobe to the ground. “Did you ever tell anyone?” he asked, looking around, and seeing their confusion. “No, I don’t suppose you did.” Chuckling, Orestes continued, “You brag about the small things, but never about what really matters, about the truly great deeds you have done.” He recounted his memories to the others then, “I was taken hostage and nearly killed twice, and Iolaus pretended to be me. In my name, he was crowned the King of my land, and in my name, he helped Niobe and I secure peace with our neighbours. He asked for no reward, and wanted no recognition of his noble and selfless deeds. I really wasn’t fit to be King - I was selfish, a wastrel. But his acts and decisions showed me how to be a good King.” Shaking his head, he went on, “How uncommon is that? For a man to be king, and then hand back the crown and slip away, asking for nothing in return for his loyalty and friendship?” Turning to look upon Iolaus’ face, he added almost reverently, “You’re my hero, too, Iolaus. I do my best every day to be like you.”
“Yowser!”Aphrodite cheered, pumping her arm in the air victoriously. Appearing back on the crest of the hill, she burbled delightedly, “You hear all that, Sweetcheeks! I’m telling you, Iolaus, Herc is absolutely right! Your name will come to mean ‘beloved companion’, for that’s what you’ve always been, to everyone who knows you! Just gotta love a guy like you!” When he shook his head, frowning in confusion, she realized that he couldn’t hear all that was being said. He was too far away. So she took his arm and, before he can object or protest that he can’t love Dahak and could ruin everything, they both flashed closer to the action.
He was about to protest, to demand to be taken back to the hill, when Zeus flashed into being beside her. “I also love you, Iolaus, though I’ve not admitted it before. For all of his life, you have safeguarded my son, Hercules. Regardless of the dangers or the terrible prices you paid over the years, you have never faltered. Never. Even after death, you protected him with all that you are. Without hesitation. Without regret. You are a most remarkable mortal, my son.” When Iolaus started in surprise at his words, Zeus affirmed, “Yes, I also call you, ‘son’. For so I’ve come to think of you. Anyone, mortal or god, would be proud to have a son like you.”
Artemis appeared and called, “You have respect for the wild ones, have learned their ways. You care for those that are injured or afraid. You take only to eat, and then mercifully. You are my Golden Hunter, and I am well pleased with you.”
The spirit of Gilgamesh appeared then beside Iolaus, and he stated solemnly, “I betrayed my people, the trust of my only sister. For glory and power. I was a fool. It was my blade, my blow that killed you. And I died for it, my soul condemned. But in the netherworld, you didn’t spurn me. Because of you, I’ve won another chance. A chance to be a Guardian, to do and be in death what I should have been in life. I owe my eternity to you.”
“You died for me, Iolaus,” Nebula repeated then so that he might hear her words, her voice thick with emotion. “Ah, Monkey-boy, you stole my heart away, you know that? I thought I’d forgotten long ago how to love. How to trust. But you helped me remember how; your love redeemed me. Not just my life. But … who I am. And,” she added, glancing at Gilgamesh, “You’ve given my brother back to me. You are a miracle in my life … a miracle.”
Iphicles, Orestes and Niobe pressed close, to also repeat their words of affection and affiliation, until Iolaus felt overwhelmed by the love that surrounded him.
Watching closely, ensuring the demon didn’t slip away, Hercules could see that Dahak was also floundering under the onslaught of unbridled affection, and the demigod smiled with assurance that Iolaus’ body would soon once again belong to his partner.
As they all drew closer and closer, hemming Dahak into their circle and their outpouring of love for the man who had owned the body he’d usurped, Aphrodite nudged Ares, and cajoled, “C’mon, you know you love him, too!”
Ares gave her a pained look, but then scratched his cheek and faced the creature who wore Iolaus’ face. “We’ve never been friends,” he asserted heavily. “More often enemies.”
When Dite kicked him, he lifted his hands and complained indignantly, “I’m getting to it, okay?” Turning back to Dahak, he straightened proudly, and went on soberly, “But I value courage and honour; I respect bravery in the face of impossible odds. I treasure nobility of spirit, whether you believe that or not. So, yeah - you represent all that I hold most sacred. You are a magnificent warrior, but never for your own gain, always in the service of what is right, necessary, good. So …” he paused and swallowed hard, “yes, a part of me admires you and … and wishes all men were like you.”
Dahak staggered back and closed his eyes, dizzy and barely able to stand, as they came so close they were almost touching him and he could feel the warmth of their bodies, the weight of their love. They crowded closer and closer. And then Hercules wrapped his powerful arms around him, drawing him into a tight embrace, and the others wrapped their arms around the both of them, or tried, but some could only get close enough to hug those they could reach as the crowd around Dahak grew thick, striving to reach him, to touch him, with love.
Iolaus closed his eyes, scarcely able to believe what he was seeing, hearing, embarrassed and yet so deeply touched that he lifted his hand to cover his eyes.
Dahak screamed in futile fury, and writhed in Hercules’ strong, relentless embrace.
At the sound of the primeval scream, Iolaus opened his eyes and found himself in the jungle. Dahak, again in the guise of Hercules, was panting in exhaustion and clinging to a tree to remain upright, so weak and in such pain he could barely stand. “Hey, remember me?” Iolaus asked cheekily, waving a hand before Dahak’s face. “The worm beneath your boot?”
“Go away,” Dahak rasped, straightening as Iolaus’ hatred of him lent him a modicum of strength. “You’re nothing. You have no power.”
“No?” Iolaus challenged. “Well, I gotta say, you’re looking all done in. You’ve lost, you know? Your army is gone. They’ve beaten you.”
Maddened rage in his eyes, stubbornly shaking his head, Dahak asserted, “No, they cannot defeat me! I will not surrender! I own the world and everything in it!”
“You don’t own squat,” Iolaus told him ruthlessly, stepping closer. “In fact, you don’t even own my body anymore. I’m taking it back!” And with that, Iolaus hauled off and slugged him. Dahak lunged back, doing his best to put up a fight, but the love pouring into him distracted and weakened him, so he couldn’t fling Iolaus away. They wrestled and Iolaus used the tricks he’d learned over the years to use Hercules’ greater size and strength against the demigod. Winning, Iolaus was beating the pulp out of Dahak … but then he realized that, far from weakening, the demon was again growing stronger, feeding off his hate, his violence. Panting, he abruptly stopped his abuse and lurched away.
And he shivered with the understanding that he was only defeating himself. Taking another step back, looking down at the battered and bruised body of Hercules, Iolaus winced and swallowed hard. “I love Hercules,” he rasped. “More than life. More than … than anything. And I love the life I lived with him, beside him. You can wear his face, taunt me with his voice, but you can’t ever take that away from me. Can’t ever make me hate him or want to hurt him. No more. We’re done here. We’re done.”
With that, Iolaus appeared on the edge of the crowd and, though he was ephemeral, a spirit that could not touch, or perhaps because of that, he was able to slip through the packed bodies, to Hercules. And then he reached out, to wrap his arms around the space that Hercules occupied, wishing so badly he could actually touch his friend, hold his partner, and he whispered hoarsely, “I love you, Herc. I love the life we had together.”
In the jungle, Dahak howled and writhed on the ground. There was no more hate to feed on, the last vestige of it was gone; there was nothing to hold him in the world, or for him to hold onto. He erupted into an amorphous cloud ….
A just barely visible cloud of energy rose like a wisp of black smoke from Iolaus’ body, and then the body slumped bonelessly in Hercules’ embrace. Above them all, the slight haze lifted swiftly toward the sky, as Dahak hastened to escape the searing power of the overwhelming and complete love that had swamped him.
Though the mortals didn’t notice Dahak’s flight, Zeus was able to see the malevolent, amorphous cloud very clearly. Knowing well what it was, he lanced a bolt of blistering power at the fog of energy, blowing it to bits, scattering it into atoms. And as Dahak was finally reduced to widely scattered molecules, the hold he’d had over old souls that he’d gathered into himself over the centuries to augment his power, mortal and god, shimmered forth. Blindingly bright now that they were free of his malice and power, they rose like triumphant fireworks over the gathered assembly and armies.
Nearly delirious with the joyous understanding that they had defeated the demon god, everyone cheered wildly, and thumped one another’s back in hearty congratulation; everyone but Hercules, who was on his knees, holding Iolaus’ lifeless body close. Tears glistened in his eyes as he looked up at the ghost of his friend.
“I don’t care about the damned deal. I want you back,” he whispered hoarsely. “I need you back.”
“Ah, Hercules,” Iolaus murmured. “I … I made a promise; gave my word. You know that.” He looked around a little nervously at the sun sinking below the horizon, well knowing the Solstice was swiftly passing away with the day and he might well have lost his last chance to go to the Elysian Fields. “If, uh, if it isn’t already too late. I think I missed the deadline.” But he swallowed and thought about what that might really mean, and he rallied as he told his best friend, “But, hey, if I did, then I guess I can wander around with you forever, right?”
“That’s not enough,” Hercules protested heatedly. “You’ve earned -”
Interrupting, Hades stepped forward and laid a hand on Iolaus’ shoulder. “A deal’s a deal. And, given the circumstances,” he added urbanely, waving a hand at the gathered assembly, “I think I can waive your tardiness in showing up. Besides, I heard from Charon that you’d been hanging around so I guess, technically, you weren’t late.”
“What deal?” Alcmene demanded sharply, not liking the possessive way that Hades gripped her Iolaus’ shoulder, no more willing to give him up than was Hercules. In her heart of hearts, she’d harboured the hope that once Iolaus’ body was free of the demon that maybe … maybe, he’d be allowed to re-inhabit it again - be restored to life once more. “What are you talking about?”
Hades looked at her, and then at the others, and sighed with weary forbearance. When Iolaus simply bowed his head, clearly not willing to explain, his lips thinned in anticipation of argument and told them bluntly, “Orestes wasn’t simply captured that day he went hunting with Xenon. He was murdered.”
Gasps erupted at his words. Orestes was absolutely staggered by the news, for he had no memory of that terrible event; and his Queen, Niobe, was both frightened and appalled as she tightly gripped his arm.
Grimly carrying on, Hades told them the rest of it. “Iolaus made a deal that if I would restore Orestes to life, then the next time Iolaus died, he’d come quietly and that would be an end to it. No more special deals. No more resurrections. Dead would finally mean dead in his case.”
Alcmene lifted a hand to cover her trembling lips. At her feet, Hercules swallowed hard, but remained silent. However, as if he needed to touch Iolaus though he knew the body was empty, he sorrowfully stroked his friend’s cold cheek and smoothed the hair from his pale brow.
Niobe’s lips parted and turned to gaze at Iolaus with grateful tears in her eyes. Jason and Iphicles sorrowfully shook their heads, at a loss for words. Orestes looked frankly horrified. “I didn’t know,” he protested, stepping forward. “I …. This is wrong. After all Iolaus has done, for all of us, for me - no, no. You can’t hold him to that deal. I should be the one returning with you. Take me, instead. Let him live. He deserves to live.”
“NO!” Niobe cried out, alarmed, and again took his arm. She leaned into him, and hugged him tightly, to hold him, to never let him go. Tears glittered in her eyes as she lifted her face to Hades. “No,” she pleaded. “Please … no.” Glancing at Iolaus, she said brokenly, “I’m sorry. So, so sorry. You shouldn’t have to die in his place. But I love him.”
“I know; it’s okay,” Iolaus assured her. “And I didn’t die in Orestes’ place. I managed that all on my own.” He looked long at Hercules, willing him to understand, to not make it harder than it was, and he then turned to Hades with obvious reluctance, but also stoical determination to uphold his bargain. “I’m … I’m ready to go.”
“Ah, geez!” Aphrodite whined and wrung her hands unhappily, thoroughly dismayed by the turn of events, “I gotta say, this is a real downer! Hades, c’mon - give the guy a break!”
Persephone moved in to slip her arm through her husband’s and look up at him soulfully. “You know she’s right,” she said with a pretty pout. “After everything Iolaus has sacrificed? All these people love him so much and will be so terribly hurt if you take him. After all, what’s the hurry? There’ll be another time, when he’s old and gray, and really ready to go.”
Snorting, Hades rolled his eyes and protested heatedly, “Old and gray? Give me a break. Can you imagine how many times he’ll be knocking on my door between now and then, with Hercules rampaging around demanding I give him right back??? This is ridiculous. Why don’t we just feed him ambrosia now and be done with it?!” Waving away his words in case anyone thought he was actually serious about the suggestion, he stated briskly, “All mortals die and this mortal is dead - not just recently dead, but dead for months. If he’d kept his end of the deal and shown up when he was supposed to, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. He’d be in inventory and that would be that.”
But Zeus cleared his throat meaningfully, attracting his brother’s attention. “Deals can be unmade,” he suggested blandly, not wanting to appear to be interfering too much in Hades’ domain, “when they no longer make any sense. And if both parties agree - and if he’s not even in inventory yet ….”
Grimacing, Hades shook his head, not happy that Zeus was interfering, however gently. Rules were rules, and this decision was his. “You’re not helping, you know,” he complained. “Iolaus has come and gone so many times already that just keeping track of him is practically a full time job. He makes a mockery of the whole system.”
“Hmm,” Zeus murmured and scratched his cheek, determined to be reasonable. But, rules were rules and, inconveniently, they were rules he’d made. Still…. “Maybe think of what a mess your record-keeping would be in, if Dahak was still killing off mortals at the rate he was going.” He paused meaningfully, and looked away innocently, as he added, “Er, not to mention the gods that might have, um, died.”
Hades flicked him a cold look, not appreciating the reminder of what had very nearly happened.
“Please, Hades,” Aphrodite wheedled like an excited child, flushed with all the love in the air, glowing with it. “Please, please, please, please, please. This is such a great day. Don’t ruin it now.”
Sighing, Hades looked at Ares, fully expecting support from that quarter, but the God of War shrugged expressively and pointedly looked away, not wanting any part of the discussion or the decision. Looking around, he found the rest of the Pantheon watching him as closely as the mortals, clearly hoping he’d give in but careful not to push him too hard. His gaze dropped to Hercules and the poignant hope in those piercing blue eyes was the last straw.
But he couldn’t just capitulate. He had an image to protect - and he didn’t want every other mortal who ever crossed the Styx to be arguing that they were a special case, too. Chewing on his lip, making a show of his reluctance, he finally said coldly, “Okay, fine, they want you back. I get that. But, the deal was between us. Given the extraordinary circumstances, in recognition of the work you’ve saved me and my staff by assisting in the defeat of Dahak, I’m prepared to … forego our agreement. It’s up to you. Will it be the Elysian Fields and your family for a well-earned and blissful afterlife, or a return to your body and to the pain of life?”
Completely surprised, certain that Hades would never let him out of their deal, Iolaus gaped at him, and the god’s words evoked a vision of Ania and his children. Gods, it had been so long since he’d seen them, held them. For a moment, he hesitated, and everyone held their breath as they waited for his response. He looked around, at Alcmene, who lifted a hopeful hand toward him, and Nebula who was smiling broadly, as if certain of what he’d choose and already feeling liberated from the guilt she’d felt over his death. His gaze shifted to Iphicles and then Orestes and Niobe, and they all nodded at him encouragingly, their hope to have him back clear in their eyes. And then at Jason, who said quietly, “You know we want you back. But do what’s right for you.”
And then he looked down at Hercules, who was still clutching his body close. The demigod’s lips moved, soundlessly forming the word, “Please?” and his fervent hope of getting Iolaus back blazed in his eyes.
He’d been ready to go, hadn’t ever considered that living again could be an option, and he was unsure, torn, because part of him wanted so badly to stay, while part longed to be with his family again. But in that moment, as he held Hercules’ gaze, he heard Ania’s voice in his mind, her words of so long ago echoing in his memory, “It’s your heart that makes you a hero, my love.” And then, as if from very far away, he heard her voice, and his throat thickened with gratitude as he listened to her say, “I’ll still be here when you’re really ready to come home to me. Listen to your heart, beloved. Listen to your heart. You know where you belong.”
He scrubbed at his face to brush away the tears he wanted no one to see, and then he again looked around. “Well, I don’t know if it’s all the love in the air,” he said with a deliberately jaunty tone, “- and, uh, thanks, all of you, for, um, what you all said.” But he chuckled wryly when he saw Ares wincing with the memory of his words, and all the tension flowed away, all the uncertainty and he knew, he knew where he belonged and where he most wanted to be. With a glance at Hades, he looked down at his partner, his best friend, and gave Hercules a tight-lipped smile to hide some of the emotion he was feeling. “But, given the choice,” he said softly, and then cleared his throat before continuing firmly, “I’m not really ready to go, you know? I want to stay, to live.” At the broadening, ecstatic smile on Hercules’ face, he grinned brightly but shrugged almost diffidently and, trying to lighten the moment, he teased, “Herc, you and I still have a lot of work to do, right? Monsters to slay? Damsels to save? How can I miss out on all that fun?”
“Then, so be it,” Hades said in long-suffering voice, but he smiled sparingly as he waved his hand.
Iolaus immediately felt himself irresistibly yanked toward his body - and, in a blink, he was back inside, being crushed by Hercules’ exuberant, joyful embrace. “Aacckk!” he cried, sounding stifled as he pummeled the demigod’s back. “Need to breathe, here, big guy! Need to breathe!”
Laughing, Hercules eased up but couldn’t bring himself to completely let go. “Thank you,” he said quietly, and then hauled Iolaus up onto his feet, as everyone around them cheered and closed in again for a huge group hug.
Aphrodite danced a little joyful jig and high-fived Persephone. “Don’t ya just love it when a plan comes together!” she crowed merrily. She whirled around to also high-five Ares, but he quickly crossed his arms and pretended to glower at her. Snickering, she wrapped her arms around his large frame and hugged him tightly. “Ah, come on. I heard you,” she teased mercilessly. “We all heard you. You love the little guy!” Admit it!”
“Don’t push it, sis,” he growled, but a grin twitched on his lips. “Let’s just wrap things up and be on our way.”
“Ares is right,” Zeus stated, coming to his son’s rescue. “We’ve got a lot of work to do, to clean up the damage and put Greece to rights.” He clapped his hands and all the gods and goddesses, hastening to obey, disappeared. But he lingered a moment to gaze fondly at Iolaus and the crowd gathered around him, and Hercules. Alcmene caught his eye and smiled in wordless gratitude. He nodded, well pleased, and then vanished.
Gradually, euphoria gave way to simple happiness, and the crowd pulled apart, though many reached out to touch Iolaus briefly, and to smile at him, so glad to have him back. Gilgamesh stepped forward to regard the small mortal fondly and with deep gratitude. “As we saw when he was blasted by Zeus, the other spirits that Dahak entrapped have already moved on to their own destinies, and it is time I also departed to mine. But I thank you again, Iolaus, for making a new destiny for me possible.” Turning to Nebula, he said solemnly, “I am so sorry for betraying you, but I am glad, sincerely glad, that you are the Queen of our people. Rule with your heart, not your fist, and trust in them, in their strength and goodness. They need you. And you need them.” She lifted her chin and nodded soberly. Gracing her with a warm smile, he glowed briefly with bright light and then vanished from view.
Throughout, Hercules held onto Iolaus as if he’s never going to let him go, but finally he stepped back and affectionately slapped his partner on the back. Iolaus laughed but then his gaze dropped and he pointed at Hercules’ chest. “Wow, look at that!”
Following Iolaus’ finger, Hercules glanced down and saw Iolaus’ medallion hanging from his neck, no longer shattered but restored, just as his best friend had been restored. Myriad emotions flickered quickly over his face, from awe to powerful, moving gratitude, and then he smiled slowly with gentle happiness. Pulling the medallion from around his neck, he lifted it over Iolaus’ head and settled it back in its rightful place - and only then saw that the ugly scar was also gone; like the medallion, Iolaus had also been fully restored, as if the horror had never happened. With an affectionate pat of his wide palm over the medallion and Iolaus’ chest, he said huskily, “Glad to have you back, partner.”
“Glad to be back,” Iolaus replied with a wide smile, his eyes sparkling. And then he added mischievously, “And, you know what? I haven’t eaten for months and I’m starving!”
Everyone laughed, and Iphicles announced loudly, “Well, I think we’ve all earned a victory feast at my place.” Another enthusiastic cheer rang out over the valley. The Royals mounted up, and they all turned to head back toward Corinth and the palace. Nebula strode proudly beside the demigod and Hercules’ arm was draped around Iolaus’ shoulders; keeping pace on Iolaus’ other side, Alcmene linked one arm around his waist and the other around Jason’s. Lifting her eyes, she saw Iphicles fondly gazing back over his shoulder at her and she smiled happily. At long last, her family was altogether again, and they were going home.
But, just then, a cloud darkened the sun, and the wind changed, bringing a fetid scent to the air. Startled, Hercules and Iolaus turned toward the hills and, in the rays of the setting sun, they saw the Four Horsemen ride upon the ridge, dark with menace and the promise of destruction. Pestilence lifted an arm and slowly drew an arc in the air from north to south, and War’s huge black steed pawed the earth, snorting and fighting the reins that still held him in check.
“It’s not over,” Jason intoned hollowly, as he shifted to put himself between Alcmene and the threat that loomed before them.
His jaw lifting with determination, his hand on his sword, Iolaus glared at the Horseman. Beside him, the wind lifting his hair, Hercules stood tall and squared his shoulders. “No. No, it’s not. Not yet.”
Behind them, the crowd, shifting in confusion and sudden fear, began to draw back. A woman whimpered in despair, and then wailed in terror.
Before the heroes could act, the air before them shimmered and the gods and the goddesses of the Pantheon appeared, garbed for battle, taking their places between the Horsemen of the Apocalypse and all of Greece.
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